What is progressive rock?

Posted on Sat Sep 8 2007 at 12:19 pm in the category Genres of music, Progressive Rock -- Copyright notice

This blog deals with a variety of musical genres, including progressive rock. Before I begin postings on the likes of Moody Blues, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Rush, and others, I thought it would make sense to offer my general sense of what is progressive rock (a.k.a. prog rock or art rock). There are already useful articles online, such as the one at Wikipedia. Here I want briefly to mention the origins and sketch out some key characteristics and common denominators that usually characterize progressive rock. I will by no means be comprehensive here, and you are entitled to your own opinions: please post them in the comments!


Progressive rock’s origins are primarily in the late 1960s. Prog rock’s climax came in the mid-1970s before it lost out to the flood of punk and new wave (as well as pop) in the late 1970s and early 80s. While progressive rock was complicated and well-thought-out music that also required a high level of musical ability to perform, punk was raw, direct and emotional (though also involving creative artistry nonetheless, of course). In the rock family, prog rock was the twenty-something year old brother with musical training and an even keel; punk was the sixteen year old yelling what he felt and angrily bashing holes in the wall with his guitar.

The two were clearly at odds in many ways and there could only be one winner, at least in the short run. Progressive rock waned. Punk took the short-term spotlight and punk-influenced new wave began heavily influencing pop music generally. Punk, new wave, and pop all shared in common a simple structure and, sometimes, simple lyrics. In some cases prog rock bands decided to shed some of the progressive elements and changed their style to some degree in order to adapt and maintain attention in the pop scene (e.g. Yes’ 90125 ["Owner of a Lonely Heart"] and Genesis albums following Abacab [e.g. "Invisible Touch"]).

Progressive rock is:

Progressive (of course)

Most who apply the term progressive to this style of rock mean that it is musically creative and experimental and that it moved rock forward into new, unexplored areas. One of the main ways in which it was progressive was in its blend or fusion of various types of music and instrumentation.


Progressive rock is a fusion of rock with outside influences, particularly classical music, jazz, and blues. In some cases prog rock artists were trained in classical or jazz music and in others they simply appreciated such music and developed interesting ways of incorporating the styles, tempos and overall feel of classical and jazz with a rock twist.

Often this also meant the incorporation of musical instruments beyond the typical rock guitar-bass-drum combo, and sometimes full orchestras were used. The organ and synthesized equivalents were central for several progressive rock bands, including the Moody Blues and Yes. This fusion of influences resulted in quite sophisticated musical structures. Complicated time-changes are especially common.


Progressive rock is thematic in at least two ways.

On the one hand, frequently an entire album is (or several albums are) united, in terms of lyrics and music, by a common theme, sometimes known as a “concept album”. The Moody Blues’ groundbreaking Days of Future Past (1967), for instance, was based on an idea for a stage show about one man’s entire day from morning to night. Several Genesis albums of the Gabriel era harken back to idealistic, pastoral images of medieval England, for instance. And numerous Yes albums orbit around an astral fantasy world. Many other progressive rock albums have a fantasy world as the setting for a story they tell.

On the other hand, prog rock is also thematic in that there are variations on a musical theme. As in classical and jazz music, a particular simple tune or chord progression that appears early in a song or album echoes in subsequent sections or tracks with more sophisticated musicality. Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail, for instance, begins and ends with the same basic tune which is also echoed in more subtle ways in various other tracks.

Quite often a prog rock song will be rather lengthy (say 10 minutes or more) with multiple parts and a dramatic build both within that track and throughout the album as a whole. Songs often blend into one another (rather than having those few seconds of silence between tracks–this did not make it particularly radio-friendly). These qualities often go along with the story-telling and theme-building aspects of the music.

That will do for now, and I can always supplement this in the future. In the mean time, please feel free to post your own comments or questions on what is progressive rock.

4 Responses to “What is progressive rock?”

  1. IndrasNetMusic.com » What is Progressive Rock? Says:

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  2. Dr. Andrew Colyer Says:

    Hey, Phil:

    Thanks for your blog as a progressive rock and eclectic music resource.

    We just put a link up to this post = it’s a good brief overview of Progressive Rock.

    With backgrounds ourselves in classical, pop, rock, jazz, blues, big band, gospel, and world music, we are in the process of producing our own style of “Symphonic Prog” = but we are dubbing it “Progressive Classical”, because of the strong classical influences.

    We will be happy to send you a CD to review when our album comes out!

    Thank you.

    Dr. Andrew Colyer and Daniel Aggers
    “Progressive Classical Music for Progressive Rock Fans”

  3. Phil H. Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Andrew Colyer and Daniel Aggers. I would very much appreciate hearing that CD when it comes out!


  4. Aaron Says:

    Hi, you might be interested in hearing our new album of heavy progressive rock