How To Define and Classify Progressive Rock? (V3)
By David Helin
November 2010, Revised May 2011

What can be regarded as an international Prog community often makes use of several, or even quite a lot, different sub-genres of Progressive Rock, but is it also possible to give some theoretical grounds for doing so?


The subject of what has to be considered as Progressive Rock has surely been one of the big battles in the history of the genre, and still seems to need a lot of more clarifying. It also seems to me as a rather large part of the debating has somehow had wrong starting point and because of that, has not been particular fruitful.

How so? Well, I think that many of the discussions made assumed Progressive Rock to be a certain music, and then the involved parts could not agree whether, for instance, a certain band, let us say Pink Floyd, played this kind of music. But in my opinion, we have to start with understanding Progressive Rock as first and foremost a word, a term, and then, depending on how we define this term, we can determine whether a certain band can be characterized as progressive or not.

What is it all about?
I better explain this further because, before trying to make a definition, it is a very good idea to have a quite clear notion of what all this defining business actually is about and what shall be the theoretical purpose of it. So, let us start to state that the concrete reality of the music world consists, among other things, of bands (or solo artists, but for convenience's sake, let us just say bands), each playing in some way different music. Some parts of these bands have certain similarities and a part play even very similar kind of music. These similarities can be described and named, or labeled. As we surely know, many musicians for different reasons don't like being labeled, but for fans and other persons interested in music, it can be very convenient to have terms to describe different kinds of music. And if these terms have to be useful in a good way, we need to define them more or less precisely.

To define them means to classify or to bring in, in our heads, some order and get a general view of the concrete reality of the very complex world of bands and different music; and it is, as already mentioned, like to invent some labels which we can use to describe the music being played. These labels can have different sizes, so they either can be small and only used in connection with those bands who play very similar kind of music -- in that case we talk about narrow definitions. Or they can be larger and used with less similar bands and then called broader definitions.

Making definitions, we also try to put focus on or demarcate a specific part of the concrete reality of the music world, and depending on whether our definitions are narrow or broad, the demarcated parts are smaller or bigger. When we have made a specific definition by clarifying which criteria shall be applied by using a certain term, for instance progressive rock, we can in principle more or less exactly decide which bands we are talking about; and then further find out what is specific about these bands and their music. So, as regards to the very beginning of this article, I will conclude here that all the discussions of the characteristics of Progressive Rock have to start with the question of the definition of the genre.

Two more aspects are needed to be mentioned in these initial considerations:

  1. The question of the definitions in general, and concerning Prog-Rock in particular, is in my opinion to some extent a matter of, if not just taste, certainly some subjective preferences, especially as regards whether to use a more narrow or a broader way of defining – which is very important for my approach. On the other hand, it cannot be said to be arbitrary, so one definition is as good as another. A good definition must possess inner obvious logic and coherence, just as some definitions can be more practical and have other advantages comparing with other definitions.

  2. The process of defining can be very complex. When a definition is made, it has to be evaluated with that part of reality it is supposed to concern, which I guess in most cases leads to some need of improvement, evaluating again, and so on. In connection with music styles, the process must be still on-going due to the never ending changes of the music over the time. So, all of you theoretically minded friends welcome to a show that never ends.
Some definitions made/used in the past
Looking now at some definitions made/used in the past, the main books written in English, which have attempted to describe Progressive Rock as a genre, seem to be:
  • Edward Macan: Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture. Oxford University Press 1997.
  • Paul Stump: The Music's All that Matters: A History of Progressive Rock. Quartet Books 1997.
  • Bill Martin: Listening to the Future: The time of progressive rock, 1968-1978. Open Court 1998.
  • Jerry Lucky: The Progressive Rock Files. Collector's Guide Publishing 2000.
To start with, Edward Macan, who indeed offers the most thorough analysis of his subject, in the matter of definition and as the title of the book suggests, Macan sticks to the tradition which limits progressive rock to being symphonic rock; that is "... mainly a classical/rock fusion with some folk and jazz elements included... " (p. 27). It has to be added though that even as Macan considers Jazz-Rock and Folk-Rock as styles different from Progressive (Symphonic) Rock, he finds some parts of them to be related to the latter. This applies to a lesser extent to some of Heavy Metal, too, and avant-garde electronic music and Minimalism (pp. 126-143).

