Rock Music, group of related music styles that have dominated popular music in the West since about 1955. Rock music began in the United States, but it has influenced and in turn been shaped by a broad field of cultures and musical traditions, including gospel music, the blues, country-and-western music, classical music, folk music, electronic music, and the popular music of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In addition to its use as a broad designation, the term rock music commonly refers to music styles after 1959 predominantly influenced by white musicians. Other major rock music styles include rock and roll (also known as rock 'n' roll), the first genre of the music; and rhythm-and-blues music (R&B), influenced mainly by black American musicians. Each of these major genres encompasses a variety of substyles, such as heavy metal, punk, alternative, and grunge. While innovations in rock music have often occurred in regional centers—such as New York City, Kingston, Jamaica, and Liverpool, England—the influence of rock music is now felt worldwide.
II. Musical Elements
The central musical instrument in most kinds of rock music is the electric guitar. Important figures in the history of this instrument include jazz musician Charlie Christian, who in the late 1930s was one of the first to perform the amplified guitar as a solo instrument; Aaron Thibeaux "T-Bone" Walker, the first blues musician to record with an amplified guitar (1942); 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. Rock-and-roll guitarist Chuck Berry established a style of playing in the late 1950s that remains a great influence on rock music. Beginning in the late 1960s a new generation of rock guitarists, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Carlos Santana, experimented with amplification, feedback (a type of electronic sound distortion), and various electronic devices, extending the musical potential of the instrument.
Other instruments commonly used in rock music include the electric bass guitar (introduced by Fender in 1951); keyboard instruments such as the electric piano, organ, and synthesizer; and the drum set, an African American innovation that came into rock music from jazz and R&B music. 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. The microphone also functions as a musical instrument for many rock singers, who rely upon the amplification and various effects (such as echo) obtainable through electronic means.
Rock music also shares more complex technical aspects. Most rock music is based on the same harmonies as Western music, especially the chords known as tonic, subdominant, and dominant. The chord progression (series of chords) known as the 12-bar blues is based on these chords and has figured prominently in certain styles, especially rock and roll, soul music, and southern rock. Other common harmonic devices include the use of a drone, or pedal point (a single pitch sustained through a progression of chords), and the parallel movement of chords, derived from a technique on the electric guitar known as bar-chording. Many elements of African American music have been a continuing source of influence on rock music. These characteristics include riffs (repeated patterns), backbeats (emphasizing the second and fourth beats of each measure), call-and-reponse patterns, blue notes (the use of certain bent-sounding pitches, especially those related to the third and fifth degrees of a musical scale), and dense buzzy-sounding timbres, or tone colors.
The musical form of rock music varies. Rock and roll of the late 1950s relied heavily upon 12-bar blues and 32-bar song forms. Some rock bands of the late 1960s experimented with more flexible, open-ended forms, and some rock bands of the 1970s developed suite forms derived from classical music. Another important formal development in rock music has been the so-called concept album, a succession of musical pieces tied together by a loose narrative theme.
Much rock music is performed at high volume levels, so the music has been closely tied to developments in electronic technology. Rock musicians have pioneered new studio recording techniques, such as multi-tracking—a process of recording different song segments at different times and layering them on top of one another—and digital sampling, the reproduction by a computer of the patterns of a particular sound. Rock concerts, typically huge events involving thousands of audience members, often feature high-tech theatrical stage effects, including synchronized lighting.
III. Historical Development
A. Rock and Roll
The first type of rock music, rock and roll, originated in the United States in the 1950s, and was largely derived from music of the American South. In the United States, the affluence that followed the end of World War II in 1945 and the emergence of a youth culture—based in part upon the rejection of older styles of popular culture—helped rock and roll to displace the New York City-based Tin Pan Alley songwriting tradition that had dominated the mainstream of American popular taste since the late 19th century . Rock and roll was a combination 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 style known as honky tonk.
