The Top 20 Most Popular Music Genres
When we talk about the most popular musical genres, there’s a lot of ground to cover. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of types of music, which give rise to so many different categories. Is it really possible to compile a list of the most popular music genres? Well, we’ve had a go!
Some share common characteristics, others are the fusion of several genres. In turn, each one has its own internal divisions, so that when we talk about pop we refer to more than 5o subgenres.
Despite this complexity, today we have given ourselves the task of compiling the most popular musical genres of today, and we’ll tell you about their history, characteristics, and some of their most important artists.
The most popular music genres
First of all, we have to point out there’s no official division of music genres. The classification is always subjective and every year new types arise that require a new categorization.
With this in mind, we invite you to take a look at our list of the 20 most popular music genres. And, from this selection, you can take a look at the history of contemporary and not-so-contemporary music.
Known in some contexts as hip-hop, this is a musical style developed in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Specifically, we can trace its birth to the Bronx neighborhood in New York City.
During the 1980s and 1990s, rap diversified throughout the country and managed to spill over U.S. borders. We should clarify that there’s not only one rap genre. On the contrary, we can distinguish more than 50 subgenres of what is considered a whole culture.
Some exponents such as The Sugarhill Gang, Cypress Hill or Public Enemy have established themselves among the most important groups.
Whether or not you’re a fan of this style of music, you’re sure to have heard of K-pop. Although we associate it with a modern genre, we can actually trace its origins to the early to mid-1990s. However, for decades, the style has been identified with the popular music of South Korea.
The genre emerged in this Asian country drawing from different styles, such as rock, jazz, rap, reggae, electronic music and of course pop. During the first decade of this millennium, the genre began to become popular worldwide.
K-pop is currently one of the most popular music genres worldwide. Among its exponents are BTS, Super Junior, BlackPink, and Exo.
Grouping all the subgenres in this category under the simple label of rock is like trying to condense the whole universe into one marble. Its origins can be found in rock and roll, a style that emerged in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the genre diversified throughout the United States, at which time the first musical subgenres emerged. We can distinguish, in this way, classic rock, folk rock, jazz-rock, psychedelic rock, symphonic rock, country rock, and many others.
Given the number of important exponents, it’s very difficult to group in this space their most important groups and singers. However, we can highlight Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, The Doors, The Eagles, David Bowie, Aerosmith, Van Halen, and Guns and Roses.
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4. Electronic music
As with the previous genre, the label electronic music groups together a hundred musical styles with certain characteristics in common. We can date its beginning in parallel with the development of the first electronic musical instruments. That is, at the end of the 19th century.
In countries such as Germany, France, the United States and Japan, the first electronic music songs began to be distributed. During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s the style established itself as one of the most popular musical genres.
Some of the most important performers of the genre are Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk, Autechre, Daft Punk, Boards of Canada, The Orb, and The Black Dog, among many others. Subgenres include disco, techno, trance music, drum and bass, downtempo, and many more.
Pop music is another of the most popular music genres of all times. Its beginnings can be found in the 1950s and 1960s. By then, pop and rock were used as synonyms. In the late 1960s, they began to be distinguished as two different styles.
Perhaps the main characteristic of this genre is that it is oriented towards the general audience. Rather than targeting a specific group or culture, pop was, and has always been, more open in terms of its recipients.
At this point, it’s essential to mention the names of Michael Jackson and Madonna, known as the King and Queen of Pop. Although it was always popular, from the 2000s onwards it has consolidated itself as one of the genres with the greatest expansion.
6. Independent (Indie)
Independent music is not a genre in itself, as it spreads out into nearly all the genres on our list. However, it is a category that is often used to describe productions that aren’t made by major labels. There isn’t an emphasis on commercial intentions nor the market, and there’s complete freedom on the part of its creator when developing the songs.