Paul Stump's definition has rather different focus point than Macan's and finds similarities among progressive bands in what he calls shared ideology: in their considering themselves as not just musicians but as artists "... driven by high Romantic notions of personal expression and originality, individual authenticity, honesty and similar praiseworthy universals." (p. 10). The term Progressive contains also in Stump's point of view the phenomenon that the music is in a state of permanent evolution. This way of regarding Progressive Rock allows Stump to apply much broader musical scope than Macan, including some bands playing Jazz-Rock, Folk-Rock, Avant-Prog, Space-Rock and even a bit of Electronic Rock. On the other hand, I would say it is more precise and can be altogether better to define Prog-Rock by means of music styles, like Macan does.

Bill Martin's criteria for qualifying the genre results in an almost as broad musical scope as Stump's, except from Electronic Rock. Also in a way similarly to Stump, he has some claims that the music has to be visionary and played "... by musicians who have consummate instrumental and compositional skills... " (p. 121) - that is, in fact, be virtuosos. Further, Martin considers Progressive Rock as in its core a phenomenon of English culture, which he, by the way, shares with Macan and Stump, and "... expressive of romantic and prophetic aspects of that culture." (p. 121). Should the latter be used as criteria in the definition of Progressive Rock, it will of course limit the genre quite a lot.

The last of the here presented authors, Jerry Lucky, defines Prog-Rock by means of 10 strictly musical criteria (4th edition, p. 132, 133). They offer indeed a very precise definition as they are very specific, concerning the type of styles, compositions, arrangements and instruments used. Looking at his book as a whole, it is not quite obvious for me which styles Lucky will include under the banner of Progressive Rock. I'm afraid though, his 10 claims, if all or maybe even just most of them to be fulfilled, will exclude a quite large part of the experimental rock music.

The possibility of a broad definition
Even as the four authors have quite a lot in common in their description of Progressive Rock, as it can be seen of my short account, their definitions of the genre are rather different. On the other hand, if they have to be compared to what quite often is considered as Progressive Rock in what might be called "the international Prog community", one thing can in my opinion be concluded: their definitions are more narrow, and I think it is also the case with most books written on the genre; including maybe the latest in Charles Snider's The Strawberry Bricks Guide to Progressive Rock (2007), even though this guide reviews other music than Snider defines as Prog-Rock, too.

Nevertheless, the broader "Prog community definition," as, for instance, used but not really formulated in the co-founder of ProgArchives, Ronald Couture's Essential Mini-Guide to Progressive Rock: Past & Present (2006), have obvious advantages: it includes more different music and makes "the Prog movement" wider and thus stronger. On that account, the interesting question needs to be answered: is it possible to formulate and argue for a broad definition of Progressive Rock?

Well, as it already could appear from my initial considerations, that is my conviction and what I will try to begin in this article. For that purpose, let us first have a look at the following styles: Symphonic Rock, Jazz-Rock, Folk-Rock, the more experimental Electronic Rock and Avant-Prog. What do they all have in common? You probably already know it: as their names suggest, they are all a synthesis of Rock and very pronounced elements from mainly one of some other main genres, namely Classical Music, Jazz, Folk and the electronic avant-garde or other avant-garde music, respectively. And should all these Rock styles be a part of Progressive Rock, must that kind of synthesis be one of the criteria of the definition. Krautrock, Zeuhl and the more avant-garde influenced part of Post-Rock can be characterized in the same way except from, they are typically more eclectic.

