Edgard Varese defined music as "organized sound". And even after organizing sounds to make music, you need to organize these musical works according to the way they are organized! These modes of organization are called "genres", a word that has become synonymous with an individual’s generation and lifestyle.
No matter what the media ‘industry’ says or does, music shall always remain a form of art. Even when made solely for the purpose of getting rich, it still needs a source of expression. Every genre has a build-up and then a follow-up. Every style has its high point. Today we have such a large list of musical genres and styles, that it would be impossible for anyone to listen to every piece of music created even in a hundred lifetimes, let alone one! And that is why we make categories: to find a style that suits us and explore it as much as we can.
The music of the old days. The kind of music that most of us have forgotten, yet listen to everyday. Because most of what we hear now is derived from what the great classical composers created decades and centuries ago. The main categories in classical music are Orchestral music, Chamber music, and Opera.
We may think of classical music as what orchestras play in a giant auditorium, wearing black clothes, with a conductor frantically waving his staff about. That’s a very base description of something that the composers dedicated their lives to.
The usual grand collection of many musicians (more than eighty), grouped according to their instrument, guided by their sheet music, years of training and practice, and the conductor. It started in the early 17th century and evolved into different sub-categories.
A symphony consists of four movements (sometimes three). They usually differ from each other through the kind of emotion they are designed to invoke.
A suite (pronounced ‘sweet’, French for ‘a sequence’) is an arrangement of short movements, either self-composed or taken from someone else’s composition.
An overture is a piece of composition that acts as the curtain-raiser to the opera.
A concerto is essentially made of three movements, that are created solely for the purpose of letting the soloist instrument shine out. This is unlike a symphony, where all instruments perform in unison.
Ballet is orchestral music that is based on dance movements. This type was created and nurtured during the Romantic era.
Incidental music is directly related to stage music; it provides the motion to an act. The sections are short and often repetitive.
Chamber music is musical work composed specifically for a smaller instrumental arrangement (smaller than an orchestra).
The most popular type of classical music to come out of the Baroque era was the opera. It’s an orchestra set to an entire play. The composition can be created to accompany an act or display the emotions of a character on a colorfully constructed background.
You also have two other types in this category: vocal music and solo instrumental music. Vocal music may or may not be accompanied by instruments, while solo instrumental music is not accompanied by anything.
Apart from the above ‘types’, you also have the major ‘styles’ of classical music: Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic and Contemporary (or neoclassical). Each movement or era can be distinguished through chronology and the location of their origin.
The origins of rock ‘n’ roll are as foggy as the genre is popular; the term was coined in 1955 by Alan Freed, a disc jockey from Ohio. The oldest form of rock ‘n’ roll (1950s) was a mixture of R&B, country and rockabilly (it was just called hillbilly music back then), only it was faster, louder and ‘dangerous’. The man at the forefront of this genre was (and still is) Elvis Presley, followed by personalities like Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
The rock scene in the 50s was more about shock value, which included fashion statements, sexually-oriented lyrics and dance moves catering to a young audience in particular. There were generations of largely American and European artists, each influenced by their predecessors, trying to make something better, in rock music. Whether that was through clothes, the rhythm or harnessing and even catalyzing political agenda, rock music was, is and will be, all about shocking the current generation.
The one great push for music into the whole rock band scene was arguably done by The Yardbirds. The band includes the three guitarists that helped shape rock music – Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. Each member contributed heavily to the band as well as creating entire separate realms of rock, namely the band Led Zeppelin (founded by Jimmy Page).
All in all, rock can be largely sub-categorized into the following types or styles. Bear in mind that they are more of less styles of rock rather than completely different genres, and that an artist or a band can be found in more than one style (like Led Zeppelin can be found under hard rock, psychedelic rock and folk rock. Queen falls under progressive rock and glam rock).
Alternative rock is anything that peaked for brief periods of time and was out of the ordinary, even by rock standards. This includes grunge, indie, new wave, punk and goth to name a few. Alternative rock can be defined more through movements rather than individual bands.
Art rock, which is the early form of psychedelic rock and progressive rock. It is led by the bands Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Pink Floyd and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Jimi was also known as the pioneer of acid rock).
Arena rock, which is just a different way to see the greater rock bands of old: under heavy lighting, dynamic stage acts and crowd inclusion. The style focuses more on the stage (like Woodstock) than any band in particular.
Metal is perhaps the branch of rock with the most number of offshoots. It is believed to be initiated by Black Sabbath. It also includes Iron Maiden, who are a part of the heavy metal movement called New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
Glam rock can encompass a wider range of other styles of rock, and add feminine detailing and promiscuity. This includes David Bowie, Queen, Elton John and T. Rex. There’s also glam metal with Alice Cooper and Aerosmith.
