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The Difference Between Pop And Rock Music

Updated on June 4, 2013

Let me first assure you that I understand what I'm doing here is sharing my own perception of things, I don't offer this as the authoritative and received rule, but merely as the way I see it. And let me also announce, before I begin, that my point here is not to advance one musical form as superior or more legitimate than the other, I enjoy both Pop and Rock music - my point is merely to offer what distinguishes one from the other.

The term 'American Popular Music' refers (to one degree or another) to that indigenous American music that is not directly a product of European Classical music . . . so show tunes, folk, Rock & Roll, etc, would all be under the umbrella of 'American Popular Music' ('popular' as in common, of the people, etc, rather than studied and elaborately composed, etc). To really understand, and even to fully appreciate American Popular Music you have to know Blues, because it all comes from the Blues.

From generation . . .

When the African slaves and the Scotch/Irish immigrants began to come under the influence of each other's native musical forms and instruments, the African rhythms and the Scotch/Irish storytelling songs began to blend, and when the Negro Spirituals added their passion to the mix, Blues was born. When the White classically trained conservatory types heard Blues we got Jazz. When the White waltz-like dance bands heard Blues we got Swing. When the White Appalachian Scotch/Irish descendants heard Blues we got Country, Bluegrass (and eventually Rockabilly, etc). When the urban Blacks heard Blues we got Rhythm & Blues, Soul (and eventually Funk, etc).

The 'big bang' so-to-speak all came together when the music's racial lines of separation were obliterated - by Elvis Presley. Little Richard was energizing Rhythm & Blues into Rock & Roll, Chuck Berry was adding country music's storytelling to Blues beats and giving us Rock & Roll, etc, etc - but it was when Elvis, a full-blown White kid, started recording full-blown Black music (like Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog") that, in the words of Muddy Waters 'Blues had a baby and they named it Rock & Roll".

Now, because Blues and then Rock & Roll came from so many different sources, there developed branches within American Popular Music that followed one musical form more than another . . . you had Elvis with flat-out Rock & Roll, Buddy Holly & The Everly Brothers with a distinct Country flavored Rock & Roll, Sam Cooke inventing Soul music, James Brown laying the foundation for Funk, etc, and then you had the record companies trying to cash in on the new Rock & Roll craze by pushing manufactured stars like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, etc, etc. Because the record execs didn't really know or 'get' the Blues roots of what was happening with Rock & Roll, the records they tried to promote as 'Rock & Roll' simply didn't have the guts of Rock & Roll, because those records weren't based on the Blues roots of Rock & Roll but came from the sensibilities of the record companies . . . record companies that were producing Perry Como & Rosemary Clooney records last year, and Gene Vincent & Eddie Cochran records this year.

. . . to generation . . .

There began to be a recognizable division between guys like Bo Diddley and Chubby Checker, Rock & Roll was spearheading a revolution in American popular music, but something with the same form but not the same guts was emerging - Pop music was being born. Again, many of these early not-really-Rock & Roll artists were great singers and fine performers; Bobby Rydell had a great voice - but he should have been singing standards, like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and not cast as a Rock & Roll artist. Rock & Roll was sweeping the nation and the record companies wanted to cash-in - but when you put Bobby Rydell next to Jerry Lee Lewis you can clearly and easily see, while the form may match-up the guts, the urgency, the passion is strikingly different.

Now, there were some noteworthy genre-bending artists, performers who produced great Pop records, but who you could always hear the Blues heart underneath the Pop flavor. Ricky Nelson was the first 'teen idol', his career was managed to cash-in on his good looks and teen appeal, he recorded love ballads and Rockabilly tinged Pop records - but Nelson knew where it all came from, he understood Blues and you could hear that in many of his records. Dion, of Dion & The Belmonts made some of the best Pop records ever produced, but again, Dion knew and loved Blues and you could hear that in many of his records (and nowadays, Dion is releasing one straight-up and authentic Blues record after another). The same can be said of Roy Orbison, Bobby Darin, and others . . . there were straight Rock & Rollers doing pumped-up Blues, artists doing Blues flavored Pop records, and Pop stars whose music had the same structure/form as Blues but was nearly void of the passion of the Blues it came from (think Pat Boone doing Little Richard's music).

. . . and on.

This same scenario can be observed in the various musical forms that came out of the Blues. There's the authentic hillbilly-Blues Country music of Jimmy Rodgers & Hank Williams and the Pop Country sound of Porter Wagoner & Buck Owens, and in Soul music you had the gritty Soul sounds of Stax records and the lush Pop hits of Motown. As early Rock & Roll developed into Rock music, with louder & more distorted guitars and more elaborate arrangements and instrumentation, and Pop music developed borrowing more from Country and Soul genres, the division became more and more sharp. Where you once had a distinction that those who knew the Blues could hear between Elvis and Fabian, you eventually had a distinction that anyone could hear between Black Sabbath and Donnie & Marie. Now again, some of the greatest music of my generation, the arrangements and the poetry and the vocals, etc, came out of Motown, the point here is not which musical form is superior - I'm simply setting forth what distinguishes Rock music from Pop music.

My final point might seem to suggest that I am indeed casting Rock as superior to Pop, but I assure you I am not, they are both creative and valid art forms - but the fact is, it is Rock music that drives the generation to follow, it is Rock that inspires the new course American Popular Music will take. Pop moves further and further down the road, but it's process is one of more and bigger and flashier - it goes from Cher to Madonna to Lady Gaga . . . the music is not so innovated, it's just, more. Rock's process is one of musical influence - it goes from The Animals to Led Zeppelin to The White Stripes . . . each one carrying the Blues-based sound further down the road. And that's the key; because Pop music is not so connected to it's own roots, the Blues, it can't grow like Rock music, it gets bigger, faster, stronger (so-to-speak) but not really smarter. Because Rock music has it's foundation firmly built on it's Blues roots, each new generation of Rockers is influenced by the Rockers who preceded them. . . Roger Daltry saw Elvis and wanted to start a band, Billie Joe Armstrong saw The Who and we have Green Day, etc, etc, etc . . .