So far so good, but at this point I guess there are a huge number of Prog aficionados who miss Progressive Metal and some Psychedelic Rock here. Well, that is no problem because the syntheses of Rock and the other main styles mentioned above give possibilities for these styles, too – Progressive Metal being mainly a synthesis of Heavy Metal and Symphonic Rock/Classical Music, while Progressive Psychedelic surely is a synthesis of Psychedelic Rock, but then, there are different possibilities: electronic avant-garde, Folk, Jazz and others.

Now we have got really a lot of different music to offer, but as a matter of fact, too much. That is because the criterion suggested so far includes all kinds of, for instance, Jazz-Rock, Folk-Rock and Space-Rock, and thus a lot of almost mainstream music, which an average Proghead does not seem to be interested in. Therefore, I will further suggest an additional criterion for some music to be labeled Progressive Rock, and that shall be that the music is rather complex or at least to some extent experimental in another way than argued so far.

OK, if we now in all have enough precise instruments to determine what kind of music we would like to have under our banner is of course a question that will have to be tested in practice. But I suppose everything looks rather OK for a start, except from one problem. Not so few bands play music which is very difficult, if at all, to fit into one of the styles/sub-genres mentioned so far because they are more eclectic and mix some more different styles/genres. Therefore, we need an additional sub-genre which can be named Eclectic Prog to label those kind of bands.

The Proposal
Then, I can summarize: I will propose that some music to be called Progressive Rock has to:

  1. be a synthesis of Rock and at least one of the other main genres: Classical, Jazz, Folk, electronic avant-garde or other avant-garde, AND

  2. be rather complex or at least to some extent experimental in another way than #1.

"electronic avant-garde" is here primarily Musique Concrete and Minimalism while "other avant-garde" include Free and Avant-Jazz and Contemporary Classical.

Further, I propose following main sub-genres:

  • Symphonic Prog, incl. Neo-Symphonic (Neo-Prog)
  • Progressive Jazz-Rock, incl. most of Canterbury
  • Progressive Folk-Rock, defined as Rock fused with Traditional/Folk music from any country in the entire world
  • Electronic Prog
  • Avant-Prog/RIO and Zeuhl
  • Psychedelic Prog, incl. Progressive Space-Rock
  • Progressive Metal, defined as all the sub-genres of Heavy Metal which can be considered Progressive
  • Eclectic Prog
  • Krautrock
  • Progressive Post-Rock, defined as the more avant-garde influenced part of Post-Rock
What have we then got?
I believe that Progressive Rock, defined in this way, depict quite well what mostly is understood by this term today, or, that it at least is worth to consider, if it not should be so. It is obviously not a single style but an umbrella for a number of different styles which have some similarities. The main point of this way of defining is for me to separate a large part of the experimental and more ambitious Rock music from the mainstream in order to strengthen its identity and help building it up as a broad cultural movement. Progressive Rock, again as defined here, has sure gained in popularity over the period of the last 20 years, but I think it is important to support or at least respect each other across the different sub-genres instead of not so rarely almost fighting each other. Those are the main ideas behind this article and some ideas I find very worthy to work for, and I hope some of you do too.

Something quite else is that the definition, I have proposed here, has some rigidity as Prog-Rock is defined by means of certain specific styles, and it might be said to be best suited to classify the different types of music included in Progressive Rock. An alternative could be a definition which has been presented by Mark Stephens (of progpositivity.com) as one of topics to discuss in ProgArchives. It suggests Progressive Rock: music springing from or incorporating distinctive elements of the rock genre while expanding beyond its traditional musical limitations and constraints

This definition is very dynamic as it can currently incorporate all the new experimental Rock music. On the other hand, it is very broad and not so little broader and including than the one, I propose. Still, it could be a good alternative, if it could be accepted and used by musicians and fans of "the old sub-genres of Progressive Rock" and "the new ones" which it will include as the part of the genre.

