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volume 6
april 2003

The music matters


  An analysis of early rock and roll
by Joe Burns
  For a deeper look into the musical characteristics of rock and roll, Joe Burns analyzed a sample of 100 rock and roll songs, from the years 1955 through 1959, on chord progressions, time signatures, and melody lines. Two basic chordal patterns dominated the sample and melodies tended to stay within small, half-octave intervals. The music of early rock and roll is almost formula employing familiar structures across all five years, yet these similar structures create familiarity rather than tedium. The music of early rock and roll, Burns shows, can be seen as a basic skeletal structure upon which performance aspects were hung. Although the early musical patterns were often similar, the sound of the songs was not.
1 Photo right: Bill Haley

Literature review. Discussions involving early rock and roll music, 1955 through 1959, include stories about Elvis, screaming young girls, parental outrage, and lyrics laden with teenage angst (Gillett, 1970; Dawson and Propes, 1992). However, it is important to remember that rock and roll is, first and foremost, music. The purpose of this study is to offer some insight into what were the defining qualities of the music of early rock and roll. To a great extent, research into rock and roll music has focused on the lyrics (Chaffee, 1985; Hirsch, 1971; Rice, 1980). They are often studied as a form of poetry implying that the music is not required for the words to have an impact (Frith, 1988).

The actual music behind the lyrics is usually written of in broad terms with little explanation. Rock and roll melody lines are termed, "minimal", while the musical progressions are dismissed as being only three chords (Busnar, 1979: 28; Anderson, 1994: 74; Tribby, 1994: 1913). Even so, the music of early rock and roll, however minimal, is still part of the song and can be studied independently of the lyrics. Stuessy (1990) points out that lyrics are not technically part of a song's music. Some studies go as far as suggesting that the music, apart from the lyrics, may be the most important part of the song. LeBlanc (1979) noted that it was the overall sound and beat that made a song attractive to a teen listener. Boyle, Hosterman, and Ramsey (1981) upheld these findings by writing that the most influential features of a song are, in order, the melody, rhythm, mood, and then the lyrics. The overall musical sound of a song may be more important to the listener than the lyrics. That sound is made up from the above mentioned melody, time signature, and chordal progressions of the song (Heylin, 1992). This study will research those three items.

2 Rock and Roll. To undertake a study of early rock and roll music it is important to denote why certain years were chosen and exactly what will be termed rock and roll. Songs from the years 1955 through 1959 will be used for this project. Texts that discuss early rock and roll have singled these years out (Kocandrle, 1986; Whitburn, 1987; 1989). The five year span has often been refered to being rock and roll's formative years (Busnar, 1979). It is generally accepted that rock and roll, as a national music form, began sometime in 1955 (Busnar, 1979; Dawson and Propes, 1992; Ennis, 1992; Peterson, 1990). This is not to say that rock and roll styles did not exist before 1955, only that rock and roll became a national music form that year. In 1955 Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock" along with an all rock and roll soundtrack was introduced to national audiences through the film The Blackboard Jungle. Rhythm and Blues artists like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry began to cross over onto the pop charts. As Palmer (1992: 14) wrote, "The rock and roll era had begun."
  Exactly what constitutes a song as rock and roll is a more elusive set of constructs. To place very rigid restrictions on what songs are, or are not, might ensure leaving out music that some would include in a sample. A liberal view must be taken. Rock and roll is a very broad term "under which a diverse subsystem of styles can legitimately exist" (Stuessy, 1990: 4). The liberal view of what is rock and roll was used in choosing the songs for this project as will be discussed in the method section. No music form simply appears without having roots in other forms of music. Rock and roll is no different. Blues and country music are the two generally accepted streams of music that converged (Palmer, 1992). This study however will treat rock and roll as its own musical genre. It will be treated as an end product instead of a marriage of other styles.
3 Method. This study will analyze the chordal progressions, time signatures and melody lines of a sample of 100 rock and roll songs chosen from the years 1955 through 1959. This is an exploratory project that is intended to search for common threads and patterns in the music or early rock and roll.
Year Songs Progressions
  N % N %

1955 9 9% 11 7%
1956 19 19% 22 15%
1957 20 20% 26 18%
1958 25 25% 40 28%
1959 27 27% 46 32%

