The earliest stars of Sri Lankan recorded music came from the theater at a time when the traditional open-air drama (referred to in Sinhala as kolam, sokari or nadagam) remained the most popular form of entertainment. A 1903 album, entitled Nurthi, is the first recorded album to come out of Sri Lanka via Radio Ceylon. The station, which had long held a monopoly over Sri Lanka's airwaves, had been established in 1925, and one of Sri Lanka's pioneering broadcasters, Vernon Corea, almost immediately grasped the opportunity to introduce Sri Lankan Music on the English Services of Radio Ceylon.
In the wake of western and Indian proliferation in music, composer and singer Ananda Samarakoon emerged from training at Rabindranath Tagore's school at Shanthiketalan to develop a uniquely Sinhalese music tradition in 1939. His work such as "Punchi Suda", "Ennada Manike" and notably "Namo Namo Maatha" (adapted as Sri Lanka's national anthem later) established the sarala gee genre. Another artist Devar Surya Sena with his Western education was pivotal in popularizing folk songs of Sri Lanka to the English elite that bore higher status in the country at the time.
Kadawunu Poronduwa in 1947 brought about a film industry in Sri Lanka. In the late 1940s and 1950s Sinhala film music became the most popular with audiences; it was drawn heavily upon melodies found in Hindi and Tamil films - adapted to a Sri Lankan audience by substituting their original lyrics with Sinhala lyrics. Meanwhile, musicians like W. D. Amaradeva, Sunil Santha, W.B. Makulolouwa etc. began experimenting with developing a Sinhalese music style.
Amaradeva, trained at shantiniketan like Samarakoon, took up the "Sarala Gee" tradition along with experimentation of raaga forms. This became popular in the country especially through sarala gee programs broadcasted in Radio Ceylon. Late musicians such as Victor Rathnayake, Rohana Weerasinghe, Sanath Nandasiri, Gunadasa Kapuge, Sunil Edirisinghe, and Edward Jayalody more or less followed the same footpath.
Makulolouwa believed Sinhalese music should follow the traditions of its folk music called "Jana Gee". He gathered a great many of Sinhalese folk poems by travelling around the country and tried to develop a unique style. Late musicians like Lionel Ranwala and Rohana Beddage contributed in developing Makuloluwa's "Jana Gee" style.
Sunil Santha took a Western approach in his work inspired from Church music. He opposed of getting elements from Hindustani "Raaga" music to develop Sinhalese music. This was evident when he was later banned from Radio Ceylon after refusing to audition for Indian musician Ratanjankar, whom the corporation had brought from South India to oversee the direction of music on their stations.
Premasiri Khemadasa also known as "Khemadasa Master" is one of the most influential composers in Sri Lankan music. Inspiring from Western Classical music, Hindustani music and also Sinhala folk music he composed in his own style which became popular since late 1960s. He is one of the highly regarded film, stage and TV drama composer and his music is used by the best directors in the country. Khemadasa Master is also famous for creating operas and cantatas.
Pivotal to the works of these musicians were songwriters like Mahagama Sekara and Chandraratne Manawasinghe who in their lyrics presented deeply poetic, and honestly expressed, ideas - many of which also promoted a sense of nationalism in a nation that had received independence less than a generation before in 1948.
With the dawn of the 1960s and government restrictions on travel to India original compositions became in vogue in film music though a few popular films continued to tout stolen melodies under the hands of music arrangers like P. L. A. Somapala and Mohomed Sally.
The mid-1960s, saw the introduction of pop groups such as Los cabelleros led by Neville Fernando, The La Bambas, The Humming Birds and Los Muchachos; all of whom played calypso-style baila borrowing their style from Caribbean folk-singer Harry Belafonte. This mixture of Caribbean calypso with native baila was dominated by two groups: The Moonstones, and The Golden Chimes led by musicians Annesley Malewana and Clarence Wijewardene.
Sri Lankan pop/film music managed to hold a large portion of Sri Lanka's market during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but by 1980, Indian film music had again displaced local musicians as the highest-selling sector of the Sri Lankan music industry. In the 1980s the disco-pop musician Rookantha Gunathilake emerged to become one of the most popular artists of the time. Many young musicians followed Rookantha and his style in 1980s and 1990s.
Since 1998, Many Pop/R&B groups have emerged in Sri Lanka - the most prominent of which is known as Bathiya and Santhush -- who draw inspiration from the Europop groups that visited the island. Among their accomplishments; they are the first Sri Lankan group to be signed to an international record label (Sony BMG), and were an integral component in the label's entrance into the nation's music industry in 2002/2003. They have received international awards for their compositions, and have performed in several countries - including on BBC radio in the UK.