What is a Music Genre?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

A genre is a category of an art form, and the word is used of subsets of literature, films, television shows, and music that fit certain criteria. Often, a work will fit into one genre, but it is possible for a work to have multiple genres. The term music genre is used to refer to a variety of facets of music, including the period during which a musical composition was written, its style, its instrumentation and treatment of those instruments, its form and function, its means of transmission, its means of dissemination, and the location of its geographical origins sometimes crossed with the cultural or ethnic background of the composer. There is no agreement or a single comprehensive system to talk about music genres at the present time.

Instruments like the saxophone are used in many musical genres, including jazz, rock, and classical.
Instruments like the saxophone are used in many musical genres, including jazz, rock, and classical.

People may refer to some or all of a small group of categories when using period as the criteria for a music genre. These include Early Music, Medieval Music, Renaissance Music, Baroque Music, Classical Music, Romantic Music, and 20th Century Music. The definitions of these music periods are open to interpretation. For example, the Classical period could be defined as lasting from 1730 to 1820 or from 1750 to 1830. Others might say that it started in the late 18th century. All of these interpretations are current today.

Musical genres like folk or country are categorized based on the demographics that create them.
Musical genres like folk or country are categorized based on the demographics that create them.

Works like concertos, which have a featured solo instrument highlighted against an orchestral background, and duets, which have only two instruments, fall into the category of instrumentation and treatment of instruments as music genre, as do the designations “orchestral music” or “percussion ensemble music.” Opera is another genre of this type, featuring voices and orchestra, as is a cappella music, which depends on unaccompanied voices.

Genres of classical music are usually divided into chronological eras.
Genres of classical music are usually divided into chronological eras.

“Popular music” is a genre based on period and means of transmission, as are “traditional music” and “folk music.” “Native American music” and “South African music” are both terms that speak to geography and culture. Marches, lullabies, minuets, and other music named for dances have to do with a combination of form and function.

Rock music often features electric instruments.
Rock music often features electric instruments.

Possibly the clearest cut set of definitions of music genres is found in award situations, such as in the Grammy Awards. In this context, the genres are based on a variety of criteria — for example, “Alternative” is based on what the music is not; “Children’s” is based on the audience; “Musical Show” is based on form; etc. — which are applied consistently and over time so that a tradition of definition is built up.

Hip-hop is a popular music genre.
Hip-hop is a popular music genre.

Some of the music genres that are popular today include jazz, hip-hop, rap, rock, rhythm and blues, and pop. Many people have eclectic tastes in music, and people still perform, view, purchase, and enjoy a wide range of music, including show tunes, folk music, classical music, opera, and ballet music.

Opera is a music genre that features voices and an orchestra.
Opera is a music genre that features voices and an orchestra.
The complex harmonies in barbershop music require the performances of skilled singers.
The complex harmonies in barbershop music require the performances of skilled singers.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


I absolutely love pop country, but I found one just today that made me stop. It's name? Hip-Hopera. that right. a combination of hip-hop and opera.


My favorite genre has always been country, but there are so many sub genres within that that it seems non descriptive to just say country. I particularly like classic country and outlaw country. A lot of the pop country that show up on the radio these days sounds terrible to me.


I usually don't like all the catchy sounding genre names that they apply to seemingly cutting edge styles of music but I heard one recently that I thought was really clever.

There has been a lot of stuff lately that is kind of slow and droning but also has a strong beat. Someone called this style of music drown tempo and that describes it perfectly. It is more than just down tempo, it has an atmosphere that colors everything.


@feasting – I have bought a pop album by a country artist before, and my friend bought the country version. We compared them, and the only difference was the type of instruments used.

The country album had slide guitar that had a twang to it and some banjo music. The pop album had electric guitar and synthesizer, as well as more poppy drum beats.

It's neat how totally different genres of music can be used to back the same songs. The rhyme scheme, the timing, and the melody were all the same, yet they fit with two forms of music that were exact opposites.


Sometimes music genres cross over and blend together. I can remember when pop was pure pop, but then it became infiltrated with hip-hop and rap. So, the most popular music transformed from happy little bubblegum songs to sex-infused songs with driving beats and lyrics unsuitable for children.

Then there are the country artists who cross over into pop music, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. Some of them have been known to record the same album with two different backing tracks to each song, so that one version of the album is played on pop music stations and the other is played on country stations. Listeners have the option of either buying the country album or the pop album.


@seag47 – It is troubling, but that is the way the music business functions. I think the best way to choose your genre is to ask yourself which genre does the majority of your music sound like the most?

You might have classical violins in a folk song, but that doesn't necessarily make it fit into the classical genre. Many rock bands use violins and even orchestras in their music, but they are still rock at the core.

You have to determine what the core of your music is. Are your songs pop at heart, or do they have a medieval undercurrent tying them all together?


As a musician who has been influenced by so many genres, I find it troubling when people want me to choose which genre my music belongs to. I have talked to a couple of producers, and both of them said they didn't know exactly where I fit in, and they said I needed to pick a genre and gear my music toward that.

My music incorporates elements of pop, rock, folk, classical, and medieval styles. Unless they want to come up with some new term for that, I really don't know how to select just one. I feel that this would limit me, because if people who are interested in one genre see me listed under another, how will they ever discover me?


I like so many genres: Ballet, blues, classical, dub, jazz, metal, Motown, opera, pop, punk, R&B, reggae, rock, soca, world. Why? Because they stir me.


OK fellow wisegeekers: What is your favorite genre in music, and why?


When they try to determine things like the highest grossing music genre, or the most popular music genre in the USA, how do they do that?

I mean, do they just try to get people to fill out music genre surveys, or is there some kind of music genre information generator or what?


Cool article -- you never really think about how many genres of music there are until you really consider music by genre.

My personal favorite is classic rock, but I know my daughter is a fan of the "Lady Gaga" music genre.

Guess that's just the generational gap...

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