Music genre

Music genre

A music genre is a categorical and typological construct that identifies musical sounds as belonging to a particular category and type of music that can be distinguished from other types of music. It is to be distinguished from musical form and musical style, although in practice these terms are often used in an undifferentiated way.

Music can be divided into many genres in many different ways. Due to the different purposes behind them and the different points of view from which they are made, these classifications are often arbitrary and controversial and closely related genres often overlap. Many do not believe that generic classification of music is possible in any logically consistent way, and also argue that doing so sets limitations and boundaries that hinder the development of music. While no one doubts that it is possible to note similarities between musical pieces, there are often exceptions and caveats associated.

There are several academic approaches to genre. In his book Form in Tonal Music, Douglass M. Green lists the madrigal, the motet, the canzona, the ricercar, and the dance as examples of genres (from the Renaissance period). According to Green, "Beethoven's Op. 61 and Mendelssohn's Op. 64 are identical in genre - both are violin concertos - but different in form. Mozart's Rondo for Piano, K. 511, and the Agnus Dei from his Mass, K. 317 are quite different in genre but happen to be similar in form."[1] Some treat the terms genre and style as the same, and state that genre should be defined as pieces of music that share a certain style or "basic musical language".[2] Others state that genre and style are two separate terms, and that secondary characteristics such as subject matter can also differentiate between genres.[3] A music genre (or sub-genre) could be defined by the techniques, the styles, the context and the themes (content, spirit). Also, geographical origin sometimes is used to define the music genre, though a single geographical category will normally include a wide variety of sub-genres.

Kembrew McLeod, in an essay entitled "Genres, Subgenres, Sub-Subgenres and More",[4] suggested that in electronic music, "the naming of new subgenres can be linked to a variety of influences, such as the rapidly evolving nature of the music, accelerated consumer culture, and the synergy created by record company marketing strategies and music magazine hype. The appropriation of the musics of minorities by straight, middle and upper-middle-class Whites in the United States and Great Britain plays a part, and the rapid and ongoing naming process within electronic/dance music subcultures acts as a gate-keeping mechanism, as well."

A list of genres of music (including sub genres) can be found at List of music genres. There are a number of criteria with which one may classify musical genres,[citation needed] including:

  • The Art/Popular/Traditional distinction
  • Time period
  • Regional and national distinctions
  • Technique and instrumentation
  • Fusional origins
  • Sociological function


The Art/Popular/Traditional distinction

Musicology has sometimes classified music according to a trichotomic distinction, e.g., referred to by musicologist Philip Tagg as one of an "axiomatic triangle consisting of 'folk', 'art' and 'popular' musics."[5] He explains that each of these three is distinguishable from the others according to certain criteria.[5]

Art music

Art music (or "serious music") primarily refers to classical traditions including contemporary as well as historical classical music forms, or others listed at List of art music traditions (including non-European classical music), which focus on formal styles, invite technical and detailed deconstruction [6] and criticism, and demand focused attention from the listener. In strict western practice, art music is considered primarily a written musical tradition,[7] preserved in some form of music notation, as opposed to being transmitted orally, by rote, or in recordings (like popular and traditional music).[7][8] Historically, most western art music has been written down using the standard forms of music notation that evolved in Europe beginning prior to the Renaissance period and reaching its maturity in the Romantic period. The identity of a "work" or "piece" of art music is usually defined by the notated version, rather than a particular performance of it (as for example with classical music). Art music may also include certain forms of jazz (even though jazz is primarily a form of popular music). Art music is music that is used as in a form of a work of art, and uses many textbook elements of music. Art music is generally instrumental, and when vocals are present they have very explicit poetic, political, or religious overtones.

Popular music

The usual representation of "popular music" is music belonging to any of a number of musical styles that are accessible to the general public and are disseminated by one or more of the mass media. Musicologist and specialist in popular music Philip Tagg defined the notion in the light of sociocultural and economical aspects:

"Popular music, unlike art music, is (1) conceived for mass distribution to large and often socioculturally heterogeneous groups of listeners, (2) stored and distributed in non-written form, (3) only possible in an industrial monetary economy where it becomes a commodity and (4) in capitalist societies,subject to the laws of 'free' enterprise, according to which it should ideally sell as much as possible of as little as possible to as many as possible" [5]

For a critical introduction, see the work of Richard Middleton (e.g. Studying Popular Music 1998) and Starr/Waterman American Popular Music (2004). Popular music is also used in more of a sense with the market economy, in a way music can be used to make a profit. Popular music is usually found on most commercial radio stations, in most commercial music retailers and department stores, and for use in movie and television soundtracks. Popular music is also recorded on the Billboard charts and uses music producers as opposed to singer songwriters and composers.

The very distinction between classical and popular music has sometimes been blurred in the border regions,[9] for instance minimalist music and light classics. In this respect music is like fiction, which likewise draws a distinction between classics and popular fiction that is not always easy to maintain.

Traditional music

Traditional music is the modern name for what used to be called "folk music", before the term "folk music" was expanded to include a lot of non-traditional material. The defining characteristics of traditional music are:

  • Oral transmission: The music is passed down, or learned, through singing and listening and sometimes dancing
  • Cultural basis: The music derives from and is part of the traditions of a particular region or culture.

Critics of the axiomatic triangle

Musicologist and specialist of popular music such as Richard Middleton have been critical with such a classification.

