We, humans, are creatures of conventions.
Putting labels on things is one of our favorite activities, and something that makes us feel safe, and in control.
It’s only natural that over the centuries we decided that music needed to be tagged in a way that lets us understand how it sounds without even hearing a note.
This is how we invented music genres.
But what are musical genres in particular if we were to define them?
A musical genre is a categorization for musical pieces sharing distinct conventions, which can entail sounds, instruments, rhythms, or themes, among many other things. Music genres evolve with time, and also have ramifications called subgenres. Musical genres, ultimately are social conventions.
Of course, music, in the beginning, was more of a functional thing than entertainment, and primitive civilizations didn’t think about it coming in different flavors.
Over the years, the complexity and quantity of taxonomies for this art have increased exponentially, and many people are against it.
However, every genre has a source, and I think you can start by learning just a few of all the labels out there and be able to recognize most music.
In this article, I will talk about the most popular music genres in our modern days, give you some examples of each one, and discuss some common questions many people ask about these categorizations in general.
After leaving this page you will have a clearer idea about what defines a music genre, and what are the most popular ones.
Are you ready to get started?
17 musical genres you should know
I’m a believer that after defining a concept, the best way to internalize it is through examples, so here are 17 of the most popular musical genres in the world:
Pop is just the short form for “popular” and this genre is nothing more than that.
It’s what’s culturally relevant at the moment, and what most people end up listening to.
The genre has shifted through the years and what was decades ago a marginalized genre of music, such as hip-hop, is now a fundamental part of modern pop.
Rock music, originally called “Rock n’ Roll” is a genre that has its roots in blues.
It has evolved with time, and what originally was the generic sound for it is no longer considered such.
Mostly guitar-driven, and once probably the most popular music in the world, nowadays has taken a not-so-central position in the overall musical stage.
Blues is a simple form of music that was born in slave fields, and that takes a lot from its creator’s African roots.
With time (and freedom) it started breaking into the mainstream and became one of the pillar sounds of modern music.
Jazz is an urban evolution of blues that in the old days was driven by big bands and great orchestras.
Nowadays it has taken the place of a more academic form of music, because of its complexity.
It’s another genre that has given birth to a lot of subgenres and that many other “pillar” types of music had taken from to shape its current sound.
5. Religious Music
Religious music is more about the theme than the music itself.
What I mean by this is that you can have bands from many different genres singing about religion and still fall within this bucket.
For instance, Christian Rock is a very popular subgenre of Religious Music, but also Church Gospel, or church choirs must be considered within this genre.
What’s more, folk traditional music from Jewish cultures, or even Muslim chants are also part of it.
It’s diverse and very deeply connected with the cultural roots of the performers.
The term folk music has a different meaning from culture to culture.
It comes from “Folk Lore” which means knowledge of the people, and it’s traditionally music that’s shared outside academic circles, in social events.
In Anglo-Saxon cultures, we usually think of folk as guitar and voice songs, but every country or ethnic group has its own take on it and the diversity is limitless.
Reggae is a type of music original from Jamaica that relies on the accentuation of the off beats and a laid-back feel.
It’s iconic and something that permeated across all of western culture and you can find its influences in many other genres.
Punk can be considered a subgenre of rock, but in my opinion, due to its cultural relevance, it deserves to be considered as a standalone thing.
It’s fast, it’s angry, it’s simple, and it’s dirty.
Punk has an anarchist vibe to it, and a particular aesthetic that you can probably picture in your head without me giving you many explanations.
Metal can also be considered a subgenre of rock, but, again, I think it’s much more than that.
Heavier than hard rock, metal is, in most cases guitar-driven, with a heavily distorted sound.
Usually, it has an aggressive feel to it, but it’s not rare to find mellower or softer tracks among traditional bands of the genre.
There are many subgenres of metal, and each has its own unique sound.
Country music is a traditional genre from the US, and it’s ubiquitous in the midwest of the country.
It can be considered folk, but its roots come mostly from immigration and it ultimately is a mixture of folk music from Europe.
Of course, this genre preferred by cowboys is nowadays its own thing and has more than enough culture around it to be a fundamental piece of American society.
Western classical music is what we usually call “classical”. It has its roots in Europe and usually is considered to have begun in the 1700s.
From its inception, it has been a rather academic and elitist genre, but its particular aesthetics and overall beauty have made it transcend social circles and find its way into movie scores, for instance, greatly popularizing it.
12. Electronic Dance Music
Electronic Dance Music, EDM, or just Electronic music is one of the most modern genres on this list, and its ramifications are endless.
There are uncountable styles and subgenres, but the most basic rule for this category is that the music should revolve or be heavily influenced by the usage of electronic instruments.
Hip-Hop had its origins in the late 80s and exploded during the 90s.
It originally was just R&B with rap vocals, but the genre clicked when it dropped the traditional instruments in the studio and started being driven by drum machines and samples.
R&B stands for Rhythm and Blues and is an African-American-originated genre.
It takes some stylistic things from blues, but it’s a whole different thing.
It’s a popular genre of music with a profound cultural background that should be considered its own thing.
Soul is also a genre that takes its roots from blues, but that evolved in a different direction.
It takes both from R&B and Gospel.
It’s a very vocal-driven kind of music, also with its origins in African-American groups.
Funk is a rhythmically driven genre with a very well-defined musical vocabulary.
It was popularized in the 60s in America, and it is what disco music took a lot from.
