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Progressive Rock, Classical Influences

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The following is a guest post by the NLS Music Section’s Librarian-in-Residence, Brian McNeilly.

Artists often draw on disparate traditions and cultural touchstones when crafting music. This is true of the wide variety of cultural identities and history that form the diverse genres of music from Latin America and the Caribbean. Rock music itself originated through blending traditions of rhythm and blues, country, and gospel music together in the 1940s and 50s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, groups of rock bands in the US, UK, and Canada began taking this genre and stretching the definitions of what rock could be. While some artists like Frank Zappa focused cultivating an avant-garde sound, other artists aimed to expand rock music in other artistic ways. Progressive rock created a unique style that was often influenced both by the 20th century founders of rock music, as well as a wide variety of earlier musical styles.

Progressive rock as a genre often incorporated influences from classical, jazz, and folk music. Sometimes, these influences would manifest in expanding the instrumentation beyond the guitars and drums traditionally associated with rock music. For instance, the lead vocalist for Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson, heard here in a 1986 interview from the Joe Smith Collection at the Library of Congress, is a flautist and often includes flute solos in performances. At other times, groups would translate original scores of classical music entirely into rock tracks. In 1971, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer adapted Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition to become a live album. The group took four of the original pieces Mussorgsky wrote and interpreted them with rock instrumentation. These original pieces were then interspersed with entirely new pieces authored by the band. Similarly, the Overture and Grand Finale sections of the song 2112 by the band Rush include sections of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture arranged for guitar.

Musical poster showing man in uniform. This poster was promoting a Pink Floyd performance in San Francisco, CA in 1967.
Poster for Pink Floyd musical performance, showing man in uniform. San Francisco, 1967. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In addition to classical influences, concept albums – albums with a unifying theme or story that connects the pieces beyond just an individual track – are incredibly popular in progressive rock. Pink Floyd authored two of the more famous concept albums, Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. However, many other concept albums exist including Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds, which retells the classic H.G. Wells story over the course of an album.

By the late 1970s, the popularity and prominence of progressive rock diminished, with new styles and interpretations of rock music taking hold. While the heyday of progressive rock groups may be over, their legend lives on in the NLS collection, where we have pieces by many progressive rock legends, along with some of the original compositions that inspired later renditions.


Grieg, Edvard. In the Hall of the Mountain-King [for piano].  This work by Grieg was reimagined by Electric Light Orchestra in their 1973 album On the Third Day (BRM10044).

Mussorgsky, Modest. Pictures at an Exhibition . For piano solo, the original piece composed in 1874, later rendered as a live album by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Bar over bar format. (BRM20966)

Wayne, Jeff. Forever Autumn, a track from Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds – bookended in the original album discussing the Martian invasion of Earth. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM25315)


Brown, Bill. Hemispheres (Prelude) for guitar. Performed and taught by Bill Brown, the beginning section of the song Hemispheres from Rush’s 1978 album. (DBM02351)

Brown, Bill. YYZ [for bass]. A bass guitar portion of the 1981 Rush song off their album Moving Pictures. (DBM02697)

Brown, Bill. Another Brick in the Wall for Guitar. A Pink Floyd song off their 1979 rock opera The Wall. (DBM01991)

Large Print

Grieg, Edvard. Songs from Norway: 10 Compositions for Piano, this compilation includes the Grieg piece, In the Hall of the Mountain King (LPM00032).

If you wish to borrow any of the items listed in this post, feel free to download them from BARD directly to your smart device. To borrow hard copies of braille music or talking books on digital cartridge, give us a call us at 1-800-424-8567 extension 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. If you need any assistance with BARD, you can call or email us, or consult the following links: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.

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