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volume 3
november 2000

The Rock Window

Index of the journal Tracking  

  A systematic approach to an understanding of rock music
by Paul Friedlander Spring, 1988
  University of Oregon
  Window Rock (Navajo Nation)

The Rock Window was originally created in 1980, for use as an educational tool for courses in Rock Music History at the University of Oregon, School of Music. This instrument can, as Paul Friedlander argues, be useful to the student and scholar for presenting an organized picture of a particular song, group of songs, artists work, or music of a specific musical genre. Educators may find the "Windowization" of a rock song usefull as a first step in the study of the "text" of rock and roll music.

  "There is always some kind of combination of feeling and thinking in our responses to music, some combination of emotional and intellectual elements."
(Kerman, 1980: 3)
  "You can intellectualize about a lot of rock and roll music but it's primarily not an intellectual thing. It's music that's all."
(Wenner, quoted in Green, 1982: 9)
  "Through extensive listening and application of analysis, we can define not only the social impact of a rock group but also its musical style."
(Brown, 1987: 13)
1 Most people first experience a rock music song on an emotional, or visceral level. Many people never attempt the next level of engaging the material — thinking about the interrelationships of the song's ingredients and speculating about how these relate to each other and the surrounding culture. The model presented in this paper takes advantage of both the intuitive and analytical approaches. The Rock Window is a systematic approach to information collection, codification, and organization. Having the data structured in a specific manner assists the researcher in making comparisons and analyses and drawing conclusions about the data. It is a first step by which serious rock music scholars and the general student population can engage a wide variety of information from disparate sources.
  This mode of examination categorizes the material gleaned from listening to a particular song or songs, reading about the artist's career and personal history, and understanding the context of the social, economic, and political forces of the era. The model divides the data into four broad areas of inquiry: Music, Lyrics, Artist History, and Societal Context. These categories are divided further into sub-topics, and then, even further into specific questions to be focused upon and addressed. It is also possible to use this model to address an entire style of music, group of artists, or whole era — attempting to identify emergent trends, dissimilarities, or topic areas for further examination.
  In the classroom, students are usually introduced to the model during the first class session — describing the Window as a way of organizing and focusing their thinking about the course content. It can also be used during the term for testing. For example, the mid-term examination normally consists of listening to three selections, three times each. The students are required to create a Rock Window description of the music and lyrics. In addition, they are asked to draw upon readings and lecture material in order to complete the artist history and societal context sections.
  The following is a description of the Rock Window. Some sub-topics are followed by an explanatory paragraph which serves to clarify the method of collection and/or the rationale for the sub-topic.
2 I — Music
  a) Ensemble — Identify each instrument in the selection. Given the particular instrumental configuration, speculate as to the musical roots of the selection or artist.
  b) Rhythmic Emphasis — Describe the dominant rhythm instrument or instruments. Describe which beats are emphasized.
  Most rock historians agree that accenting certain beats within the measure compels the listener to a state of bodily excitation (e.g. Graham, 1971; Hibbard & Kaleialoha, 1983). This emphasis on rhythm or beat with its roots in African music comprises one of the important building blocks of rock music and an important identifiable element (Oliver, 1969; Southern, 1983).
  The following is a list of rhythm section instruments common to the classic rock era: the drums (snare and hi hat), bass, guitar, and piano. Typical rhythmic patterns are: drums-snare [2 - 4 backbeat], hi-hat [1/4-note or 1/8-note pulse], bass [1/4-note pulse typically in walking pattern], guitar and piano-playing on some or all of the 1/4-note or 1/8-note beats in the measure.
  c) Vocal Style — Use two adjectives or phrases to describe the vocal style of this artist or group. On a scale of one to ten, describe how much emotion the singer generates in his/her delivery. On a similar one to ten scale, determine the slur quotient, or lack of clear pronunciation in the singer's delivery of the lyrics. Note that a Southern accent does not necessarily mean lack of clear diction. On both scales, the lower the number, the less the indicator is present.