Other references

  • Mike McLatchy: The Guide to Progressive Rock Genres. V2.0. 2003 which is a survey or a kind of extensive article
  • Katherine Charlton: Rock Music Styles: a history, 5th edition. Mc-Graw Hill 2008.
  • Bradley Smith: The Billboard Guide to Progressive Music. Billboard Books 1997.
  • Kevin Holm-Hudson (editor): Progressive Rock Reconsidered. Routledge 2002.
  • Dag Erik Asbjørnsen: Scented Gardens Of the Mind. A Guide to the Golden Era of Progressive Rock (1968-1980) in More Than 20 European Countries. Borderline Productions 2000.

Now, the time has come to make a little test of the proposed definition and see what music it can bring with itself. For that purpose, I have made a list of some of the highest acclaimed (rated) and well-known albums, classified by the proposed main sub-genres. This list is based on all ratings as they appeared in RateYourMusic and ProgArchives November 2009 and November 2010.

Here it goes.

Symphonic Prog, incl. Neo-symphonic (Neo-Prog)

Eclectic Prog

Progressive Jazz-Rock, incl. most of Canterbury

Progressive Metal

  • Opeth (Sweden) : Blackwater Park (2001)
  • Dream Theater (US) : Images And Words (1992)
  • Death (US) : Symbolic (1995)
  • Queensrÿche (US) : Operation: Mindcrime (1988)
  • Mastodon (US) : Leviathan (2004)
  • Agalloch (US) : The Mantle (2002)
  • Cynic (US) : Focus (1993)
  • Atheist (US) : Unquestionable Presence (1991)
  • Pain of Salvation (Sweden) : The Perfect Element I (2000)
  • Riverside (Poland) : Second Life Syndrome (2005) (alt. Eclectic)
  • Arcturus (Norway) : The Sham Mirrors (2002)
  • Edge of Sanity (Sweden) : Crimson (1996)
  • Ayreon (Netherlands) : The Human Equation (2004)
  • Devin Townsend (Canada) : Terria (2001)
  • Orphaned Land (Israel) : Mabool : The Story Of The The Story of the Three Sons of Seven (2004)
  • Kayo Dot (US) : Choirs Of the Eye (2003)
  • Gojira (France) : From Mars to Sirius (2005)
  • Maudlin of the Well (US) : Leaving Your Body Map (2001)

Psychedelic Prog, incl. Progressive Space-Rock

Avant-Prog/RIO and Zeuhl

  • Mr. Bungle (US) : California (1999) (alt. Progressive Metal)
  • Magma (F) : Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh (1973) (alt. Jazz-Rock)
  • Area (I) : Arbeit Macht Frei (1973) (alt. Jazz-Rock)
  • Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (US) : Of Natural History (2004)
  • Univers Zero (B) : Heresie (1979)
  • Henry Cow (UK) : In Praise Of Learning (1975)
  • Dün (F) : Eros (1981)
  • Samla Mammas Manna (S) : Maltid (1973)
  • Aksak Maboul (B) : Un Peu De L'ame Des Bandits (1980)
  • Koenjihyakkei (J) : Angherr Shisspa (2005)
  • Alamaailman Vasarat (FIN) : Kaarmelautakunta (2003)
  • Eskaton (F) : 4 Visions (1981) (alt. Jazz-Rock)
  • Art Bears (UK) : The World As It Is Today (1981)

Progressive Folk-Rock

  • Jethro Tull (UK) : Thick As A Brick (1972) (alt. Symphonic)
  • Comus (UK) : First Utterance (1971)
  • Harmonium (CAN) : Si On Avait Besoin... (1975) (alt. Symphonic)
  • Fairport Convention (UK) : Unhalfbricking (1969)
  • Roy Harper (UK) : Stormcock (1971)
  • Gryphon (UK) : Red Queen To Gryphon Three (1974) (alt. Symphonic)
  • Strawbs (UK) : Grave New World (1972)
  • Mellow Candle (IRL) : Swaddling Songs (1972)
  • Third Ear Band (UK) : Third Ear Band (1970)
  • The Trees (UK) : The Garden Of Jane Delawney (1970)
  • Los Jaivas (CHL) : Alturas De Machu Picchu (1981)
  • Marek Grechuta (PL) : Korowod (1971) (alt. Psychedelic)
  • Yatha Sidhra (D) : A Meditation Mass (1974) (alt. Krautrock or Psychedelic)
  • Hoelderlin (D) : Hoelderlins Traum (1972)
  • Osibisa (Ghana) : Osibisa (1971) (alt. Jazz-Rock)