Total 100 100% 145 100%
  Table 1: Number and percentage of songs and progressions by year
Next The sample. The original sample for this project was to be 20 songs from each of the five years, but this presented a problem. Although 1955's music charts contain rock and roll songs, they contain far fewer than 1958 or 1959. This meant the sample had to be skewed towards the later years. The 100 songs chosen for this project along with their chordal progressions appear in the appendix to this article. [1] Table 1 shows the year by year breakdown of the sample. Individual songs were chosen from each of the years using the following criteria.
  • Songs chosen for this project had to have been on Billboard's national music charts. These 100 songs were to be a representation of five years of rock and roll, and being on Billboard's charts was a good measure of strong national popularity (Dawson and Propes, 1992).
  • There could be no more than one song per artist or group per year. Bill Haley had five songs in the year 1955 that could have made the sample. Loading 1955 with Bill Haley might make the sample equal to the music charts, but could also damage results. Singers have certain keys in which they are most comfortable singing. Choosing one artist five or six times in each year would skew the sample towards that artist's favorite key signatures and chordal progressions. The one exception to this rule is Elvis Presley's domination of the year 1956. Two Elvis Presley songs were chosen from that year in order to compensate. When two or more songs were in contention for the sample, the song that charted the highest would be chosen.
  • Novelty songs and holiday songs will not be part of the sample. Although "Purple People Eater", "White Christmas", and the "Chipmunk Christmas" were all hits, their popularity could be attributed to more than their music stylings.
  • The highest ranking songs were obvious choices for the sample. These were classics such as "All Shook Up" and "Long Tall Sally". The remainder of the sample was made up of songs that reference books and music compilation albums noted as important or influential (see: Kocandrle, 1986; Whitburn, 1987; 1989; 1990; DeCurtin, Hanke and George-Warren, 1992; Pareles and Romanowski, 1983).
The result is a fair representation of early rock and roll. People who read the list might be able to argue that certain songs should be on the list, but they should not be able to argue certain songs should not be on the list.
  Next Chordal progressions. The chordal progression, one chord moving to another, is at the root of almost all music (Morgen, 1988). For this project, a chordal progression will be termed a movement of chords that occurs more than once (Browen, 1983). The chordal progressions were transcribed from the original songs rather than taken from sheet music. Sheet music will often transcribe music into an easier or more common key signature than the original. Sheet music will also sometimes add or change chords, chords that smoothly move one main chord to another, to ease the flow of the music.
  Chords were noted in both note and number form. An example: A song is in the key of C. This means that a C chord would be named the one chord, a D chord would be the two chord, an E chord would be the three chord, F is the four chord, G is the five chord, and so on. Thus a chordal progression of C, A minor, F, G, C would be noted as 1, 6, 4, 5, 1. Minors, sevenths, or major sevenths chords were added to the letter representation of the chord, but not the numerical. It was also noted if a progression was associated with a specific part of a song, such as the verse or the chorus.
  Next Time signatures. This is the beat or rhythm of the song.
  Next Melody Line. The portion of the song known as the hook was transcribed. The hook is the part of the song, usually the chorus, that people tend to remember first (Stuessy, 1990). The melody lines were transcribed from the original recording in the same fashion as the chordal progressions. In this case sheet music, American Rock and Roll, Volumes one through six, was consulted on some melody lines with very syncopated rhythms.
4 Results. The sample included 100 songs. Seventy-eight of the songs were what would be termed fast tempo, while 22 were slower tempos. The number of chord progressions equals 145 instead of 100 due to many songs having more than one progression. There are no tables regarding the time signatures due to almost no fluctuation. All songs, except two, were in 4/4 or straight beat time, as if a metronome was keeping pace. Rock and roll was dance music, and this straight beat allowed almost anyone to keep the tempo. The two songs not in 4/4 were Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love" and Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel". Both songs were in 12/8 time which itself is little more than a form of 4/4 time. Of the 9 charts created from the 100 songs, Tables 2 through 7 are devoted to the chordal progressions while Tables 8 and 9 represent the melody lines.
Year One Two Three Four Total

1955 7 2 0 0 9
1956 15 4 0 0 19
1957 15 4 1 0 20
1958 12 12 1 0 25
1959 11 14 1 1 27

