‘I used to think German sounded rather harsh,’
Tune in to a German radio station and chances are you’ll hear a song by Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, The Weekend, or some other international superstar. But Germany also has its own fair share of music superstars, some of whom have found fame on the international stage.
The international popularity of German music has a long history that includes revered names like Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. The muThe works of Richard Wagner are celebrated every year at the world-famous Bayreuth Festival, and in 2020 and 2021, Germany marked Beethoven’s 250th birthday with celebrations featuring orchestras, choirs and soloists from all around the world. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has universal appeal – literally: it was among the music recordings sent out into space aboard NASA’s Voyager probes in 1977.
The 20th century was something of a watershed in the history of German music. The first three decades of the century witnessed the rise of genres like cabaret, swing and schlager (below you’ll find more information about this genre) . Acts and artists like The Comedian Harmonists and Marlene Dietrich were hugely popular, and the foxtrot and other dance styles held sway in the ballrooms and dance halls of the golden 1920s. The wild, exuberant music and dance culture of the cabaret and club scene attracted world-wide fame. But it all came to an abrupt end when the Nazis came to power.
During the Nazi era, many artists and composers who had previously been popular were labelled ‘degenerate’. The composer Kurt Weill (‘The Threepenny Opera’), The Comedian Harmonists, Marlene Dietrich and many others were outlawed by the Nazis. Instead, Hitler and his henchmen favoured the regular, martial rhythms of march music, as well as saccharine songs with suitably patriotic lyrics over what they considered to be the subversive counterculture of swing.
In the post-war era, German music was still a fairly unadventurous affair, though foreign music – most notably Rock’n’Roll – gained popularity thanks to British and American radio broadcasts. In the early 1960s, the Beatles played in Hamburg, ultimately exerting a major influence on the German music scene. In the late 1960s, TV shows like ZDF-Hitparade became immensely popular, and Schlager bands typically played covers of English-language hits. The German stars of the 1970s included the with the ever-popular Schlager singer Jürgen Drews, as well as Cindy & Bert, to name but a few. Meanwhile, Kraftwerk burst onto the scene in Düsseldorf with a completely new sound. Today, Kraftwerk are widely considered as one of the pioneers of electronic music. The 1980s saw the arrival of Neue Deutsche Welle – Germany’s answer to the UK’s New Wave – with bands like Trio and Ideal forging a sound somewhere between pop, electronic music and Schlager.
Music trends from the west also spilled over into the east, to the German Democratic Republic. The government there countered this by banning beat and rock music from the west, sparking outrage and protest among the country’s young people. However, this had the unintended effect of making a lot of people even more determined to try to watch western TV secretly and get their hands on contraband music records from the west. Young people would also gather on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate whenever artists like David Bowie and Genesis were playing over on the western side. In the end, the government decided to allow major artists from the west into the GDR, provided strict conditions were met. Among the artists invited were Bruce Springsteen and .
But it wasn’t all one-way traffic. There were also several successful bands from the east – such as the , and – some of whom still give concerts today. One of Germany’s best-known musical artists, (German only), is also originally from the GDR, having emigrated to the west in the 1970s. One of her biggest hits is “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” – which gained renewed fame in 2021, when outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel requested it as the soundtrack for the military tattoo held in her honour.
Whatever kind of music you’re into, you’ll find your tastes are well catered for in Germany. We’ve put together a few examples from various genres that you can add to your playlists. Who knows, you might even learn a few new German words!
Electronic music in Germany began in the 1970s with pioneering artists like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Kraftwerk. However, it didn’t really take off until the techno and rave era of the 1990s, championed by and other mainstays of Berlin’s annual Love Parade rave and electronic music festival. The German electronic music scene is still very much alive and diverse, with artists like , , and regularly getting fans up on their feet at clubs and festivals.
