Rock-n-Roll Musicology

As a broad designation, the term rock commonly refers to music styles post-1959, predominantly influenced by white musicians. Rock music originated in the United States, but it has influenced and been shaped by a broad field of cultures and musical traditions, including gospel, blues, country, classical, folk, electronic, and pop music from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Major rock-music styles include rock and roll (most commonly spoken and written as rock ‘n’ roll), the primary genre of the music; and R&B, influenced mainly by black American musicians. Like other genres, rock music encompasses a variety of sub-styles, such as heavy metal, speed metal, hair or glam rock, gothic, punk, alternative or progressive, and grunge.

The largest and most significant innovations in rock music have often occurred in regional centers – primarily in the United States, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Likewise, other major innovations came from other countries; most notably among them are Kingston, Jamaica, and Liverpool and London, England.

The central musical instrument in the majority of rock genres is the electric guitar. Important figures in the history of this instrument include the late 1930s jazz musician Charlie Christian, who was one of the first to play the amplified guitar as a solo instrument; in 1942, Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker, the first blues musician to record with an amplified guitar. But the two most outstanding innovators are the namesakes of the most popular guitars in the music world, Leo Fender, who in 1948 introduced the first mass-produced solid-body electric guitar; and Les Paul, who popularized the instrument in the early 1950s with a series of technologically innovative recordings.

Leo Fender

Legendary guitarist Chuck Berry launched a style of playing in the late 1950s that remains a great influence today. Beginning in the late 1960s, a new generation of rock guitarists, especially Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Carlos Santana, experimented with amplification, feedback (a type of electronic sound distortion evoked when the electromagnetic fields between the instrument and amplifier traverse), and various electronic devices, extending the musical potential of the instrument.

Other instruments commonly used in rock include the electric bass guitar (introduced by Fender in 1951); keyboard instruments such as the electric piano, organ, and synthesizer; and drums, an African American innovation that came into rock music from jazz and R&B.

Instruments that play important roles in certain rock-music genres include the saxophone – prominent in jazz-rock and soul music – and a wide assortment of traditional instruments used in worldbeat music. Even the microphone functions as a quasi-musical instrument for many rock singers, who rely upon the amplification and various effects (such as echo) only obtainable through electronic means.

Rock music also shares more intricate procedural aspects. Most rock music is based on the same harmonies as Western music, chiefly the chords known as the tonic, subdominant, and dominant. The chord progression (sequence of chords) known as the 12-bar blues is based on these chords and has figured significantly in certain styles, especially rock-n-roll, soul, and southern rock.

Further widespread harmonic devices include the use of a drone, or pedal point (a single pitch sustained through a succession of chords), and the corresponding movement of chords, derived from a technique on the electric guitar known as bar-chording. Many rudiments of African American music have been a continuing source of influence on rock music.

These characteristics incorporate riffs (repeated patterns), backbeats (emphasizing the second and fourth beats of each measure, call-and-response patterns, blue notes (the use of certain bent-sounding pitches, especially those related to the third and fifth degrees of a musical scale), and thick buzzy- sounding timbres, or tone colors.

Queensryche Operation Mindcrime

The musical form of rock varies. In the late 1950s, rock relied greatly upon 12-bar blues and 32-bar song forms. In the late 1960s, some rock bands experimented with more flexible, open-ended forms, while some rock bands of the 1970s developed suite forms derived from classical music. Another key formal occurrence in rock has been the so-called concept album, a succession of musical pieces tied together by a loose narrative theme, such as Queensryche’s 1988’s platinum Operation: Mindcrime – which featured orchestral arrangements from Michael Kamen, The concept album earned both positive reviews and strong sales, staying on the American charts for a year.

As any rock fan and concertgoer knows, rock is usually performed at high volume levels; consequently, the music has been intimately tied to advances in electronic technology. Rock musicians have pioneered new studio recording techniques, such as multi-tracking – a method of recording singular song segments at different times and layering them on top of one another – and digital sampling, the computer duplication of the patterns of a specific sound. Moreover, rock concerts, are typically enormous events attracting thousands of audience members, and regularly feature high-tech theatrical stage effects, together with synchronized lighting.