  This section calls upon the listener to focus on the singer's delivery and to a lesser degree, phrasing. For the adjective section, students and researchers have responded with a wide variety of subjective answers ranging from raw and explosive to bland and boring. Identifying and quantifying emotion and slur helps to focus on two important vocal ingredients from Afro-American musical roots. Their presence or absence generally indicate proximity or distance to rock's foundations in Afro-American musical styles; thus the listener is assisted in pinpointing some of the musical derivation of the artist (e.g., Keil, 1966; Southern, 1983).
  Suggested baseline selections for these two scale categories are: (1) Emotion — Pat Boone's 1957 Number 1 "Love Letters in the Sand" is the equivalent of a one, and Little Richard's 1958 hit "Good Golly, Miss Molly" is the equivalent of a ten; and (2) Slur — again Pat Boone's presence is felt with his 1955 cover version of "Ain't It a Shame", while Big Joe Turner's classic third verse of the 1954 R&B hit "Shake Rattle, and Roll" is an example of ten.
  The "intuitive" response mandated in the adjective section has an additional value in later helping to add meaning to the song. Frith (1983) argues that "rock meaning cannot be detached from musical form". And, as Clarke (1984) points out, "The art of Otis Redding, for example, is less a matter of word than of emotional intensity". Listening to James Brown sing "please, please, please" in his raw, emotionally-charged style adds other dimensions to the lyrics on a written page.
  d) Instrumental Solo — Use two adjectives to describe the instrumental solo. Identify the instrument. On a scale of one to ten, describe the percentage of time in the solo that is taken up by repeated notes or phrases. On a scale of one to ten, indicate what percentage of time is taken up with notes that are bent. The lower the number, the less the indicators repetition and bend are present.
  As in the vocal style section, adjectives are required not only to allow listeners to be in touch with their intuitive reaction to the selections but to provide information that may later be useful in other sections. For example, if the song contains a lengthy, rambling guitar solo whose outstanding elements are distortion and unusual sounds, this may suggest or reinforce certain observations about lyrical meaning and cultural origin.
  The two indicators, repetition and bend, are essential Afro-American stylistic roots of rock music, found in urban blues-guitar style and rhythm and blues tenor sax solos (Gillett, 1971; Oliver, 1969) The absence or presence of these in subsequent rock music are clues to that music's proximity to these roots styles.
  e) Harmonic Progression — Identify all the chords used in the song.
3 II — Lyrical Content
  a) Identify the major lyrical theme or themes of the song. Use these topical classifications as a way to begin your organization of the material: (1) romantic love, (2) sex, (3) alienation (4) justice/injustice, (5) introspection, (6) rock and roll music, (7) other. Use lyrics from the text to clarify your thematic choice.
  I have found it useful to start with a baseline of common topics which populate rock music lyrics — David Pichaske's "The Poetry of Rock" (1981) provides a good starting point for study of this topic. A number of these, or similar, topics were suggested by Louis M. Savary in "Popular Song and Youth Today" (1971). Listeners should then identify other themes or meanings that they ascribe to the lyric of the song. In some songs, the listener will find an abstract or philosophical statement implicit in the lyrics. Lyric structure varies almost as much in these songs as it does in literature. Arguments as to the validity of rock lyrics as poetry and literature abound.
  b) Determine what, if any, underlying message is implicit in the lyrics or delivery of the song.
  The study of the meaning of rock music lyrics is highly problematic. Recently, numerous rock music historians, sociologists, and mass communications scholars are assigning increasing importance to an understanding of the audience's personal and cultural identity rather than to an interpretation of the lyrics. Simon Frith (1981) calls upon the scholar to examine the way the listener uses the music. Grossberg (1984) concurs by stating that rock and roll not only empowers its audience but is empowered by its audiences with diverse meanings. And Harmon (1972: 23), building on the communication theories of Kenneth Boulding, postulates that "each listener builds his own chain of associations and perceptions." Furthermore, "the appeal of any music is related to the manner in which it reflects and reinforces moods and attitudes already in existence" (Harmon, 1972: 31). Thus, the study of rock music lyrics is not the equivalent of studying the meaning of rock music to its audience. It is possible to speculate that three potential foci for rock music study exist: (a) the text (the product and its context), (b) the cultural filter (the intervening technology and culture), and (c) the receptor culture (the audience). In this study, we concentrate on the "text" of rock and roll and the context under which it was produced.
