The Origins and History of Rock Music

Rock music was influenced by various African-American music genres in the late 1940s to early 1950s period, including gospel, rhythm and blues, country, jump blues, and jazz, in addition to boogie-woogie.

While the term “Rock ‘n’ Roll” wasn’t coined till the early 1950s, some traces of the genre could be heard in blues records from the 1920s-1930s period.

The Origins and History of Rock Music – At A Glance

  • Rock music was influenced by African-American music genres like gospel, blues, and jazz, as well as boogie-woogie and country.
  • The term “Rock ‘n’ Roll” emerged in the 1950s, with early traces found in blues records from the 1920s-1930s.
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll characteristics include electric instruments, propulsive energy, distinct rhythms, and varied lyrical subjects.
  • First rock song debate: Orioles’ “It’s Too Soon to Know” vs. Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.”
  • The 1950s saw rock’s rise in the US, led by artists like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.
  • The 1960s marked the British Invasion with bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
  • The 1970s introduced subgenres like hard rock, glam rock, and punk rock, with bands like Queen and The Sex Pistols.
  • The 1980s brought new wave, post-punk, and alternative rock, diversifying rock’s styles.
  • The 1990s saw grunge‘s emergence as a rebellious subgenre, led by Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
  • The 2000s saw fast evolution of rock music through the internet, enabling new creative mixtures of rock styles and themes.
  • The 2010s saw more focus on political themes in rock music, with protests and criticisms prominent.
  • Rock music’s legacy continues through various sub-genres under the rock ‘n’ roll umbrella.

Characteristics of Rock ’n’ Roll Music

Here are the four factors that define rock ‘n’ roll music as we know it:

Electric Instruments

Rock ‘n’ roll was invented in a period with major advances in musical instrumentation. At that time, the amplifier, microphone, electric guitar, and 45 rpm record were recently developed. 

The basic instrumental setup for rock bands almost always includes an electric bass and guitar. But many bands also incorporated keyboards and acoustic guitars.

Classic rock and roll encompassed 2 electric guitars: one lead and one for the rhythm, accompanied by a bass guitar and a drum kit. 

Propulsive Energy

The energy of rock music is the reason why so many people love it. Compared to other popular music genres in the 1940s and 1950s, rock music had the most propulsive energy, giving it a mainstream appeal among the youth.


The majority of rock songs are written in a 4/4 (four-on-the-floor) time signature; however, that’s not always the case since it’s not uncommon to find rock pieces written in 12/8 and ¾ triple meters. 

As for the beat, rock songs usually fall within the 100-140 bpm range.

Lyrical Subjects

Unlike country, fold blues, and other music genres, rock ‘n’ roll music has massive room for impressive lyrical content. Such lyrics are sometimes compared to fine poetry, which just gives you an idea of how relevant lyrical subjects are in rock music.

What Was the First Rock Song?

The first rock song is a matter of debate. Some say that “It’s To Soon To Know” by the band The Orioles was the first rock song. It was written by Deborah Chessler and released in November 1948.

However, since the song didn’t feature a distorted guitar, many musicians and fans regard Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88” as the first real rock ‘n’ roll piece. It was released in 1951, 3 years after “It’s Too Soon to Know.”

Why Is It Called Rock ‘n’ Roll Music?

It’s said that 17th-century sailors used the “rocking and rolling” phrase to refer to the movement of ships on the water. 

The term evolved over the years, and it became widely used to refer to dancing or even “making out.” But unlike other terms that had a hidden unrelated meaning behind them, the phrase was widely accepted as a mainstream slang term. 

Later on, when rock music rose to prominence, the term spread amongst musicians and fans.

Styles and Genres of Rock Music: Over the Years

Since its inception, rock ‘n’ roll went through lots of changes when it comes to style and commercialization. 

The Rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rock ‘n’ roll originated in the southern regions of the United States, particularly during the immigration of African former slaves in the 1940s. 

Americans and African immigrants lived within close proximity, exposing both ethnic groups’ music styles and genres to one another. The fusion of European instruments with African musical tradition led to the invention of rock ‘n’ roll. 

