Music can be categorized into different genres that share similar sounds, instruments, themes, origins, cultural context, and more. Musical genres help listeners and musicians describe, categorize, and discuss different types of music. There are many popular music genres that have emerged over the past century, from rock and pop to hip hop and electronic dance music. Here is an overview of some of the most common musical genres with examples of popular artists and songs.
Pop music is one of the most popular mainstream music genres today. It emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as a softer alternative to rock music. Pop music tends to have a focus on catchy melodies and hook-filled choruses, often accompanied by synthesizers, drum machines, and guitars. Pop songs are typically structured in a verse-chorus form with an emphasis on the chorus. Pop music lyrics are often about universal and lighthearted themes like love, fun, and relationships.
Some examples of pop artists and songs include:
- Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean,” “Beat It”
- Madonna – “Like a Virgin,” “Vogue”
- Katy Perry – “I Kissed a Girl,” “Firework”
- Ed Sheeran – “Shape of You,” “Perfect”
- Taylor Swift – “Shake it Off,” “Blank Space”
Rock music emerged in the 1950s as a guitar-driven alternative to pop music. Early rock styles include rockabilly, surf rock, and garage rock. In the 1960s, rock bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones helped popularize the genre. Rock music is characterized by strong electric guitar riffs, prominent drums, bass guitar, and emotional vocals. Lyrics often focus on youth, rebellion, relationships, and having a good time.
Some examples of rock artists and songs include:
- The Beatles – “Hey Jude,” “Come Together”
- Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You”
- Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven,” “Whole Lotta Love”
- Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Heart Shaped Box”
- AC/DC – “Back in Black,” “Highway to Hell”
Hip hop and rap music emerged in the 1970s in New York City, especially among African American youth. Rappers speak or chant lyrically over beats and instrumental tracks. Hip hop relies heavily on sampling older recordings and incorporating rhythmic percussion elements. Lyrics often focus on struggles in urban life, social issues, and achieving success. Prominent hip hop artists helped bring the genre into the mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s.
Some examples of hip hop/rap artists and songs include:
- Sugarhill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight”
- Run-D.M.C. – “Walk This Way,” “It’s Tricky”
- LL Cool J – “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” “Mama Said Knock You Out”
- Public Enemy – “Fight the Power,” “Don’t Believe the Hype”
- N.W.A. – “Straight Outta Compton,” “Express Yourself”
- Jay-Z – “99 Problems,” “Empire State of Mind”
Rhythm and blues, or R&B, originated in the 1940s, combining elements of jazz, gospel, and blues music. It was initially popular among African American musicians and audiences. In the 1960s, soul music emerged as a more pop-oriented version of R&B. Soul and R&B are characterized by expressive vocal deliveries, smooth harmonies, and funky rhythms. Lyrics often focus on love, sexuality, and hardship.
Some examples of R&B/soul artists and songs include:
- Ray Charles – “Georgia on My Mind,” “Hit the Road Jack”
- James Brown – “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”
- Aretha Franklin – “Respect,” “Think”
- Marvin Gaye – “Let’s Get it On,” “What’s Going On”
- Stevie Wonder – “Superstition,” “Sir Duke”
- Alicia Keys – “Fallin’,” “No One”
Country music originated among white working-class communities in the American South and Southwest in the 1920s. Early country focused on rural life, cultural traditions, and often incorporated folk and gospel influences. Modern country incorporated elements of rock while keeping its twangy, storytelling lyrics. Country is characterized by acoustic and electric guitars, fiddles, steel guitars, and strong vocal harmonies.
Some examples of country artists and songs include:
- Hank Williams – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
- Johnny Cash – “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire”
- Patsy Cline – “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces”
- Willie Nelson – “Always on My Mind,” “On the Road Again”
- Garth Brooks – “Friends in Low Places,” “The Dance”
- Shania Twain – “You’re Still the One,” “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”
Electronic Dance Music (EDM)
EDM emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as DJs and producers made dance music with synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines, and samplers. The overarching term EDM encompasses many subgenres like techno, house, trance, dubstep, and more. Common traits include a focus on beat and rhythm, instrumental tracks, and a build-up/breakdown song structure. EDM is popular at dance clubs, raves, and music festivals.