4 III — Artist History
  Describe the important elements of personal and career history of the artist that will enhance the listener's understanding of the song.
  The Artist category is divided into three sections: (a) major psycho- social factors and personal history during early years and adolescence, (b) important landmarks in career, (c) musical history, including formal and informal training and proximity to and familiarity with various musical styles.
5 IV — Societal Context
  Identify the cultural, political, and economic forces surrounding the artist and the material that are relevant to an understanding of this song in its societal context.
  Rock historians generally agree that the understanding of an individual song or artist necessitates its placement in its societal context. Tagg (1983: 40) states, "Studying popular music is an interdisciplinary matter ... Indeed, it should be stated at the outset that no analysis of musical discourse should be considered complete without consideration of social, psychological, visual, gestural, ritual, technical, historical, economic and linguistic aspects ..." Similarly, Shephard (1983) and Frith (1982) argue that an understanding of rock music necessitates the study of both music and culture.
  The question is designed to give the listener/researcher a prescribed starting point for this type of inquiry, suggesting a series of categories for their initial classification of the information. The specific divisions in this category are: (a) the evolution and growth of youth culture, (b) social and political movements, and (c) music industry development.
  In each of the above categories, a skeletal historical framework is provided — dividing the historical development in the area into eras and asking the respondent to identify the appropriate developmental periods. Further study provides corroborative material or elicits critical questions to be answered.
  1) Youth — At what point during the continual interrelationship of the burgeoning youth culture and rock music evolution does this song take place: the initial stages of development (1950-1960), redefinition and experimentation (1960-1972), trend towards individuality (1973-1978), reflection of the punk movement (1978-present). Describe any stated attitude towards parental or state authority.
  Numerous rock music historians and sociologists have divided rock music's evolution into distinct eras. Hibbard and Kaleialoha (1983) postulated four periods: (a) inception (1955-1959), (b) formulation (1960-1965), (a) maturity (1965-1969), and (d) stylization (1969-present). Burton (1985) uses similar divisions with: (a) the struggle for acceptance (1953-1959), (b) acculturation and assimilation (1958-1970), (c) and diversification and fragmentation (1968-1978). These scholars and others essentially agree on the developmental period of the genre.
  Sociologist Simon Frith (1981), in his chapter on youth and youth culture in "Sound Effects", divides the view of youth culture evolution into similar lines of demarcation. Drawing on the work of Fass, Abrams, and Mannheim, he divides the eras of separate youth culture identity into: a teen culture of the fifties with adopted working-class values, middle-class youth culture of the sixties, and normalization of values in the seventies. While this is a simplification of Frith's theses, the categories do concur with rock's developmental eras.
  2) Social and Political Movements — Describe any explicit or implicit comment on current major political and social movements. Examples may include: Civil Rights, Peace and Anti-War (Ban the Bomb through Central American), Alternative Consciousness, Counter-Culture-re-evaluation of work ethic, sexual values, religion, Equal Rights for Women, etc.
  If there is one issue upon which most scholars agree, it is that rock music receives inspiration from, and stimulates the personal, cultural, and political struggles of its audience. Songs affect the thinking and actions of the audience. Artists adopt life experiences of outside individuals and groups into the text of their works. By identifying and acknowledging this two-way interrelationship, both the produced "text" and its effect on the audience are clarified.
  3) Music Industry — The history of the music industry is one of a continual power struggle between the major record companies (the "majors"), the independent record companies (the "indies"), and the artist. Complicating this picture is the parallel development of rock music radio and the rapid change in technology. Comment on which form of record company, major or independent, produced the product. Which form was in economic ascendency at the time? What radio format was it played on? Describe a hypothetical live performance.
