Open Your Ears

Rock Music – the type of music that teens in the 1950s loved and their parents hated. Rooted in the blues, Gospel, country, and an older form of rock music called rock-n-roll, this genre took the world by storm and became the music of a generation determined to turn culture upside-down.

“Rock Around the Clock” performed by Bill Haley & His Comets is often considered one of the very first rock-n-roll hits, topping the Billboard charts in 1955 after pairing up with the controversial film ‘Blackboard Jungle’.

Rock is everywhere, and so much a part of our culture that we don’t often stop to think about what makes rock, well, rock. Let’s have a closer look into this exciting genre:


The rock-n-roll of the 1950s evolved into multiple genres including everything from fun surf music to psychedelic rock. The British Invasion took a band of mop-headed musicians to international fame and fortune. From the beginning, rock music borrowed freely from other cultures, incorporating musical traditions as varied as Black Gospel, Latin American music, and Indian ragas.

Surf Music

Surf music is characterized by electric guitar, strong harmonies, and a distinct Southern-California flavor, was pioneered by bands like the Ventures and the Beach Boys. Surf music often has intense instrumental solos – like the iconic drum solo in “Wipeout”:

The Beach Boys, on the other hand, experimented with rich harmonies:

The British Invasion

While there were many other types of rock during the 1960s, none impacted the music world like the high energy British Invasion. Featuring the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Freddie and the Dreamers and other acts, British bands moved beyond their borders and transformed the music industry across the pond and beyond.

Influenced by the rife political environment of the mid-20th century, these groups soon became the voice of the anti-establishment, especially in countries like the United States that were experiencing an intense sexual and cultural revolution.

Television gave these bands an unparalleled global audience. When the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, the screaming teen girls drowned out the upbeat rhythms of the long-haired musicians. Rock bands were gods.

The 1960s rock bands launched decades of rock music dominance. Until pop music started to steal the thunder of rock in the 1980s, rock music experienced an amazing renaissance. Legends like the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Queen, and a hundred other acts filled the radio waves with messages of love, drugs, and protest with driving guitar rhythms, heavy drum beats, and unforgettable virtuosity.

Breaking Down the Music

There are several very distinct elements that make rock music different from other genres. These differences stand out and help you distinguish rock music from similar genres like pop music.


Rock music has a very distinct instrumentation. While there is some variety in musical choice, the typical rock band will have a vocalist, electric guitar, electric bass, and drummer. Some rock bands may add in keys, additional percussion, and backup singers, but the basic rock band will have these four elements.

Here’s Metallica in a typical rock band setup – guitar, bass, vocals, and drums:

Vocal Style

Unlike the smooth vocals you would find in jazz music, the operatic sound of classical music, or the lighter nasal qualities in pop and electronic music, the vocals in rock music are often very harsh and loud, distorted by amplification and effects. Yet, historically reliant on analog audio production, rock vocalists are often virtuosic, with wide ranges and the ability to transform their voices dynamically and with emotion.

In this version of the Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, the song is stripped down to the vocals, exposing Freddie Mercury’s unique vocal talent and the lush harmonies used for this iconic song:

Rhythm and Backbeat

While there are many examples of rock bands experimenting with mixed meters and complex rhythms, the very basic rock rhythm is a 4/4 beat with a regular pulse. In some cases a 6/8 time signature is used. In 4/4 time, the rhythm is accented on beats 2 and 4, making a classic backbeat that is reminiscent of blues and jazz.

In this simple rock drum beat, the emphasis is on 2 and 4:


Rock music borrows heavily from traditional Western harmonic progressions, with an emphasis on the I-IV-V chords in the instrumentals. Use of minor scales is common, like D minor. Adding in more complex chords like diminished chords and jazz chords adds a little bit of flavor. Vocal harmonies in rock music run the gamut of simple harmonies to much more complex permutations like the Beatles “Because”. Other acts like the Mamas & the Papas, the Beach Boys, and Queen mastered vocal harmonies.

Going Beyond Rock Music: Subgenres

Rock music has evolved significantly since first taking the airwaves by storm in the mid-20th century. Here is just a sampling of popular rock subgenres. Give a listen to each example, comparing what you hear to the more classic examples given earlier. Listen for changes in instrumentation, lyrics, vocal style, use of technology, and more.

Punk Rock

Starting in the 1970s, punk rock musicians decided to veer away from the mainstream and instead embraced a more hardcore “edgy” anti-authoritarian type of rock.

An entire subculture developed around punk rock, well into the 1980s and beyond. Genre legends include the Sex Pistols, Green Day, The Ramones, and the Clash. Listen for the iconic drum rhythms and vocal quality.


With early roots in punk rock, Seattle-based grunge emphasized the down and dirtier aspects of rock music, from slovenly appearance to absolute angst to the very dark and dirty sounds emitting from the instruments. Bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden personified grunge, which abruptly declined after the death of legend Kurt Cobain.

Heavy Metal

Almost every music fan can identify the sounds of heavy metal. The dark distortion, thick textures, virtuosic guitar solos, and sometimes screaming vocal quality makes heavy metal a distinct and far-reaching form of rock music. The genre developed in the earlier years of rock music and eventually grew into several genres like death metal, glam rock, and black metal in the 1980s, when big hair and big sound ruled.

Top bands in the genre are legion, but some of the most significant acts included Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Slayer, Pantera, Tool, and Megadeath.

From the harsh vocal sounds and driving drumbeats to an anti-authoritarian culture clash, rock music has made its very deep mark on music history. Join us next time when we look into what makes pop pop. In the meantime, enjoy rocking out to Suzi Quatro’s “Can the Can.”

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