Popular genres of music

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Hello and welcome to Learn English Vocabulary. My name is Jack and I’m making this podcast for you to learn or revise English vocabulary. You can find a transcript of this podcast on LearnEnglishVocabulary.co.uk. There’s a page for this podcast with the transcript, an activity and a task for you to do in the comments section.

It’s been a while since I made a podcast so I want to say thank you to everyone who has left me a message and to those of you who have made a donation. I really appreciate it. 

Today, I want to talk about genres of music. Genre means kind or type for arts so we talk about different music genres or film genres meaning different types of music or film. 

The word genre is a bit strange because the pronunciation sounds to most English people like a French word. Gen re /ʃɑ:n rə/ it’s written g e n r e and it’s unusual in English to pronounce a g in that way. I mean, it obviously comes from French, but that’s true of loads of words in English. And you can find plenty of examples of other English words that have the same origins. We say general and generation and gender, but these all start with a harder /ʤ/ sound. 

This podcast is going to focus on the words for genres of music, but there are 1383 genres of music listed on Spotify. Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea for a podcast. 

Instead of trying to test you on over 1000 different genre labels, I’m going to limit this podcast to the most popular genres. There are lists of most popular genres and most followed genres and I have done my best to make sense of them and reduce them to the most important genres that you should know. 

I’m going to quiz you to see if you know what 10 of the most popular genres of music are called in English.

Let’s get started. Number 1. What genre of music is the most popular on Spotify? Artists who have made music in this genre include The Beatles, Abba, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Kylie Minogue. Right now, Miley Cyrus is at the top of the charts for this genre. People used to call Michael Jackson the king of this genre so … what was Michael Jackson the king of? 

Michael Jackson was the king of pop. Pop music is the genre. Sometimes people say pop music. Some genres often include the word music, but once it’s clear that you’re talking about music, you can just say the word pop. Pop is short for popular so, in a way, any music could be considered pop music. However, ever since the 1960s, pop music has normally meant short songs that are usually very melodic and often about love and relationships. That’s not a good description. The definition in the Cambridge online dictionary says that pop music often has a strong beat, is simple and easy to remember and also often has electronic instruments. 

I’m going to move on. Perhaps the best way to define pop music is music that is popular, but that isn’t obviously one of the following genres.

Number 2. This is the second most popular genre on Spotify. In fact, there are quite a lot of sub-genres of this type of music in the charts. This genre has been used for a long time and was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, but if you said that you like this kind of music, people would be quite surprised if you put on some Louis Armstrong. In fact, on wikipedia, the entry on this genre describes mediaeval music. If you don’t qualify this genre with words like mediaeval or 1930s, then people will think that you like electronic music with a strong beat that is played by DJs in nightclubs and became popular in the 1980s as new synthesisers and computers made the music possible.  The name of this genre comes from the activity that people do when they are listening to this type of music. 

Do you know what genre I’m describing? The second most popular genre of music on Spotify is dance. So, like pop, this is a broad category that has included any kind of music that was created for people to dance to. However, in regular use, it is an umbrella term that covers subgenres like house music and EDM which stands for electronic dance music. There are loads of subgenres for this type of music: techno, garage, jungle. I don’t really like much modern dance music unless I’m at the gym so I don’t really know what the differences are. And I’ve not been able to find many clear definitions of different subgenres. I read a really lovely description of house music on reddit. Roobomatic defined house as music in the 4/4 boots and cats rhythm. Because the beat sounds like someone saying boots ‘n’ cats ‘n’ boots ‘n’ cats ‘n’ boots ‘n’ cats. 

Number 3. This type of music originally comes from the 1950s and 1960s and is designed for people to sit around and relax while listening. In that way, it’s different to dance music. You can use the same word as this genre as a verb, but it’s not common. It is used as a noun for the room in your house where you might listen to this sort of music. You also use this word for the main waiting area in an airport, before you go to the waiting areas by the gate for your flight. As this music is defined by an activity, like dance music, lots of different music could be described this way. This is probably why the genre is so popular. Anyhow, normally, this music is relaxed and easy to listen to with a slower tempo, a slower rhythm and a mellow tone. Lots of modern artists make this kind of music by taking another genre or samples of other music and mixing it with relaxed electronic beats. Do you know what genre I’m describing? The third most popular genre on Spotify is lounge. 