The first style of rock music, rock-n-roll, started in the United States in the 1950s and was principally a derivative of the music of the American South. In the United States, the prosperity that followed the end of World War II in 1945 and the materialization of youth culture – based in part upon the rejection of older fashions of pop culture – helped rock-n-roll supersede the New York City-based Tin Pan Alley songwriting institution that had dominated the mainstream of American popular taste since the late 19th century. Rock-n-roll was an amalgamation of the R&B style known as jump blues, the gospel-influenced vocal-group style known as doo-wop, the piano-blues style known as boogie-woogie (or barrelhouse), and the country-music sub-style known as honky-tonk.

During the 1950s, the term rock-n-roll was really no more than a synonym for black R&B music. Rock-n-roll was first released by minor, independent record labels and publicized by radio disc jockeys like Alan Freed, who used the term rock-n-roll to help draw white audiences unacquainted with black R&B. The fascination of rock-n-roll with white middle-class teenagers was instantaneous and the major record companies were completely taken by surprise.

As these labels moved to take advantage of the fast-growing popularity of the style, the market was fueled by covers songs of R&B songs that were edited for suggestive lyrics and expressions and performed in the singing style known as crooning, by white vocalists such as Pat Boone. The most successful rock-n-roll artists wrote and performed songs about love, sexuality, identity crises, personal freedom, and other issues that were of particular interest to teenagers.

Popular rock-and-roll artists and groups emerged from diverse backgrounds. Bill Haley and the Comets, a seven-member group had the first big rock-and-roll hit with 1955’s “Rock Around the Clock” (which later became the theme song for TV’s popular “Happy Days”). The group was actually a country-music band from Pennsylvania that adopted aspects of the R&B jump-blues style of saxophonist and singer Louis Jordan. The inimitable style of Chuck Berry came from his familiarity with playing a combination of R&B and country music in the Midwest.

Bill Haley and His Comets

The rock-n-roll piano techniques of Fats Domino grew out of the idiosyncratic sound of New Orleans R&B, which also influenced singer and songwriter Little Richard. Rockabilly, a blend of rock-n-roll and country-and-western music, was pioneered by Memphis producer Sam Phillips, who first recorded artists Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins on his Sun Records label.

Likewise, guitarist Bo Diddley’s earthy chic was derived from the blues of the Mississippi Delta region. But it was Texas musician Buddy Holly who developed the standard four-piece instrumentation of rock bands (drum set and lead, rhythm, and bass guitars) and also produced his own studio recordings. While in the opposite region of the country, from the urban North came the vocal style of doo-wop, which influenced such vocal groups as the Chords, the Penguins, and the Platters.

From 1955 to 1959, the golden age of rock-n-roll lasted just five years and is epitomized by the recordings of Berry, Presley, Little Richard, and Holly. By the early 1960s, the pop music industry was assembling professional songwriters, hired studio musicians, and teenage crooners to mass-produce songs that emulated late-1950s rock-n-roll. In the early 1960s, professional songwriters in Manhattan, such as Carole King and Neil Sedaka, produced several hit songs, many of which were recorded by female ensembles known as girl groups, such as the Ronettes and the Shirelles. Also during this time, a producer named Phil Spector expanded the role of the record producer by crafting hits by using elaborate studio techniques in a dense orchestral approach known as the “wall of sound”.

In 1962, producer Berry Gordy expanded the crossover market (music by black performers purchased by white youth) with a number of hits for his Motown record company, based in Detroit. Popular Motown groups included the Supremes, The Temptations, along with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Other distinctive regional styles also developed during this period, such as the surf sound of the southern California band the Beach Boys and the urban folk music of the Greenwich Village movement – based in that New York City neighborhood – which included the future-legendary singer and lyricist Bob Dylan.

At the height of its popularity in 1964, The Ed Sullivan Show hosted the Beatles in New York City; and the momentous appearance is considered to have launched the purported British Invasion. Ironically, the British pop bands of the period (especially those included in the British Invasion) were heavily influenced by American recordings, but nevertheless revitalized the popular music mainstream and validated the international prominence of rock music.

The Rolling Stones

Soon, several British groups developed individual distinctive styles from their American influences: the guitar-based rock-n-roll of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly (combined with the artistry of the Tin Pan Alley) gave the Beatles their style; blended blues and R&B influences provided the Animals their sound; and by joining aspects of Chicago blues, the Rolling Stones derived their intense, vigorous music.

Déjà vu hit major American record companies, just as with early rock-n-roll, because they did not take the phenomenon of the British Invasion seriously at first. In fact, the Beatles’ first hit singles in the U.S. were released through small, independent record companies. Before long, however, the sensation of the British bands became too demanding to ignore, and some American musicians reacted by developing their own styles.

