Despite being the focus of studies in fields such as ethnomusicology, cultural studies, philosophy, and history, punk rock—and American hardcore punk rock in particular—has yet to fall under the analytical gaze of music theorists. In this dissertation I aim to fill this gap by examining some typical stylistic practices in hardcore punk, a repertoire described as aggressive, reflecting energy and intensity, and driven by an impulse toward brevity of song forms. In order to capture these elements, I examine instrument-specific items, such as drum patterns and guitar/bass riffs, as well as how repetitions of these play into creating form. Further, as the primary texts of hardcore are recordings, I also delve into matters of recording attributes. I argue that each of these items is integral in defining hardcore as a musical genre.
While the first incarnation of hardcore took place from the late-1970s to the mid-1980s and included a number of bands, I focus on early hardcore (roughly 1978–1983) and on four main bands: Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and the Dead Kennedys. I begin the dissertation by examining previous studies of hardcore music, of which there are very few. Following this, I briefly outline some of the main characteristics of the genre before presenting a history of each main band, via their discography. Chapter Two turns to the construction of drum patterns and what I call “riff schemes”: patterns of physical motion on the guitar that form the basis of several types of riffs. Further, this type of kinesthetic focus also informs my examination of common melodic and harmonic features of hardcore riffs, as I engage these patterns on a guitar’s fretboard. Chapter Three moves to larger aspects of form and addresses the components of individual formal sections, such as verses and choruses. Previous literature devoted to form in popular music supplies definitions, but many are too restrictive for application to hardcore; thus, I frame my own understandings by seeking out the main elements of each section—as identified by others—and shape them to reflect hardcore practice. Chapter Four examines recording attributes; in particular, I discuss the spatial aspects of recordings, with a brief foray into timbre. Recordings reflect several dimensions, including width (the placement and total spread of instruments on a horizontal plane); depth (the placement and total spread of instruments on a receding plane, as well as their placement in a performance environment); and height (the placement of instruments on a vertical plane, which measures high to low and is based upon frequency spectra). I address each attribute as it is reflected in hardcore before ending the chapter with a discussion of texture, specifically relating the creation of texture to these three dimensions. Chapter Five provides four in-depth analyses that address all of the previous musical elements examined in the dissertation, but also seeks to identify how certain metaphors of hardcore are signified in the music. While aggression is found in rhythmic and textural practices, energy and intensity are reflected in the construction of riffs, their deployment throughout a song, and the tempo at which they are performed. Brevity is present in all musical parameters, from formal constructions to recording attributes. The dissertation ends with a series of conclusions and prospects for future research.