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Progressive music

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Bandleader Stan Kenton coined "progressive jazz" for his complex, loud, and brassy approach to big band jazz that conveyed an association with art music.[1]

Progressive music is music that subverts genre and results in the expansion of stylistic boundaries.[2] The word "progressive" comes from the basic concept of "progress", which refers to development and growth by accumulation,[3] and is often deployed in numerous music genres such as progressive country, progressive folk, progressive jazz, and (most significantly) progressive rock.[4] Musical progressiveness is typically achieved through synthesizing music from various cultural domains, such as European art music, Celtic folk, West Indian, or African.[5]

As an art theory, the progressive approach falls between formalism and eclecticism.[6][7] "Formalism" refers to a preoccupation with established external compositional systems, structural unity, and the autonomy of individual art works. Like formalism, "eclecticism" connotates a predilection toward style synthesis or integration. However, contrary to formalist tendencies, eclecticism foregrounds discontinuities between historical and contemporary styles and electronic media, sometimes referring simultaneously to vastly different musical genres, idioms, and cultural codes.[8] In marketing, "progressive" is used to distinguish a product from "commercial" pop music.[9] Progressive music is rooted in the idea of a cultural alternative[10] and may also be associated with auteur-stars and concept albums, considered traditional structures of the music industry.[11]

Jazz began to take itself seriously as swing gave way to bebop in the 1940s, but could not maintain its listening audience. Following the economic boom of the mid 1960s, record labels began investing in artists whose ambitions paralleled these earlier attempts in jazz, offering performers limited control over their own content and marketing. This resulted in a brief period in which creative authenticity among musical artists and consumer marketing coincided with each other, a situation that fell into abeyance between the late 1970s and the birth of Internet stars. Beginning in 1967, pop music would be divided by a "progressive pop" and "mass/chart pop" demographic that subsequently gave rise to the "progressive rock" movement, which crystallized the progressive music of earlier artists into a recognizable genre.


Progressive jazz is a form of big band that is more complex[12] or experimental.[1] It originated in the 1940s with arrangers who drew from modernist composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith.[12][nb 1] Its "progressive" features were replete with dissonance, atonality, and brash effects.[14] Progressive jazz was most popularized by the bandleader Stan Kenton during the 1940s.[12] Critics were initially wary of the idiom.[12] Dizzy Gillespie wrote in his autobiography; "They tried to make Stan Kenton a 'white hope,' called modern jazz and my music 'progressive,' then tried to tell me I played 'progressive' music. I said, 'You're full of shit!' 'Stan Kenton? There ain't nothing in my music that's cold, cold like his."[15]

Progressive big band is a style of big band or swing music that was made for listening, with denser, more modernistic arrangements and more room to improvise. The online music guide AllMusic states that, along with Kenton, musicians like Gil Evans, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Cal Massey, Frank Foster, Carla Bley, George Gruntz, David Amram, Sun Ra, and Duke Ellington were major proponents of the style.[16]

Pop and rock


"Progressive rock" is almost synonymous with "art rock"; the latter is more likely to have experimental or avant-garde influences.[17] Although a unidirectional English "progressive" style emerged in the late 1960s, by 1967, progressive rock had come to constitute a diversity of loosely associated style codes.[7][nb 2] With the arrival of a "progressive" label, the music was dubbed "progressive pop" before it was called "progressive rock".[19][nb 3] "Progressive" referred to the wide range of attempts to break with the standard pop music formula.[21] A number of additional factors contributed to the label—lyrics were more poetic, technology was harnessed for new sounds, music approached the condition of "art", some harmonic language was imported from jazz and 19th-century classical music, the album format overtook singles, and the studio, rather than the stage, became the focus of musical activity, which often involved creating music for listening, not dancing.[22]


Up until the mid 1960s, individual idiolects always operated within particular styles. What was so revolutionary about this post-hippie music that came to be called 'progressive' ... was that musicians acquired the facility to move between styles—the umbilical link between idiolect and style had been broken.
—Allan Moore[19]

