Rock music is one of the broadest genres of music to exist, so attempting to define it is difficult. One way to understand the genre is to understand the history of rock music, the pioneers, the influencers, and the current events of that time.
Like many genres of music, rock music began as a medium of free self-expression. In this case, it was tailored to younger audiences growing-up in poorer communities.
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Definition: What Is Rock Music?
Rock music is a popular genre of music that consists of many sub-genres, making it difficult to define. One's definition of rock music depends on their first introduction to the genre. The 1940s and 1950s marked the birth of rock in the U.S., influenced by blues, gospel, and country.
Some early definitions of rock music can be attributed to Fats Domino, a New Orleans-born and raised vocalist and pianist who defined rock as rhythm and blues. At this time, one could define rock music through the blues and jazz styles of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
Specifically, Chuck Berry combined rhythm and blues, country guitar notes, and commentary on the life and culture of African American teens.
As the years progressed, so did rock music. Rock music is hard to define, but there are some well-known characteristics of rock music we can look at to provide a better understanding.
Rock Music Characteristics
Typical rock-n-roll bands consist of a lead singer or frontman, guitarist, bassist, and drummer. Many times, however, the frontman is also the lead guitarist. Since rock music comes in many forms, it's difficult to put it into one distinct box. For example, there are soft, ballad rock songs and hardcore, angsty rock songs.
Since it’s common for rock-n-roll bands to engage in energetic and lively performances, a talented, charismatic frontman is often required. Many of the greatest bands in rock-in-roll had one-of-a-kind vocalists with an even greater ability to entertain.
For example, Queen had Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin had Robert Plant, the Rolling Stones had Mick Jagger, and Black Sabbath had Ozzy Osbourne.
A large number of rock songs follow the 4/4 rhythmic time signature, perceptive lyrics, and wicked electric guitar, bass, and drum solos.
9 Examples of Rock Music
1. “Already Gone” by the Eagles
“Already Gone,” by American country-rock band, the Eagles, is a hard rock song making it on the Billboard Hot 100 after its release in 1974. This classic Eagle’s break-up song is an ode to the past to free yourself from it, let it go, and choose yourself.
2. “Back In Black” by AC/DC
“Back in Black” is a tribute to AC/DC’s lead vocalist, Bon Scott, who passed five months before the song’s release. Before Scott’s death, AC/DC has just released their first million-dollar selling album, Highway to Hell.
The band members asked Brian Johnson, the new lead vocalist to compose a song that wasn’t a depressing ballad, rather a celebratory masterpiece to honor and celebrate Bon’s life.
“Back in Black” was a major success, reaching number one in the U.K. top charts and number four in the U.S. top charts.
3. “Can’t You See” by Marshall Tucker Band
“Can’t You See” by Southern rock group, Marshall Tucker Band, is about a man leaving his woman and never returning. The song opens with a flute solo with piano, with the guitar entering later in the song's progression.
The band’s lead vocalist and songwriter, Tommy Caldwell, wrote: “Can’t You See.” Caldwell’s opening takes listeners on the visceral journey of sadness that follows heartbreak and falling for the wrong person.
4. “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd
“Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd is an emotional song composed from the perspective of Roger Walters, the band’s former singer-songwriter and bassist. Based on Walter's time in Philadelphia where he found he had hepatitis; the song tells the story of a doctor injecting him with a sedative to get him out of his feverish state so hecan perform at the concert.
At the same time, Walters wrote the song-based feelings he had as a child when he was sick. Many believe the song is about drugs, but Walters explained it wasn’t, rather it’s a portrayal of his childhood feelings of detachment and incoherence while feverish.
5. “Eminence Front” by the Who
“Eminence Front” by the Who is a critique of society from the thoughts of Pete Townsend, the Who’s lead vocalist and songwriter. In the song, Townsend talks about the changing attitudes of people from the ‘70s and ‘80s, explaining that they went from a carefree, turbulent lifestyle to a superficial one.
As Townsend saw people’s mindset change from “us” to “me,” he directed his commentary at greedy individuals gatekeeping their insurmountable wealth.
The name of the song, Eminence Front, represents the “front” or facade that people give the world while remaining disconnected from the community and self.
6. “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day
Greenday’s lead vocalist and songwriter, Billie Joe Armstrong wrote: “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life” after his girlfriend left him. When his girlfriend moved to Ecuador, leaving him, he was upset and angry, which is the reason for the song’s title, “Good Riddance.”
“Good Riddance” is also about accepting that everyone is on their own journey, and it won't always align with yours.
7. “Night Moves” by Bob Segar
“Night Moves” by Bob Segar is a soft rock song that made him a national rock-n-roll legend. In a way, the song is an autobiography about his first heartbreak and the nostalgia of a care-free lifestyle during his high school years.