Total 60 36 3 1 100
  Table 2: Number of progressions per song by year (X2=11.58; df=4; p=.021) [2]
  Table 2 represents the number of progressions per song per year. Results show that up through the year 1957, rock and roll music remained fairly simple in regards to chord progressions. Relatively few songs had more than one. In 1958 the number of songs with multiple chord progressions and those with only one were fairly equal while in 1959 more songs had multiple progressions than singular. Songs with multiple chord progressions in 1955 or 1956 would have stood out as sounding different than those with only one. The musical differences between "Ain't That A Shame" (one progression) and "Unchained Melody" (two progressions) is an example. "Unchained Melody" requires the performer to sing more than the same melody line again and again. Brown (1983) wrote that early rock and roll was a kind of shout or jump blues where the performer would yell over a repeating music pattern. Gillett (1970) adds that in the later years of the fifties, the music industry attempted to take the hard edge off of rock and roll in order to make it more melodic. Adding more chord progressions, and thus more melody lines would be one way of doing this.
Year Major Others Total % Major of total

1955 10 1 11 91%
1956 18 4 22 82%
1957 22 4 26 85%
1958 28 12 40 70%
1959 30 16 46 65%

Total 108 37 145 75%
  Table 3: Progressions containing only major chords by year
  Table 3 shows the number of songs containing only major chords against those containing more intricate chords, a major or minor 7th for instance, by year. As the years increase the number of songs containing only major chords, by percentage, decrease. A marked increase in more intricate chords is shown after 1957. This would again lend credence to the arguments by Brown (1983) and Gillett (1970). A softer edge and more melodic tone would be created by using more complex chord structures. Note the sound difference between "Venus" and "Love Potion Number Nine". Both use similar chord progressions, but "Venus" has more intricate chords.
Year One Two Three Four Five Six Total

1955 1 0 0 7 2 1 11
1956 0 1 3 6 10 2 22
1957 0 2 8 12 3 1 26
1958 0 2 11 15 4 8 40
1959 1 6 16 9 9 5 46

Total 2 11 38 49 28 17 145
  Table 4: Number of chords in each progression by year (X2=10.75; df=4; p=.030)
  Table 4 shows the number of chords in each individual progression by year. Note that the number for the chords in each progression appears to be one less than is printed next to the song in the appendix. The reason being that the progressions were written going from the one chord through the progression and back to the one chord for the reader. In reality, the second one chord would start the chord pattern over again and not be counted as part of the actual chord progression.
  The trend over the years appears to be toward smaller numbers of chords in each progression. In 1955 and 1956 progressions were mostly four and five chords long. This fit a 12-bar blues pattern. As the years pass, the number of four chord progressions remain high, but lower chording progressions begin to be used more often. The reason for this trend might lay in how Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy" is constructed (see 1958). The chorus, also melody line hook, has a four chord progression, 1 -» 4 -» 1 -» 5. The verse is then a three chord progression holding the chords longer than was done before. Note the chords are the same used to make up the chorus progression, just in a different order. This same sort of style, using the same chords in a different order, can be found in The Monotone's "Book Of Love", The Silhouette's "Get A Job", and in a reverse order in The Johnny Otis Show's "Willie And The Hand Jive".
Year 1 -» 4 1 -» 5(4th) 1 -» 6 Total

1955 6 1 1 8
1956 15 1 3 19
1957 11 3 3 17
1958 14 2 7 23
1959 13 2 8 23

Total 57 9 22 90
  Table 5: The first chordal movement by year [3]
  Table 5 shows each song's first chordal movement by year. There were two chordal movements that were used almost exclusively: 1 -» 4 and 1 -» 6. Note the chart lists three movements, the two above and "1 -» 5 (4th)". The reason for the 1 -» 5 (4th) is that songs, instead of moving melodically up on their first movement, moved down. When the downward movement was to the 5 chord, the interval, space between chords, was the same as moving up to the 4 chord. For example, count up from the one chord on the left to the four chord, it is the same number of spaces you count going from the one chord on the right down to the five chord. The movement is different but the interval is the same:
  The above results suggest that early rock and roll tended to follow certain patterns. It is no mistake that the 1 -» 4 progression started off the majority of the songs, it is the most harmonically compatible movement (Morgen, 1988). It is familiar to the ear and easy to listen to.
Year 1-4-5 1-6-4-5 Other Total
  N % N % N % N %

1955 7 64% 1 9% 3 27% 11 7%
1956 15 68% 3 14% 4 18% 22 15%
1957 16 61% 3 12% 7 27% 26 18%
1958 19 48% 5 12% 16 40% 40 28%
1959 14 30% 6 13% 26 57% 46 32%