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    • MickeySr profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

      JayeWisdom ~ "I really laughed at your word picture of Pat Boone playing Little Richard's music!"

      And you know, he really actually did - Pat Boone recorded both 'Long Tall Sally' & 'Tutti Frutti', both Little Richard classics.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 

      6 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      Ok so here is my progression: BonyM to ABBA to Bee Gees to glam rock of the 80s. However, I am loyal to rock of the 80s.

      You know "Hey hey my my, Rock and Roll can never die".

      Thanks for writing an awesome hub - just what the doctor ordered to cheer me up today.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      6 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Mickey Haist, Ph.D in Rock! Great research, great writing, and a bit of nostalgia mixed in for those of us who have been traveling the road a while. I really laughed at your word picture of Pat Boone playing Little Richard's music!

      My personal fave is the '70s classic rock era. The clothes of that decade were funky, but the music was glorious! And still is..... I can listen to it any time.

      Voted Up+++ Jaye

    • MickeySr profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

      prettynutjob30 ~ thanks so much . . . Etta James' original recording of "At Last" is one of those songs that, when you're quietly listening to it, you think this might be the greatest song ever recorded - I have a number of records like that, and that one is in that list.

    • MickeySr profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

      tillsontitan ~ Thank you again . . . I'm sure I am enjoying your tour through my hubs more than you.

    • prettynutjob30 profile image


      6 years ago from From the land of Chocolate Chips,and all other things sweet.

      I love the way you explain how rock and blues all kind of blend together I grew up listening to a mixture of Merle Haggard and Etta James.Both are very different in their own way but got the same kind of soul to their music.Great hub voted up, awesome and shared.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      Ok, so I thought I knew the difference between Pop & Rock and then I started to read this and thought I don't know the difference but then I got to the end and I thought, maybe I do know the difference! Should we call you Dr. Music? This was a great, educational and interesting hub about Pop & Rock....think Pat Boone doing Little Richard's music...if that doesn't clarify things nothing will!

      Voted across the board (except funny) and shared with my followers.

    • MickeySr profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

      Deborah, thanks so much - you are always very encouraging.

    • MickeySr profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

      Barb, thanks for your sweet, kind, generous comments. Always.

      (Barb Criss (above) is the best - my first wife, knew me waayyy back when . . . one of the great treasures of my life is that she found me again)

    • MickeySr profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

      Thank you guys so much, your comments are a great encouragement.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 

      7 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      wow when I started reading this I thought to myself that Colin should read it that he would love it and sure enough there he is the first one commenting.. I love your hub.

      I voted way up

      blessings to you


    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      7 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting! Love this wonderful hub cause for me as far as music is concerned what thrills and pleases me is what I listen to. I wouldn't even try to categorize it cause I'm all over the place from Elvis to Frank Sinatra to The Monkees well you get the picture in other words I love music!!!! Passing this hub on.

    • MickeySr profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

      Martie ~ you're too sweet to me, I was happy to answer your question and always delighted for an opportunity to share a great passion of mine . . . so, thank you.

    • MickeySr profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

      Denise & cat on a soapbox ~ thank you very much for your generous comments.

    • profile image

      Barb Criss 

      7 years ago

      I will read anything this man writes.. and I "listen "profoundly to his words. I've had many conversations with him about music, and this hub still enlightened me. He's just "right on" with his history, his articulation and his heart. Thank you Mickey, once again for such a beautiful read.

    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 

      7 years ago from Los Angeles

      Great clarification of the similarities and differences between the two. This is one of the best pieces I've read in awhile. Thank you for sharing your love and knowledge of music with us!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Beautiful and, as always, an enlightening hub with much useful information. I just lot love your guitar collection. :) Voted up.

    • MickeySr profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Hershey, Pa.

      epigramman, Thank you so much - "an academic but with heart" is kind of how it feels to me inside, so I delight that it's how it's perceived by others. Thanks.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      My jaws are hanging! Firstly because of your passion for music, oozing through the paragraphs, and secondly because of your profound knowledge.... Mickey, you can surely earn yourself a doctors degree in modern music history with all your knowledge and insight, or at least become a lecturer at a music school.... Ya-Ya, when we enter the world of academics, practical experience and natural competence seems to be of no significance.

      I am going to remember that Rock is firmly rooted in the Blues, while Pop... I guess I need to do some homework.

      In South Africa we call the popular Afrikaans music 'Contemporary Pop', and don't ask me why... But I am sure 'they' can justify this with many theories.

      Thank you so much, Mickey, for taking the time to answer my question so thoroughly. Much appreciated, and voted up and awesome. I'm going to pop and rock and roll all over your buttons on my way out, and I am going to pimp you all over the Net. Thanks again!

    • MaestroECMcCloud profile image


      7 years ago from Lexington, South Carolina

      Very well written and informative hub. Keep up the good work my man.

    • epigramman profile image


      7 years ago

      ....well Sir Mickey you write like an academic but with heart, with soul, with feeling , with passion and of course with a labor of love for these words - ole!!!!

      Please confirm your esteemed role as administrator of our music/cinema group - we would be delighted to have you there - as one - lake erie time 2:49 am I've posted some videos in honor of you - might have to scroll down past Celine Dion and Donny Osmond to find them -


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