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Switzerland has long had a distinct cultural identity, despite its diversity of German, French and other ethnicities. Religious and folk music dominated the country until the 17th century, with growth in production of other kinds of music occurring slowly. The first music conservatory in the country was founded in Geneva in 1835. Composers like Hans George Naegeli and festivals like the Fête des Vignerons helped establish a classical music tradition, and the Swiss Musicians Association was founded in 1900.

The early part of the 20th century saw Ernest Ansermet's Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which was the focal point for musical innovation in Switzerland. Other musicians included Ernest Bloch, Frank Martin, Arthur Honegger, and Rolf Liebermann. Prominent contemporary composers of Switzerland include Klaus Huber and Heinz Holliger (who is also an oboe virtuoso).

Due to a lack of detailed records, little is known about Swiss folk music prior to the 19th century. Some 16th century lute tablatures have been reconstructed into authentic instrumental arrangements, however, the first major source of information comes from 19th century collections of folk songs, and work done by musicologist Hanny Christen. One of the oldest varieties of Swiss song is Kühreihen, an agricultural Alpine song in the Lydian mode. Traditional instruments included hammered dulcimer, fife, hurdy-gurdy, rebec, bagpipe, cittern and shawm.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Swiss folk music was largely performed by ensembles made of itinerant musicians and solo acts using an instrument, with only a few duos. In the 1830s, however, the Swiss military was reorganized, leading to the formation of brass bands that used modern instruments. These instruments, mostly brass or wind, were built much better than those played by itinerants, and musicians brought them back to their villages. Local players joined these ensembles, which played dance music for festivals and other celebrations. Dance styles included schottisch, mazurka, waltz and polka.

In 1829, the accordion was invented in Vienna, and it had spread to Switzerland by 1836. The accordion was popular because it was relatively easy to play and cheap to acquire, and took only one musician to play the melody and accompaniment. By the 1850s, the accordion was an integral part of Swiss folk music, and semi-professional ensembles were appearing to play at the ship lounge. Hi the brass bands came string instruments like violins and a double bass; string bands soon began to displace the older brass bands. The accordion, however, did not make an appearance in these dance bands until about 1903, and it eventually replaced the two violins which had become standard.

Following World War I, Switzerland became more heavily urbanized, and music moved to cities like Zürich. Rural folk music became the most popular style for middle-class audiences, and musicians like Joseph Stocker became renowned across the country. Stocker knew his audience liked the exotic appeal of rural music, and so he bought traditional costumes from Unterwalden for his band. This was the beginning of laendlermusic.

In the urban areas of Switzerland, folk music began to mix with new styles, like jazz and the foxtrot, while the saxophone replaced the clarinet. Beginning in the 1930s, the Swiss government began to encourage a national identity distinct from Germany and other neighbors. Laendlermusic became associated with this identity, and grew even more popular.

Following World War 2, however, laendlermusik quickly grew less popular with the influx of imported styles. The field also grew less diverse, with more standardized band formats and only four or five dances in the repertoire. By the 1960s, trios consisting of two accordions and a double bass were the most common format, and many Swiss people felt it was a civic duty to preserve this tradition and guard it against change. They have largely succeeded in preventing change, but the field has grown much less popular and stagnant. There are still popular performers, such as Res Schmid, Willi Valotti, Markus Flueckiger, Dani Haeusler and Carlo Brunner, but the total fanbase has shrunk enormously.

Later in the 20th century, in the 1960s, rock and roll, or beat music, was popular, peaking in 1968 with the release of Les Sauterelles' "Heavenly Club". Rock began its Swiss popularity beginning in 1957, when the Hula Hawaiians incorporated rockabilly, setting the stage for the early 1960s boom. The Francophone section of Switzerland soon found itself dominated by French stars like Johnny Hallyday, and soon Swiss artists like Les Aiglons, Larry Greco and Les Faux-Frères became major artists.

1964 saw Beatles-inspired pop take hold on the continent, displacing the earlier instrumental rock and inspired musical battles in Basel, the capital of Swiss rock. Swiss bands in the same mold included The 16 Strings and Pichi, and German-speaking acts soon dominated the field. Zürich then became a center of innovation, drawing on Chris Lange's blues-roots explorations, Heiner Hepp's Bob Dylan-inspired folk and Toni Vescoli's pop fame. Other Swiss artists of the period included R&B act The Nightbirds from Locarno, light rock stars The Wild Gentlemen and pop band Marco Zappa & the Teenagers. In 1967, artists like Mani Matter, Franz Hohler, Sergius Golowin, and Kurt Marti began establishing Swiss-German dialect rock, glorifying their distinct national identities. While others like Roland Zoss and Tinu Heiniger sang on in German. 1973 saw the first commercial release of dialect rock with Rumpelstilz's "Warehuus Blues"; the band broke into the mainstream in 1976 with the release of the reggae-influenced chart-topper Füüf Narre im Charre.

