Understanding genre and how it relates to music

What is a song’s genre?

The genre refers to the style of the song. To understand style, think about the way various people dress, and what this says about them.

Some stereotypical dress styles include:

Image: Woman with long wavy blond hair walking on a country road with her thumb extended in a hitchhiking request. She wears a cropped white singlet, a long patterned floaty skirt in brownish purple tones, and a beige fringed shawl.

Hippy: think of long flowing skirts, long hair, long beaded necklaces, and natural elements like flowers and stones.

Image: woman with long sleek straight brown hair sitting on a modern white armchair. She wears a fitted black business suit and a white turtleneck top underneath. She has black high heeled shoes.

Corporate: think of a business suit and tie, neat leather shoes, freshly ironed white or blue shirts, and smooth shiny hair.

Image: woman with pink mohawk hair and sides of her head shaved. She wears a black lace bra with a black fishnet singlet and a leather choker necklace. She has tattoos covering her arms and heavy dark eye makeup.

Punk: think of leather jackets, spiked and coloured hair, lots of black eye liner, and big heavy boots.

While in theory, you can simply select whatever clothes you feel like wearing, most of us dress according to a certain style, often a style similar to those around us. A person might choose from a mix of styles such as the skirt from the hippy photo with the top and jacket from the corporate photo, and the hairstyle from the punk photo, and while some people might say this looks good, others would say this combination doesn’t go together. If you select clothing entirely from a particular style, such as a white shirt with a matching jacket and pants for a corporate look, no-one will find it weird.

Music is the same – in music, ‘genre’ refers to the style. It’s up to you what you want to do musically, but hearing people will find it easier to listen to and understand if it fits a specific genre.

If you dress entirely from one style, it says something about your identity and people quickly understand who they think you are. For example, if you dress like a hippy, people might think you like to feel a connection with nature, whereas if you dress in a corporate style they might assume that money and career success are important to you. If you dress in a punk style they might assume you rebel against authority. In exactly the same way, genres of music are also associated with identity, and send hearing people a message about your values.

In private, I listen to a wide variety of music that gives me immense pleasure, and I don’t believe anyone should curtail their listening (or music-making) habits based on identity and style. I love Christmas carols, but I have discovered that if my friends find me listening to them (usually not at Christmas time!) they are appalled! Why? Because Christmas carols are usually sung while celebrating the birth of Jesus, and hence suggest religious values, but most of my friends and I are not religious. To them, carols are unpleasant because they remind them of religious beliefs that they reject. However, to me, carols have particularly beautiful melodies that I really enjoy, and I don’t associate them with religion. For many people, musical sounds cannot be separated from the values, ideas and identity they represent, so people may reject some music simply because they reject the genre it is associated with. Therefore, before playing a piece of music to others, it is worth finding out what genres of music they like.

People may also judge you based on your choice of music, assuming that because you like a certain type of music, that you share the values and identity it represents. If that is not the case, you may need to explain to people that you don’t associate that style of music with those values.

To create a song that fits a particular genre:

  • Choose the instruments that are normally used for that genre,
  • Choose the types of rhythms that are normally used in that genre,
  • Choose chord progressions (I’ll cover these soon) that are popular within the genre,
  • Structure the song in a way that is common to that genre,
  • Choose the types of lyrics that are common to the genre.

There is plenty more, but this is an overview.

Here’s a description of a few genres:

Folk

Folk songs are passed down through the generations by people singing the song to one another. Often the original artist is unknown, and there can be many versions of the same song. Each country in the world, in some cases each region, district and community, has its own folk music style and different musical instruments. Folk music at its simplest has a singer with a guitar. It is used for parties, weddings, funerals, religious rites and at community events. It is also is good to rouse your union local to action, send a strong message to the corporate world, or protest a war.

Instruments: The main instrument used is the acoustic guitar. Other common instruments include piano, violin, banjo, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, ukelele, flute, trumpet, fiddle, harp, bagpipes

Lyrics often rhyme and include events in history (unfortunately, there are fewer surviving songs that cover herstory – what a surprise!), and protest against issues and injustice. There may or may not be a chorus. Songs often tell stories of historical events such as the life and capture of outlaws, prisoners being shipped to Botany Bay, and battles in wars.

Country

Description: Country (also known as country & western or hillbilly music) originated in the southern United States in the 1920s, heavily influenced by folk and blues music. It’s one of the most popular genres in the world today, and is known for its emotional connection. It’s often upbeat and energetic. There is some overlap with folk music.

Lyrics: Lyrics often rhyme, using quite simple rhythmic patterns. It’s common to have a song of four or five verses with no chorus. The verses often tell a story with emotional content – love, heartbreak, disappointment, loneliness, personal struggles. Many of the older songs also capture a sense of the culture and place for that time, which includes references to pick up trucks, cowboy life, hot desert landscape, drinking and dancing.

Pop

Description: Pop stands for ‘popular music’. Pop music is made for mass distribution, designed to appeal to large mainstream groups. It is usually played on electronic instruments and consists of short songs (2-5 minutes) with a strong beat that is easy to dance to, a catchy melody and simple tunes that are easy to remember and sing along to. The most popular songs are called ‘hits’ and are listed every week on ’the charts.’ For a song to get on a chart it needs to be released as a ’single’, so sometimes song are referred to as ’singles’. Some artists from other genres produce hit songs by combining elements of their genre with the pop formula.  

Lyrics: The lyrics are often about the joys and troubles of love and relationships, and may or may not rhyme. Choruses are common. Short, simple and repetitive lyrics are often used.

Rock

Description: Rock music is a type of popular music that originated as ‘rock and roll’ in the United States in the early 1950s. Rock songs can be edgy and angry, anti-authoritarian, put listeners on edge, inspire them to do something dangerous, fight against the system or have a good time.

Instruments: Electric guitars are the foundation instrument. Also bass guitar, drums and piano.

Lyrics: Common themes for lyrics include rebellion, liberation, sex and drug use, as well as romantic love. Picking a theme you are passionate about is a good idea.

Other genres of music include:

  • Blues
  • Jazz
  • Reggae
  • Techno
  • Trance
  • Hip hop
  • Religious music / hymns
  • Alternative
  • Classical
  • World

For this course I will focus on folk, pop, country and rock. I have made genre reference sheets which you can download for each of these genres. If you are creating a cover, look up the genre of the song and choose instruments and other musical elements that are commonly used for that genre. If you are creating an original song, choose the genre before you start, and let that inform your choices of instruments and other elements. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything yet, like chord progressions – I will be covering these later.

If you would like to create music in a genre other than folk, country or rock, you can use the format I have developed to create your own reference material for that genre, by looking up a description, common instruments used, chord progressions and the artists for the most popular songs in that genre. Getting a description of the lyrics may be more difficult – if you can’t find one online try looking at the lyrics for the top ten most popular songs and see if you can work out the type of content, structure and style used. If you create a reference sheet for a genre, feel free to send it to me so I can include it with this course.

Did you learn anything useful here? What genres are you interested in? Send me feedback so I can improve this course. Thanks! Asphyxia.

Continue to next lesson – composing a bass line for Happy Birthday.

Back to course page.

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