A History of Rock Music Styles

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Join us on a journey through the history of rock music styles, from the early days of rock and roll to the present.

Pre-history: Rock music’s roots in blues, country, and other genres

Pre-history: Rock music’s roots in blues, country, and other genres
Rock music is a genre that developed in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s from a combination of African American musical styles such as gospel, jump blues, jazz, and R&B, along with Western musical traditions such as country and folk. The term “rock and roll” was first used to describe the music in 1951 by disc jockey Alan Freed.

Rockabilly, a term coined in 1955 by producer Jerry Leiber, is a style of rock music that combines elements of rhythm and blues with those of country music. One of the earliest popularizers of rockabilly was Elvis Presley, whose 1956 recordings “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Rock Around the Clock” became international hits.

Surf rock is a subgenre of rock music that originated in the early 1960s in Southern California. It is characterized by a heavy guitar sound reminiscent of the sound of waves crashing on the shore. The Beach Boys are often credited as one of the first surf rock bands.

Psychedelic rock is a style of rock music that developed in the mid-1960s that was influenced by psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Psychedelic rock often uses extended improvisation, distorted electric guitars, sitars,and other styles to create an expansive soundscape intended to evoke feelings of euphoria or altered states of consciousness.

The birth of rock ‘n’ roll: 1950s

The first recordings generally considered “rock and roll” were made in the mid-1950s by such artists as Bill Haley and His Comets, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Big Joe Turner. These pioneers were influenced by rhythm and blues, country music, vaudeville, and jump blues. They brought electric guitar, Bass (upright electric bass) drums into popular music. The term “rock and roll” was used originally to describe the style of dancing that accompanied the music. In 1951, Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed began playing this type of music on his radio show and used the phrase as a name for his show. This helped to popularize the term rock and roll. By 1955 it was being used as a general term for the entire genre by magazine editors and critics.

The British Invasion: 1960s

The term “British Invasion” is used to describe the wave of British rock bands that became popular in the United States in the early 1960s. These bands were influenced by American rock and roll, but they also brought their own distinct sounds and styles to the music scene. The British Invasion was a major factor in the development of popular music in both Britain and the United States.

The first wave of British Invasion bands began arriving in the United States in 1963. The Beatles, who were already hugely popular in Britain, made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. Their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was watched by an estimated 73 million people, and it helped to make them household names in America. Other British bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and Herman’s Hermits also found success in the United States during this time.

The British Invasion had a major impact on American music. It helped to popularize genres such as folk rock and garage rock, and it also inspired American musicians to experiment with new sounds and styles. The Beatles, in particular, had a profound influence on American music, shaping the sound of popular music for generations to come.

Psychedelic rock: Late 1960s

Psychedelic rock is a style of rock music that emerged in the late 1960s and flowered in the early 1970s. The style is defined by a preoccupation with altered states of consciousness, extended improvisation, sonic experimentation, and elaborate live shows. Psychedelic rock reached its commercial peak in 1967–68 with albums such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Doors’ Strange Days, followed by a withdrawal from mainstream culture in the early 1970s.

Glam rock: Early 1970s

Glam rock was a style of music that developed in the early 1970s. It was characterized by a highly theatrical stage presence, often with the artists wearing outrageous costumes and make-up. The music itself was a fusion of traditional rock and roll with elements of pop and glamour. Glam rock was popularized by artists such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and Roxy Music.

Hard rock and heavy metal: Late 1960s-1970s

Hard rock and heavy metal are two related styles of rock music that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hard rock is a heavier, more aggressive style of rock music, while heavy metal is a more extreme subgenre of hard rock. Both styles are characterized by distorted guitars, loud drums, and aggressive lyrics.

hard rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple were some of the most popular bands of the 1970s. Heavy metal band Black Sabbath is often credited as being one of the first heavy metal bands, and their 1970 debut album Black Sabbath is considered a classic of the genre. Other early heavy metal bands include Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead.

In the 1980s, hard rock and heavy metal became increasingly popular with mainstream audiences. Bon Jovi and Def Leppard were two of the most successful hard rock bands of the decade, while Metallica and Slayer were two of the most successful heavy metal bands. The popularity of hard rock and heavy metal continued into the 1990s with bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains achieving success in the mainstream.

Punk rock: Mid-1970s

Punk rock is a music genre that started in the mid-1970s. It is characterized by fast, loud, and aggressive music, as well as by Alast DIY (do it yourself) ethic. Punk rock bands were often associated with various subcultures, such as skinheads, mods, and Teddy Boys.

New wave: Late 1970s-1980s

New wave is a catch-all term for the style of pop music made in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was used as a replacement for the term “punk rock,” which was associated with violence and anarchy. New wave was more polished and ambitious than punk, and it incorporated elements of disco, electronic music, and world music. The new wave sound was typified by bands like Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Police.

Alternative rock: Late 1980s-1990s

Alternative rock is a genre of rock music that emerged from the underground music scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alternative rock is a broad umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of musical styles, including but not limited to punk rock, grunge, indie rock, and folk rock.

The term “alternative” was first used in the late 1970s to describe punk rock and new wave music. In the 1980s, “alternative” came to describe a wide range of different musical styles. In the 1990s, “alternative” became synonymous with “indie rock,” a catch-all term for any band that was not signed to a major record label.

The alternative rock movement was propelled by the DIY (do it yourself) ethic of punk rock and the popularity of indie rock. Alternative bands rejected the commercialism of mainstream music and embraced an independent, DIY approach to making and releasing music.

Alternative rock includes a wide range of musical styles, but there are some commonalities that connect most alt-rock bands. Alt-rock usually has a dark, introspective lyrical style, and it often combines elements of different genres, including punk, metal, and folk. Alt-rock bands often have an experimental or innovative approach to their music, and they are often signed to independent record labels.

21st century rock: 2000s-present

The 21st century has seen the continue increase in popularity of rock music, with a particular increase in the number of young people taking up the genre. This has led to a new wave of bands and artists emerging that have a more modern take on rock than their predecessors.

One of the most popular sub-genres of rock in the 21st century is emo, which is known for its heartfelt lyrics and angsty teenage appeal. Another popular style is screamo, which is similar to emo but with a heavier sound that includes more screaming and shouting.

Other popular styles of 21st century rock include indie rock, alternative rock, and post-punk revival. These styles are all defined by their unique sounds and aesthetic, and have become increasingly popular in recent years.

As the 21st century continues, it is likely that rock music will continue to evolve and change. New sub-genres and styles are sure to emerge, and the popularity of existing ones is likely to wax and wane. However, one thing is certain: rock music is here to stay.

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