In this way, we can find indie pop, indie rock, and so on. Virtually all musical styles were born as indie, as they fulfilled one or more of the above-mentioned criteria. It is still popular as an alternative for those who wish to make music due to artistic vocation without great commercial rewards.
7. Classical music
We couldn’t make a list of the most popular music genres without making reference to classical music. It has its origins in liturgical music, although it later distanced itself towards a more secular style.
Several currents can be distinguished, such as classical music of the Renaissance, Romanticism, Baroque, and Classicism. Current productions are known as contemporary classical music.
Vivaldi, Bach, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, and Brahms are just some of the names that come to mind when thinking of this genre. It is, in many ways, the seed of all the musical styles we can listen to today.
Country music is the prelude to rock and other genres that are immediately associated with American culture. It has its origins in the early 1920s. Some categorize it as popular music and others as folk music.
James Gideon, John Carson, Jimmie Rodgers, and Cliff Carlisle were some of its main precursors. Other artists who gained international fame with this genre were Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and Jim Reeves. Today this style is heard all over the world, although most strongly in the United States.
Technically, metal, also known as heavy metal, is a subgenre of rock music. Given its importance, significance, characteristics, and the countless groups that have developed it, we have included it under its only section on our list of the most popular music genres of all time.
The focus on stronger rhythms and long guitar solos are two of its main characteristics. As a subgenre of rock, it emerged in the mid-1960s and was fully consolidated during the 1970s and 1980s.
Although the name Metallica is surely the first that comes to mind when talking about this genre, we can’t fail to mention others, such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motörhead as some of the examples of this style.
Folk music encompasses a number of styles that relate to the traditions of rural peoples. The term folk was coined in the United States and is a variant of the German locution volk. It was used to refer to simple or uneducated people.
In its beginnings, folk music referred to all the musical styles that were part of rural areas. The banjo, fiddle, double bass, and guitar are considered the instruments of choice in this genre. Of course, today it has evolved to the point that some artists use electric instruments and even synthesizers.
If we are stricter, folk music encompasses all the musical styles of traditional villages. Therefore, it is also called traditional music. This categorization is a problem, because many types aren’t related to each other.
11. Soul and Rhythm and blues
Soul and Rhythm and blues (abbreviated as R&B) are genres born in the southern United States, inspired by the music of African-Americans, such as the blues, and other forms, even with more religious or spiritual overtones, such as gospel.
They’re characterized by powerful vocals and a catchy rhythm, although not as progressive as blues or rock and roll. Exponents of these genres include Ray Charles, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Stevie Wonder.
Flamenco is neither a single musical genre nor a style. Its history and particularities go beyond these categories, and that’s why its fans, precursors, and exponents consider it a whole culture.
Its origins are found in Spain, through a mixture that coincided in the south of the peninsula. The most accepted hypothesis is that its origins are from somewhere in the late eighteenth century.
The voice, guitar and dance of flamenco have made it stand out from other more popular musical genres. We also find different subgenres within it, as is the case of the toná. UNESCO considers it as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
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Jazz was born among the African-American communities of New Orleans, Louisiana, in the United States. Its first origins can be found at the end of the 19th century, although its consolidation, expansion and acceptance wasn’t achieved until the first two decades of the 20th century. Among other things, improvisation is one of its most important characteristics.
As the years went by, the genre added new references to form more than 50 different subgenres. These include hard bop, cool jazz, gypsy jazz, bebop, cape jazz, and modal jazz, among others.
Names such as Glen Miller, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Eddie Condon, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ray Charles are among its main exponents.
14. Bossa nova
Although originally considered a form or variant of jazz, Bossa nova has grown to have a personality of its own. It’s considered to have originated in Brazil, but is played all over the world. Great Bossa nova artists include Joao Gilberto, Vinicius de Moraes, Elis Regina, Chico Buarque, and Caetano Veloso, among others.