In 1965, the rock sub-style folk-rock was pioneered by the American band the Byrds, who had a number-one hit on the Billboard magazine charts with a version of Bob Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dylan himself alienated several folk-music purists by performing live and in-studio with a band that played electric instruments. A year later, in 1966, the fleeting group Buffalo Springfield, blended aspects of rock and country-and-western music to form another sub-genre country-rock.

While securing its station in the convention of American pop music, rock expanded more into innovative styles during the late 1960s. 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club album by the Beatles (considered rock’s first concept album), instituted new standards for studio recording and facilitated the establishment of rock musicians as creative artists. Once more, American artists reacted to the British musical stimulus by trying pioneering new forms, technologies, and stylistic influences.

Psychedelic rock (or what was referred to as San Francisco rock), was associated with the use of hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD, and became known about 1966. Psychedelic art and light shows; and prominence on spontaneity and communitarian principles are characterized by free-form events called be-ins. Groups such as the Grateful Dead experimented with lengthy, improvised stretches called jams. Notwithstanding the antiestablishment orientation of the youth culture in San Francisco, such groups and musicians as Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana signed worthwhile contracts with major record labels.

Los Angeles was another significant center of rock in the 1960s, where film student Jim Morrison formed the eclectic group the Doors and guitarist and composer Frank Zappa fashioned a distinctive mélange of risqué humor and intricate jazz-influenced compositional forms with his group the Mothers of Invention.

The Doors

In the late 1960s, hard rock emerged, concentrating on deep layers of sound, loud volume levels, and virtuoso guitar solos. In London, American Jimi Hendrix developed a highly powerful electric- guitar method. His blistering performance gained exposure at the first large-scale rock festivals in the United States, 1967’s Monterey Pop, and 1969’s Woodstock.

In 1966, the band Cream formed the first so-called power trio in London, which showcased the virtuosity of guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker. In the late 1960s, other styles emerged in the United States, including southern rock, pioneered by the Allman Brothers Band; jazz rock, proponents of which included the band Blood, Sweat and Tears; and Latin rock (a blend of Latin American music, jazz and rock influences, and R&B styles), epitomized by the music of Santana.

In the early 1970s, the popular convention was dominated by superstar rock groups, particularly the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Chicago; and by individual superstars, such as Stevie Wonder and Elton John. Each of these groups and individual artists produced numerous albums, each of which sold millions of copies, pushing the industry to function at a new level.

In addition very popular was the singer-songwriter genre, an outgrowth of urban folk music led by artists Carole King, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne. At the other end of the stylistic spectrum, the heavy-metal style was pioneered by bands Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath (arguably the founders of heavy metal), and Deep Purple, all of which highlighted aggressive guitar-laden songs. Bands such as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer coalesced influences from classical music and displays of technical skill with extravagant stage shows in the sub-genre art rock. Glitter or glam rock cultivated a decadent image complete with such musicians as David Bowie and Marc Bolan wearing heavy makeup and sequined costumes and portraying themselves as sexually androgynous.

The 1970s also saw the growth of funk, a variant of soul music that was influenced by rock. Influential funk included Sly and the Family Stone, and vocalist George Clinton, whose group Parliament Funkadelic, combined social lampoon and science-fiction imagery with African-derived rhythms, jazz-influenced horn music, long improvised jams, and vocal group harmonies.

But in 1976, as a reaction to the commercialism of mainstream rock and the pretentiousness of art rock punk rock originated in New York City and London. Punk-rock music was raw, abrasive, and fast – with songs that often lasted just over two minutes. London punk groups included the Sex Pistols, and the Clash, while New York punk and new wave (a style akin to punk) music included the bands the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads. Punk rock artists were unconcerned with musicianship as anti-establishment and spontaneity dominated the genre.

Also in the mid-1970s, reggae music – developed by musicians in the shantytowns of Kingston, Jamaica – began to attract attention among youth in Great Britain and in the U.S. The style, associated with political protest and the Rastafarian religion, combined elements of Jamaican folk music with American R&B influences. Furthermore, the genre is distinguished by a consistent “off” or “up” beat rhythm guitar and “reggae” beats wherein the percussionist introduces a series of beat departing tom-tom strikes.

Reggae’s recognition among American college students was stirred by the 1972 film The Harder They Come, which starred reggae singer Jimmy Cliff in the role of an underclass musician turned petty criminal. However, the megastar who came to personify the style was Bob Marley, who by the time of his death in 1981 had become one of the most popular musicians worldwide.