During the mid 1960s, pop music made repeated forays into new sounds, styles, and techniques that inspired public discourse among its listeners. The word "progressive" was frequently used, and it was thought that every song and single was to be a "progression" from the last.[23] In 1966, the degree of social and artistic dialogue among rock musicians dramatically increased for bands such as the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Byrds who fused elements of composed (cultivated) music with the oral (vernacular) musical traditions of rock.[3] Rock music started to take itself seriously, paralleling earlier attempts in jazz (as swing gave way to bop, a move which did not succeed with audiences). In this period, the popular song began signaling a new possible means of expression that went beyond the three-minute love song, leading to an intersection between the "underground" and the "establishment" for listening publics.[24][nb 4]

The Beach Boys' leader Brian Wilson is credited for setting a precedent that allowed bands and artists to enter a recording studio and act as their own producers.[26]

The music was developed immediately following a brief period in the mid 1960s where creative authenticity among musical artists and consumer marketing coincided with each other.[27] Before the progressive pop of the late 1960s, performers were typically unable to decide on the artistic content of their music.[28] Assisted by the mid 1960s economic boom, record labels began investing in artists, giving them freedom to experiment, and offering them limited control over their content and marketing.[9][nb 5] The growing student market serviced record labels with the word "progressive", being adopted as a marketing term to differentiate their product from "commercial" pop.[9] Music critic Simon Reynolds writes that beginning with 1967, a divide would exist between "progressive" pop and "mass/chart" pop, a separation which was "also, broadly, one between boys and girls, middle-class and working-class."[29][nb 6] Before progressive/art rock became the most commercially successful British sound of the early 1970s, the 1960s psychedelic movement brought together art and commercialism, broaching the question of what it meant to be an artist in a mass medium.[30] Progressive musicians thought that artistic status depended on personal autonomy, and so the strategy of "progressive" rock groups was to present themselves as performers and composers "above" normal pop practice.[31][nb 7]

Pink Floyd performing The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), the best-selling album of the entire progressive rock period.[33]

Proto-prog (short for proto-progressive)[34] is the first wave of British progressive rock musicians who branched from psychedelia[35] or the advanced music that slightly predates the full-fledged prog era.[36] The musicians that approached this genre harnessed modern classical and other genres usually outside of traditional rock influences, longer and more complicated compositions, interconnected songs as medley, and studio composition.[37] Progressive rock itself evolved from psychedelic/acid rock music,[3] specifically a strain of classical/symphonic rock led by the Nice, Procol Harum, and the Moody Blues.[17][nb 8] Critics assumed King Crimson's album In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) to be the logical extension and development of late 1960s proto-progressive rock exemplified by the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Pink Floyd, and the Beatles.[38] According to Macan, the album may be the most influential to progressive rock for crystallizing the music of earlier "proto-progressive bands [...] into a distinctive, immediately recognizable style".[39] He distinguishes 1970s "classic" prog from late 1960s proto-prog by the conscious rejection of psychedelic rock elements, which proto-progressive bands continued to incorporate.[34]


"Post-progressive" is a term invented to distinguish a type of rock music from the persistent "progressive rock" style associated with the 1970s.[40] In the mid to late 1970s, progressive music was denigrated for its assumed pretentiousness, specifically the likes of Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.[41] According to musicologist John Covach, "by the early 1980s, progressive rock was thought to be all but dead as a style, an idea reinforced by the fact that some of the principal progressive groups has developed a more commercial sound. [...] What went out of the music of these now ex-progressive groups [...] was any significant evocation of art music."[42] In the opinion of King Crimson's Robert Fripp, "progressive" music was an attitude, not a style. He believed that genuinely "progressive" music pushes stylistic and conceptual boundaries outwards through the appropriation of procedures from classical music or jazz, and that once "progressive rock" ceased to cover new ground – becoming a set of conventions to be repeated and imitated – the genre's premise had ceased to be "progressive".[43]

Talking Heads, late 1970s

A direct reaction to prog came in the form of the punk movement, which rejected classical traditions,[41] virtuosity, and textural complexity.[42][nb 9] Post-punk, which author Doyle Green characterizes "as a kind of 'progressive punk'",[44] was played by bands like Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, Public Image Ltd, and Joy Division.[41] It differs from punk rock by balancing punk's energy and skepticism with a re-engagement with an art school consciousness, Dadaist experimentalism, and atmospheric, ambient soundscapes. It was also majorly influenced from world music, especially African and Asian traditions.[41] In the same period, new wave music was more sophisticated in production terms than some contemporaneous progressive music, but was largely perceived as simplistic, and thus had little overt appeal to art music or art-music practice.[42] Musicologist Bill Martin writes; "the [Talking] Heads created a kind of new-wave music that was the perfect synthesis of punk urgency and attitude and progressive-rock sophistication and creativity. A good deal of the more interesting rock since that time is clearly 'post-Talking Heads' music, but this means that it is post-progressive rock as well."[45]