Salsa is a genre that is usually categorized as Latin music, so it’s often confused with others, such as mambo, guaracha, bachata, son, and dozens of Latin American genres. It also has different subgenres, such as salsa dura, salsa romantica and timba.
Its origins can be found in a combination of Caribbean and Afro-American rhythms, although over the years it has drawn from different cultures to consolidate a very particular style. Some of its exponents are Joe Cuba, Marc Anthony, Héctor Lavoe, Tito Nieves, Johnny Pacheco, Oscar D’León, Rubén Blades, Willie Colón, and Celia Cruz.
Merengue is another Caribbean genre, and is both danceable and catchy. It’s a little more progressive than salsa, but with almost the same instrumentation. Salsa is commonly identified with Puerto Rico and merengue with the Dominican Republic.
However, in the other Caribbean countries, both genres are very popular, being danced equally in Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Mexico, and even in Europe. Great merengue singers and orchestras include Wilfrido Vargas, Bonny Cepeda, Jerry Legrand, Juan Luis Guerra, Chichí Peralta, and Eddy Herrera.
The blues is a musical genre that has its origins in the southern United States. Specifically, in the mid-1860s. It’s directly related to the working communities of the African-American population. Blues is the basis on which other genres have been built, such as jazz, rock, or country music.
As with most styles, the blues has dozens of variants that make it impossible to identify all its exponents under the same criteria. Some such as Robert Leroy, Riley Ben King, Willie Dixon, and Albert King are among its main interpreters.
Reggaeton is one of the most visible faces of Hispanic-American music since the beginning of the 21st century. Its origins date back to the mid-1990s, with influences from reggae and rap. Puerto Rico was its cradle.
As for the interpreters, Daddy Yankee was one of its pioneers. He’s even credited with naming the name of the musical style in one of his songs. Other important exponents are Tego Calderón, Don Omar, Héctor & Tito, Nicky Jam, Wisin & Yandel, and Bad Bunny.
The musical style developed in Jamaica in the mid-1960s is an evolution of rocksteady, another genre that emerged on this Caribbean island. Some of its best-known exponents are Bob Marley, Johnny Nash, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer, among many others.
There are many subgenres of the musical style, although they all share common characteristics. The music is closely linked to the Rastafari movement, to the point that, popularly, the two terms are confused. Since 2018, UNESCO has considered it an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Also known as punk rock, this is a musical genre developed in the mid to late 1970s. In its beginnings, its differences with rock were very tenuous. As time went by, it acquired its own personality, until it consolidated itself as an isolated genre.
Among the most emblematic bands are the Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and The Dead Boys. Punk has been associated with a whole culture (or counterculture, to be more precise), which resulted in what is known as the punk movement. Although it’s a style that has suffered ups and downs, it remains one of the most popular music genres today.
Infinite music genres
Among the honorable mentions that we haven’t collected in our list, we can mention trap (with great popularity during the last few years), house, funk, experimental music, ska, and many more.
The list of music genres is almost infinite. In fact, popular genres can vary from country to country. What is widely listened to in Colombia, for example, such as cumbia, is not known in India.
In addition, every year new styles emerge, as well as reinterpretations of previous genres. An objective list would include hundreds and hundreds of manifestations and would be constantly updated.It might interest you...
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Bellon, M. (2012) El ABC del rock Bogotá: Penguin Random House.
- IFPI (2019). Music listening. Una mirada a cómo la música grabada es disfrutada alrededor del mundo. Documento en línea. URL disponible en: https://www.ifpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Music-Listening-2019_ES.pdf
- Rye, M. y Suñén, L. (2008). 1001 discos de música clásica que hay que escuchar antes de morir. Barcelon: Random House Mondadori.
- UNESCO/Intangible Cultural Heritage (2010). Flamenco. Documento en línea. URL disponible en: https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/flamenco-00363
- UNESCO/Intangible Cultural Heritage (2018). Reggae. Documento en línea. URL disponible en: https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/reggae-music-of-jamaica-01398