A music genre is a category (or genre) of pieces of music that share a certain style or "basic musical language" (van der Merwe 1989, p.3). Music can also be categorised by non-musical criteria such as geographical origin. Such categories are not strictly genre and a single geographical category will often include a number of different genre.
Categorizing music, especially into finer genres or subgenres, can be difficult for newly emerging styles or for pieces of music that incorporate features of multiple genres. Attempts to pigeonhole particular musicians in a single genre are sometimes ill-founded as they may produce music in a variety of genres over time or even within a single piece. Some people feel that the categorization of music into genres is based more on commercial and marketing motives than musical criteria. John Zorn, for example, a musician whose work has covered a wide range of genres, wrote in Arcana: Musicians on Music that genres are tools used to "commodify and commercialize an artist's complex personal vision." Other artists feel that it is an artist's fault themselves if they make a body of work that can easily be put into a class shared with others.
Some genre labels are quite vague, and may be contrived by critics; post-rock, for example, is a term devised and defined by Simon Reynolds. Another example of this is video game music, which while defined by its media, can also represent its own style, as well as that of any other musical genre.
Dividing music by genre does make it easier to trace threads through music history, and makes it easier for individuals to find artists that they enjoy.
Overview of main groupings
Although there are many individual genres, it is possible to group these together into a number of overlapping major groupings. The rest of this page attempts to do that for a number of widely agreed areas.
These definitions are relatively short and simple, referring to further articles as needed.
See also: List of music genres, Genealogy of musical genres
Classical music (or art music)
The term classical music refers to a number of different, but related, genres. Without any qualification, the usual meaning of "classical music" in the English language is European classical music (an older usage describes specifically the Western art music of the Classical Music Era). It can also refer to the classical (or art) music of non-Western cultures such as Indian classical music or Chinese classical music.
In a Western context, classical music is generally a classification covering music composed and performed by professionally trained artists. Classical music is a written tradition. It is composed and written using music notation, and as a rule is performed faithfully to the score. Art music is a term widely used to describe classical music and other serious forms of artistic musical expression, Western or non-Western, especially referring to serious music composed after 1950.
Rhythm and blues
Rhythm and blues is a name for black popular music tradition. When speaking strictly of "rhythm 'n' blues", the term may refer to black pop-music from 1940s to 1960s that was not jazz nor blues but something more lightweight. The term "R&B" often refers to any contemporary black pop music. A notable subgenre of rhythm 'n' blues was doo-wop, which put emphasis on polyphonic singing. In the early 1960s rhythm 'n' blues took influences from gospel and rock and roll and thus soul music was born. In the late 1960s, funk music started to evolve out of soul; by the 1970s funk had become its own subgenre that stressed complex, "funky" rhythm patterns and monotonistic compositions based on a riff or two. In the early to mid 1970s, hip hop music (also known as "rap") grew out of funk and reggae (see below). Funk and soul music evolved into contemporary R&B (no longer an acronym) in the 1980s.
Rock, in its broadest sense, can refer to almost all popular music recorded since the early 1950s. Its earliest form, rock and roll, arose from multiple genres in the late 1940s, most importantly jump blues. It was first popularized by performers like Bill Haley, Dan and the Huberettes , and Elvis Presley, who fused the sound with country music, resulting in rockabilly. In addition, gospel music and a related genre, R&B (rhythm and blues), emerged later in the decade. R&B soon became one of the most popular genres, with girl groups, garage rock and surf rock most popular in the US, while harder, more blues-oriented musicians became popular in the UK, which soon developed into British blues, merseybeat, mod and skiffle.
Starting the mid-1960s, a group of British bands that played variations on American R&B-influenced blues became popular on both sides of the Atlantic -- the British Invasion, a catchall term for multiple genres. These groups, including the Beatles, fused the earlier sounds with Appalachian folk music, forming folk rock, as well as a variety of less-popular genres, including the singer-songwriter tradition. Early heavy metal and punk rock bands formed in this period, though these genres did not emerge as such for several years.