Jimmy Cliff

Even with these various stylistic changes, the music business in the United States had essentially become more centralized in the 1970s. Unprompted mass gatherings, epitomized by Woodstock, had been supplanted by circumspectly run arena concerts. The idiosyncratic community radio programming of the late 1960s was replaced with national radio formatting, in which music customized to promote products to specific audiences was circulated nationally on tape to be put on air from local stations.

Economic factors encouraged major record companies to follow almost exclusively artists with the prospect to sell millions of copies of albums. While potential profits from hit albums had increased greatly, the financial gamble involved in producing such music had likewise intensified considerably. In just four years, from 1978 to 1982, the American rock-music industry experienced financial troubles as sales of recorded music fell by nearly $1 billion and revenue from live concerts experienced a like drop.

During the 1980s, hi-tech developments led to a revitalization of the music industry. The market for pop music expanded with innovative media formats, including music video, with the 1981introduction of Music Television (MTV), and the 1983 innovation of digitally recorded on the compact disc. In 1982, entertainer Michael Jackson released Thriller, which turned out to be the biggest-selling album in history and began a trend in which record companies relied upon a small number of gigantic hits to generate profits. Jackson’s success was a great factor in establishing the promotional value of music videos – subsequently, it became exceedingly tough for record companies to realize hit records without having substantial airplay on music-video networks.

Additional conventional rock hits of the 1980s came from a group of appealing artists, each of whom attracted mass-audience followings extending across traditional social borders. For instance, appealing to many as a working-class hero was singer Bruce Springsteen; superstars followed Jackson’s lead by integrating dance and video presentations into their work, including Prince, with his 1984 single “When Doves Cry”. Prince’s signature single was the first song in more than twenty years to top both the pop and R&B charts in Billboard magazine, and Madonna came to represent female sexual liberation through her controversial videos and lyrics.

Also during the 1980s, the audience for heavy metal swelled from its original white male, working-class base to include both male and female middle-class fans. In fact, by the end of the decade, heavy-metal bands, such as Van Halen, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica, accounted for as much as 40 percent of all sound recordings sold in the United States.

Guns N Roses

Another genre of rock music, branded alternative rock, rejected the heavy marketing and video-driven culture of the 1980s. In general, alternative rock bands recorded for independent labels rather than major labels played in small clubs instead of arenas, and maintained a defiant stance toward the conformity and commercialism of the music industry. Alternative rock artists wrote songs that explored taboo issues (e.g. drug use, depression, incest, suicide) and were interested in social issues. During the 1980’s groups such as R.E.M., the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and the Pixies attracted a cult following, primarily through airplay on college radio stations and word of mouth.

Preceded by reggae in the 1970s, worldbeat music (also referred to as ethno-pop) began to emerge during the early 1980s, with the success of the 1982 album Juju Music by Nigerian musician King Sunny Ade. Ade’s music, combined traditional African drums with electric guitars and synthesizers.

King Sunny Ade

This facilitated a stimulated interest in non-Western music in the United States and the United Kingdom, and opened the way for artists such as Youssou N’Dour, from Senegal; Papa Wemba, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire); Ladysmith Black Mambazo, from South Africa; Ofra Haza, from Israel; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, from Pakistan; and the Gipsy Kings, from France.

Rock superstars, such as Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, and Paul Simon—whose 1985 hit album Graceland featured musicians from Africa and Latin America—played a vital part in exposing audiences in the United States and Europe to worldbeat musicians, and reaffirmed the worldwide appeal of rock music.

Possibly the most considerable rock-music development of the 1980s was the emergence of rap, a genre in which vocalists perform rhythmic speech, usually accompanied by music snippets, or samples, from prerecorded material or from music created by synthesizers. Hip-hop (as rap is now known) originated in the mid-1970s in the South Bronx community of New York City and was initially associated with an urban cultural movement that included break dancing and graffiti art. DJs such as Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa experimented with inventive turntable techniques, including switching between multiple discs; back-spinning, or rotating the disc by hand in order to repeat particular phrases; and scratching, moving the needle across vinyl record grooves to create rhythmic sound effects.