Nowadays it’s still pretty relevant and often used in combination with other genres such as pop, rock, or jazz.
17. Latin Music
Latin Music is a catch-all term for music from a lot of different cultures and origins from Latin America.
In some cases, it can be folk, in others pop.
It’s hard to define it generally, but there are some more popular rhythms, harmonies, and melodies that are nowadays a part of the international zeitgeist.
Subgenres of music
Now it’s when things get complicated.
For every base genre of music, there are probably dozens of subgenres.
There are even subgenres that take from different core genres and create new things.
Is this important?
Well, probably if you find out you prefer a certain subgenre over the others, or the contrary if you hate a particular subgenre but love the whole original genre.
For instance, when I was a teenager I was an obsessive metalhead, and I listened to many different subgenres of metal all the same.
However, I never could come to terms with black metal, a subgenre of extreme metal characterized by its distorted vocals and extremely fast tempo.
Subgenres are great for better defining your preferences, however, it can be easy to get too carried away with them and niching yourself down into too specific parameters.
Music is music, and my philosophy is that if something sounds good to me, I would listen to it regardless of its genre.
Another curious thing about subgenres is that some denominations used to refine specific types of music within bigger categories don’t have the same meanings.
However, in electronic dance music, the term “progressive” is often used to define subgenres where the tracks slowly build up over time, whether it is in intensity or in the number of instruments being played.
What’s the point of dividing music into genres?
Although we are not as good as computers at looking for patterns, when we find some obvious ones, we like to point our fingers at them.
Dividing music into genres gives us a sense of control and understanding.
It allows us to make sense of the chaos that art can be, and to process vast amounts of information in an easier way.
Although music coming with a genre label can affect our listening experience with a certain bias, this same label is great for discovering new artists.
You just have an idea of which genres you prefer, and if you want more similar music you look for those that match some or most of these tags.
Nowadays, however, streaming services have incorporated algorithmic recommendation systems that don’t rely fully on single data points such as musical genre, but probably on hundreds of variables that we humans can’t pinpoint.
Modern recommendation systems are black boxes where your listening data is inputted, and a recommended playlist comes as output.
What are the factors that define different music genres?
There are many factors that define music genres, and some that are elemental to identifying one might not be important for defining others.
After all, genres are, in many cases a thing of convention and common cultural acceptance.
However, here are some variables that are commonly used to define different genres:
- Instruments used
- Timbre of the instruments used
- Lyrical or conceptual theme
- Rhythmic patterns
- Song structures
- Pitch range used
- Geographic or cultural origin
- Overall aesthetic
- Melodic vocabulary
And these are just a few that come to the top of my mind.
I’m sure there are thousands of academic papers from musicologists discussing this matter.
Are music genre categories always right?
It’s hard to define what’s wrong and what’s right in regard to a music genre.
As a human construct, naturally, they can’t be always right.
And, in many cases, new artists appear that can’t be exactly put into the box of a certain genre.
In some rarer cases these new artists may end up developing a new genre, and in many others perhaps they just belong to different genres on a song-by-song basis.
The thing is if you didn’t know by now, music is a business, and in many cases, both for labels and artists it’s more beneficial to be categorized as a certain more popular genre rather than the closest to their sound.
So this is also a factor for confusion.
Always trust your ears and make your own conclusions.
Can you create a new music genre?
Absolutely! You can create a new music genre.
But do you have what’s required to do so?
And what’s actually required to create a new genre?
Well, that’s not clear, and art is a sociological phenomenon that moves and shapeshifts in its own way.
Perhaps you can only bend the limits of a certain genre, but for a new genre to be created you will need enough other artists imitating you, and enough audience listening to be culturally relevant and memorable.
I heard an interview with the legendary music producer Rick Rubin last night, where he talked about how he helped shape what’s now known as hip-hop.
In the 80s, in hip-hop clubs, artists used to rap over a drum track and set of samples played by a DJ on stage.
However, when they were in the studio recording they used physical instruments for their tracks.
The result was something that sounded like traditional R&B with someone rapping on top.
What Mr. Rubin did was take the electronic samples and drum loops to the studio, and although it was frowned upon at first, and not even considered music, nowadays is what defines the sound of hip-hop.
Do music genres evolve with time?
Music genres evolve with culture, and even what was a few years ago labeled as “something” might nowadays be named as something different.
For instance, I think that the term “Rock” has had a lot of different meanings over the years.
Both Chuck Berry and Guns n’ Roses can be considered rock, but are they the same thing?
In my opinion, they aren’t.
Nowadays it’s more common to call the sounds of music like Berry’s “Rock and Roll” while the short version “Rock” is commonly used for more modern iterations.
Again, and being repetitive, it’s a cultural thing.
Modern hip-hop has nothing to do with what it was in the 90s, but it’s still hip-hop.
Things in society shift and find new equilibriums with time, and that, I think is an amazing thing.
How many music genres are there?
It’s almost impossible to determine clearly how many music genres are there in the wild.
For starters, each country, or even cultural group has its own form of folk music and interpretations of other cultures’ genres.
The types of music mentioned in this article are probably the most common in western culture, however, this is just a portion of the world’s music.
Think of India, for instance, where they have their own unique musical system unlike ours, and the many generic alternatives this allows for.
I don’t really think it ultimately matters knowing all the possible musical genres out there.
However, if you are a musician, having a certain grasp of what the most popular ones in your culture sound like might be a useful tool.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.