During the 1950s the term rock and roll was actually a synonym for black R&B music. Rock and roll was first released by small, independent record companies and promoted by radio disc jockeys (DJs) like Alan Freed, who used the term rock 'n' roll to help attract white audiences unfamiliar with black R&B. Indeed, the appeal of rock and roll to white middle-class teenagers was immediate and caught the major record companies by surprise. As these companies moved to capitalize on the popularity of the style, the market was fueled by cover versions (performances of previously recorded 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-and-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. The group Bill Haley and the Comets, which had the first big rock-and-roll hit with the song "Rock Around the Clock" (1955), was a country-music band from Pennsylvania that adopted aspects of the R&B jump-blues style of saxophonist and singer Louis Jordan. The unique style of Chuck Berry came from his experience playing a mixture of R&B and country music in the Midwest. The rock-and-roll piano style of Fats Domino grew out of the distinctive sound of New Orleans R&B, which also influenced singer and songwriter Little Richard. Rockabilly, a blend of rock-and-roll and country-and-western music, was pioneered by Memphis producer Sam Philips, who first recorded artists Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins on his Sun Records label. The earthy style of guitarist Bo Diddley derived from the blues of the Mississippi Delta region. The standard four-piece instrumentation of rock bands (drum set and lead, rhythm, and bass guitars) was developed by Texas musician Buddy Holly, who produced his own studio recordings. From the urban North came the vocal style of doo wop, which influenced such vocal groups as the Chords, the Penguins, and the Platters.
The golden age of rock and roll, which lasted only five years, from 1955 to 1959, is exemplified by the recordings of Berry, Presley, Little Richard, and Holly. By the early 1960s, the popular music industry was assembling professional songwriters, hired studio musicians, and teenage crooners to mass-produce songs that imitated late-1950s rock and roll. In the early 1960s professional songwriters in Manhattan, New York, such as Carole King and Neil Sedaka, produced numerous hit songs, many of which were recorded by female ensembles known as girl groups, such as the Ronettes and the Shirelles. Also during this period, the role of the record producer was expanded by Phil Spector, a producer who created hits by using elaborate studio techniques in a dense orchestral approach known as the wall of sound.
Beginning about 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, Michigan. Popular Motown groups included the Supremes, the Temptations, and 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 neighborhood in New York City—which included singer and lyricist Bob Dylan.
B. The 1960s
In 1964 the Beatles traveled to New York City to appear on a television broadcast ("The Ed Sullivan Show," 1948 to 1971) and launched the so-called British Invasion. Influenced by American recordings, British pop bands of the period invigorated the popular music mainstream and confirmed the international stature of rock music. Soon, several British groups had developed individual distinctive styles: The Beatles combined the guitar-based rock and roll of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly with the artistry of the Tin Pan Alley style; the Animals blended blues and R&B influences; and the Rolling Stones joined aspects of Chicago blues to their intense, forceful music.
As with early rock and roll, the major American record companies did not take the British bands seriously at first—the Beatles' first hit singles in the United States were released through small, independent record companies. Soon, however, the success of the British bands became too difficult to ignore, and some American musicians reacted by developing their own styles. In 1965 Bob Dylan performed live and in-studio with a band that played electric instruments, alienating many folk-music purists in the process. The folk-rock style was further pioneered the same year by the American band the Byrds, who had a number-one hit on the Billboard magazine music charts with a version of Dylan's song "Mr. Tambourine Man." The short-lived group Buffalo Springfield, formed in 1966, blended aspects of rock and country-and-western music to create country rock.
During the late 1960s, rock music diversified further into new styles while consolidating its position in the mainstream of American popular music. The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the first rock concept album, established new standards for studio recording and helped to establish the notion of the rock musician as a creative artist. Once again, American musicians responded to the British musical stimulus by experimenting with new forms, technologies, and stylistic influences.
San Francisco rock, or psychedelic rock, emerged about 1966 and was associated with the use of hallucinogenic drugs, such as Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or LSD; psychedelic art and light shows; and an emphasis on spontaneity and communitarian values, epitomized in free-form events called be-ins. Musicians such as Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead experimented with long, improvised stretches of music called jams. Despite the antiestablishment orientation of the youth culture in San Francisco, such musicians and groups as Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana (led by Carlos Santana) signed lucrative contracts with major recording companies.
Another important center of rock music in the 1960s was Los Angeles, where film student Jim Morrison formed the group the Doors and guitarist and composer Frank Zappa developed a unique blend of risqué humor and complex jazz-influenced compositional forms with his group the Mothers of Invention. In the late 1960s hard rock emerged, focusing on thick layers of sound, loud volume levels, and virtuoso guitar solos. In London, American Jimi Hendrix developed a highly influential electric-guitar style. His fiery technique gained exposure at the first large-scale rock festivals in the United States, Monterey Pop (1967) and Woodstock (1969). In 1966 the first so-called power trio was formed in London—the band Cream, which showcased the virtuosity of guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker. In the late 1960s additional 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), exemplified by the music of Santana.
