MUS 570D

Characteristics of '50s Music Styles

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  • lyrics were non-offensive/non-controversial
  • subjects dealt with simply boy-girl love
  • uncomplicated rhythm (usually 4/4, sometimes 3/4)
  • rhythm was kept in the background of the musical fabric
  • melodies were important–singable, easy to remember after only one hearing
  • symmetrical–4-measure phrases; 8- or 16-bar patterns
  • tempos were usually moderate to slow; faster tunes were usually "cutesy"
  • repertoire most often provided by professional songwriters
  • Artists:  Nat King Cole, The Four Aces, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, etc.


  • as with pop music, melodies and lyrics were of prime importance
  • lyrics were often love oriented–often about being jilted
  • harmonies were usually more simple than pop music
  • the forms of both types were similar
  • rhythm was simple and straightforward, but usually more prominent than the rhythmic feel in pop music
  • usually 3 or 4 beats per measure; little or no subdivision
  • usually a lead singer, often accompanied by a trio or quartet
  • musicians often performed their own original material
  • music generally not notated, but simply worked out in rehearsals
  • associated with the steel guitar
  • "nasal," "twangy" vocal style
  • traditional C&W avoided drums; typically included:  lead vocal, backup group, steel guitar, piano, violin, acoustic bass, acoustic and electric guitars
  • Artists:  Hank Williams Sr., Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Tex Ritter, etc.


  • unlike either Pop or C&W, the R&B market was black
  • many R&B songs based on the 12-bar blues form
  • music generally not notated; as with C&W, "head charts" were used
  • although not as spontaneous as jazz, R&B did allow for some improvisation
  • typical R&B combo: guitars (electric, acoustic or both), acoustic bass, piano, drums, saxophone, harmonica
  • as the name implies, R&B was characterized by a hard, driving, prominent rhythm
  • although words were important, the "melody" got little creative attention compared to pop music; the melodies were simply a vehicle to carry the lyrics
  • R&B vocal performances were often of the "shouting" variety
  • some of the early R&B tunes are direct predecessors of rock and roll
  • Artists:  B.B. King, Bessie Smith, "Howlin’ Wolf," "Muddy Waters," Joe Turner, etc.


  • heavy reliance on the 12-bar blues form
  • vocal style similar to R&B; there were "shouters" in both styles
  • similar to R&B, most ‘50s mainstream rock was not notated (since chord changes were simple, it was not necessary)
  • mainstream rock bass lines were derived from the R&B style (pop and C&W bass lines essentially played the root of the chord on the downbeat; R&B and rock bass lines were much more melodic)
  • as with R&B, the element of rhythm was accentuated; in early pop and C&W tunes, drums were non-existent or practically inaudible; in rock, drums created a backbeat (on beats 2 & 4) which created further excitement
  • Artists:  Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Ray Charles, Danny and the Juniors, Bobby Day, etc.

ROCKABILLY (Rock + Hillbilly)

  • stopped short of the shouting vocal style–almost approached crooning in slower songs
  • singing was presented clearly on pitch–no sliding, and the lyrics were enunciated
  • instrumentation similar to mainstream, but less emphasis on saxophone; acoustic guitars used more often
  • not part of the traditional C&W scene, drums were added, reflecting the R&B influence
  • earlier rockabilly used acoustic bass; later used electric bass
  • although some songs used the 12-bar blues form, many followed the 8- or 16-bar patterns typical of C&W and pop songs
  • while the beat was watered down, still, the backbeat on 2 & 4 was present to help identify rockabilly as a rock style
  • Artists:  Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, Buddy Holly, etc.


  • a carryover of the pop music influence–essentially a melding of the two styles
  • two distinct branches were evident:  (1) white soft rock, (2) black soft rock (doo-wop groups, etc.)
  • "Doo-Wop" refers to songs with "nonsense" syllables, e.g., doo-be-doo-be-doo-be-doo-shoo-be-doo, etc.  Chord progressions were usually:  I vi IV V ...
  • White soft rock artists:  Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, and, yes, Elvis, etc.
  • Black soft rock artists:  The Platters, The Coasters; The Diamonds (white group singing in a black doo-wop style), etc.


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