Capstone Proposal

1The Evolution of Rock Music

Jay Kinnaman



The Evolution of Rock Music will consist of a phylogenetic tree of over 100 rock subgenres, and will be presented via a website where users can find common ancestors, learn about subgenre origins, and generally explore the tree. Since the 1950s, rock music has grown and diversified. Since Darwin’s “Origin of Species” phylogenetic trees have been used to describe relationships, numerous times for completely non-biological topics. While projects have been done in the past to map music, I found none that attempted specifically what this project will, which is focusing on non-temporal characteristics. The project will be done in three phases: research, tree construction, and webpage building. It will also likely cost nothing. Anyone who enjoys listening to rock music should be able to appreciate this project, and through interaction, explore it. DCC provided me with the creative values to design this project, and by seeing this need and addressing it via cross-disciplinary means, I’m preparing myself for a career in environmental problem solving.



If you were to search “List of Rock Genres” on Wikipedia you would come to a page with a list of approximately 228 different subgenres and variations of what we call “rock music.” While Wikipedia may not be a scholarly site, it is one edited by the public, and, appropriately, rock is also edited by the public. Many of the obscure subgenres listed, such as Ostrock or Nu Gaze or Jangle Pop, started up in specific areas, appealing to specific crowds, because a few musicians took the rock music they heard, and decided to edit something about it. Many of these titles never made it out of the region where they originated, in terms of popularity. Many of these variations are poorly defined even by those who listen to the bands that play them. I wish to remedy the confusion. I plan to create a tree mapping the evolution of rock music. Each subgenre will be a leaf on the tree with specific traits, common ancestors, a small amount of information about origin, and a link to a song or band representative of the genre. My goal is to place this tree on a public website, also created by me, where visitors can view it and trace it in order to learn about the extensive diversity of genres that “rock” encompasses. This digital interactivity will be the icing on the cake to an already cross-disciplinary focused project.


PROJECT DESCRIPTION                          

This project will be comprised of a phylogenetic tree of the approximately 100 rock subgenres found on the Wikipedia list that fit into the categories of general rock, indie, alternative, and some folk.  This excludes branches of metal and punk music that are huge genres in their own right. If I tried to include them they would limit the amount of depth I could go into for each genre because I would simply have less time to spend on each. I have a pre-determined list of characteristics, and I will research each subgenre in regards to which predetermined traits they have. I’ll also make sure to write a small origin/information blurb about each subgenre. Treating each characteristic of each subgenre as a trait, I will group the subgenres by traits as one would when working backwards in the creation of a biological phylogenetic tree, and from these many intertwined groupings I will construct branches, working backwards, until I have a full tree. This portion of the construction could be approached in a second, similar way if the first proves to be unsuccessful or inefficient for the amount of time I have. The second approach would be to assert defining characteristics of the very first occurrences of “rock,” instead of just general ones, found through research, and then create a chart using Excel or some similar program in order to compare each subgenres traits to the ancestral traits. Realistically it will be a combination of both, as all phylogenetic trees need a base ancestor or an out-group. Once this tree is constructed I will put it on a website, likely a page of my WordPress site, and code it most likely using HTML or JavaScript. On the site the tree will be interactive so that users can click on a subgenre(leaf), or a characteristic(trait), and see more information about it in a box to the side. This box will contain a list of characteristics for the subgenre, the small amount of information on the subgenre’s origin, and an embedded YouTube video or two.




The underlying inspiration for this project is the diversity of this widely-known music genre. Around 1955 the popular jazz-based aesthetic of music gave way to the rock aesthetic with musicians such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and many others. Seemingly out of nowhere this new genre appeared, most likely because of the creative individuals of the time, the massive amount of youth, due to the baby-boomers, and the rise of commercial power for phonographs, radio, and television(Richard). Since then each decade has brought multiple branches to the genre as new creative individuals have altered their playing style. Today, the relationships between these many subgenres are a convoluted mess. In the field of biology, phylogenetic trees have been commonplace since they were made popular by Darwin in “Origin of Species.” They have been used to find relationships between living and extinct species, and even to find connections between strings of viruses in epidemiology such as with strands of the common flu(Phylogenetic). At the most basic level, phylogenetic trees are used, “for structuring classifications, and for providing insight into events that occurred during evolution”(Baum). It is a versatile method of representing relationships, applicable to many types of subject matter. Nothing seems to exist that exactly emulates the goal of this project. The “Map of Metal” charts relationships between subgenres of metal music, and some subgenres of rock, but the presentation is in the form of a map that moves throughout decades(Galbraith). The physical layout of the webpage is similar to what I would like to do, but the presentation of information is different. There was also the “Music Phylogeny Project,” a vague project described on a message board in 2009, and the only instance of a phylogenetic tree being used to classify music using traits(Maxiumus). The primary difference between the ambitions of this project and all of the current forms of rock classification is that many of the current maps are webs or timelines whereas my tree will be independent of temporal changes, and will be a rather linear map as opposed to a convoluted web. One large project that uses a similar biological approach to music is the Pandora Music Genome Project. This project uses up to 450 characteristics determined by music analysts with degrees in music theory and composition, and a complex algorithm, in order to find songs and artists similar to what you prefer to listen to (About). My project will focus more on genres than individual songs, and will focus on the physical mapping as opposed to just listing similarities within a computer program. Due to these differences I will need to put a lot of effort into developing a way for my presentation, of this somewhat similar information, that will be unique and beneficial.