AllMusic defines "progressive electronic" as a subgenre of new age music which "thrives in more unfamiliar territory. The styles that emerge are often dictated by the technology itself. Rather than sampling or synthesizing acoustic sounds to electronically replicate them, these composers tend to mutate the original timbres, sometimes to an unrecognizable state. True artists in the genre also create their own sounds."[46] Reynolds posits that "the truly progressive edge in electronic music involves doing things that can't be physically achieved by human beings manipulating instruments in real-time."[47]

Giorgio Moroder performing in 2015

In house music, a desire to define precise stylistic strands and taste markets saw the interposition of prefixes like "progressive", "tribal", and "intelligent". According to disc jockey and producer Carl Craig, the term "progressive" was used in Detroit in the early 1980s in reference to Italian disco. The music was dubbed "progressive" because it drew upon the influence of Giorgio Moroder's Euro disco rather than the disco inspired by the symphonic Philadelphia sound.[48] In this context, Reynolds criticizes terms like "progressive" and "intelligent", arguing that "when an underground scene starts talking this talk, it's usually a sign that it's gearing up the media game as a prequel to buying into traditional music industry structure of auteur-stars, concept albums, and long-term careers. Above all, it's a sign of impending musical debility, creeping self-importance, and the hemorrhaging away of fun."[49]

In the mid 1990s, progressive electronica artists were spearheaded by the Lowercase movement, a reductive approach towards new digital technologies.[50] By 1993, progressive house and trance music had emerged in dance clubs.[51] "Progressive house" was an English style of house distinguished by long tracks, big riffs, mild dub inflections, and multitiered percussion. According to Reynolds, the "'progressive' seemed to signify not just its anti-cheese, nongirly credentials, but its severing of house's roots from gay black disco."[52] Reynolds also identifies links between progressive rock and other electronic music genres, and that "many post-rave genres bear an uncanny resemblance to progressive rock: conceptualism, auteur-geniuses, producers making music to impress other producers, [and] showboating virtuosity reborn as the 'science' of programming finesse."[53]


  1. ^ According to academic Tim Wall, the most significant example of the struggle between Tin Pan Alley, African American, vernacular and art discourses was in jazz. As early as the 1930s, artists attempted to cultivate ideas of "symphonic jazz", taking it away from its perceived vernacular and black American roots. These developments succeeded in the respect that many people today no longer consider certain forms of jazz as popular music.[13]
  2. ^ The term was also partly related to progressive politics, but those connotations were lost early in the 1970s.[18]
  3. ^ Starting in about 1967, "pop music" was increasingly used in opposition to the term "rock music", a division that gave generic significance to both terms.[20]
  4. ^ Allan Moore writes; "It should be clear by now that, although this history appears to offer a roughly chronological succession of styles, there is no single, linear history to that thing we call popular song. [...] Sometimes it appears that there are only peripheries. Sometimes, audiences gravitate towards a centre. The most prominent period when this happened was in the early to mid 1960s when it seems that almost everyone, irrespective of age, class or cultural background, listened to the Beatles. But by 1970 this monolothic position had again broken down. Both the Edgar Broughton Band's 'Apache dropout' and Edison Lighthouse's 'Love grows' were released in 1970 with strong Midlands/London connections, and both were audible on the same radio stations, but were operating according to very different aesthetics."[25]
  5. ^ This situation fell in disuse after the late 1970s and would not reemerge until the rise of Internet stars.[9]
  6. ^ The New Pop movement of the 1980s was an attempt to bridge this divide.[29]
  7. ^ By 1970, a journalist at Melody Maker highlighted progressive pop as the "most fascinating and recent development" in popular music, writing that the music is "meant for a wide audience but which is intended to have more permanent value than the six weeks in the charts and the 'forget it' music of older pop forms."[32]
  8. ^ Author Doyle Greene believes that the "proto-prog" label can stretch to "the later Beatles and Frank Zappa", Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, and United States of America.[37] Edward Macan says that psychedelic bands like the Nice, the Moody Blues, and Pink Floyd represent a proto-progressive style and the first wave of English progressive rock.[35]
  9. ^ Groups such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones adopted a "back-to-basics" stance, embracing the roots of rock music with direct sentiments, simple chord structures, and uncluttered arrangements.[41] While punk rock appeared to be a negation of progressive rock, both styles of music derived from the idea of a cultural alternative.[10]