White music styles, such as blues and country, and African-American music genres, like swing and jazz, had a direct influence on rock ‘n’ roll music. However, the primitive form of rock ‘n’ roll didn’t rely heavily on guitars. The saxophone was often the lead instrument. The piano was used, too. 

It’s also worth noting that rock ‘n’ roll arrived at a period when the record industry was flourishing. Independent record labels, such as Chess and Atlantic, were already there when rock music came to life. These record labels primarily served niche audiences, and at that time, rock ‘n’ roll was considered a niche. 

The 1950s 

The 1950s were the years when rock ‘n’ roll started spreading throughout the United States, especially among teens.

Pioneering artists like DJ Alan Freed are credited for the widespread popularity of rock music in the middle of the 20th century. Back then, rock ‘n’ roll was different from any other genre, largely due to its liberal lyrics and energy. 

In the early years of the 1950s, leading rock ‘n’ roll artists such as Chuck Berry and Fats Domino adopted stomping 4/4 beats and classic blues and memorable chord structures that appealed to American teens. 

A conservative nature dominated the culture of the country in the 1950s, and it’s no surprise that this was reflected in music and other forms of art.  

The genre’s rising popularity faced some challenges, particularly because it was viewed as a protest against traditional values. Still, this hasn’t stopped people from listening to rock music, especially the teens. 

The same period saw the rise of Elvis Presley, who went on to develop a legacy that made him the undisputed “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” according to a massive number of music critics and fans.

The 1960s: The Beginning of the British Invasion

1962 marked the beginning of the British Invasion, which was the British take on American rock music. The period was characterized by the domination of British bands over the rock music scene.

Bands such as The Beatles, The Searchers, Gerry & the Pacemakers, and Freddie & The Dreamers dominated the scene.

The music was influenced by American rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and soul. London-based bands like The Rolling Stones were even more influenced by rhythm and blues than other groups, taking the genre to a whole new level of freedom and wildness.

These bands combined their American influences with high energy to create a rock ‘n’ roll music style that defined the British Invasion during that period.

Following the success of Chuck Berry, the new groups were capable of producing and releasing full-blown rock ‘n’ roll albums instead of singles. They also adopted the youthful and sexual rebellion themes that often accompanied this new style of music.

The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” has always been associated with the British Invasion because of its 7-week-long positioning at the first spot on the Billboard Hot 100. The single’s existence on the chart lasted for an even longer period, reaching up to 15 weeks.

The band was hosted on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, drawing the attention of some 73 million viewers across the 50 states. 

The Beatles’ dominance hasn’t stopped there as the band went on to hold 12 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 for an entire week, claiming the top 5 positions. All of these events have led the Beatles to become the highest-selling rock band of all time when adjusted for inflation.

Of course, the charts also included various British rock artists and bands other than The Beatles, including The Mindbenders, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Herman’s Hermit, The Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, Petula Clark, and Manfred Mann.

The 1970s – The Emergence of Hard Rock 

The 1970s was the period when various subgenres of rock music were born. These include hard rock, soft rock, heavy metal, and glam rock

Because rock music with a psychedelic nature prevailed in the 1960s, the appearance of heavier, darker, and more aggressive subgenres of rock in the 1970s made sense. Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith were among the most prominent names in the industry back then.

The same period witnessed the forging of glam rock, a subgenre of rock music where band members wore exotic makeup, clothes, and hairstyles. David Bowie is the perfect example of the glam rock style of music. 

Queen also adapted some glam rock influences. The group released its iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” music video in 1975; it’s considered by many as a game-changer. It paved the way for the mainstream appeal of MTV. 

What’s more, rebellious groups that rejected the commercialization of rock music saw the day of light, developing their subculture with punk rock. Punk rock was meant to help rising artists break into the industry with little to no resources, following the misquoted mantra, “if you can play three chords, you can form a band.”

Some of the most famous British punk rock bands included The Stooges, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and The Damned.