This project is, in the broadest sense, important to everyone that enjoys rock music. It will not only provide an interesting view of rock subgenre relationships, but will ideally show how their formation and relation to each other may not have to do with time or place. For example, subgenres could show a resurgence of traits that were popular in an earlier decade. Bands also always claim many bands as their influences, so creating a phylogenetic tree of bands would be near impossible. However, by relating instead the numerous subgenres, one would be able to gain a deeper understanding of what musical traits led to what subgenres and then consequently new musical traits, and understand a band’s more primal, core influences. DCC has conveyed many interesting ways of thinking during my time in the program, and the primary ideas that I have been most influenced by have been looking at things from new perspectives, exploring projects that cross many disciplines, and incorporating digital media. This project serves as a perfect combination of these focuses: a musical subject explored through a biological construct presented on a digital platform. No project exists, that I could find, that is exactly like what I wish to do. There are projects created that map music genres, rock subgenres, etc, but never using a phylogenetic tree. Ex. “Map of Metal”(Galbraith) My project differs from those in regards to the physical structure, as well as in regards to my focus on traits instead of time. The one discussion of a phylogenetic tree I found was from a message board from 2009 where the goal was to make a phylogenetic tree of music, using traits, by band(Maxiumus). Compared to my project this was simply too massive to be possible, but it was still the closest thing found. It was also inactive since 2009, so it is unknown as to whether the idea was abandoned or if the user has been slowly working on it in their free time for these years.



I already have knowledge and practice using, reading, and constructing phylogenetic trees from my biology courses. I also have background knowledge of musical terminology that will make researching and choosing characteristics more efficient, and I already have exposure to many debatably obscure rock subgenres due to working with live shows at WMUC. Despite being a computer science minor, my area of least familiarity is in HTML and JavaScript. I plan to complete some small courses in these languages on Code Academy or Lynda in order to learn enough of the syntax to make my website.



This project is a combination of fields, all of which I am interested in. It will combine music terminology and content, biology and species evolution, and computer science and web development.

I will be doing data research on music, specifically rock, presenting this research in the form of a phylogenetic tree, a biological construct, and presenting that structure online, in a digital, interactive format. The research will consist of going through the top artists associated with each subgenre, and finding their top songs from the period in their musical career where they most epitomized the genre. I’ll then be using my own experience and judgement to average the characteristics of these songs, and make final decisions for the spreadsheet of data that will be containing the list of characteristics. During the time of creating the tree I will be looking through different past methods of interactivity and information display in order to find a unique way to portray the tree that will make it stand out.



Until winter break ~4 weeks

Winter break is December 19th to January 25th   ~6 weeks

Spring semester is January 25th to May 18th   ~16 (excluding exam week)

  • Reduce to ~15 weeks to account for the capstone fair or simply an earlier deadline
  • Reduce to ~14 weeks to account for spring break


Work for this project will be comprised of three major components:

  1. Research of subgenres (brief history/description, list of defining characteristics)
    1. Write brief origin blurb
    2. Listen to ~3 songs from each of the top bands of the subgenre
    3. Make final decisions regarding characteristics
  2. Organizing the subgenres into a tree based on their characteristics (phylogenetic)
    1. Working backwards approach
    2. Will be very complex and will need to be checked and reassessed many times before placement on the site
    3. Will most likely be completed once, have a lot of clumps of subgenres, and followed up by additional rounds of listening research
    4. Most likely the most time consuming part of the project
  3. Designing the website (will probably use my WordPress page)
    1. Need to work on HTML familiarity
    2. Need a method of displaying a huge phylogenetic tree on a single webpage (click branches/leaves to zoom perhaps)
    3. Need a side bar/box for information to be displayed
    4. Has the potential to be the most time consuming part of the project, though it is not the core of the project, more of an interactive representation


Through winter break I will have goals to accomplish in order to make the spring semester easier. However, being realistic about my drive to do work over winter break I will have deadlines for when I want that work done, as opposed to specific amounts each day or week.


