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What Is Math Rock?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Math rock is a form of progressive rock music that is largely based on rhythmic structures within music and tight, mathematical precision and changes in style. Coming to prominence largely in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s in the US, this style of music is often noted for the complexity and technical skill of those who play it. One of the signature aspects of math rock is the way in which the tone and meter of a piece of music often changes throughout a song; rather than a single steady rhythm being used throughout, these songs often change over the course of a track.

The progressive rock movements largely began in the 1970s and continued throughout the latter part of the 20th Century in a number of forms. Hallmarks of this genre include the use of rock and roll instruments, such as a lead guitar, drums, and bass, to create music that transcends the common structure of rock songs. There are a number of sub genres within progressive rock, including math rock, and each of these strives to move beyond perceived limitations in popular music in a number of ways. In this type of rock, the primary method of transcendence is through tight rhythms that alter and change in ways that are often described as "angular" or "mathematic."

Common meter or time signature for most rock and roll songs is 4/4, which means that each measure, which is simply a group of beats, consists of four beats and a quarter note gets the beat. In math rock, however, less common time signatures are often used, such as 3/2 or 11/8. These are technically complex meters for a musician to play, and provide unusual and often discordant rhythms within a song. This type of structure largely inspired the term "math rock" as great technical skill is required to play pieces of music that often seem geometric or mathematical in nature.

Not only does most rock music use a single, simple measure for many songs, but this time signature is used steadily throughout the song. In a math rock arrangement, however, time signatures can change abruptly, giving the music a disjointed yet internally cohesive feel. Sudden stops and starts, changes in rhythm, and accelerations or decelerations in tempo are all signature elements within math rock. Since the end of the 20th century, there has been little growth in this sub genre, though some fans have continued to enjoy prominent artists within the movement who may be influential on future musicians.

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Discussion Comments

By kentuckycat — On Jul 02, 2012

@TreeMan - I guess it would depend on who you ask as to whether or not Dream Theater is included as a math rock band. I believe that most people would classify them as a progressive metal band rather than progressive rock. Even that distinction can be a fine line.

I think if you listened to a little math rock, though, you would agree that Dream Theater doesn't really sound the same. That's not to say they aren't a great band that incorporates a lot of the same principles as math rock, they just do it with a different style.

The other thing you will find with math rock is that it doesn't have one distinct sound. Some bands are more "psychedelic" while others stick to basic guitar riffs like regular rock music. Some of the more experimental bands would be Breadwinner and Battles. Bands that sound more like regular rock would be A Minor Forest and Marnie Stern. The latter of which is a newer artist.

By TreeMan — On Jul 02, 2012

I have also never heard of math rock as a genre before. I am familiar with the band Dream Theater, though. I am assuming they would be considered math rock, right? Their music is very diverse in terms of arrangements and time signatures. I believe they are also classified in the progressive rock group, so I'm not sure why they wouldn't be included.

I really enjoy Dream Theater, but it is hard to find similar bands to them that I like. I would be very interested to hear about some more bands that are in the same genre.

I can understand why these types of bands wouldn't get a lot of radio airtime, though. I personally like to listen to this type of music, but I don't think most people would be able to appreciate the subtleties in terms of the rhythms and such.

By Emilski — On Jul 01, 2012

@stl156 - Good questions. I have just discovered math rock over the past few weeks, so I am just now learning a little bit more about it.

Besides the band Yes, King Crimson is another big influence on progressive rock. I would say they are much more similar to the math rock bands than Yes is.

As far as I know, no math rock bands get any regular radio play. You might be able to find them on a college radio station or something, but most of the bands aren't popular enough for a mainstream audience. I doubt it will happen anytime soon, either. Like the article says, there are very few new bands forming nowadays. If the music wasn't popular in the 90s, it probably never will.

One of my favorite bands so far is called Battles. They are one of the most popular bands of the math rock genre. Little Mexico is a good band, as well.

By stl156 — On Jun 30, 2012

Interesting. I listen to a lot of rock music, but I have definitely never heard of anything called math rock. I think I generally understand the concept of the bands using unique time signatures.

I am curious if anyone here knows of any popular bands that would fall into the math rock genre. I don't listen to much progressive rock in the first place, so I really don't know any bands. The only band I do know that is typically associated with progressive rock is Yes. I know in a few of their songs they use some odd time signatures, but it doesn't sound like they would be included in this group, since they were popular mostly in the 70s.

It seems like a lot of new music genres get their start in a certain part of the country. Is that the case with math rock, or did it kind of spring up from a few different spots?

By anon242301 — On Jan 23, 2012

Not very well explained at all.

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