The most popular genre of the British Invasion was psychedelic music, which slowly morphed into bluegrass-influenced jam bands like the Grateful Dead and ornate, classically-influenced progressive rock bands. Merseybeat and mod groups like The Yardbirds and The Who soon evolved into hard rock, which, in the early 1970s specialized into a gritty sound called glam rock, as well as a mostly underground phenomenon called power pop. In the early to mid-1970s, singer-songwriters and pop musicians led the charts, though punk rock and krautrock also developed, and some success was achieved by southern rock and roots rock performers, which fused modern techniques with a more traditionalist sound.
Country music is usually used to refer to honky tonk today. Emerging in the 1930s in the United States, honky tonk country was strongly influenced by the blues, as well as jug bands (which cannot be properly called honky tonk). In the 1950s, country achieved great mainstream success by adding elements of rock and roll; this was called rockabilly. In addition, Western swing added influences from Swing and bluegrass emerged as a largely underground phenomenon. Later in the decade, the Nashville sound, a highly polished form of country music, became very popular. In reaction to this, harder-edged, gritty musicians sprung up in Bakersfield, California, inventing the Bakersfield sound. Merle Haggard and similar artists brought the Bakersfield sound to mainstream audiences in the 1960s, while Nashville started churning out countrypolitan. During the 1970s, the most popular genre was outlaw country, a heavily rock-influenced style. The late 1980s saw the Urban Cowboys bring about an influx of pop-oriented stars during the 1990s. Modern bluegrass music has remained mostly traditional, though progressive bluegrass and close harmony groups do exist, and the sound is the primary basis for jam bands like the Grateful Dead.
Electronic music started with the invention of the synthesizer. Some subcategories of electronic music include electronic dance music, space , new age, ambient, and the catch-all "electronica," which can sometimes include all of the above electronic sub-genres.
One of the first people to popularize the synthesizer was Wendy Carlos who performed classical music on the synthesizer on the recording Switched-On Bach. Space music was popularized by the group Tangerine Dream, among others, as a precursor to new age music. New age music served to support and perpetuate the values of the new age movement. Though there is some overlap between the various sub-genres of electronic music, Brian Eno, the creator of ambient music, claimed that ambient had a bit of "evil" in it, whereas new age music did not. Eno's creation was less values-driven than new age; his goal was to create music like wallpaper, insofar as the listener could listen to or easily ignore the music.
Naturally, many people have met electronic music also in the form of video game music.
Electronic dance music
Although many artists in the 50s and 60s created pure electronic music with pop structures, fully formed electronic dance music as we know it today really emerged in 1977 with Giorgio Moroder's From Here to Eternity album.
There are now many subgenres of electronic music, these include: techno (mechanical sounding dance music featuring little melody and more noise), trance music (with a distinct style of instrumentation focused on complex, uplifting chord progressions and melodies), Goa trance (spawning from industrial music and tribal dance, focusing on creating psychedelic sound effects within the songs), house music (fully electronic disco music), big beat (using older drum loops and more melodic elements sampled and looped), drum and bass (an offshoot of hardcore and Jamaican dancehall, utilizing quick tempos with sampled break beats, most notably the amen break and the funky drummer), gabber or gabba, (a Dutch development on techno, which features extremely high tempos and lots of overdrive and distortion on the music, especially the base drum being distorted into a square wave tone), happy hardcore (a slightly more palatable version of Gabba, fusing elements of drum and bass as well). Of these subgenres, trance is probably the most widespread.
Electronic dance music is often composed to fit easily into a live DJ set.
Electronic music that does not fall into the new age, techno or dance categories are often referred to as "left-field" or "electronica" (although there are critics who maintain that the term "electronica" is an invention of the media). Styles of electronica include ambient, downtempo, illbient and trip-hop (among countless others, see list of electronic music genres), which are all related in that they usually rely more on their atmospheric qualities than electronic dance music, and make use of slower, more subtle tempos, sometimes excluding rhythm completely.
IDM (an abbreviation for intelligent dance music) is an elusive and confusing genre classification that can only be truly defined by flagbearers and flagburners like Aphex Twin and Autechre.