Progressive Post-Rock

  • Sigur Ros (ISL) : Agætis Byrjun (1999)
  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor (CAN) : Lift Yr. Skinny... (2000)
  • Talk Talk (UK) : Spirit Of Eden (1988)
  • Explosions in the Sky (US) : The Earth Is Not... (2003)
  • Mogwai (UK) : Young Team (1997)
  • Tortoise (US) : Millions Now Living... (1996)
  • A Silver Mt. Zion (CAN) : He Has Left Us... (2000)
  • Yndi Halda (UK) : Enjoy Eternal Bliss (2006)
  • God is an Astronaut (IRL) : All Is Violent... (2005)
  • Mono (J) : You Are There (2006)
  • Do May Say Think (CAN) : Winter Hymn Country... (2003)
  • Mono & World's End Girlfriend (J) : Palmless Prayer... (2005)
  • The Evpatoria Report (CH) : Golevka (2005)

Krautrock

  • Can (D) : Tago Mago (1971)
  • Neu! (D) : Neu! (1972)
  • Kraftwerk (D) : Autobahn (1974)
  • Amon Düül II (D) : Yeti (1970) (alt. Psychedelic)
  • Faust (D) : Faust (1971)
  • Popol Vuh (D) : Hosianna Mantra (1972)
  • Ash Ra Tempel (D) : Ash Ra Tempel (1971) (alt. Psychedelic)
  • Agitation Free (D) : Malesch (1972) (alt. Psychedelic)
  • Guru Guru (D) : UFO (1970) (alt. Psychedelic)
  • Cluster (D) : II (1972) (alt. Psychedelic)
  • La Dusseldorf (D) : La Dusseldorf (1976)
  • Cosmic Jokers (D) : The Cosmic Jokers (1973) (alt. Psychedelic)

Electronic Prog

  • Tangerine Dream (D) : Phaedra (1974)
  • Jean-Michel Jarre (F) : Oxygene (1976)
  • Kraftwerk (D) : Radio-Aktivität (1975)
  • Klaus Schulze (D) : Irrlicht (1972)
  • Manuel Göttsching (D) : E2-E4 (1984) (alt. Krautrock)
  • Harmonia (D) : Musik Von Harmonia (1974) (alt. Krautrock)
  • Ashra (D) : New Age On Earth (1977)
  • Vangelis (GRE) : Heaven And Hell (1975)
  • Michael Hoenig (D) : Departure From The Northern Wasteland (1978)
  • Edgar Froese (D) : Ypsilon In Malaysian Pale (1975)
  • Heldon (F) : Stand By (1979)

This list must of course be taken with some reservation. The sub-genres, as they appear here, might look like some boxes, we can put albums in. They have though to be understood like labels, we can put on an album, and it happens quite often that an album needs more than one label to be characterized with. Nevertheless, this way of setting it up have some advantages, not least it is well-arranged.

Something else is that not so rarely, the same album might be classified differently by different persons, as they might put the main focus on diverse elements of the music. My classification here is highly based on the way of classifying by RateYourMusic and ProgArchives and anyway, as already said, the whole thing is best to be taken with some reservation and best to be understood as contribution to further considerations and discussions.

May Progressive Rock be with you!


David Helin

David Helin was born in Warsaw, Poland but since the age of fifteen, he has lived in Denmark. He has been very interested in bands playing various kinds of progressive music for many years and for the last seven years has also had a great interest of the matter how to define Progressive Rock. That's partly due to the fact that it has been a very disputed question but mainly because he wished Prog to be defined in a broad way in attempt to help this kind of in my opinion more artistic and ambitious music to stand some stronger in competition with the more commercial, mainstream Rock.