Some examples of EDM artists and songs include:
- Daft Punk – “One More Time,” “Around the World”
- The Chemical Brothers – “Hey Boy Hey Girl,” “Block Rockin’ Beats”
- Deadmau5 – “Ghosts N Stuff,” “Strobe”
- Skrillex – “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” “Bangarang”
- Calvin Harris – “We Found Love,” “This is What You Came For”
Jazz originated in the late 19th/early 20th century within the African American community. It combines African musical elements with Western harmonic structure and instrumentation. Jazz is characterized by syncopation, swing rhythms, extended improvisations, and a blend of ensemble and solo playing. Styles of jazz include Dixieland, swing, bebop, fusion, and many others. Jazz instrumentation often includes trumpets, saxophones, pianos, double basses, and drums.
Some examples of jazz artists and songs include:
- Louis Armstrong – “What a Wonderful World,” “Hello Dolly”
- Duke Ellington – “Take the A Train,” “Mood Indigo”
- Miles Davis – “So What,” “All Blues”
- John Coltrane – “Giant Steps,” “Naima”
- Dave Brubeck – “Take Five,” “Blue Rondo à la Turk”
Classical music has its origins in liturgical and secular music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe. It expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries as composers explored serious, complex instrumental and vocal forms like the symphony, concerto, opera, and oratorio. Classical music emphasizes harmony, counterpoint, and complex structural development. The common instrumentation includes strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion.
Some examples of influential classical composers and works include:
- Johann Sebastian Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Brandenburg Concertos
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Symphonies No. 40 and 41, The Magic Flute opera
- Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 5, Piano Sonata No. 14
- Johannes Brahms – Symphony No. 4, Hungarian Dances
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – 1812 Overture, Swan Lake ballet
Reggae music originated in Jamaica in the 1960s, heavily influenced by American R&B, jazz, and traditional African-Caribbean music. Prominent reggae artists like Bob Marley helped popularize it internationally. Reggae is characterized by a heavy syncopated bass line, offbeat rhythms, and lyrics focused on social issues and the Rastafarian movement. Reggae instrumentation often includes guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and brass.
Some examples of reggae artists and songs include:
- Bob Marley and the Wailers – “No Woman No Cry,” “One Love”
- Jimmy Cliff – “The Harder They Come,” “Many Rivers to Cross”
- Peter Tosh – “Legalize It,” “Johnny B. Goode”
- Burning Spear – “The Lion,” “Slavery Days”
- Damian Marley – “Welcome to Jamrock,” “Patience”
Punk rock emerged in the mid 1970s, largely as a reaction against the excess and pretensions of mainstream rock at the time. Punk bands favored short, fast-paced songs with raucous guitars, heavy drums, and often provocative lyrics. The DIY ethic around punk valued raw energy and passion over technical ability. Bands like The Ramones, The Clash, and Sex Pistols created the foundations of punk in the 70s.
Some examples of punk rock artists and songs include:
- The Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “I Wanna Be Sedated”
- The Clash – “London Calling,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go”
- Sex Pistols – “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “God Save the Queen”
- The Misfits – “Last Caress,” “Die, Die My Darling”
- Green Day – “Basket Case,” “When I Come Around”
Heavy metal originated in the late 1960s and 1970s, growing out of psychedelic rock and blues rock. It is characterized by highly amplified distortion, extended guitar solos, emphatic beats, and overall loudness. Vocals can range from clean singing to aggressive growling. Thematically, metal often explores darker or mystical subjects. Subgenres include classic metal, thrash metal, death metal, and more.
Some examples of heavy metal artists and songs include:
- Black Sabbath – “Iron Man,” “War Pigs”
- Judas Priest – “Breaking the Law,” “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”
- Metallica – “Enter Sandman,” “Master of Puppets”
- Megadeth – “Symphony of Destruction,” “Peace Sells”
- Slipknot – “Duality,” “Psychosocial”
Alternative rock emerged in the 1980s as a diverse catch-all term for post-punk bands who didn’t fit into the mainstream. It grew in popularity in the 1990s with bands like R.E.M., Radiohead, and Nirvana defining the genre. Alternative rock embraces experimental sounds and socially conscious lyrics. Guitars are still prominent but take less conventional forms compared to traditional rock.
Some examples of alternative rock artists and songs include:
- R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion,” “Everybody Hurts”
- Radiohead – “Creep,” “Karma Police”
- Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are”
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Under the Bridge,” “Californication”
- The Smashing Pumpkins – “1979,” “Today”
This overview covers some of the most influential genres in modern music, but many more exist. Genres often intersect, borrow from each other, and evolve over time as well. While genres are useful for discussion, in the end music is incredibly diverse and dynamic. No matter your taste, there are amazing musical works to discover across all styles and eras.