hearing history

Here's a graphic borrowed from the rock text that outlines the three main stages in the development of rock and roll during the 1950s. 

Rock and Roll Identity Table.jpg

It's one thing to read and remember the information contained in this table, but it's more meaningful to hear the music referenced in the table in such a way that the transformation of rock and roll from post-war R&B into a revolutionary new music over the course of the decade becomes audible. Hearing this transformation is an exercise in musical style. 

musical style

An elevator-trip explanation of musical style: Musical style is a comprehensive set of likely musical choices: characteristic ways of organizing sound, rhythm, melody, harmony, and form. A particular feature does not have to be universal, but it does need to occur frequently enough to identify a body of music as stylistically connected.

Style is three-dimensional: some musical features will apply to most of the music of a generation, or even multiple generations (e.g., the backbeat), while others occur only in some styles. For example, most 1960s rock-era songs have a rock beat; that's as close to a universal feature of the music as there is. However, in white rock, the guitar is likely to be the most prominent instrument; by contrast, the bass is more prominent in Motown and soul. 

A question about style and history

What follows is an interactive demonstration of how listening for particular musical features can lead to an understanding of style, and through style, history. The demonstration will reveal an answer to a question implicit in the graphic above:

Why are Little Richard and Chuck Berry considered seminal figures in rock and roll, while other black acts of the late 1950s are associated with rhythm and blues? 


We begin by getting the sound of this music in our ear. Here's a sampling of rock and roll and rhythm and blues songs from the latter half of the 1950s, in roughly chronological order. Have a listen to any that you don't know or haven't heard in a while. (Over half of the songs on this list are discussed in the text; all are on a class playlist.) 


Among the first steps in listening for style is listening for specific musical features. In this case, we'll be listening for an aspect of rhythm: the characteristic rhythmic organization of a song. The two most common options for organizing rhythm in the rock-related music of the late 1950s were a shuffle rhythm and an eight-beat (rock) rhythm. Here are brief explanations and demonstrations of both. (The text includes other more expansive examples.) 

hearing the difference

If one listens to the playlist with a clear understanding of rock (eight-beat) rhythm and the difference between rock rhythm and other common rhythmic templates, especially shuffle rhythm, then the answer to the question posed previously is apparent. Chuck Berry and Little Richard were the only two important black artists to use rock rhythm consistently in their music. In the latter half of the 1950s, white musicians, most notably Buddy Holly, followed their lead; by contrast, black musicians remained rooted rhythmically in the recent past.

hearing history

Much of the course involves becoming acquainted with the music and the history behind it. However, activities like this one help the music come alive historically in a way that is simply not possible with words alone. And it helps develop the kinds of focused listening skills that are applicable to any music that they listen to. 

This exercise is an example of the kinds of activities that digital technology facilitates. Activities like this, that give students the opportunity to master new concepts at their own pace, were difficult at best to create in a conventional face-to-face course even during the early years of the internet. Today, it's a different kind of learning, but it is in the service of what has always been my goal: to create courses that enrich students' musical experiences well beyond the end of the course. 

Thank you

If you've made it this far, I thank you for your time and interest. If you're interested in discussing the possibility of offering a course in rock or pop at your institution, please let me know via the contact form. I would be very happy to hear from you.