The 1980s – The New Wave and Heavy Metal

In the early 1980s, the heavy commercialization of rock ‘n’ roll witnessed in the previous years was starting to fade off, leading to the rise of even more subgenres than punk. Musicians called the rock music style of that period “the new wave,” which borrows elements from punk-rock, reggae, pop music, synth-pop, funk, and art-rock.

On one side, hard rock gave way to a more aggressive and harder style, so heavy metal music was born. With the introduction of sub-genres like thrash metal, death metal, and glam metal, guitar tones got more distorted, guitar solos got more extended, drum grooves got faster, and the overall music volume got louder. Bands like Iron Maiden, Van Halen, and AC/DC in heavy metal, Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses in glam metal, and Metallica in thrash metal, rock music was fully transformed into another genre.

Conversely, English bands like Depeche Mode drifted towards introverted song lyrics, paving the way for the rise of post-punk. american bands such as R.E.M. followed the same path on the other side of the planet. The Police was also another big name on the scene that mixed rock with different influences like reggae and punk.

Many of these groups released popular hits that gained widespread appeal on college radio stations, causing people to name this style of music “college rock,” which would later evolve into what we know today as alternative rock.

As its name implies, alternative (or indie) rock was simply an alternative to mainstream rock music at that time. Most alternative rock bands made deals with small, independent record labels, hence the name “indie” rock.

The recognition of alternative rock led to Billboard creating a dedicated chart for alternative rock in 1988.

At the same time, classic rock and hard rock were also still present, with older bands on the stage as well as new bands coming to the music scene. Bands and artists like Dire Straits, Journey, and Bruce Springsteen, U2

The 1990s – Alternative Rock Takes Over

Alternative rock continued to flourish well into the 90s. That decade was all about grunge, a subgenre of alternative rock music that developed in Washington. This style of rock was inspired by the punk movement, borrowing elements from heavy metal and hardcore punk.  

Its characteristics included fuzz, feedback, apathetic lyrics, social alienation, dark humor themes, and guitar distortions.

Grunge was the artists’ way of rebelling against mainstream music, rejecting the glorified images of popular musicians at that time. 

At first, grunge was viewed as a local phenomenon, particularly in Seattle and the surrounding regions, but after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a massive hit, grunge became more widely recognized and accepted. 

Groups like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, and Melvins led the grunge movement of the 20th century’s last decade. 

Various grunge albums made it to the top 100 top-selling albums, including Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Alice in Chains’ Dirt. On top of that, Record labels went on to sign lots of grunge bands in Seattle.

Nevertheless, the subgenre’s popularity started to fade over time, getting replaced by a “post-grunge” style of alternative rock and Britpop. 

The ’90s were also showing the peak of alternative rock, with bands like Radiohead, Oasis, Muse, and Foo Fighters coming onto the stage and having huge audiences.

The 2000s – The Age of the Internet Shakes Hands With Rock Music

The 2000s was the period when internet access was spreading exponentially. This allowed amateur musicians to learn about the roots of rock music and all the different subgenres that formed over the years quite easily. 

Artists used elements from older rock music and mixed them in creative ways. For instance, The Arctic Monkeys developed their own indie rock style, while The Strokes emphasized post-punk. At the same time, bands like Linkin Park and Coldplay were some of the names that were rocking the world in the early 2000s with their unique styles mixing different genres of the era.

In the early 2010s, various bands pioneered the invention of a new style of psychedelic rock that was unheard of before. They mixed 90s shoegaze and 60s guitar rock in their pieces. Other notable artists that revived the origins of rock music include Lana Del Rey and St. Vincent.

Starting with the 2010s, politics was the primary theme in rock music, from pieces that talk about racism to outright political songs that criticize certain political movements. Bob Dylan, Gary Clarke, and Good Souls were among the artists who paved the way for the rise of protest music.


That was a brief overview of the history of rock music. The genre has been around for over 70 years now, and dozens of sub-genres developed over the years, all of which fall under the rock ‘n’ roll umbrella. 

Unsurprisingly, the earlier works of rock music have cemented their legacy so well that they’re still popular today, even with the emergence of very different rock music styles.

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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