Our bloggers and are quick to name the singer when recalling their first memories of German-language music. ‘I used to think German sounded rather harsh,’ says Jinmeng. ‘But then I heard “Je ne parle pas français” (the title is French – but the song is in German), which sounds so romantic and mellow! I love that song.’ Namika has had several chart hits, as has singer-songwriter and keyboardist . Then there’s , one of Germany’s biggest pop artists, whose fame has been further amplified by his stint as a celebrity judge on a major German TV talent show. Another artist who continues to be popular is , who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2010. While Lea and Mark Forster sing in German, Lena sings in English. Especially in Pop, the list of famous German artists goes on and on: , , , … and even some of the older musicians like still publish new music and play shows. Udo Lindenberg for example is still placed high in the charts, especially featuring with younger artist such as and .
Germany also has numerous excellent indie pop acts. Many of these grew out of the Hamburger Schule (‘Hamburg School’) movement of the 1990s and are still big names. , for example, still enjoys critical acclaim. And if you like alternative pop, you should definitely check out and Cologne’s . The latter are perhaps most noted for the rough, gravelly voice of their lead singer, Henning May. They are known outside Germany and even have fans in Japan.
German Schlager music (the word translates roughly as ‘hit’) first came to prominence in the 1920s and has been around in various forms ever since. Of course, there is also more traditional music in Germany dominated by instruments like the accordion and lots of brass. However, it is not particularly popular among the younger generation.
What does have a huge following in Germany is the pop Schlager subgenera, with fans showing up in their hundreds of thousands to festivals like the Oktoberfest in Munich and the Schlagermove street party in Hamburg. Germany’s biggest-selling Schlager/pop star is Helene Fischer, who first shot to fame in 2014 with ’. Fischer also has her own Saturday night TV show, and her life is closely documented in Germany’s gossip columns. Another of Germany’s fêted Schlager singers is , who in 2022 celebrated 30 years on stage. Meanwhile, younger audiences may be more interested in artists like who launched his career as a contestant in a TV talent show, or , a German-born Irish singer who began her career in the 1990s as a member of the .
"I liked it so much that I translated it."
‘The first German rap song I ever heard was ” by Kontra-K,’ says , a student from Armenia. ‘I liked it so much that I translated it. It’s a song of courage and motivation, and it reminds me of my arrival in Germany.’
German-language rap has a colourful history. In the 1990s and 2000s, Hamburg acts like and were popular, as were Stuttgart’s who brought soul to the hip-hop canon. Lyrics by some of the ‘older’ hip-hop acts are even used as teaching materials in German language courses. Die Fantastische Vier is a prime example. ‘I saw the lyrics of their track in one of my course textbooks,’ says Jinmeng. ‘My classmates and I carefully analysed the lyrics and then listened to the song.’
As with rap music in other languages, the German rap scene does have a few dark corners where you will find sexist or homophobic messages, but it would be a mistake to tar the entire genre with that brush. It all depends on what you listen to, as Lilit explains: ‘In my experience, German rap is less aggressive than American rap. For example, a lot of songs encourage people to get involved in sport or stay true to their dreams, while others deal with love.’ Exponents of this lighter style of rap include and .
"some bands are more popular outside Germany than within"
Mention German rock music, and most non-Germans will think of one certain type of rock band. Lilit was no different: ‘When I got to Germany, I was surprised to learn that some bands are more popular outside Germany than within.’ Over the years, Germany has actually produced quite a number of commercially successful punk and rock bands. Of these, the two biggest names are , who also have a strong international following, and , who have been in the music business for decades. And then there are bands like and , who regularly headline music festivals.
German punk, like punk music elsewhere, tends to be very political. Die Ärtze is a case in point. Despite the occasional nonsense song that they do just for fun, they take a very firm stand against right-wing extremism. And while bands like , and seldom climb particularly high in the German singles charts, they are driven by a strong social conscience, not to mention their own interesting take on (post)-punk.
If metal is your thing, then there’s a massive open air festival in northern Germany that you really shouldn’t miss.
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