Introduction: Studying Rock



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Introduction: Studying Rock

      1. Rock music has a history of controversy and a rebellious image.

      2. Despite this image, historians point to the importance of rock in the development of Western music.

      3. Some scholars use the term rock and roll to describe the first wave of that music from 1954 to 1959, while rock is used to describe popular music from after 1964; this book will use rock broadly to describe popular music for a youth audience.

      4. This book treats rock in an inclusive manner rather than definitively resolving questions of which artists and styles can be considered rock.

I. Elements to Consider

i. Rock History in the Media


      1. Though the media catering to general interest readers can provide useful information, a scholarly approach to rock is different.

      2. This book will incorporate a wider range of artists than most media and provide reliable information, historical context, and informed debate.

ii. I Know What I Like: The Fan Mentality

      1. As music fans, we tend to ignore artists we do not like; a more balanced approach is required of scholars.

iii. The Ups and Downs of Chart Positions

      1. Charts such as those published in Billboard help us to obtain information about how popular a record was at the time of its release and listeners’ tastes over time, but they do not definitively reflect a record’s popularity, sales, or influence.

iv. The Four Themes

      1. Four important themes are stressed throughout this book.

        1. Social, political, and cultural issues

        2. Issues of race, class, and gender

        3. The development of the music business

        4. The development of technology

      2. Each of these themes is an important part of rock’s development both in music and in popular culture.

v. Tracking the Popularity Arc

a. Many rock music styles began in a restricted geographic area and/or subculture, and then spread to the commercial mainstream before retreating again; it is common to study a given style at its peak, but important to also research its early history and continuation.



  1. What to Listen for In Rock

    1. “Rocket ‘88’ ”

      1. A formal diagram breaks a song into sections to show its form; Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket ‛88’ ” is in simple verse form, and the diagram labels the verses.

      2. The abbreviation “mm.” stands for measures; a measure is a group of beats (usually four in rock and roll, but can be two or three).

      3. Verse 2 is the only verse in “Rocket ‘88’ ” that is eight measures long instead of twelve.

      4. The song’s instrumentation is: drums, electric guitar, acoustic piano, two saxophones, and lead vocals; it can be useful to listen to just one part at a time

  2. Typical Formal Types in American Popular Music

    1. The 12-Bar Blues and the Doo-Wop Progression

      1. The 12-bar blues are a common structural pattern with a distinctive pattern of four-beat measures that fall into three groups of four; this pattern may repeat throughout the entire song.

      2. “Rocket ‘88’ ” uses a 12-bar blues structure.

      3. The 12-bar blues has a typical chord progression, which can be represented in a chart with roman numerals representing the chords.

      4. Another common structure in rock music is the doo-wop progression, a series of four chords that may repeat.

    2. Simple Verse Form

      1. A verse is a section with repeating music and nonrepeating lyrics; a song in simple verse form has only verses.

    3. AABA Form

      1. AABA form is typically a 32-bar scheme with four 8-bar phrases, and it may or may not also include a reprise; the first two phrases in this form are similar, the third contrasts, and the last is similar to the first two.

    4. Simple Verse-Chorus

      1. A chorus is a section that repeats the same music and lyrics in each presentation; in simple verse-chorus form, the verses and choruses have the same music.

    5. Contrasting Verse-Chorus

      1. In contrasting verse-chorus form, the verses and choruses use different music; this form may also have a contrasting, nonrepeated section called a bridge.

  3. Who’s Playing What: Instrumentation in Rock

    1. Beat It: Drums and Percussion

      1. The rhythm section lays a solid foundation for other members of the group; the drummer establishes tempo, meter, and the “feel” of the song using a set that typically consists of some or all of the following: snare drum, bass drum, tom-toms, high hat cymbals, ride cymbal, and/or crash cymbal.

      2. The drum set can be enhanced by other percussion instruments.

    2. The Low Down: Electric Bass

      1. As part of the rhythm section, the bass player locks in with the drummer and provides the bass notes of chord progressions on either an acoustic upright bass or a bass guitar.

    3. Harmony in Motion: Rhythm Guitar and Keyboards

      1. The rhythm guitarist, part of the rhythm section, provides the foundational harmony by playing full chords on either an electric or acoustic instrument; keyboard instruments may also fill this function.

    4. In the Spotlight: Lead Singers and Backup Vocals

      1. The singer focuses on the melody, and may perform solo or with backup harmony vocals.

    5. Steppin’ Up: Instrumental Solos

      1. One or more instrumental solos, where an instrumentalist is the main focus, often occurs after a song’s midpoint.

    6. Horns and Strings: Sweetening the Sound

      1. Horns and strings can be added to “sweeten” a track.

    7. How It All Fits Together: “Smoke on the Water”

      1. Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” can be used to demonstrate how instrumentation works in a rock song.

      2. Analytical listening highlights how the separate elements of “Smoke on the Water” work together.

  4. In the Studio: The Role of Recording Techniques in Rock Music

    1. Is It Live or Is It Memorex?

      1. There are two ways to approach a recording and what it represents.

        1. The recording as an “audio snapshot,” or faithful reproduction of a live performance

        2. Exploitation of the possibilities offered by the recording studio, or the creation of music that would be difficult or impossible to achieve in live performance

    2. Reverb and Echo

      1. Every physical space has specific acoustic properties.

      2. Reverb is artificially created ambiance, or room sound.

      3. An echo occurs when a sound bounces back to the listener to create two sonic impressions of the same event; this can be produced naturally or electronically in the studio.

    3. River Deep, Mountain High: Equalization (EQ)

      1. Equalization, or EQ, is the process of adjusting the frequencies of sounds; EQ changes the timbre of the instruments and can highlight certain parts in a recording or keep them from covering each other up.

    4. Every Breadth You Take: Stereo Placement

      1. Early records were in monophonic sound, or mono, meaning that it was assumed there was only one speaker for playback.

      2. In stereo recording, engineers can control whether a sound comes out of the left or right speaker, or both.

    5. Mixing

      1. A mixing board allows recording engineers to control the dimensions of recorded sound (ambience, EQ, stereo placement, and overall volume) and can be used to record sounds or to play them back; once all of the tracks are recorded, the engineer uses the mixing board or digital audio workstation to make adjustments and create the final version of a song.

    6. Putting It All Together: “Josie”

      1. Steely Dan’s recording of “Josie” illustrates many of the techniques described above.

  5. Viewing Rock

      1. Television, films, and music videos have helped musicians to reach audiences visually, and therefore images of rock are central to its development and role in culture; in the academic study of rock, it is informative to study the relationship between music and images.

ii. Rock Television

  1. Until the 1980s, variety shows were a common vehicle for rock performances.

  2. Teen-oriented dance shows emerged in the 1950s and have remained popular in various forms through the 2000s.

  3. Musical artists have also starred in sitcoms from The Monkees in the 1960s to modern shows such as Glee

iii. Rock Film

    1. Films have featured rock music performances since the mid 1950s, including early films showing rock fans as hoodlums, Elvis Presley’s iconic performances, and “beach party” films in the 1960s.

    2. Rock films continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with bands like the Ramones and Kiss in starring roles; concept albums like the Who’s Tommy were also sometimes made into dramatic films.

    3. Concert films, depicting or documenting performances, are another notable genre in the history of rock.

iv. Music Videos

a. Artists have used films to promote their work since the beginning of rock; short, promotional films for rock singles date back to at least the 1960s.



v. Visual and Contextual Aspects of “Nowhere to Run”

a. Video footage for Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run,” shot in a Detroit automotive factory for a television special, provides an example of how to study the content and context of a video from a historical perspective.


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