  There exist a number of excellent sources on the history of the record industry during this period. British scholar Charlie Gillett's "The Sound of the City" (1970) and "Making Tracks" (1974) describe the development of both major (RCA, Columbia, Decca, Capitol, etc.) and independent (Atlantic, Imperial, Chess, Sun, etc.) record companies. Likewise, Chapple and Garofalo's "Rock and Roll is Here to Pay" analyzes the history of rock music's record industry and its symbiotic relationship to the birth and growth of rock music radio. Lawrence Shore's unpublished Ph.D. thesis is another substantial work on the subject.
6 Methodology
  The process of data collection involves repeated listening to musical sources, and a thorough perusal of rock music and historical literature. A stereo system capable of producing relatively distortion-free sound and a good set of earphones are necessary ingredients.
  The process of collecting the musical data involves at least two separate listenings to the musical material. For this study the researcher listened to the entire study song selection through earphones on at least two, and in some cases, three separate occasions — recording the responses. At times, immediate repetition of the selection is necessary, in order to complete the music and lyric data collection in one listening.
  Data collection requires the researcher to make both subjective and objective responses. A methodology for responding to the data in the topic and sub-topic categories is as follows:
  — Music:
  Ensemble — The researcher records all the instruments heard in the selection. This does not include either the lead vocalist or background harmony vocals which should be listed under vocal style.
  Rhythmic Emphasis — Utilizing the guidelines found in the Rock Window section, the researcher must choose which of the core band instruments is most rhythmically dominant, and what beat or beats it emphasizes. If it is not possible to single out one instrument, two instruments may be listed. Instruments other than the core band may also be listed. Because it is not usually possible to measure the volume of each instrument with the equipment available to most researchers, this type of identification involves a modicum of subjective evaluation.
  Vocal Style — This sub-topic asks the researcher to subjectively gauge what amount two indicators, emotion and repetition, are present in the vocal performance of the artist. List the average intensity of the indicator's presence on a scale of one to ten. An arbitrary baseline for each indicator, chosen by the researcher for this study, is given in the vocal style Rock Window section.
  This sub-topic also asks the researcher to respond subjectively, or intuitively, to the vocal style, or outstanding elements of the vocal style, by describing it with two adjectives of their choice. For this study, the results reflected the most often used responses found during the multiple listening. In cases where the same adjectives are not repeated, the researcher should record what is considered to be most reflective of the overall vocal style.
  Instrumental Solo Style — This sub-topic, like vocal style, asks for both quantification and an intuitive response. The listener is asked to describe, on a scale of one to ten, the percentage of time two indicators (repetition and bend) are present in the instrumental solo. This differs from the previous category, asking the listener to gauge the percentage of time present in the total solo as opposed to the amount present. The researcher is called upon to list these percentage amounts for each solo in each selection. Definitions of repetition and bend can be found in Appendix A.
  For some selections it will be difficult to determine whether an instrumental solo exists. For this study an instrumental solo is defined as: one instrument, playing an improvised melody, for at least four measures in duration, in the absence of sung lyrics. Another difficulty arises with the evaluation of bend and the piano. The indicator bend is defined as the raising or lowering of pitch without additional picking or blowing. This is not possible under normal circumstances while playing the piano, and therefore, the piano is excluded from the bend sub-category evaluation.
  As in the previous vocal section, the Rock Window calls for the selection of two adjectives that describe the overall response to the instrumental solo or solos. Upon listening to the solo, list two adjectives that convey the intuitive description of the instrumental solo. List them all under the artist's name and chose those that repeat plus those that the listener feels best reflect the artist.
  Harmonic Progression — List all the chords present in the selection. Record the I, IV, and V chords at the beginning of the list, followed by any others present. It is not necessary to transcribe the chord sequence in order — only the presence of the chords.
