Characteristics of Music: Rock and Roll

The musical continuum is so vast, with so many varied and different genres, how can anyone pick just one favourite?

That’s why we’re taking some time to explore the innate characteristics of some of music’s most popular genres. We started a couple of weeks ago with a look at pop, and continued last week with jazz. This week we’re going to keep that ball rolling with a look at some of the basic characteristics of one of the world’s most enduring and popular genres: Rock and Roll!

A classic rock and roll song by the iconic Muddy Waters goes, “The Blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.”

While this sentiment is true, it also only tells part of the storied tale of how rock and roll came into being. Rock has taken elements and inspiration from a broad group of musical sources, including country music, Appalachian folk, Gospel, and the Tin Pan Alley tradition from the late 1800s. Even the name “rock and roll” was famously given to the genre by Cleveland DJ Alan Freed.

Like many genres to come since rock and roll was initially very popular with young people and became the dominant musical trend throughout the late 1950s and beyond. Kids loved it, and their parents hoped it would fade away. Sound familiar?

But what makes rock and roll rock? Let’s dive into the genre’s main characteristics.

A Contagious Rhythm

One of rock and roll’s key characteristics that made it so popular among teenagers during the late ‘50s and to today is its infectious beat and rhythm. In its earliest years, rock and roll was all about dancing, following on the trends of the earlier genres of rhythm and blues and the even earlier swing style.

Other styles of music that were popular at the time, like jazz – especially bebop and cool jazz – usually used a much more sophisticated rhythmic pattern, which made dancing to it difficult. Swing music and rhythm and blues, on the other hand, were based more on syncopated beats instead of the straight beats that have been typical of European musical genres.

The vast majority of rock and roll songs use the simple 4/4 time, along with heavy use of the 12-bar blues to create a strong emphasis on the rhythmic characteristics of the music. This, in turn, led to some rather unpleasant hysteria regarding the musical style, with some of the more racist areas of white America condemning the genre as “jungle music.”

Original Songwriters

Another hallmark of rock and roll that isn’t always found in genres that preceded it (or followed it for that matter), is that most rock and roll artists write their own music.

Buddy Holly was one of rock’s biggest and earliest superstars. And one of the things that set him apparat was that he wrote and performed all his own music. Sinatra and others like him sang songs written by professional songwriters. But rock’s singer-songwriters like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley helped shift the paradigm. This, in turn, inspired a whole generation of musicians to write and perform their own music.

The Beatles – who took inspiration for their name from Buddy Holly’s Crickets – The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys would go on to turn rock and roll songwriting into the respected art form it is recognized as today.

Guitar Hero

Another key characteristic of rock and roll that sets it apart from other genres of the time was its stripped-down instrumentation and the shocking rise of the electric guitar as a solo instrument.

Before rock and roll hit the scene, music had been dominated by the sound of the big band and complicated and sophisticated arrangements. Jazz had evolved similarly, stripping away most of the big band instruments, but jazz was still mostly played acoustically.

Leo Fender, a name any rock fan will recognize, helped give birth to what we consider rock and roll today with his incredible work pioneering electric guitars and amplifiers. With the help of these new instruments, Chuck Berry, Do Diddle, Scotty Moore, James Burton, and many more, created a different and new way of playing the guitar that helped give rock and roll its identity, and skyrocketed its popularity.

Soon after, the 1960s saw the emergence of figures most consider today to be the biggest stars of the guitar – “guitar heroes,” if you will – like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Jimmy Page.

Long-Lasting Cultural Impact

One of the more interesting characteristics of rock and roll doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the music itself. Rather, it has to do with the incredible cultural impact rock and roll has had beyond just its musical influences.

The early rock and roll icons, like Elvis and Little Richard, were elevated to the status of heroes thanks to the sense of rebellion and cultural ethos they exuded. It wasn’t long before American youths started imitating their rock and roll heroes when it came to fashion, hairstyles, and even attitudes. This feeling of rebellion helped rock play an important role in the cultural revolution and social justice movements of the 1960s.

And since then, rock’s subgenres like glam rock, punk rock, new wave, and more continue to influence the way kids dress, think, and feel about the world around them.

Have you always wanted to join the band, but never felt like you had the chance? It’s never too late to start! Check out all our programs for adults and children, and start your musical journey today! Many of our popular programs are available both in-person and online with interactive classes. Take your first steps towards making music today with The Music Studio!