By 1968, Swiss rock was dying, and artists were exploring sonic innovations. Basel's Barry Window, for example, used soul and Indian music to make raga rock, while The Sauterelles explored psychedelia.

Progressive music formed by the 1970s, when jazz, blues and other genres were combined with socially aware lyrics, outlandish solos and macho posturing. The first band of the progressive rock boom was supergroup Flame Dream, Krokodil, and The Shiver and Brainticket soon followed. Sinus Studio in Bern, and engineers Eric Merz and Peter McTaggart, became the center of innovation by the mid-1970s, however.

Later in the decade, hard rock became popular and Toad soon established a Swiss scene with the debut single, "Stay!", setting the stage for the 1980 explosion of Flame Dream (band)Krokus, the most popular rock band in Swiss history. By this time, punk rock, New Wave and pub rock had become popular, while The Swiss Horns, Red Devil Band and Circus from Basel continued to expand musical boundaries.

During the 1980s Switzerland produced a number of metal bands. A Swiss band, Celtic Frost, mostly know for their progression of style and Avant-garde take on extreme music started in the early 80's as Hellhammer and soon became a leading heavy metal band in Switzerland. They together with a few other bands laid the foundation of modern metal in Switzerland. Related to Celtic Frost, is the technical thrash metal trio Coroner who were roadies for Celtic Frost. The late 80's saw black metal band Samael being formed which converted into an industrial metal band.

The Swiss punk is best represented by pioneers like Kleenex, Dieter Meier, The Nasal Boys, Troppo, Mother's Ruin, TNT, Dogbodys and Sperma, who were inspired by American underground heroes like the New York Dolls and British celebrities like the Sex Pistols. Zürich was Switzerland's capital of punk rock, which soon expanded across the country. Other areas with a punk scene included Bern' Glueams and Lucerne's Crazy and Lucerne's progressive rock Flame Dream. Pioneers Le Beau Lac de Bâle established a Francophone New Wave-influenced punk rock scene based out of Geneva, and bands like the Bastards, Yodler Killers, The Tickets, The Zero Heroes, Technycolor arose.

Later in the 80s, Swiss punk bands began drifting in New Wave and techno, where Vera Kaa soon became the biggest Swiss star. 1983 saw Ex-Trem Normal release Warum and Welcome to Switzerland, which revolutionized Bernese rock by adding distinctive dialect trends. They were followed by Züri West and other bands. More internationally known is The Young Gods. Formed in 1985 by vocalist and sampler Franz Treichler, the group used digital sampling (see sampler (musical instrument)) to create an intense amalgamation of classical and rock music with the help of original members Cesare Pizzi (sampler) and Frank Bagnoud (percussion). The sound of the Young Gods gradually evolved from abrasive industrial music to atmospheric electronica.

Since the 1980s Swiss jazz has continued to form. Notable exponents of the Swiss jazz scene are saxophonist Fritz Renold or trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti. Stephan Eicher is a popular folk rock musician, rising to prominence in the mid 1980s and gaining a popular following across Europe in the 1990s.

In the 1990s, many rappers and DJs started to influence Switzerland's musical scene. Black Tiger from Basel was the first one to rap in a Swiss German dialect. Sens Unik from Renens (a suburb of Lausanne) are one of the most important rap groups, merging hip hop with influences from many other styles. Even their first EP included a track in Spanish, due to MC Carlos's Spanish and Galego heritage. Electronica is also part of the Swiss musical experience, Yello's first album came out in 1979, in the 1980s, Touch El Arab scored a hit in several European countries with the song "Muhammar". Producer Pat Jabbar from Basel established his own record company Barraka el Farnatshi in the late eighties; dedicated to music from the Arabic world (especially Morocco) mixed with dance music from the west.

One of the most popular Swiss singer and performance artists is DJ Bobo, born René Baumann.

Emerging in the early 90's, the band Gotthard evolved to become the leading Swiss rock group and one of the most acclaimed bands in Europe. With a total of 8 studio albums, 2 compilation albums and 2 live albums (one of which unplugged), they changed their style from hard rock to adult contemporary rock. They are presently very popular in Switzerland, but also in Germany, Austria, Italy and Brazil. .

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