The song was very successful, named Best Single of the Year by Rolling Stone in 1977 and receiving platinum status six times. In addition, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame featured it in their 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
8. “Purple Rain” by Prince
Another song featured in 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll is “Purple Rain” by one of the greatest musicians of all time, Prince. The song combines the musical styles of rock and gospel, and the name of the song comes from “Ventura Highway” by America.
It’s argued that “Purple Rain” is about the end-of-the-world under a purple sky, the importance of being surrounded by loved ones, and following the sky through God.
9. “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles
John Lennon, co-vocalist, songwriter, and musician of the prominent rock-n-roll band, the Beatles, wrote: “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon wrote the song based on memories of playing in a garden at a Salvation Army children's home called Strawberry Field.
The song was extremely personal to Lennon, apparent from his show of vulnerability from his memories in Liverpool.
5 Top Rock Musicians
Paul David Hewson, better known by his stage name, Bono, is the lead vocalist of the ‘80s Irish rock band, U2. He is one of the greatest rock singers because of his ability to sing many musical styles, like gospel and opera, and his expansive vocal range.
He is a classic rock-n-roll performer, with all the physical traits a hard-rock singer needs to capture a crowd. During performances, he is interactive with the audience and completely immerses himself in singing, allowing fans to feel the emotion of the music.
Bono is also a human rights activist. He is a founder of Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa (DATA), an organization committed to eradicating AIDs and extreme poverty in Africa.
2. Freddie Mercury
Widely considered the greatest vocalist of rock music, Freddie Mercury was a British singer-songwriter and the frontman of the rock band Queen. In 1973, Queen released their first album, marking the start of Queen's worldwide popularity.
Mercury is best-known for his large vocal range, charismatic charm, flamboyant style, and love for the spotlight. His stage performance was sublime. He could connect with every person in the audience through his vocals and theatrical performances.
On November 24, 1991, Freddie Mercury died at 45-years-old from AIDs. His influence on rock music established his legacy. He continues to be remembered for his role in rock-n-roll as one of the greatest rock-n-roll performers of all time.
3. Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain was the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Nirvana. Cobain was an outstanding songwriter, composing dark, angsty songs about social issues and analysis of self. Buzz Osborn, a founding member of the Melvins, introduced Cobain to punk rock. In addition, the band became a primary influence on Cobain’s music.
As Nirvana's sales soared, Cobain became increasingly uninterested in the spotlight. He suffered from depression and he was a frequent user of heroin. On April 5, 1994, He committed suicide leaving a note that ended with, “peace, love, and empathy.”
However, many fans believe that Cobain’s death was a homicide based on penmanship inconsistencies in his suicide letter. Another reason for this theory is that Cobain's grandfather believed it to be murder.
4. Robert Plant
Known for his time as the lead singer in the rock band Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant was the band’s charismatic frontman. The Rolling Stones placed him at number 15 in their list of The Greatest Singers of All Time.
During his time in Led Zeppelin, he represented the classic image of a rock-n-roll singer; with his long blonder hair, lively performances, and increasingly flamboyant style. He has an expansive vocal range, ranging from a deep growl to reaching high woman-level cords without struggle.
5. Mick Jagger
Widely regarded as one of the most influential vocalists in rock-n-roll, Mick Jagger is best known for his career in the Rolling Stones. His performances defied old definitions of masculinity and delivered powerful emotions and understanding to his audiences through his powerful vocals.
Throughout his career, he's proven himself as a disciplined and professional artist, always working on his art. Later in his career, he began acting and filmmaking.
The History of Rock Music
Rock music emerged from the U.S. in the 50s, with Cleveland, Ohio claiming rights as the birthplace of rock music. It came about around post-World War II and the Civil Rights movement.
At this time, rock music, like many genres of music, was a product of African American music. In this case, specifically, it came from R&B.
Rock music began as a medium of free self-expression tailored to younger audiences. In this case, rock music directed its focus on baby boomers, those born after World War II. The genre also spread during the Civil Rights movement.
In addition, rock music rose around the time the electrical guitar entered the market. Musicians like Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry used the guitar to electrify blues music.
At first, rock music was a musical form tailored to teenagers and poor African Americans and whites to express themselves without constraint. Through the decade, rock personalities like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Ray Charles are just some of the shapers of rock music.
The mid-60s and late 80s transitioned into the widely considered definition of classic rock-n-roll music. This period represents the rise of British music and the formation of widely known classic rock bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The work of British rock bands dominated the national and international markets, and their influence on rock music was and currently is substantial. This period brings up some subgenres of rock known as blues-rock, folk-rock, psychedelic rock, and jazz-rock.
These subgenres of rock music show the prominence of the electric guitar and lyrics focusing on self-reflection and political and social commentary. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the U.S. had a lot going on, i.e., war, protests, and shifts in politics and societal mindsets.
What Is Rock Music? Final Thoughts
From the pioneers of rock to the prominent influencers of rock music, the international spread of rock made this musical genre what many consider today: a musical genre consisting of the guitar, bass, and drums, an energetic frontman, and wicked solos.