These main styles have a wide array of sub-categories, giving you hundreds of styles in rock music, like death metal, British invasion, southern rock, roots rock, college rock, Christian rock, etc.
The reason why blues became so popular can only be understood when you look at its time of creation. The origin of blues is too unclear to pinpoint to one artist or one year; for the sake of historic importance, it’s believed that the blues music was created in the late 19th century, by the black slaves that were forced to work in the cotton fields. Blues has firm roots in African traditional music.
The purpose of making the blues is always the same: the expression of intense emotions. It is the one reason why this genre had such a profound effect on America, and eventually the world. Blues is usually categorized by the location of a style, because everywhere the blues went, it caught a different feel.
Mississippi delta blues came from the Mississippi delta region. It’s the oldest known form of blues as a genre, from which other forms later evolved. Artists included in this style are Muddy Waters and Memphis Minnie (When the Levee Breaks is a perfect example of the delta blues).
Chicago blues came next, when the delta musicians started traveling to the big city to look for a better life. Which is why Muddy Waters can be considered as both a delta blues man and a Chicago blues artist. The biggest difference between the two styles is the use of electric guitars and a slightly faster pace in the latter.
Texas blues came out after America saw how big Chicago blues was getting. The style was made famous by artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddie King.
Blues rock was one of the last big blues styles to hit it big. It’s largely inspired by the Chicago blues and started in the 1960s by bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and ZZ Top.
Jazz is the second genre born from African traditional music. It is considered to be America’s first indigenous form of music. It is believed to have started after the Civil War, when the black people were free to travel and seek employment.
Similar to the blues, the jazz styles are also classified according to time and location.
Ragtime was the most popular form of jazz. It started in the late 1800s and included heavy use of the piano. It was a little different from the other jazz styles because it was formally composed, rather than improvised. Check out ‘Shoe Tickler Rag’ and ‘The Maple Leaf Rag’.
New Orleans jazz started in that city and focused on collective improvisation.
Chicago jazz is where the swing really started swinging. It’s characterized by a fast hip-swerving rhythm fronted by a solo sax improvisation.
Bebop is all about nonsensical syllables that are more percussive than literary (like the Bill Cosby memes). Bebop came after the swing era and around the start of WW II.
Cool jazz is a direct response to the then-declining bebop jazz. It was more classical and formal.
Smooth jazz is one of the last styles implemented. It is heavily influenced by R&B and funk.
Scat jazz is a form of vocal jazz similar to bebop. Check out Ella Fitzgerald.
Electronic music is much older than you think. The first in the history of electronic music was Thaddeus Cahill and his telharmonium in 1897. Since then, composers started using the concept of electronically generated music to produce scores that were impossible to replicate by man through existing mechanical instruments.
Because of its definition, it becomes difficult to ascertain whether a piece of music is electronic or not. Electronic music means it is synthetically produced. So the previous century would call anything that wasn’t acoustic as electronic. Today, it means music that sounds synthetic, regardless of it being made using computers or not. It is mostly dance-oriented.
The full list being too big, I’ve mentioned the bigger categories of electronic music.
You have the house and lounge music that falls under ambient music. Electronic rock uses instruments like the etherphone and the mellotron
Then you have the big styles meant for dancing, like disco, eurodance, electronica and techno.
There are also experimental styles like industrial music and glitch.
Dubstep is a relatively new addition (late 90s) to the genre, which branches out into brostep and wonky.
The list also contains vague styles like chiptunes (video game music) of which nintendocore is an offshoot.
Listen to artists like Chemical Brothers, Infected Mushroom, Bassnectar and Daft Punk to get an idea of electronic music.
Folk music can be broadly classified into two groups, traditional folk and folk revival. Not styles, like other genres. There is only one type – folk. The actual folk songs are something that are indigenous to a culture, popularized at events and passed down mostly orally.
It is often the case that a folk song does not have a singular credible artist (or cannot be found). The songs are sourced as anonymous and are therefore, not owned by anyone. They are always lyrically important, with an easy rhythm to guide the song. Also, it is mostly the working class that engages in expressive songs. It is they who make the folk songs, which is why the songs are about daily life and the workers’ struggle, or about nature and wildlife, or even lullabies for children.
The other group can be collectively called folk music or folk revival music. It is commercially successful, credible to artists who exist and are relatively new (since the 19th). The sound is derived from the folk songs of old (usually sticking to one style) and the lyrics are created wholly by the artist or drawn from the folk song itself. Artists that have made folk music include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.
Country music originated around the 1920s, part in Southern U.S. and part in the Appalachian mountains. It comes from a combination of southern folk songs, gospel and blues music. It all started with ‘Sallie Gooden’ by Eck Robertson. His style was similar to what we can call country music. The genre was made famous by Jimmie Rodgers, who is also known as the Father of Country Music.