Total 71 49% 18 12% 56 39% 145 100%
  Table 6: Progression type by year (X2=12.20; df=4; p=.016)
  Table 6 shows the two most used chord progressions in this sample. Progressions that used only 1, 4, and 5 chords, in different patterns, make up the majority. Songs falling into this pattern are found in each year and include "Rock Around The Clock", "Long Tall Sally", "Suzy Q", "Summertime Blues", and "Sea Cruise". The second chord progression is also found in all five years, but in greater numbers toward the end of the decade. This 1 -» 6 -» 4 -» 5 progression always had the 6 chord as a minor and was almost exclusively associated with music that is often termed doo-wop. Songs with this progression include "Why Do Fools Fall In Love", "Eddie My Love", "Lollypop", and "I Wonder Why". A slight modification to the 1 -» 6 -» 4 -» 5 progression was found three times: "Book Of Love", "Do You Want to Dance?", and "Oh Carol" all used a 1 -» 6 -» 2 -» 5" progression.
Year 5 -» 1 4 -» 1 Other Total

1955 8 0 0 8
1956 11 7 1 19
1957 14 4 2 20
1958 17 5 2 24
1959 16 7 3 26

Total 66 23 8 97
  Table 7: Main progression resolution by year [4]
  Table 7 shows resolutions, the ending movement of the main song progressions moving back to the one chord, by year. One resolution, 5 -» 1, dominated the chart. This also makes sense due to 5 -» 1 being the most familiar and harmonically pleasing resolution (Morgen, 1988). The 4 -» 1 resolution occurred 23 times, however the four chord was used as a change chord between the five and the one. Examples include "Honkey Tonk", "Ain't Got No Home", and "Great Balls Of Fire".
Year A Ab B Bb C D E F F# G Total

1955 4 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 1 9
1956 2 0 1 1 3 3 4 4 0 1 19
1957 3 0 0 2 3 5 3 1 0 3 20
1958 2 0 2 3 2 3 4 3 1 5 25
1959 4 0 1 5 5 2 3 2 0 5 27

Total 15 0 4 12 14 13 15 11 1 15 100
  Table 8: Key signatures by year
  Table 8 shows the key signatures used by year. The keys of E and A are also used most often, probably because the guitar, a mainstay instrument in early rock and roll, is tuned to play easily in E or A. The key of C is used next most often. This follows the above discussion in that the key of C has no sharps or flats and allows for all major chords quite easily. The key of Bb was also used a great deal probably because horns are tuned to Bb. No specific technical reason could be cited for the use of key signatures. The reason may simply be that the singer was most comfortable singing in that key.
Year 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th Octave Octave+ Total

1955 0 1 2 3 0 0 3 9
1956 1 2 2 4 1 5 2 17
1957 1 3 11 2 1 1 0 19
1958 3 0 5 3 2 5 4 22
1959 2 2 7 6 1 6 1 25