Updated: 2/6/16



Weeks Goals/Progress Time allotted for this part
End of Fall Semester 2015 Began subgenre research log ~4 weeks, but minimal progress expected due to end of semester projects and exams
Start of Spring Semester1/25/16 Ideally: Have completed an HTML course/tutorial or two on Code Academy or Lynda
Worst Case: Did not learn enough HTML yet
~6 weeks
Will have a winter online course to work on as well for ~3 weeks
Ideally: Have research finished   Worst Case: Have MOST research finished (70%)
12- 2/1/16
13- 2/8/16 By the end of this week RESEARCH SHOULD BE FINISHED ~2.5 weeks post-break to finish up, due to the snow storm, should be more than enough time to nearly finish the research
If this time isn’t needed it can be spent beginning the tree and/or learning more HTML
14- 2/15/16 Grouping subgenres/working on tree.In these weeks prototypes will likely be created, more listening research will be done, and the tree will be revised.
15- 2/22/16
16- 2/29/16
17- 3/7/16 Ideally have sketch of final tree done by end of the week ~4 weeks if research wasn’t finished over winter break
18- 3/14/16 Spring Break = no progressDEADLINE FOR FINISHING HTML TUTORIALS
19- 3/21/16 Beginning, working on website.
Revising/finishing tree construction
20- 3/28/16
21- 4/4/16 Ideally mostly done by end of the week
Deadline for having final tree constructed. Physically putting it on the webpage may/will probably extend beyond this point.
~4 weeks
22-  4/11/16 Buffer Time:
Can be used to catch up on anything that took longer than expected/was delayed due to classes, double check things, get opinions, make corrections, etc.
Total about ~3/4 weeks of buffer timeIdeal worst case scenario will be no fancy features on online version, but users will still be able to view and interact with the tree itself.
23- 4/18/16
24- 4/25/16



BENCHMARKS (Golub requirement)

The project will consist of three major phases: research of subgenres, organization of subgenres and creation of the phylogenetic tree, and construction of an interactive webpage to house the tree. No exploratory stage seems to be needed for this project due to the set list of subgenres found, and no users will be involved until the final phase of the project.


General Benchmarks:


Final Goal (early May) – ideal: Full phylogenetic tree with over 100 subgenres displayed on a webpage where users can follow the branches and learn about the subgenres and characteristics. Clicking on subgenres(leaves) will display a small history of the subgenre as well as its defining traits and a couple of embedded videos.


Intermediate Goal (early to mid April) – still pleased: Full Phylogenetic tree with little over 100 subgenres, displayed on a webpage where users can click on subgenres(leaves) to see a brief history of the subgenre as well as its defining traits. Limited bells and whistles.


Earlier Intermediate Goal (mid to late March) – good enough/respectable: Full phylogenetic tree with up to 100 subgenres, displayed on a webpage where users can look at the tree and trace it to find common ancestors and places where new traits appeared. Maybe a large poster too




The target audience of this project is anyone who listens to rock music and has access to the internet. This excludes those who have no access to the internet, but I see no practical way to remedy that. The gap that is filled, by this project, in the rock music culture is the lack of a definitive, encompassing portrayal of the relationship between the many rock subgenres that is characteristic based instead of time based. It may challenge user’s perception of these relationships, by indicating relationships between specific subgenres they enjoy, and those they may not, and between subgenres that may be separated temporally.



This project will likely have no cost. There are many sites that help with creation of free, HTML customizable, websites. Ex. Weebly, WordPress




After my time in DCC this tree will still be available on the website. Though I have no specific time goals for adding additional features to the website, possibilities for additions include replicating it for other genres, and adding subgenres I may have missed (or that users thought of). After all, a phylogenetic tree by definition is a hypothesis, and so it should be alterable. My major, DCC, my interests, and this project all intertwine. The ideas that DCC has given me that impact this project are those of cross-disciplinary ideas and incorporation of new perspectives, both of which I have incorporated by taking a musical genre and representing it in a new way as a biological ancestor, and that of digital connection and interaction, which I incorporated through the website platform. The three topics involved, music, biology, and technology, are three of my main interests, and my major of Environmental Science and Technology will continue to involve two of these as I learn to design solutions to more world-impacting, environmental problems. This is a smaller, more interest based application of designing a solution to an important problem.




“About The Music Genome Project®.” Pandora, n.d. Web. 06 Feb. 2016.


Baum, David, Ph.D. “Reading a Phylogenetic Tree: The Meaning of Monophyletic

Groups.” Nature Education, 2008. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


Ezzaidi, Hassan, Mohammed Bahoura, and Jean Rouat. “Taxonomy of Musical Genres.” 2009 Fifth

International Conference on Signal Image Technology and Internet Based Systems (2009):

  1. pag. Apr. 2000. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


Galbraith, Patrick. “Map of Metal.” Map of Metal. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


Keightley, Keir. “5 Reconsidering Rock.” N.p., 2001. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


“List of Rock Genres.” N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


Maxiumus, Juicious, III. “The Music Phylogeny Project : Collecting Suggestions for Traits! N.p., 30 Oct. 2009. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


“Phylogenetic Tree.” N.p., 3 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


Richard A. Peterson (1990). Why 1955? Explaining the advent of rock music. Popular Music, 9, pp

97-116. doi:10.1017/S0261143000003767.


“Rock Music Timeline.” Rock Music Timeline. N.p., 2010. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


Scaruffi, Pierro. “History of Rock Music.” N.p., 2002. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


Shimodaira, Hidetoshi, and Masami Hasegawa. “CONSEL: For Assessing the Confidence of

Phylogenetic Tree Selection.” Oxford Journals. N.p., 2000. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


Understanding Evolution Team. “Phylogenetic Systematics, A.k.a. Evolutionary

Trees.” Understanding Evolution. Berkeley, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


Wicke, Peter, and Rachel Fogg. “Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics and

Sociology.” N.p., 1990. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.


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