The first rap or hip-hop records were recorded in 1979 by small, independent labels. Although artists such as the Sugarhill Gang had nationwide hits during the early 1980s, hip-hop music did not penetrate the popular music mainstream until 1986, when hip-hoppers Run-DMC and the hard-rock band Aerosmith cooperated with one another on a version of the song “Walk This Way,” creating a new audience for hip-hop among white, suburban, middle-class rock fans. By the end of the 1980s, MTV had established a program dedicated solely to hip-hop, and artists such as MC Hammer (Stanley Kirk Burrell) and the reinvented rock-turn-rap Beastie Boys had achieved multi-platinum record sales to broad interracial audiences.

Trends that had been established during the 1980s continued during the 1990s, including growth in the attractiveness of genres such as hip-hop, heavy metal, and worldbeat and the introduction of new technologies for the digital generation, transmission, and reproduction of sound. These innovations further splintered rock music into a variety of specialized subgenres in the 1990s.

The 1990s were a considerable decade for bringing hip-hop music into the commercial mainstream. MC Hammer (later known simply as Hammer) went to the top of the charts in 1990 with Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em; selling 13 million copies in its first year, making it the bestselling hip-hop album of all time. A broader trend was the harder-edged style known as gangsta rap, which emerged on the West Coast in the late 1980s.

The multimillion-selling records of gangsta rap artists such as the group N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude), Dr. Dre (Andre Young), Snoop Doggy Dogg (Calvin Broadus), Tupac (2Pac) Shakur, and The Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace) blended grim stories of urban street life with a gleeful celebration of the “gangsta” or “thug” lifestyle. Gangsta rap became incredibly successful in the 1990s by attracting a predominantly white middle-class audience eager to experience gritty street culture from a safe distance.

Electronic dance music, or techno, also became more widely popular during the 1990s. The genre actually first emerged in the 1970s with a few forms of techno that were influenced by punk rock; others by experimental art music, jazz, and world music; and still others by black popular music, including funk and hip-hop. Although techno produced few commercial hits during the decade, the recordings of musical groups such as the Prodigy, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, and Moby did make inroads into the charts during the late 1990s, and techno recordings were increasingly licensed as the soundtracks for technology-oriented television commercials and films.

The popularity of alternative rock likewise exploded during the 1990s, featuring bands as diverse as R.E.M., Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, and the Dave Matthews Band. The genre spawned a number of sub-styles, such as the grunge rock of Seattle-based groups Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. As with the hard rock metal groups of the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s (such as Ratt, Dokken, Guns-n-Roses, and LA Guns), these groups often had members moving in and out of the early incarnations of a band and their related project bands (e.g. Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Temple of the Dog and later, Velvet Revolver).


Arguably more than any other group, Nirvana was responsible for the commercial breakthrough of alternative rock in the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 1994 Nirvana (made up of singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl) released two multiplatinum albums (Nevermind and In Utero) and moved alternative rock’s mixture of hardcore punk and heavy metal out of specialty record stores and into the commercial mainstream after suffering very poor sales of their first release from a year prior, Bleach. Cobain’s stunning 1994 suicide was widely viewed as at least partly attributable to the pressures faced by alternative rock musicians who achieve commercial success and then face accusations of “selling out.”

One of the most remarkable features of rock music in the first years of the 21st century was its sheer stylistic multiplicity. The most significant recordings of the year 2000 include retro-rocker Carlos Santana’s Supernatural, which won the Grammy Award for the best album; a re-release of the Beatles’ number-one hits of the 1960s; the hard-edged hip-hop-metal fusion of Limp Bizkit; gangsta hip-hop stars Dr. Dre and Eminem (Marshall Mathers); techno musician Moby’s album Play (tracks from which were used on dozens of television commercials); and the teen-oriented pop-rock of Britney Spears and NSYNC.

Technological advance continues to drive changes in the way rock music is produced, heard, and sold. The improvement of low-cost digital technology has allowed musicians to make professional-quality home recordings. The emergence of Internet services such as Napster, which allow fans to download their favorite music in the form of compressed files, has raised thorny legal questions about copyright laws while at the same time making the music of unsigned and alternative musicians much more widely available.


The development of CD-R disc burners and software such as Pro Tools, Cakewalk, and Garage Band enabled rock fans to create their own digital compilations and recordings. Aspiring musicians and artists can professionally and digitally record their music at home.

Rock music in the 21st century is ever more influenced by the international marketplace. In fact, of the five major transnational corporations now responsible for up to 90 percent of music sales worldwide, only one is officially headquartered in the United States. Along with the expansion of the global audience for North American and European rock music, there is increasing influence by musicians from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world.