  — Lyrics:
  The Rock Window lyrics section lists seven topical categories: (1) Romance, (2) Sex, (3) Alienation, (4) Justice/Injustice, (5) Introspection, (6) Rock And Roll Music/Dance, (7) Other. The listener must determine, after repeated listening, the primary subject of the song and list it in the appropriate category. Should the subject matter fall outside the listed categories, record the song under (7) Other, and create a subject category that reflects the song's major topic (list as 7a, 7b, etc.). Should the choice of a primary topic prove difficult, select a primary song focus and note major secondary subjects in the course of the study.
  Songs listed under the (1) Romance category are further divided into three sub-categories: courtship, honeymoon, and dissolution. The definitions of these categories, compiled from the Rock Window and works of Horton (1957) and Carey (1969), can be found in chapter 5.
  The song is also categorized into songs containing older values (concurring with traditionally held societal values), and those which promote newer values — those with strongly implied or specific criticisms of traditionally held values (Carey, 1969)
  — Personal History:
  A personal history narrative is constructed for each artist that minimally includes the following information: place and year of birth, childhood environment, number of siblings, economic status of parents and parents' work, musical training (age, instruments, and formal instruction), first professional performance experience, early professional career, all stated musical roots, first record and first hit (age, name, and situation), chart successes, music business involvement, management, career landmarks, description of live performances, and other important personal and career incidents.
  This information is tabulated and compiled in chart form to be used both for the development of a personal characteristics profile of the individual, and a comparison of the era's artists.
7 Conclusion
  The Rock Window mandates the collection of specific data, calling for it to be organized in a specific manner. It can be useful to the student and scholar for presenting an organized picture of a particular song, group of songs, artists work, or music of a specific musical genre. Educators may find the Windowization of this information appropriate as a first step in the ongoing study of the "text" of rock and roll music.
  As a conclusion of this article, music category answer examples for two songs, Chuck Berry's "School Days" (1957), and Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" (1957), are listed. They are not presented as the correct answers — certainly each person has their own listening experiences — but as general examples of model use and ballpark answers.
  "School Days" (Berry, 1957, Arc Music)
  1. Ensemble: drums, bass, 2 electric guitars, piano.
  2. Rhythmic Emphasis: 2nd and 4th beat snare; 1/8th-note pulse hi-hat.
  3. Vocal Style: emotion-6, slur-2, shouted, lilting.
  4. Instrumental Solo: guitar, repetition-8, bend-2 (slides not to be confused with bend), sliding, call and response with lyrics.
  5. Harmonic Progression: I -» IV -» V.
  "That'll Be The Day" (Allison-Holly-Petty, 1957, MPL Communications)
  1. Ensemble: drums, bass, 2 electric guitars.
  2. Rhythmic Emphasis: 2nd and 4th beat snare.
  3. Vocal Style: emotion-6, slur-2, shouting, hiccuping.
  4. Instrumental Solo: repetition-7, bend-1, sliding, chorded.
  5. Harmonic Progression: I -» IV -» V, plus II.
  This article on the Rock Window was excerpted from my doctoral thesis chapter on research design. In that context, the Rock Window model was used as a research model. However, its most common usage is in the classroom. I would be interested in any feedback you may have on the Rock Window or its application.
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  • Hibbard, D. J. & Kaleialoha, C. (1983), The role of rock. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1983.
  • Horton, D. (1957), "The dialogue of courtship in popular songs." In: American Journal of Sociology, 1957, 62, 569-578.
  • Keil, C. (1966), Urban blues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  • Kerman, J. (1980), Listen. New York: Worth Publishers, 1980.
  • Oliver, P. (1969), The story of the blues. Radnor, PA: Chilton Books, 1969.
  • Pichaske, D. (1981), The poetry of rock. Peoria, Illinois: The Ellis Press, 1981.
  • Savary, L.M. (1971), Popular song and youth today. New York: Association Press, 1971.
  • Shephard, J. (1983), "A theoretical model for the socio-musicological analysis of popular music." In: Popular Music, 1983, 2, 145-177.
  • Southern, E. (1983), Music of Black Americans. A history. New York: Norton, 1983.
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  This essay was published in: Tracking: Popular Music Studies,
vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1988)
  1997 © IASPM / USA