C. The 1970s
In the early 1970s the popular mainstream was dominated by superstar rock groups, such as 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 multiple albums, each of which sold millions of copies, pushing the industry to operate at a new scale.
Also highly 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, and Deep Purple, all of which featured aggressive guitar-laden songs. Art rock, represented by bands such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, combined influences from classical music and displays of technical skill with spectacular stage shows. Glitter rock, or glam rock, cultivated a decadent image complete with such musicians as David Bowie and Marc Bolan wearing heavy makeup and sequined costumes and presenting themselves as sexually androgynous.
The most popular dance music of the 1970s was disco. Initially associated with the gay subculture of New York City, disco drew upon black popular music and simplified rhythms by adding steady bass-drum beats. Although much despised by aficionados of heavy metal, disco had a substantial impact on rock music, especially after the release of the motion picture Saturday Night Fever (1977) and its hugely successful disco soundtrack featuring the group the Bee Gees.
The 1970s also saw the development of funk, a variant of soul music that was influenced by rock. Influential funk musicians included singer Sly Stone with his San Francisco band Sly and the Family Stone, and vocalist George Clinton, whose groups Parliament and Funkadelic blended social satire and science-fiction imagery with African-derived rhythms, jazz-influenced horn music, long improvised jams, and vocal group harmonies.
About 1976 punk rock originated in New York City and London as a reaction against the commercialism of mainstream rock and the pretentiousness of art rock. Punk-rock music was raw, abrasive, and fast. London punk groups included the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Police, while New York punk and new wave (a style similar to punk) music included the bands the Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads, and vocalist Patti Smith.
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 the United States. The style, associated with political protest and the Rastafarian religion, combined elements of Jamaican folk music with American R&B influences. Reggae's popularity among American college students was stimulated by the 1973 film The Harder They Come, which starred reggae singer Jimmy Cliff in the role of an underclass gangster. The superstar of the style was Bob Marley, who by the time of his death in 1981 had become one of the most popular musicians in the world.
Despite these diverse stylistic developments, the music business in the United States had actually become more centralized in the 1970s. Spontaneous mass gatherings, epitomized by Woodstock, had been replaced by carefully managed stadium concerts. The individualistic local radio programming of the late 1960s was substituted with national radio formatting, in which music tailored to sell products to certain audiences was distributed nationally on tape to be broadcast from local stations. Economic factors encouraged major record companies to pursue almost exclusively artists with the potential to sell millions of copies of albums. While potential profits from hit albums had risen greatly, the financial risks involved in producing such music had also increased considerably. From 1978 to 1982 the American rock-music industry experienced financial difficulties as sales of recorded music dropped by almost $1 billion and receipts from live concerts experienced a similar decline.
D. The 1980s
Technological advances led to a revival of the music industry during the 1980s. The market for popular music expanded with new media formats, including music video, introduced by the Music Television (MTV) network in 1981, and the digitally-recorded compact disc, introduced in 1983. In 1982 entertainer Michael Jackson released Thriller, which became the biggest-selling album in history, and established a trend in which record companies relied upon a few massive hits to generate profits. Jackson's success contributed greatly to proving the promotional value of music videos. It thereafter became very difficult for record companies to achieve hit records without having the music receive intensive airplay on music-video networks.
Other mainstream rock hits of the 1980s came from a group of charismatic artists, each of whom attracted mass-audience followings extending across traditional social boundaries. Singer Bruce Springsteen appealed to many as a working-class hero. Other superstars followed Jackson's lead by integrating dance and video presentations into their work, including the artist formerly known as Prince (), whose 1984 single "When Doves Cry" was the first song in more than 20 years to top both the pop and R&B charts in Billboard magazine; and Madonna, who came to symbolize female sexual liberation through her controversial videos and lyrics. Also during the 1980s the audience for heavy metal expanded from its original white-male, working-class core to include more middle-class fans, both male and female. By the end of the decade, heavy-metal bands, such as Van Halen, AC/DC, and Metallica, accounted for as much as 40 percent of all sound recordings sold in the United States.