All electronic music owes at least its historical existence to early pioneers of tape experiments known as musique concrète, such as John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as early synthesists like Wendy Carlos (aka Walter Carlos), Jean-Michel Jarre, and Morton Subotnick . (See electronic art music).
Melodic music is a term that covers various genres of non-classical music which are primarily characterised by the dominance of a single strong melody line. Rhythm, tempo and beat are subordinate to the melody line or tune, which is generally easily memorable, and followed without great difficulty. Melodic music is found in all parts of the world, overlapping many genres, and may be performed by a singer or orchestra, or a combination of the two.
In the west, melodic music has developed largely from folk song sources, and been heavily influenced by classical music in its development and orchestration. In many areas the border line between classical and melodic popular music is imprecise. Opera is generally considered to be a classical form. The lighter operetta is considered borderline, whilst stage and film musicals and musical comedy are firmly placed in the popular melodic category. The reasons for much of this are largely historical.
Other major categories of melodic music include music hall and vaudeville, which, along with the ballad, grew out of European folk music. Orchestral dance music developed from localised forms such as the jig, polka and waltz, but with the admixture of Latin American, negro blues and ragtime influences, it diversified into countless sub-genres such as big band, cabaret and Swing. More specialised forms of melodic music include military music , religious music. Also video game music is often melodic.
Traditional pop music overlaps a number of these categories: big band music and musical comedy, for example, are closely allied to traditional pop.
Reggae, dub and related forms
In Jamaica during the 1950s, American R&B was most popular, though mento (a form of folk music) was more common in rural areas. A fusion of the two styles, along with soca and other genres, formed ska, an extremely popular form of music intended for dancing. In the 1960s, reggae and dub emerged from ska and American rock and roll.
Starting the late 1960s, a rock-influenced form of music began developing -- this was called rocksteady. With some folk influences (both Jamaican and American), and the growing urban popularity of Rastafari, rocksteady evolved into what is now known as roots reggae. In the 1970s, a style called Lovers rock became popular primarily in the United Kingdom by British performers of ballad-oriented reggae music. The 1970s also saw the emergence of Two Tone in Coventry, England, with bands fusing ska and punk, as well as covering original ska tracks. Punk band The Clash also used Dub and reggae elements.
Dub emerged in Jamaica when sound system DJs began taking away the vocals from songs so that people could dance to the beat alone. Soon, pioneers like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry began adding new vocals over the old beats; the lyrics were rhythmic and rhyme-heavy. After the popularity of reggae died down in the early 1980s, derivatives of dub dominated the Jamaican charts. These included ragga and dancehall, both of which remained popular in Jamaica alone until the mainstream breakthrough of American gangsta rap (which evolved out of dub musicians like DJ Kool Herc moving to American cities). Ragga especially now has many devoted followers throughout the world.
Reggaeton is a fusion of reggae and rap, popular in Latin America, but gradually appearing in the mainstream charts.
Punk is a subgenre of rock music (see below). The term "punk music" can only rarely be applied without any controversy. Perhaps the only bands always considered "punk" are the first wave of punk bands, such as the Clash and the Ramones. Before this, however, a series of underground musicians helped define the music throughout the 1970s -- see Forerunners of punk music.
After 1978, following the collapse of The Sex Pistols, punk could go no further. However, the space that had been created in popular taste and in the distribution system facilitated a number of successors.
With the exhaustion of The Sex Pistols, none of their peers -- Blondie, Siouxie and the Banshees, Television, The Clash, The Pop Group, The Ramones was able to carry on the public fight for freedom of expression. A flood of other groups came to prominence in Britain who explored the new space with abandon.
Despite evidence to the contrary, many refused to believe that the phenomenon could not be repeated and several so-called genres acquired followings. These 'genres' can be grouped into three categories -- hardcore punk, New Wave and alternative rock.
