What is a Music Genre? (And How Are They Defined?)

A music genre is a categorization system that defines pieces of music under a style according to their most distinctive elements. All songs under a genre share similarities in their forms, styles, and/or origins. Genres are also divided into sub-genres for more accurate classification.

Music genres are defined with many different elements, such as the time and the reason the piece was composed, the instruments used, the style and form, and the country of origin. As there are many different classification systems, some music genres overlap. This means some music can belong to more than one genre.

Combining musical pieces under a roof with a genre name is not an easy task. All musical pieces have their unique fingerprints, making it hard to classify them with others. That is why there is also the term crossover genre, whose songs feature elements from more than one different genre.

From the early stone and stick rhythms played by our ancestors’ ages ago, music developed into a vast web with many different genres from the fundamental structures of folk music to hypnotic dance music or rock riffs and complex classical music or jazz pieces.

Types Of Music Genres

1. Pop Music

Pop music refers to popular music that took its form in the late 1960s. It is an easy-listening genre with distinctive structures with basic melodies, repeated choruses and hooks, and defined progressions. There are many different pop music styles played by different instruments, but the structures are mostly similar.

Guitar, bass, drums are some of the most used instruments in pop music, along with the dominance of electronic elements. The lyrics are mainly about love, relationships, and money. Pop music is the most commercial music genre today, and it appeals to any audience in the world.

2. Hip-Hop and Rap

Hip-hop and Rap music are mainly described as stylized rhythmic music with the fast rhyming singing style called rap. The two genres are closely related and originated from the Afro-American and Latin-American ghettos in the U.S.A. in the mid-’70s. The music has its own culture with breakdance, MCing, DJing, and graffiti. 

3. Rock

Rock music is one of the most diverse genres, which originated in the U.S.A. and later in Great Britain in the ’50s with the main influence of blues as well as gospel, country, and jazz music. It is characterized as an electric guitar dominant genre accompanied by bass guitar, vocals, and drums. 

Rock often has a high tempo, energetic vocals, a strong backbeat, and guitar solo partitions. The first subgenre was rock n’ roll, but later it spread worldwide with different subgenres like Punk, Hard Rock, Indie Rock, Alternative Rock, and many more. Although it is not as popular as it was from the ’60s to 90’s today, it is still one of the most popular genres.

4. Dance and Electronic Music

Dance and Electronic Music are defined by their electronic and digital instrument and circuitry-based music technology, aiming to make people dance. However, today electronic music has many different subgenres that use electronic instruments for different aims and motivations, from experimental art music to hypnotic experiences.

5. Latin Music

Latin music refers to the traditional music of Latin countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Some genre examples are Salsa, Samba, Bachata, and Flamenco. These genres are also associated with a specific culture and dancing style. Most of them use traditional instruments with a heavy focus on traditional percussion.

6. Country Music

Country music is actually folk music from the early 1920’s southern U.S.A. It combines influences from blues, cajun and indigenous folk music and is also known as western music. The main instrument is always a banjo or a guitar.

Country songs mostly talk about some events and/or different topics, regarding nostalgia, love, and death. They feature simple structures with simple notation.

7. Metal

Evolved from rock music in the 1980s, metal music is the rougher form of rock with a higher tempo, more aggressive guitar tones, and vocals, some with the brutal singing technique. Some subgenres are heavy metal, death metal, thrash metal, and power metal.

8. Religious Music

Religious music is one of the oldest genres and refers to any kind of song composed for religious uses. Some subgenres are gospel, hymns, spiritual, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu music. They may have religious lyrics or can be solely instrumental with a spiritual feeling.

9. Reggae

Reggae music originated from Jamaica during the late 1960s. Reggae is characterized by its distinctive vocals and lyrics, which talk about the Jamaican people’s lifestyles, struggles, and social aspects. 

The songs are generally activist songs trying to raise awareness on world peace, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism as well as the Rastafari movement. Another important character of the genre is its heavy 4/4 rhythm with the missing beat.

10. Traditional and Folk Music

Traditional and Folk music refers to a large group of genres that indicates musical pieces from different cultures that have been performed for a long period. Each culture has different characteristic elements with their traditional music, but mainly they are basic tunes that are orally passed from generation to generation.

11. Jazz

Jazz is one of the most complex musical genres that require high instrument technique, musical harmony knowledge as well as composition skills to perform and compose. It originated in New Orleans, U.S.A., with influences from West African Music. It features heavy use of wind instruments like trumpet saxophone as well as other instruments like bass, drums, and guitars. Improvising is also a big part of jazz music.

12. Art Music

Art music is the formal style of music with highly sophisticated notation and instrument structures, mainly the most complex pieces of music. They can be played by a single or multiple instruments like quartets or orchestras. Art music indicates classical music and some contemporary music.

It is defined by highly sophisticated instrument structures, its written tradition, and its focus on the composer rather than a performer. When talking about art musical pieces, you talk about the notated version of the piece instead of a particular performance or a recording. Often art music is not an easy genre to listen to, which requires great attention by the listener.

Classical music has its subgenres that are named after the period they are composed of, like the classical, romantic, and baroque. The first names that come to mind are Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart.

Contemporary art music is named after the musical structures in which the songs are composed, like jazz-fusion or rock music. 

How did genres evolve?

Most genres evolved from the same roots; traditional and religious music. With time new music instruments were developed, and the music started getting global, which allowed different influences to melt in the same pot creating new genres. The music grew like a big tree, with every branch giving way to new branches.

Before the 20th century, there was classical, religious, and traditional folk music. Later came the opera genre. In the 1920s, jazz and blues were born with African traditional music influence on Christian gospels. Later, country music came to the scene with blues and indigenous music influences. The country gave way to rock and rock to pop and metal.

With the development of electronic devices to use in music, pop led to disco music. On the other side, with its different vocal styles, hip-hop and rap were born. This way, the music tree grew larger and larger like a domino effect, every genre influencing each other and giving birth to a new genre or subgenre.

Drawbacks Of Categorization Music Into Genres

Categorizing is a system of reduction that has some serious drawbacks. One of the major problems with genres is overgeneralizing the individual musical pieces to some headlines. This sometimes leads to inaccurate labels and does not simply do the artists and their music justice. 

Music genres are great tools to easily navigate through different styles of music. But, actually, every individual musical piece is unique and should not fall on the same headline as others. This sometimes leads to huge misconceptions, like in the case of the genre  “World Music.”

This is an extremely wide headline for a genre and reflects the U.S.A. and Europe-centered perception. It means ethnic and traditional music, but the name is utterly unappealing and patronizing, implying these types of music are primitive.

On the other hand, in the case of electronic music, it is a very wide genre that originated as dance music but evolved into something much more with the use of electronic and digital instruments as well as acoustic instruments. Today many electronic-acoustic hybrid music genres are called electronic music, which does not reflect the actual truth.

Another drawback is that many artists do not accept their songs belonging to a single genre. That is why many new sub-genres are being created frequently, as the categorizations fail each day.

Summary

In short, genres are musical categories that help us to navigate through the music history and musical pieces to find and label the ones we love or not. Although they are not 100% accurate, they show us some similarities in their way of instrument use, structure, rhythm, lyrics, or origins of the tunes.

Genres are extremely popular and useful, but they can also be limiting and misleading. The point is not to limit the music to genres but to find a way for it to grow beyond them.