Anticipated by reggae in the 1970s, worldbeat music (also called ethnopop) began to emerge during the early 1980s, with the success of the album Juju Music (1982) by Nigerian musician King Sunny Ade. Ade's music, which blended traditional African drums with electric guitars and synthesizers, helped to stimulate an 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 (DRC, 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 album Graceland featured musicians from Africa and Latin America, played an important role in exposing worldbeat musicians to audiences in the United States and Europe, and reaffirmed the worldwide appeal of rock music.
Perhaps the most significant rock-music development of the 1980s was the rise 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. Rap originated in the mid-1970s in the South Bronx community of New York City and was initially associated with a cultural movement called hip-hop, which included acrobatic dancing (known as break dancing) and graffiti art. DJs such as Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa experimented with innovative 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 phonograph needle across vinyl record grooves to create rhythmic sound effects.
The first rap records were made in 1979 by small, independent record companies. Although artists such as the Sugarhill Gang had national hits during the early 1980s, rap music did not enter the popular music mainstream until 1986, when rappers Run-D.M.C. and the hard-rock band Aerosmith collaborated on a version of the song "Walk This Way," creating a new audience for rap among white, suburban, middle-class rock fans. By the end of the 1980s, MTV had established a program dedicated solely to rap, and artists such as M. C. Hammer and the Beastie Boys had achieved multi-platinum record sales to broad interracial audiences.
IV. Current Trends
Rock music has grown to include hundreds of musical styles, some of which define a broad mainstream, while others are supported by small but devoted audiences. As in earlier decades, major record companies have used independent labels to find new trends and locate promising talent.
Rap music continued to develop in the 1990s, stimulating controversy over its sometimes violent lyrics. Many rap styles gained popularity, including the gangsta (gangster) style of such rappers as Ice-T, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Doggy Dogg; the pop-rap style of M.C. Hammer; the reggae and folk-influenced sound of Arrested Development; and the mixture of hip-hop and jazz developed by Us3. Heavy metal has remained popular, as evidenced by huge arena concerts featuring such bands as Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth. A style known as alternative rock, popularized in the late 1980s by the group R.E.M., combines heavy-metal guitars, folk and punk influences, and cryptic, introspective lyrics. The alternative style spawned a number of substyles, such as the grunge rock of Seattle-based groups Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. Techno, a style of dance music that gained popularity in the 1990s, combines computer-generated, discolike rhythms with digital samples. Acid jazz is a related style, combining rock, soul, R&B, and jazz influences.
Music video has remained an important means of introducing new performers. Other new media technologies, including the use of fiber-optic cables and satellite transmissions, have changed the way people access popular music. Advances in recording-studio technology, digital recording equipment, and synthesis techniques have allowed musicians, producers, and music engineers to exert far greater control over their final product than previously possible. In live concerts, miniaturized and relatively portable amplification equipment has been introduced to create the illusion of direct communication between the audience and the performers. In contrast, the Lo-Fi movement developed in the 1990s as a reaction against the glossy production values of mainstream popular music. This movement stresses primitive, low-fidelity recording techniques that reflect those used in the 1950s for rockabilly and in the 1970s for punk rock.
As the history of rock music broadens and expands, rock music itself has increasingly become an object of nostalgia. In 1995 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland, Ohio. Also in the 1990s, several television documentaries were produced on the history of rock and roll, and historical box-set recordings were reissued featuring artists from Elvis Presley to Led Zeppelin.
V. Sociological Significance
Since its inception in the 1950s, rock music has moved from the margins of American popular music to become the center of a multi-billion-dollar global industry. Closely connected with youth culture, rock music and musicians have helped to establish new fashions, forms of language, attitudes, and political views. However, rock music is no longer limited to an audience of teenagers, since many current listeners formed their musical tastes during the golden age of rock and roll. Similarly, while rock has historically encouraged new creative expressions, the innovations of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix have defined a tradition to which successive generations of musicians have repeatedly turned for inspiration.
From its origins, rock music has been shaped by a complex relationship between freedom—symbolized by the image of the rebellious rock musician—and corporate control. Originally a mixture of styles outside the mainstream of white middle-class popular taste, rock and roll soon became a mass-produced commodity. This tension between individuality and commercialism still looms large in rock music and is reflected in fan distaste for musicians who compromise, or sell out, their musical values in order to secure multi-million-dollar recording contracts. Shaped by technology, the growth of the mass media, and the social identities of its artists and audiences, rock music continues to play a central role in the popular culture of the United States and, increasingly, the world.