Here are the bigger styles of country music:
Bluegrass is heavily influenced by American traditional music or roots music. It was created by Irish and British immigrants that landed in Appalachia. The name actually comes from Bill Monroe’s band Bluegrass Boys, who are from Kentucky, the Bluegrass State.
Honky-tonk is a type of pub music that is derived from ragtime. The style is more about country and blues songs that refer to the honky-tonk pub life (southern pubs, the kind that would keep a mechanical bull), like Hank Williams’ ‘Honky-Tonkin” and ‘Honky-Tonk Women’ by The Rolling Stones.
Rockabilly is basically of “rock n’ roll” and hillbilly music. It can be considered a part of both the genres. It started out in the 50s and is popular to this day.
Outlaw country focuses on the ‘outlaw’ image and music of the Wild West, like Willie Nelson’s Shotgun Willie.
Alternative country is like alternative rock; it covers everything country that isn’t mainstream. It’s difficult to call an artist’s entire work as alternative, usually it’s only a part of their work.
R&B, which stands for Rhythm and Blues, was a name coined due to need rather than style. During the 40s, any music created by the African-American populace was termed ‘black music’ or ‘race music’. The term was quite offensive and therefore, stunted the growth and popularity of the artists. In order to make it sound more upbeat, Billboard reporter Jerry Wexler coined R&B, and the phrase has stuck since then.
A very generalized answer to what R&B means is the vocal styles of blues music, spread over different rhythms. These rhythms come from almost anywhere in mainstream parts of gospel, jazz, country and rock ‘n’ roll. It is this rhythm that sets R&B apart from blues. This implies R&B can encompass all the said categories, while maintaining its own style.
Funk can be considered to be a part of R&B. It includes James Brown (the creator of funk) and Earth, Wind and Fire. The music is primarily meant to be danced to.
Contemporary R&B is music that fits into the R&B category after the 80s.
Soul is a style generated from a heavy influence of gospel music on blues and R&B. The style was largely created by Ray Charles.
Neo Soul is almost like soul, except it includes influences from hip hop, rap and pop. It’s basically an R&B style that started in the late 90s.
R&B is also classified through the setlists that radio stations play, spawning branches like urban adult contemporary and urban contemporary.
The music of hip hop is just a part of the whole culture, a very big part. The music is marked by a significant importance to the bass and the beats, with rapping as the predominant vocal art form. Which is why rap is a part of hip hop culture and therefore, its styles are also a part of hip hop music.
The term was coined by Keith Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The man who is believed to be the originator of hip hop music is DJ Kool Herc. Afrika Bambaataa, one of the artists who created break-beating is considered the grandfather of hip hop. Then you have Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin who founded Def Jam Records. Them, along with others like Run D.M.C. and Public Enemy are called the pioneers of hip hop.
The music is divided into two parts, DJing and rapping, although both of them are regularly used together. DJ Kool Herc and many others started the art of turntablism, which includes disc-scratching, sampling and crowd control using live audio techniques.
Hip hop has an incredible number of styles, each bringing something different to the table.
the evergreen freestyle rap
the popular gangsta rap
the experimental branch, Avant garde hip hop
the rave scene’s ghetto house and ghettotech
the incendiary political hip hop
the geeky nerdcore
Christian hip hop
And the whole scene is divided into the East Coat and West Coast hip hop!
Ska and Reggae
To be precise, reggae can be called an offshoot of ska, because ska came before reggae. Ska is roughly a mixture of calypso and jazz. It is more percussive than melodic and very upbeat. You can divide the styles of ska into three generations or ‘waves’.
The first wave is the original ska movement started in Jamaica in the 1950s. It was the experimental stage, so you have a muddle of styles coming together. Jamaica was already exposed to jazz and blues at this time, so the influence is easily heard (Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals).
The second wave (aka two-tone) was the opposite of what happened in the first wave. Britain’s grip on Jamaica was weakening, and Jamaica responded in an explosion of culture. Their music (like Bob Marley and the Wailers, who are from the first wave) was being heard in both Europe and America. By the 70s, you saw bands like Madness from London, that created and promoted ska.
The third wave came in the 80s and was way more punk than 2-tone. It was faster in tempo and was liked mostly by skinheads.
Rocksteady is the name of the genre between ska and reggae. It was intended for dance, was much slower than ska and used offbeat rhythms. Alton Ellis is known as the Godfather of Rocksteady. You’ll also find bands like the Skatalites and a number of popular ska artists in this style.
And then came reggae. The thing is, ‘reggae’ is used as the umbrella term for Jamaican music, not ska. So even though ska and rocksteady came before reggae, we call them a part of reggae, for the sake of convenience. So reggae basically takes all the most interesting elements from its past forms and melds them together to make the music of the Rastafari movement. Your prominent types of reggae music are:
Early reggae, which started in 1968. It had more elements of funk in it, making it groovy and often instrumental.
