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 may also be categorised by non-musical criteria such as geographical origin though a single geographical category will often include a wide variety of sub-genres.
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”. Others contend that it is actually the artist who chooses (knowingly or not) to create an artistic work that can be easily classified within a genre. These contentions are not mutually exclusive; Some say there is a tradeoff in which most artists seek individual expression as well as the approval/acceptance of an audience, and audiences like any group of human beings prefer to identify themselves with the things they love… hence the need for a label.
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.
Categorizing 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. Moreover, the use of genre labels may actually drive the development of new music (especially in a commercial context) insofar as it helps cultivate the interest and participation of a target audience in the early and middle stages of a musical trend. Most new genre labels are aimed at the youth market, who typically desire to contrast the mainstream, yet conform to their peer group… resulting in readily marketed fads of all kinds, including music genres. Swing, Rock, New-Wave, Rap, and Grunge are all examples of music genres in which millions of young people enjoyed being different… in unison. This disproportionate commercial targeting of genres towards the youth market may diminish as young people increasingly shift from being music “buyers”… to being music “downloaders”, with or without a purchase involved.
Although there are many individual genres, it is possible to group these together into a number of overlapping major groupings.
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. In common usage, “classical music” often refers to orchestral music in general, regardless of when it was composed or for what purpose (film scores and orchestral arrangements on pop music recordings, for example).
Gospel is a musical genre characterised by dominant vocals (often with strong use of harmony) referencing lyrics of a religious nature, particularly Christian. Subgenres include contemporary gospel and urban contemporary gospel.
Jazz is a musical form that grew out of a cross-fertilization of folk blues, ragtime, and European music, particularly band music. It has been called the first native art form to develop in the United States of America. The music has gone through a series of developments since its inception. In roughly chronological order they are Dixieland, swing/big band, bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, free jazz, jazz fusion and smooth jazz.
Jazz is primarily an instrumental form of music. The instrument most closely associated with jazz may be the saxophone, followed closely by the trumpet. The trombone, piano, double bass, guitar and drums are also primary jazz instruments. The clarinet and banjo were often used, especially in the earlier styles of jazz. Although there have been many renowned jazz vocalists, and many of the most well-known jazz tunes have lyrics, the majority of well-known and influential jazz musicians and composers have been instrumentalists. During the time of its widest popularity, roughly 1920 to 1950, jazz and popular music had a very intimate connection. Popular songs drew upon jazz influences, and many jazz hits were reworkings of popular songs, or lyrics were written for jazz tunes in an attempt to create popular hits.
The single most distinguishing characteristic of jazz is improvisation. Jazz also tends to utilize complex chord structures and an advanced sense of harmony. These characteristics in combination with the use of improvisation require a high degree of technical skill and musical knowledge from the performers.
The art form today is a widely varied one, using influences from all of the past styles, although the root of modern jazz is primarily bebop. Modern jazz can also incorporate elements of rock and roll, electronica, and hip-hop.
Jazz was a direct influence on Rhythm and blues, and therefore a secondary influence on most later genres of popular music. Modern American art music composers have often used elements of jazz in their compositions.
Latin American Music, music of Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean (see West Indies). The region of Latin America contains a rich variety of cultural and musical heritages, including those of lowland Native Americans in the Amazon River area and parts of Central America; those of highland Native Americans in Mexico, Guatemala, and the Andes; those of African Americans, especially in the Caribbean, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana, coastal Venezuela, Colombia, and northeastern Brazil; and those of people of Spanish and Portuguese descent.
The Blues is a vocal and instrumental music form which emerged in the African-American community of the United States. Blues evolved from West African spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants and has its earliest stylistic roots in West Africa. This musical form has been a major influence on later American and Western popular music, finding expression in ragtime, jazz, big bands, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and country music, as well as conventional pop songs and even modern classical music. Due to its powerful influence that spawned other major musical genres originating from America, blues can be regarded as the root of pop as well as American music.
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. Early-1950s R&B music became popular with both black and white audiences, and popular records were often covered by white artists, leading to the development of rock and roll.
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, which cross-pollinated with hip-hop for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st century.
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. Although invented by Chuck Berry, it was first popularized by performers like Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, 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. In the 1980s, rock continued to evolve as metal became popular and punk continued to evolve into other forms including New Wave, post-punk, and alternative rock. The two encountered a fusion of sorts, creating grunge in the early 1990s, a style of alternative rock (which includes Britpop, gothic rock, and shoegazing, among others).
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,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 long before the invention of the synthesizer with the use of tape loops and analogue electronics in the 1950s and 1960s. Well known examples include the theme music to the TV series Doctor Who, recorded in 1963 by Delia Derbyshire, and the catch-all “electronica,” which can sometimes include all of the above electronic sub-genres, but usually refers to electronic music without lyrics.
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 (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, (a Dutch development on techno, which features extremely high tempos and lots of overdrive and distortion on the music, especially the bass drum being distorted into a square wave tone), happy hardcore (a less confronting take on Gabba, fusing elements of drum and bass as well and often including sped up vocals from 70s pop music), synthpop (features strong pop songwriting/melodies with roots in 1980’s dance music), and electro. Of these subgenres, trance and house are 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”. 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, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Morton Subotnick .
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.
Ska, 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 the Rastafari movement, 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 rock is a subgenre of rock music. The term “punk rock” 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, The Sex Pistols and the Ramones, and even then they may be labeled “sellouts” by more hardcore fans. Before this, however, a series of underground musicians helped define the music throughout the 1970s.
Punk is often considered especially important for its “Do-it-yourself” philosophy. Many punk musicians encouraged their fans and audience members to learn to play instruments and form their own bands, and doing so was implicitly encouraged by the apparent simplicity of the music. Since punk bands were often ignored by major labels, the definitions of the many sub-genres, and the question of which groups belong in which sub-genres, is often a subject of heated debate.
The derivative genres of punk can be roughly grouped into four general styles — hardcore punk, New Wave, post-punk and alternative rock. See those articles and their associated categories (look near the bottom of the article pages) for more information on the many styles of punk rock.
Hip hop / Rap / Rapcore
Hip hop music can be seen as a subgenre of R&B tradition (see above). Hip hop culture, the movement from which the music came, 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 and Ludacris 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. Horrorcore, or Acid Rap is mainly credited to Detroit and the Midwest. There are also rappers with Christian themes in the lyrics — this is Christian hip hop.
Perhaps the most recent development in hip hop is the Backpacker sub-genre. Characterized by a renewed focus on poetry and Hip hop culture, it includes artists such as Sage Francis, Atmosphere, and Eyedea and Abilities.
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, Nigeria), Zouk (Cape Verde), Soukous (Zaire, Congo) and in Nigeria jùjú 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.
One of the problems with the grouping of music into genres is that it is a subjective process that has a lot to do with the individual’s personal understanding and way of listening to music. This is especially true in sub-genres. One example is Led Zeppelin, which could be called heavy metal, hard rock, or blues, depending on one’s interpretation.
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