Characteristics of Music: Punk

The spectrum of genres that make up what we call “music” is massive. With so many options to choose from, it’s no wonder everyone has their own personal preferences when it comes to what they like to listen to.

That’s why we’ve been exploring the unique characteristics of some of music’s most popular genres. We began this exploration a few weeks ago with a brief look at pop music, followed by an overview of jazz, and then rock and roll. This week we’re going to continue with a look at a genre that evolved out of the popularity of rock in the 1970s: punk.

Punk rock, or simply punk, emerged from its rock and roll roots in the mid-1970s. Growing out of the garage rock movement of the 1960s, punk bands went out of their way to reject the perceived excesses of rock’s more mainstream groups and lifestyles.

Instead, punk is defined by short, fast-paced songs with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and commonly shouted political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk also embraces a certain “Do-It-Yourself” ethic and quality with many bands self-producing records and distributing them through independent labels.

Let’s take a deeper dive into what makes punk rock unique.

Philosophy

The very first wave of punk rock to emerge was “aggressively modern” and was quite different from what came before it. As Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone put it, “In its initial form, a lot of [1960s] stuff was innovative and exciting. Unfortunately, what happens is that people who could not hold a candle to the likes of Hendrix started noodling away. Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere. By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bull—- rock ‘n’ roll.”

John Holmstrom, who was the founding editor of Punk magazine, said he felt like “punk rock had to come along because the rock scene had become so tame that [acts] like Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel were being called rock and roll, when to me and other fans, rock and roll meant this wild and rebellious music.”

Critic Robert Christgau went on to describe punk as “…a subculture that scornfully rejected the political idealism and Californian flower-power silliness of hippie myth.”

Along with this philosophy, technical accessibility and a “Do-It-Yourself” attitude are highly prized in punk rock. In fact, UK pub rock between 1972 and ’75 helped contribute to the emergence of punk rock by creating a network of small venues where bands out of the mainstream could play. Pub rock also helped introduce the idea of independent record labels, which allowed punk bands to put out basic, low-cost records.

Pub bands would organize their own small venue tours, and release small pressings of their records. In the earliest days of punk, this DIY attitude stood out in sharp contrast to what was generally considered to be flashy musical effects and technological demands of many mainstream rock bands at the time.

According to Holmstrom, punk rock was “rock and roll by people who didn’t have very many skills as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music.” In fact, in the December 1976 issue of the English fan magazine Sideburns famously illustrated three chords with the caption “This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.”

Musical & Lyrical Elements

The first punk bands relied on emulating the minimal musical arrangements of the 1960s garage rock. This led to typical punk rock using stripped-down instrumentation, including only one or two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals. In general, songs tend to be shorter than other sub-genres of rock and played at a significantly faster tempo.

Format & Rhythm

Most early punk songs retained the traditional rock and roll verse-chorus format with a 4/4 time signature. That said, later bands have broken this format with much success. As Steven Blush once said, “The Sex Pistols were still rock’n’roll … like the craziest version of Chuck Berry. Hardcore was a radical departure from that. It wasn’t verse-chorus rock. It dispelled any notion of what songwriting is supposed to be. It’s its own form.”

Guitar

Although basic guitar breaks are common, more complicated guitar solos are considered self-indulgent and mostly avoided. In fact, the guitar parts themselves often include highly distorted power chords and barre chords, which created a characteristic sound that Robert Christgau described as a “buzzsaw drone.”

Bass

When it comes to the bass guitar in a punk band, the lines are usually simple and uncomplicated. This created the quintessential punk approach: a relentless, repetitive “forced rhythm.” Thanks to the rapid succession of notes in a punk baseline, most bassists use a pick, as fingerpicking is impractical.

Drums

Punk drums are usually heavy and dry, usually with a minimal set-up. Where, in most genres of rock, syncopation is the order of the day, there is much less emphasis on it in punk. What’s more, hardcore drumming is usually especially and excessively fast.

Vocals & Lyrics

Even the vocals of punk songs are different, often with a nasal quality, and regularly shouted in an “arrogant snarl” rather than sung in the traditional sense. What’s more, the lyrics featured in punk rock songs are usually quite frank, often to the point of confrontational. Compared to other genres of popular music, punk frequently comments on social and political issues.

One of the common goals of punk music, especially in the early years of British punk, is to outrage and shock the mainstream. Early songs openly disparaged and mocked political systems and social mores. The commonly controversial content of punk lyrics even led to some punk records becoming banned by radio stations and refused shelf space in stores.

This only fuels the anti-establishment ideals and image.

Is punk in your blood? Want to rock out with the best of them? Start your musical journey with the professionals at The Music Studio, and take your first steps today! Check out all our programs, all offered online during this time of global crisis. It’s never too late, or too early to get started!