(Note: This is NOT meant to be a complete list of all genres, just an example of some, so don’t be offended if I leave your favourite one out!)
Ever been asked “what kind of songs do you write?” Don’t you just hate that? Okay, maybe hate is the wrong word, but it sure is difficult sometimes to sit down and define your style. Many people use known artists to help others get an idea of what their songwriting style is, but quite often these known artists simply define the sound of how someone sings or plays their instrument rather than defining a style of music.
We all pretty much know what rock is, or folk or pop. These are relatively straightforward genres. But most songwriters are influenced, whether they know it or not, by many others before them, and that leads to sub-genres and mixtures of genres that are harder to describe.
Maybe you are really special and have created a whole new style of music! Chances are, though, that your music is also defined by the artists and bands that came before you. This is not a defeat…musical styles exist and thrive because people like to hear them! This article may not answer all of your questions, but a little research on your own will teach you a few things about where your music is coming from.
First of all, here is a list of main genres:
Alternative | Indie | Punk | Blues | Jazz | R& B/Soul | Classical | Latin | Reggae | Country | Lounge/Easy Listening | Rock | Dance | Metal | Roots | Electronica | New Age | Soundtracks | Folk | Oldies | Trad. Pop | Hip-Hop/Rap | Pop | World
Although they are considered to be at the root of all of the other styles, each of these genres came from somewhere else! Even Electronica and Hip Hop, the sounds of which are more defined by technology, have their roots. Reggae, which originally came from artists like Bob Marley out of Jamaica, is rumoured to have come from Jazz. I think a little too much ganja may have had something to do with that
Okay, let’s start with the more obvious genres:
Rock has many, many sub-genres…everything from adult rock to classic rock to folk rock. Originally, rock was actually rooted in the blues, following similar chord progressions and patterns. Classic rock artists from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, Doobie Brothers to Aerosmith, show just how diverse rock became within a very short period of time. The 70’s was considered the “Golden Age” of rock and today’s alternative and indie music are each an offshoot of rock with their own sub-genres. According to the MSN Music Webpage these are some sub-genres of rock:
Adult Rock | American Traditional Rock | Arena Rock | Blue-Eyed Soul | Bluesy Rock | Boogie Rock | British Folk Rock | Classic Rock | Country Rock | Country Rock Soul | Folk Rock | Glam Rock | Heavy Rock | Jam Bands | Orchestral Pop | Pop Progressive Rock | Power Pop | Progressive Rock | Psychedelic | Rock and Roll | Rock Soul | Rockabilly Revival | Soft Rock | Southern Rock | Surf Revival | Theatre Rock | Tin Pan Alley Pop
Beyond this, we have a number of other main genres. Pop is certainly a significant style, although it has changed over the years. It was originally born from the word popular, and really wasn’t defined by anything other than what most young people listened to at the time! Frank Sinatra would have been considered pop in his hey day, but today, Nellie Furtado is what you would think of as a mainstream pop artist. As you can see their styles are quite different, and Frank Sinatra’s music is now considered either easy listening, nostalgia or traditional pop. These days, pop is defined by a very contemporary sound and often simplistic lyrics and usually has a younger audience. Pop/Rock is where the majority of artists classify their songs, and is almost always the largest category in any online music website.
Alternative is also a difficult style to pinpoint. Originally, alternative music seemed to be a return to hard rock with it’s hard driving, often frantic pace. Grunge, or the Seattle sound begun by bands such as Nirvana was associated with alternative as well. But now we find that Indie comes closer to that definition. Arrgghh!!! To me, each of these genres doesn’t define a “sound” as much as an attitude…yeah, that sounds more like it
You’ll find the following styles associated with alternative:
’80s Modern Rock | Adult Alternative Pop/Rock | Alt. Hard Rock | Alternative Pop/Rock | Britpop | Goth Rock | Modern Psychedelic | New Wave | Quirk Rock | Space Rock/Dream Pop | Third Wave Ska Revival/Ska Punk
How confusing can it be?? So let’s move on to something just as arguably indefinable, country. You’ll hear all kinds of discussions about country and what it is or should be! Twenty years ago when I went into a recording studio with my acoustic guitar, the studio engineers called me country. They hadn’t even heard my songs, yet because I had an acoustic guitar, that automatically made me a country artist! Country & Western was what I assumed country music to be, including artists like Hank Snow, George Jones and Patsy Cline. But in the last 10 or 15 years, it has also branched off into many directions. When country became more “mainstream” or more populist, the pop sound started to invade the more traditional sound of country music. Now you’ll find many different branches of this genre as well:
Alternative Country | Alternative Country Rock | Bluegrass | Country Folk | Country Pop | Fusegrass | Honky Tonk | New Contemporary Country | Outlaw Country | Progressive Country | Traditional Country | Western Swing
Country/Pop, contrary to what you might think, began back in the 50’s and was originally dubbed the “Nashville Sound” and included artists such as Willie Nelson, Kitty Wells, Crystal Gayle and Kenny Rogers. Today, groups and artists like the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney are country stars, incorporating a “pop” sound in their music.
So is there any genre left in its pure state? I suppose the argument could be made that the only western “traditional” music left is classical and Native Indian! A recent PBS series by Ken Burns on blues music, showed how even it originally came from the slaves in Africa who chanted hymns and made up working songs as they worked long, hard hours for American slave owners. But the blues is considered by many to be American in its roots.
Occasionally, you’ll hear the term crossover which means that a song could be considered in more than one genre. This is particularly applicable to ballads…a country version and a rock version of the same ballad could be hits for different artists. The only elements that would separate them would be the arrangement and instrumentation!
The fact is that your music is often defined by the artists you were influenced by. Although it can feel like defeat to have to describe your music by naming more famous artists and bands, it really has a purpose! Most people want to know what they can expect from you as a songwriter or an artist, so don’t resent this requirement too much. Many of us write in more than one style too! As a songwriter, this can certainly work in your favour when you are trying to pitch to different publishers and artists. As an artist, it means you are diverse!
Don’t be adverse to the idea of studying genres in order to better define what yours is (or are!). I’ve heard many artists or bands who try to create a NEW genre just to make themselves stand out, only to find that they sound exactly like someone else! As an artist you can get away with this in your promotional material as a way to create a buzz for yourself, but as a songwriter, you will have to fit in more with traditional genres. As Bruce Hornsby says “That’s just the way it is…”