Neat divisions between 'folk' and 'popular', and 'popular' and 'art', are impossible to find ... arbitrary criteria [are used] to define the complement of 'popular'. 'Art' music, for example, is generally regarded as by nature complex, difficult, demanding; 'popular' music then has to be defined as 'simple', 'accessible', 'facile'. But many pieces commonly thought of as 'art' (Handel's 'Hallelujah Chorus', many Schubert songs, many Verdi arias) have qualities of simplicity; conversely, it is by no means obvious that the Sex Pistols' records were 'accessible', Frank Zappa's work 'simple', or Billie Holiday's 'facile'." (Middleton, 1990)

Other criteria for categorization

Time period

Music is sometimes categorized by the time period from which it originates or was most popular, e. g. '50's rock', '17th century music' or 'music from the romantic period'..

Regional and national music

It is possible to categorize music geographically. For example, the term "Australian music" could include Australian rock music, Australian traditional music in the European style (e.g. Waltzing Matilda), Aboriginal Australian music, Australian classical music, and Australian Jazz.

Technique and instrumentation

Music can also be categorized by some technical aspect including the instruments used. For example Rock music revolves around the electric guitar, and Club music is typically accompanied by synthesizers and/or drum machines.

Fusional origins

A genre can be labelled so its fusional origins from other preexisting genres becomes clear, e.g. blues rock, latin jazz. In other cases the name of the genre only reflects the fact that it mixes different styles, e.g. crossover, jazz fusion.

Sociological function

Music genres can also be categorized by their sociological function. Trivial examples are wedding music and Christmas music.

Emergence of new genres and subgenres

The emergence of new genres can occur by actual development of new forms and styles of music, but also just by a new categorization.

Although it is theoretically possible to create a musical style with new relations to existing genres, new styles more commonly appear under influence of preexisting genres. The genealogy of musical genres is the pattern of musical genres that have contributed to the development of new genres, which often can be expressed in the form of a written chart.[citation needed] If two or more existing genres influence the emergence of a new genre a fusion between these genres can be said to have taken place.

New genres by fusion

In the West, nearly all music except Traditional music has a fusional origin.[dubious ]

A fusion genre is a music genre that combines two or more genres. For example, rock and roll originally developed as a fusion of blues, gospel and country music. The main characteristics of fusion genres are variations in tempo, rhythm and sometimes the use of long musical "journeys" that can be divided into smaller parts, each with their own dynamics, style and tempo.[attribution needed]

Artists who work in fusion genres are often difficult to categorise within non-fusion styles. Most styles of fusion music are influenced by various musical genres. While there are many reasons for this, the main reason is that most genres evolved out of other genres. When the new genre finally identifies itself as separate, there is often a large gray area in which musicians are left. These artists generally consider themselves part of both genres. A musician who plays music that is dominantly blues, influenced by rock, is often labelled a blues-rock musician. The first genre is the one from which the new one evolved. The second genre is the newer and less-dominant genre in the artist's playing. An example of a blues-rock group would be Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. Vaughan, a Texas blues guitarist, surrounded by a world in which rock was dominating music, used rock and blues together.

The originality of new genres and subgenres

What is an actual fusion between genres and what is a mere influence from another genre can often be disputed. Also the level of originality needed to create a completely new genre can be questioned. But most people would agree on the distinctness of e.g. rock music from its predecessors. In some genres, the emergence of subgenres is vast and the originality and distinctness of these subgenres has been questioned.[citation needed]

When a certain level of originality has been reached, more particularly when new styles emerge, moving away from more mainstream forms, the label 'alternative' has been used, e.g., alternative rock, alternative country

New genres by new categorization

There is a fair amount of examples were the music genre has been labeled long after its first actual appearance, e.g. the term 'jazz' was not established as a genre name before the years just prior to 1920 yet the musical phenomenon had been in existence at least since roughly the turn of the century.[10] There can be several reasons for this. One is that the categorization has been done in the process of a music historical survey.[specify] Another reason could be a more nostalgic flashback.

See also


  1. ^ Green, Douglass M. (1965). Form in Tonal Music. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. pp. 1. ISBN 0030202868. 
  2. ^ van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antanddececedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 3. ISBN 0-19-316121-4. 
  3. ^ Moore, Allan F. "Categorical Conventions in Music Discourse: Style and Genre" Music & Letters, Vol. 82, No. 3 (Aug., 2001), pp. 432-442
  4. ^ McLeod, Kembrew (2001). "Genres, Sub-Genres, Sub-Sub-Genres, etc.: Sub-Genre Naming In Electronic/Dance Music". JOURNAL OF POPULAR MUSIC STUDIES (13): 59–75. 
  5. ^ Jacques Siron, "Musique Savante (Serious music)", Dictionnaire des mots de la musique (Paris: Outre Mesure): 242
  6. ^ a b Denis Arnold, "Art Music, Art Song", in The New Oxford Companion to Music, Volume 1: A-J, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983): 111
  7. ^ Philip Tagg, "Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice", Popular Music 2 (1982): 37-67, here 41-42.
  8. ^ Arnold, Denis (1983). " Art Music, Art Song," in The New Oxford Companion to Music, Volume 1: A-J, Oxford University Press, p. P.111, . ISBN 0-19-311316-3
  9. ^ Mark Tucker and Travis A. Jackson. "Jazz." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 22 Jul. 2010 <>.

Further reading

  • "Genre." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Grove Music Online.
  • Holt, Fabian (2007). Genre in Popular Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  • Negus, Keith (1999). Music Genres and Corporate Cultures. New York: Routledge. ISBN 041517399X. 

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