10 Influential Women Throughout Music History

10 Influential Women Throughout Music History

We are celebrating #WomensHistoryMonth by remembering all of the amazing women throughout music history. While there have been countless numbers of women who have made positive contributions to both music and women's rights, we've hand-picked ten of the most influential names to highlight from classical to country to Broadway to pop.

Which women have influenced you musically, famous or otherwise? Let us and the Sheet Music Direct community know over on Facebook and Twitter.

Clara Schumann

German pianist and composer Clara Schumann might be one of the earliest examples of an influential woman in music. Female composers were extremely scarce in the mid-1800s. Even Schumann herself remarked, "I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose — there never was one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?"

Schumann defied such expectations and became both a distinguished pianist and composer, although she focused much of her attention on the former carving out an impressive 61-year concert career. Her playing even inspired German composer Robert Schumann to give up law and start pursuing music, leading to their eventual marriage.

During her illustrious career, Schumann had a huge impact on repertoire and performance, including being the first to standardize performing from memory. The format adopted in today's recitals can be traced back to her influence.

Billie Holiday

Born into extreme poverty and enduring an extremely difficult upbringing, Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) found solace in music and began singing in local clubs in her adopted hometown of New York City as a teenager. Holiday blossomed into one of the most revered jazz singers of all time. Known particularly for her distinctive phrasing and expression, Holiday broke new ground in the late 30s by becoming one of the first female African-American vocalists to work with a white orchestra.

Billie Holiday died at the young age of 44, but will always be remembered as an extremely important figure in the history of jazz music. She also left behind an incredible collection of recordings which re-shaped the parameters of popular singing.

Patsy Cline

Quite possibly the most important woman in the history of country music, the career of Patsy Cline (born Virginia Patterson Hensley) was tragically cut short at the tender age of 30 when she died in a plane crash. In her short career, she achieved a great deal as a woman in music, becoming the first female country artist to perform at Carnegie Hall and the first to headline her own show.

Regarded as a huge influence to a great number of female country artists today, Cline became the first female inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973, 10 years after her death.

Aretha Franklin

Having sadly passed away in 2018 at the age of 76, Aretha Franklin (a.k.a. "The Queen of Soul") will always be remembered as a remarkable musician with a truly unique voice. But her significance as a woman in music extended far beyond her musical talent. Franklin was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s with her hit song "Respect" serving as an important anthem for both this cause and the Women's Rights Movement of the same era.

It is a mark of Franklin's influence that she became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Furthermore, as well as winning an incredible 18 Grammy Awards in her lifetime, she performed at the inaugurations of no less than three US Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Carole King

The most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century, over 400 of Carole King's songs have been recorded by over 1,000 artists. While styles and trends changed rapidly during the 1960s, the songwriting team of King and her first husband Gerry Goffin managed to adapt with the times and generate hit record after hit record with songs like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Up On The Roof," to name just two.

King embarked on a solo career in the early 70s, achieving particular success with her 1971 debut album Tapestry. She recorded a further five albums before retiring from the music scene in the early 80s to focus on environmental and humanitarian activism. Among other notable achievements, King became the first-ever female recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2013.

Joni Mitchell

Arguably the first woman in popular music to be considered an artist in the full sense of the term, there's always been something beautifully understated about Joni Mitchell. While Mitchell may not have garnered the same "star" status of many of her peers in the 70s, Mitchell has had an altogether different impact on her listeners, describing herself (rather beautifully) as a "painter who writes songs."

Mitchell's sophisticated songwriting style redefined the meaning of pop music in many senses, which paved the way for many other earnest female singer-songwriters to flourish.

Whitney Houston

With Dionne Warwick as a cousin and Aretha Franklin as a godmother, Whitney Houston was surely destined for a career in music, but few could have predicted the level of success that she achieved, selling over 200 million records worldwide and becoming one of the best-selling female artists of all-time.

Having grown up singing gospel music in her hometown Baptist church, Whitney Houston was signed as a recording artist at the age of 19. It didn't take long for her to become a crossover pop superstar with her second album, Whitney, making her the first woman in history to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 charts.

Houston was a pioneer of what is known as the "pop diva" genre and was an important influence to young black women, becoming the first African-American female artist to receive consistent airtime on MTV with her music videos. Despite almost overnight stardom — and as her popular cover of Chaka Khan's hit "I'm Every Woman" suggests — there was always something wonderfully down-to-earth and relatable about Whitney Houston. Her untimely death in 2012 was another tragic loss to the world of music.


Madonna, a.ka. the "Queen of Pop" is surely the true definition of a pop icon.

Bursting onto the music scene in the 1980s, Madonna helped shape a new landscape in pop music for female artists—embracing unexplored themes in sex, gender and sexuality. She is unafraid to push boundaries in relation to her lyrical content or music videos, which tackle taboo topics from teen pregnancy, racism, religion, sex and violence.

There are few artists who could rival Madonna's ability to re-invent herself and move with the ever-changing times and tastes in pop music. Even for those who are indifferent about Madonna's music, it's impossible to not be impressed by her sheer longevity in an industry that increasingly churns out fly-by-night pop stars.

The Spice Girls

Having sold more than 85 million records worldwide, the The Spice Girls might just be the biggest girl group of all-time in terms of commercial success, but their significance extends beyond a number of records sold.

It's easy to dismiss the Spice Girls and the accompanying "girl power" movement as a music industry marketing exercise which just happened to be hugely successful, but the influence of the feisty five-piece should not be under-estimated.

While (clearly) not everyone saw it this way at the time, the Spice Girls essentially pioneered a modern form of feminism. This was not feminism as it may be considered today, but the female empowerment message they purveyed was a strong one. Over 25 years on, perhaps it's time to give the Spice Girls the credit they truly deserve.

Sara Bareilles

The youngest member of our list of important women in music, Sara Bareilles got her first taste of mainstream success with her hit "Love Song," which became a global hit in 2007. But it is actually what Sara Bareilles has achieved in the last few years on the Broadway front which makes her an important influence to women in music.

With stage rights to the film Waitress having been purchased in 2007, an all-female creative team assembled in 2013 to take the show to the big stage. Despite the fact that females account for an estimated 70% of Broadway audiences, this was surprisingly the first time a Broadway show comprised an entirely female creative team.

Having penned the music and lyrics to the entire show, Sara Bareilles is a key part of this watershed moment in musical theater history and received the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s Hal David Starlight Award in 2018. Bareilles is keen for gender to become a non-issue, saying, "my hope for a lot of the feminist movement is that the gender thing sort of stops being the selling point...we're just people making art." And we couldn't agree more.

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