Roots reggae started after the 70s. It is the most popular form of reggae (read Bob Marley).
Rockers reggae is what you get when a rock musician gets into reggae. It’s more aggressive, pumped up and heavier on the sound of the drums than its beat.
Lovers rock is the romantic version of reggae. While Bob Marley sung about loving the world, Maxi Priest sung love songs.
Dub music came out of the 60s reggae scene. It took all the recorded reggae stuff and electronically modified to give a more “trippy” experience.
The last big one was dancehall, which is more vocal (rapping often replaces singing) and follows a live band that produces the ‘riddim’ (rhythm).
Raggamuffin is a sub-style of dancehall (more electronic), reggaeton is an urban mix of reggae (Sean Paul, Daddy Yankee. Reggaeton can also be a part of Latino music) and reggae-fusion is a mix of reggae and the genres popular in America, like R&B, jazz and hip hop.
You also have a few vague styles in reggae, like ragga metal (raggamuffin and metal), Nyabinghi (Rasta ceremonial music using special nyabinghi drums), dub poetry and toasting (talking over a riddim rather than singing).
Latin music goes a lot farther back and deeper than what it is today. While you have the Latino artists making pop dance-and-romance numbers, the older forms of Latin music are incredibly different and yet humble.
All in all, Latin music is something that comes from any part of Latin America, be it Cuba or Brazil or Argentina. Or it used to; now Latin music also includes artists from the U.S.A. and Europe that have a Latin background or style.
The older Latin music was all about instrumentation with a more percussive feel. The vocals would follow in and out with the instruments, but they were usually never more important than the instruments. Here are the types of Latin music, divided mostly by the demographic that enjoys them.
Mariachi is Mexican folk music played by bands. It is the urban version of the more traditional Son style.
Norteño is another rural Mexican genre that became popular amongst the Mexican and American urban population. It is a type of ensemble music that uses accordions.
Tejano (aka Tex-Mex) is a crossover style created on the borders of the U.S and Mexico. It combines mariachi and country (sometimes also blues) and relies heavily on acoustic guitars.
Samba is dance music related to the same dance style. It originated in Brazil, uses short key signatures and fast rhythms to set the pace for the dance.
Duranguense is another Mexican style that is popular in both the U.S. and Mexico. It is a derivative of Norteño.
Vallenato (which means “From the Valley”) is the folk music from the Caribbean. It uses the accordion along with traditional Colombian instruments.
Flamenco is the most popular type of Latin music. It is also the most simple one as it uses only three things – the guitar, vocals and hand-clapping. It is directly related to the flamenco dance form and the art, as a whole, is considered Spanish national heritage.
World music is a catch-all term to describe any music that doesn’t come into the major genres already mentioned above. More accurately, if it’s not something that doesn’t fall into featured lists in America and Britain, then it’s pretty much world music. That means world music gives you the most diverse types of music there are. And although reggae can be included in world music, it is still big enough to get a separate space for itself.
World music is usually based on ethnic music from different parts of the globe. It isn’t folk, and is therefore credible to artists and bands. For example, The Corrs, Shakira and Enya fall into world music. This means that world music can be just as popular as other mainstream genres, while still including culturally individual artists and works that cater to specific audiences. Thus, categories like j-pop (Japanese pop) and k-pop (Korean pop) are also world music.
This category will contain all the culturally rich music that isn’t mainstream, like traditional Turkish music, Inuit throat singing, Celtic music, the Indonesian gamelan, gypsy music, exotica, Enka and Caribbean music.
New age music is a recent genre – end of the 60s – and found popularity only after the 80s. It basically includes everything in music that is relaxing, spiritual and exploratory of the inner self. It can include any instrument, any language and any genre as long as it fits the new age bill.
Lyrics are usually chants or derived from an inclination towards spiritual. New age seems to have common influences from the Indian Sanskrit texts and Celtic folk music, sometimes even combining the two (check out Chinmaya Dunster). You can choose from a variety of artists and bands like Enya, Celtic Woman, Celtic Thunder, Mike Oldfield, Yanni, Kitaro, etc.. The primary aim of new age music is self-development through natural and healing music. The types of new age music are formed purely according to their purpose. You get to choose from:
Regardless, new age music is the one genre where there is absolutely no need to divide it into types. The music is supposed to be explored by experiencing it yourself. It won’t guide you to any meaning. It only helps you get to your own.
And it keeps going on and on. We usually follow a common pattern of simplicity when it comes to the broader genres, but for anything more specific, we all have our own ideas and tastes. I believe you need genres for the sake of being technical. Besides that, there is no division apart from personal choices. Which is why there is in essence, only one genre. And that is music.