What Is a Music Genre? | Education at 1500 Sound Academy icon

Listeners generally recognize the basic distinctions between heavy metal and country music or between a jazz or rap song. But have you ever stopped and considered what a music genre is? How are songs and artists defined within a genre and how do they emerge and gain popularity over time?

Classifying different styles of music has always been a complex art influenced by critics, recording experts, and especially the artists themselves. Taking into consideration the history and global influence of music, categorizing it into genres is no simple feat. It’s an art form. We’ll take a look at what a music genre is and how music has been defined by the business over the ages.

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Every composition has its own unique elements that pull it together to create a certain feel or vibe. It could be a specific beat, rhythm, mixing technique, or even geographical context. Think of the term music genre as encompassing a variety of subgenres within it. What a music genre is can be defined by a specific location, era, and some distinctive features within the musical composition itself.

Let’s take a look at jazz as a popular example of a well-known music genre:

  • Jazz music centered around African-American communities in New Orleans, Louisiana between the late 19th and early 20th century
  • Within jazz, there are subgenres: Blues, Ragtime, Swing, Ska, and Bebop are just a few
  • Jazz has some distinctively common features including call-and-response vocal harmonies, complex chords, improvisation, and syncopated rhythm

Within jazz subgenres, there are an array of differences that come to mind. Some subgenres are more focused on band compositions while others are centered around one artist or instrument. Explaining what a music genre is can be difficult until you understand how that style of music came to be and what makes it unique.

Context of Music Genres

Mural with different artists across music genres.

Some music genres are explained within a geographical or political context. If you refer to the jazz example above, picture the 19th and 20th centuries as times of rapid industrial expansion and social unrest. Slavery was abolished in many areas of the world and from that came a sense of freedom that influenced the music genre. What is emerging from specific eras of the past is an indicator of how that genre or subgenre comes to be defined. Here are a few recognizable examples:

  • Rock and roll: The popular rock and roll music of the 1950s era actually captured the crossing over of popular African American music into mainstream white culture
  • Hip hop: This genre first emerged from a youth movement of New York City in the 1970s Bronx neighborhood as a cultural exchange between young African American, Latino, and Caribbean youth
  • Country Music: The original roots of country music were not so much all about horses and cowboys — they were focused on white working-class Americans and on capturing the essence of a blue-collar lifestyle in the United States

There are many other ways to determine a music genre. “What music is” can be influenced by the events of the time and can lead to the potential emergence of new genres. New genres are still being created today by combining different elements of several genres to create something completely new. Some examples of new musical styles include:

  • Dubstep: This genre was created in London during the early 2000s and was created by mixing 2-step rhythm, broken beat, drum and bass, and grime.
  • Nu Metal: Originating in the 90s after the grunge scene, nu metal quickly became one of the top genres. This sound is characterized by combining alternative metal, hip-hop, grunge, and even funk. Think metal bands with rappers and DJs.
  • Vaporwave: Created in the early 2010s, vaporwave is a microgenre that is both music and art style. It’s a mashup of electronic music that samples smooth jazz, R&B, and even lounge music from the 80s and 90s. The music is typically accompanied by early internet imagery and is seen by some as a satirical take on consumerism.

There are also a number of other genres that simply don’t have names, instead only being described by the styles that influence their sound.

By understanding the different genres, you can take the elements you like and create something fresh that is both familiar and new at the same time.

Music Conventions

Looking at the conventions of the song or composition is another way to define what a music genre is and what it will later become. Some genres are characterized by sound engineering techniques, rapid beats, and specific instruments. Others have a notably slower rhythm and pace. Here are a few classic examples of music genres defined by their conventions:

  • Rap music: Rap music is easily recognizable by artist branding, steady beats, rhyming lyrics, and (usually) a 4/4 time signature.
  • Electronic Music: This genre emerged from the digital age and includes circuitry-based music technology and electronic musical instruments
  • Reggae Music: This music subgenre is centered on the lyrics performed using Jamaican Patois, Jamaican English, or Iaryn dialects

There are countless other subgenres that are recognizable based on certain characteristics. Learning more about what makes a music genre can be simplified by discovering the unique trademarks of each type of music.

Want to Learn More About Music?

Gain a deeper understanding of what a music genre is under the guidance of experts in the music industry. Discover the art of songwriting, mixing and music production as it relates to your genre of music either on-campus or online. Enroll at 1500 Sound Academy and explore our classes today.