Hardcore punk music kept the raw, visceral energy of the original punk bands. In the 1980s, reggae influences resulted in a fusion called ska punk, while another group of bands became known as Oi!, uniting punks and Skinheads with an aggressive, though often humourous style of streetpunk. Some of these bands took a far-right political stance, most notably Skrewdriver, but most distanced themselves from this, often appearing at the opposite end of the political spectrum, such as The Angelic Upstarts. During the 1990s, some more styles emerged, including straight edge, and queercore, based around subcultures -- straight edge and homosexuals, respectively. Psychobilly (see also cow punk ) also emerged, fusing punk with rockabilly and other kinds of country music. In addition, emo (or emocore) had appeared by the 90s, characterized by slower beats, dreamy vocals and angst-ridden lyrics, and moshcore, which involved heavy moshing.
New Wave was the most popular genre of punk music, dominating the charts during the early 1980s. Varieties included Neue Deutsche Welle, synth pop, dream pop and the New Romantics. Of these, the most popular was synth pop, though the most critically accepted groups were the underground dream pop bands. In the 1980s, dream pop evolved into many of the most popular genres of the 1990s. This occurred primarily in Britain, with styles like jangle pop (and the Paisley Underground) and noise pop (and, later, twee pop, shoegazing). All of these styles (along with psychedelic music) contributed to the popular emergence of Britpop in the middle of the decade.
Keeping the anti-corporate stance of punk music, alternative rock is a broad grouping, referring to multiple styles. The earliest genres were noise pop, post-rock and Gothic rock. These bands were unable to break into the mainstream, though they influenced many of the 1980s' most popular groups. By the end of the decade, post rock had developed into math rock, while other genres like Riot grrl, slowcore (aka sadcore or shoegazing) and grunge music. During the early 1990s, grunge music broke into the mainstream in a big way. With "alternative" now mainstream, other bands began referring to themselves as indie rock. Many all-women bands are alternative, punk, post-punk, or riot grrl. Popular alternative rock bands today incorporate several different styles of music bringing a hybrid of sounds, e.g. Linkin Park.
Hip hop / Rap
Hip hop music (also commonly referred to as "rap") can be seen as a subgenre of R&B tradition (see above). Hip hop began in inner cities in the US in the 1970s. The earliest recordings, from the late-1970s and early 1980s, are now referred to as old school hip hop. In the later part of the decade, regional styles developed. East Coast hip hop, based out of New York City, was by far the most popular as hip hop began to break into the mainstream. West Coast hip hop, based out of Los Angeles, was by far less popular until 1992, when Dr. Dre's The Chronic revolutionized the West Coast sound, using slow, stoned, lazy beats in what came to be called G Funk. Soon after, a host of other regional styles became popular, most notably Southern rap, based out of Atlanta and New Orleans, primarily. Atlanta-based performers like OutKast and Goodie Mob soon developed their own distinct sound, which came to be known as Dirty South. As hip hop became more popular in the mid-1990s, alternative hip hop gained in popularity among critics and long-time fans of the music.
De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising (1989) was perhaps the first "alternative hip hop" blockbuster, and helped develop a specific style called jazz rap, characterized by the use of live instrumentation and/or jazz samples. Other less popular forms of hip hop include various non-American varieties; Japan, Britain, Mexico, Sweden, Finland, France, Germany, Italy and Turkey have vibrant hip hop communities. In Puerto Rico, a style called reggaeton is popular. Electro hip hop was invented in the 1980s, but is distinctly different from most old school hip hop (as is go go, another old style). Some other genres have been created by fusing hip hop with techno (trip hop) and heavy metal (rapcore). In the late 1980s, Miami's hip hop scene was characterized by bass-heavy grooves designed for dancing -- Miami bass music. There are also rappers with Christian themes in the lyrics -- this is Christian hip hop.
Contemporary African music
Since the 1960s, most African popular music incorporates traditional local vocal, instrumental, and percussive styles, but also draws heavily on rock, reggae, and/or hip hop. For example raï, which originated in Algeria and spread throughout North Africa and to the North African diaspora, especially in France, began with topical songs based in the local traditional music, but, starting around 1980, began to incorporate elements of hip hop.
Other notable contemporary African genres include Zulu jive (South Africa), highlife (Ghana) and in Nigeria juju music (now nearly a century old, and constantly evolving) and Afrobeat. Many African countries have also developed their own versions of reggae and hip hop.
- van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0193161214.