Total 7 8 27 18 5 17 10 92
  Table 9: Lowest to highest note interval by year (X2=11.64; df=4; p=.020) [5]
  Table 9 shows the space between the highest and lowest note in each melody line. All of the melody lines except for 10 stayed within an octave while almost two thirds remained within half an octave. When a melody line remains inside a small interval, two items are ensured. First it almost guarantees a conjunct, or smooth moving, melody line. There is no room to take large melodic jumps. Second, it allows for easy performance. The singer does not have to have a large singing range. Though it seems there was a slight increase in vocal range over the years, the results in Table 9 might suggest that early rock and roll melodies were minimal, as was stated earlier. Note-wise perhaps, but what could not be charted were the rhythms employed in singing these melody lines. Although the beat of early rock and roll was solid and straight forward, the melodies were not. There are very intricate syncopations at the beginning of "Tutti Frutti" or "Bo Diddley". To sing rock and roll might not have take great range, but it did take a great feel for rhythm.
5 Conclusions. Ennis wrote that there were two rules of thumb in the music industry. What is popular now, do the same, and what ever is popular now, do the opposite (Ennis, 1992). The results of this study suggest that rule one was followed more than rule two. Rock and roll has some definite musical patterns. The 1, 4, 5 chord progression was used in almost three-fourths of the songs. Many of the songs had exactly the same progressions. "Rock Around The Clock" and "Maybellene" were, chord-wise the same song. "Tutti Frutti" uses the same chord progression one fourth lower. It would be difficult to make an argument that these similarities occurred by chance. With some exceptions, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly, the artists that sang the songs chosen for this survey did not write the songs. Professional songwriters, like Leiber and Stoller and Otis Blackwell, are responsible for most of the music analyzed here. This repetition was on purpose.
  Early rock and roll was popular because it was music to rebel by, it was full of teenage angst, and because Elvis shook like none before, but early rock and roll was also popular because the music was, in terms of its structure, safe. Tannenbaum (1985) used the term "safe" to describe the way people felt when watching familiar television reruns, but the usage applies here. The music of early rock and roll made no large demands on the listener. It was easy to quickly identify the latest rock and roll song. It sounded similar to all the others, mainly because it was. The musical movements were familiar and the listener was comfortable. The song's chord progression began with an upward movement in the interval of a fourth or a sixth. The chord progression followed familiar movements and resolved in the most harmonically pleasing fashion. Obviously this is painting with a broad brush, but the results tend to back it up.
  Early rock and roll was not quite a formula music because there was more to a rock and roll record than just the music. First there were the lyrics, but more importantly, there was a large performance aspect. A 1, 4, 5 chord progression and syncopated melody line could be written, but if it was not performed correctly, it fell flat. Pat Boone's versions of Little Richard music is a good example. The music was the same yet the performance aspect was lacking. The music of early rock and roll might be thought of more as a skeletal framework. Underneath, most early rock and roll songs were quite similar. That was what grouped them together as being from the same genre. They sounded like rock and roll records should sound and that sound was created through the use of the structures noted above. What was added to the basic musical framework was what set the song apart. In his discussion of Chuck Berry, Robert Christgau (1992: 62) summed up the results of this study by writing, "repetition without tedium is the backbone of rock and roll."
1. For the appendix see: Joe Burns (1996), "A sample of 100 early rock and roll songs. Appendix to: The music matters. An analysis of early rock and roll." In: Soundscapes, 6, April 2003. Return to text
2. The chi-squares performed on all tables were done by collapsing data into two collums to avoid empty cells. The Yates correction was employed where expected frequencies were below five. Both corrections allowed for a true chi-square with little loss of statistical power. For Table 2 the dividing line was drawn between "one progression" and all other columns; for Table 4 between "three chords" and "four chords", for Table 5 between "1 -» 4" and all other columns; for Table 6 between "1-4-5" and all other columns; for Table 7 between "5 -» 1" and all other columns; and for Table 9 between the "5th" and the "6th". For Table 8 the scores for keys E, A and C were added and compared with the sums of all other keys for the respective years. The statistics are mentioned if they proved to be significant (p<0.05), meaning they were indicating some relevant shifts over the years. Return to text
3. The totals in Table 5 do not add to 100, because for this table 10 songs were removed from the sample. "Bo Diddley" (1955) had no chord progression. The song is only one chord. "Wake Up Little Suzy" (1957) has a 1 -» 3 movement using the 3 chord as a change to get to the more familiar 4 chord. "Little Bitty Pretty One" (1957) is a two chord song that moves between the 1 and 3. "Tequila" (1958) is a two-chord song that moves between the 1 and 7 chord. "Tears On My Pillow" (1958) makes a 1 -» 7 change to start the song. "Splish Splash" (1958) makes a 1 -» 2 change but the 2 chord is only being used as a change chord to get to the more familiar 5 chord. "Peter Gun" (1959) again is a one chord song with no change. Two songs make a 1-» 2 movement as change chords to get to the more familiar 1 -» 4 ("Venus"; 1959) and 1 -» 5 ("Mac The Knife"; 1959) changes. "Sea Of Love" (1959) makes a 1 -» 3 change, but only to get to the traditional 1 -» 4. Return to text
4. The totals in Table 7 do not add to 100, because for this table 3 songs were removed from the sample. As one-chord songs or "two-chord" songs, "Bo Diddley" (1955), "Tequila" (1959) and "Peter Gun" (1959) have no resolution. Return to text
5. The totals in Table 9 do not add to 100, because for this table 8 songs were removed from the sample. "Honky Tonk" (1956), "Slow Walk" (1956), "Ranuchy" (1957), "Tequila" (1958; OK, it has one word), "The Stroll" (1958), "Rebel Rouser" (1958), "Red River Rock" (1959) and "Peter Gunn" (1959) are all instrumentals. Return to text
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  This paper was presented in 1996 at the American Culture Association / Popular Culture Association annual convention, Las Vegas, NV. You can learn more about the author on both his academic web site at Southeastern Louisiana University and his professional web site at Joe BurnsPHD.com.
  1996 © Joseph E. Burns / 2003 © Soundscapes