  1. ^ a b "Progressive Jazz". AllMusic. 
  2. ^ Willis 2014, p. 219, 'Progressive' music can be seen as an experimentation with alternative routes"; Moore 2004, p. 22, "What was so revolutionary about this post-hippie music that came to be called 'progressive' ... was that ... the umbilical link between idiolect and style had been broken."; Macan 1997, p. 246, "the progressive rock of the 1970s had been 'progressive' only as long as it pushed the stylistic and conceptual boundaries of rock outwards"
  3. ^ a b c Holm-Hudson 2013, p. 85.
  4. ^ Guern 2016, p. 33.
  5. ^ Holm-Hudson 2013, pp. 85–87.
  6. ^ Holm-Hudson 2013, pp. 16, 85–87.
  7. ^ a b Cotner 2000, p. 90.
  8. ^ Cotner 2000, p. 93.
  9. ^ a b c d Moore 2016, p. 202.
  10. ^ a b Macan 2005, p. 250.
  11. ^ Reynolds 2013, pp. 6–7, 16.
  12. ^ a b c d Ake, Garrett & Goldmark 2012, p. 131.
  13. ^ Wall 2013, pp. 42–43.
  14. ^ Butler 2002, pp. 103–105.
  15. ^ Gillespie 2009, p. 337.
  16. ^ "Progressive Big Band". AllMusic. 
  17. ^ a b "Prog-Rock". AllMusic. 
  18. ^ Robinson 2017, p. 223.
  19. ^ a b Moore 2004, p. 22.
  20. ^ Gloag, Kenneth (2006). Latham, Alison, ed. The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866212-2. 
  21. ^ Haworth & Smith 1975, p. 126.
  22. ^ Moore 2016, pp. 201–202.
  23. ^ Hewitt & Hellier 2015, p. 162.
  24. ^ Moore 2016, p. 201.
  25. ^ Moore 2016, pp. 199–200.
  26. ^ Edmondson 2013, p. 890.
  27. ^ Willis 2014, p. 219.
  28. ^ Willis 2014, p. 217.
  29. ^ a b Reynolds 2006, p. 398.
  30. ^ Frith & Horne 2016, p. 99.
  31. ^ Frith & Horne 2016, pp. 74, 99–100.
  32. ^ Jacobshagen, Leniger & Henn 2007, p. 141.
  33. ^ Priore 2005, p. 79.
  34. ^ a b Macan 2005, p. xxiii.
  35. ^ a b Holm-Hudson 2013, p. 84.
  36. ^ Sositko, Jason (May 8, 2015). "What Are the Best Proto-Prog Rock Albums of All-Time?". Spacial Anomaly. 
  37. ^ a b Greene 2016, p. 182.
  38. ^ Macan 2005, p. 75.
  39. ^ Macan 1997, p. 23.
  40. ^ Hegarty & Halliwell 2011, p. 224.
  41. ^ a b c d e Rojek 2011, p. 28.
  42. ^ a b c Covach 1997, p. 5.
  43. ^ Macan 1997, p. 206.
  44. ^ Greene 2014, p. 173.
  45. ^ Martin 1998, p. 251.
  46. ^ "Progressive Electronic". AllMusic. 
  47. ^ Reynolds 2013, p. 50.
  48. ^ Reynolds 2013, pp. 7, 16.
  49. ^ Reynolds 2013, pp. 6–7.
  50. ^ Potter & Gann 2016, p. 178.
  51. ^ Reynolds 2013, p. 184.
  52. ^ Reynolds 2013, p. 376.
  53. ^ Reynolds 2013, p. 386.


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