I feel as though the most significant difference between composition of contemporary pop and oldies is form. Contemporary pop music (whoever is currently on the radio) is typically verse-chorus form, while "oldies" such as Elvis, Buddy Holly, and early 60's garage rock, are strophic in form or are simply standards (12 bar blues, for example).

My question: Are there other distinguishing stylistic characteristics for these two groups? I am wondering if the drums (swing drumming?), tone (of the guitars for example), rhythm/voicing of guitars (you don't see Buddy Holly ripping through eighth-note power chord sections) lyrical content (different themes?), vocal delivery, etc . . . play a significant role in making something feel "classic" or "nostalgic". If you wanted to write an early-rock hit, what would be some items on your check list?

  • Don't remember Buddy playing anything but full chords on his Strat. Power chords hadn't been invented in the '60s.
    – Tim
    Feb 7, 2020 at 20:20
  • @Tim that's a bit like saying “trousers with holes ripped in them hadn't been invented until the 70s”! Feb 9, 2020 at 15:09

1 Answer 1


One typical difference is the chord progression. Early pop songs used - aside the I7 IV7 V7 of Blues and Rock schemata - the main chords of the perfect cadence. ( e.g. this old house) or the “fifties pattern 1645”. You’ll find this progression very seldom today.

Another old fashioned style is to harmonize a bridge or refrain in the relative key leading back to the tonic:

E7 E7 am am

D7 D7 G7 G7

(I remember how the Beatles brought it up again.)

Present songs use more often modal chord progressions like: vi IV V iii in all variations (this change I recognized in the 80es.)

If I’ had to write a nostalgic song I’d use the fifty progression I vi IV V, lot of chains of secondary dominants along the circle of fifths, and also the “subdominant cadence”: I Ib7 IV iv ... with a shuffle rhythm or swing.

Your asking about “the voice”:

In the time of Elvis there was often between the a vocal “attacco” at the beginning of some words by the letter “a”: a one, a two, a three, a four ... (also in the spirituals)

The use of embellishments like in W. Houstons “I will always love you” came up in the 80es and is still present as a raging epidemic. Another feature is to sing very nasal (Rihanna) or with a little girl’s voice.

Authentic voices like Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Sinead O’connor, Amy Winehouse, Amy Macdonald are quit rarely. Also the sound of Boy Groups has become still slimy (If you don’t include RAP and Heavy Metal in your question ...)

An old fashioned feature is also the vibrato in very early pop music (comedian harmonists) or by some folk singers (Joan Baez, Elvis, Buffy St. Mairie).

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