OK – the three most popular genres are terms that cover lots of different types of music. The fourth most popular genre is more specific. 

Number 4. OK, the next genre of music is much easier to define. It has lyrics, that is words that are spoken rather than sung. It’s a bit like poetry, lyrics usually rhyme and the rhythm is very important in the delivery. If two words rhyme, they have similar vowel sounds. Often, they have similar syllables. The cat sat on the mat. The words cat, sat and mat all rhyme. In this genre of music, there are often really clever rhymes; there are lines where several sounds rhyme with the next line.

This music originated in the 1970s in New York, though there are examples of music where the lyrics are spoken and some that sound quite a lot like this, but when people talk about this kind of music, they are talking about a specific style that developed as part of a wider cultural movement. The vocalist is traditionally accompanied by a dj who will mix two or more records, that is physical plastic discs that you play on a record player. 

Do you know what genre I’m describing?  The answer is rap or rap music. Now, when I was planning this podcast, I did worry about explaining the difference between hip-hop and rap. So to rap, the verb, means to perform a rap, the people who perform rap music are rappers. As far as I can tell, hip-hop refers to the cultural movement and includes other art forms such as graffiti and break dance. Some people prefer to talk about hip-hop and use the word rap for the parts of the music that are rapped. 

Number 5. The fifth most popular genre of music on Spotify surprised me a little. This music is traditional music that is played by an orchestra. People who really like this kind of music say that the term refers to a specific period in history from 1750 to  1820 and that only composers who worked in this period are this genre. But generally, people use this term for any music that’s played by an orchestra.

Do you know what the fifth most popular genre of music on Spotify is? The answer is classical music. The adjective classic is a bit  tricky here. We use the word classic to describe something that everybody thinks is really good. Usually, the word is used to describe old things, because if something is new, people need time to assess and appreciate it. So classic literature means old books that people think are really good. People love classic cars and classic rock describes old rock music that people still like today. And I think this confuses some learners. I have met people who like classic rock and pop, they prefer to listen to older music than modern pop and sometimes they describe this music as classical. But classical music describes a tradition of artistic music that included mediaeval, baroque, classical, romantic and modern. If you listen to a radio station that plays classical music, you will hear all of these types of music and composers like Beethoven and Mozart. 

Number 6. The sixth most popular genre of music on Spotify is also my favourite. It’s another genre that includes lots of styles and has a long history, going back to dance music in the 1930s and before. The music originated in New Orleans in America and grew out of brass band marches and French music and African music. You often hear trumpets and saxophones in this music, though there have been famous musicians in this genre that play other instruments like the guitar and piano, bass and drums. 

Do you know what genre of music I’m describing? The answer is jazz. I love jazz because it’s complex and varied and although there is a sort of language to it, there are sounds and musical phrases that sound jazzy, the tradition encourages innovation and improvisation. 

Number 7. The seventh most popular genre of music on Spotify grew out of North American gospel music and another genre that I’ll talk about next. Gospel music is religious music that’s sung in churches in the US. The history of Gospel goes back hundreds of years, but today, when people talk about Gospel today, they normally mean Southern Gospel or Black gospel and this calls to mind choirs accompanying very strong lead vocalists. The seventh most popular genre of music grew out of this tradition and often features very strong, very emotional vocal performances as well as chord sequences and other features of gospel. The name of this genre also means a spirit or non-physical element of people and sometimes animals that religious people believe in. The most famous singers in this genre were black in the 1950s and then in the 1960s, some white singers recorded tracks in this genre. 

Do you know what genre I’m describing? The answer is soul music. When I hear this term, I think of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, but the British singer Adele is part of a modern soul movement. 

Number 8. The eighth  most popular genre of music on Spotify is probably the hardest for me to describe. Like almost every genre on this list, it originated in African-American communities. It grew out of jazz and blues and gospel and swing. The term was used for black music in the 1940s on radios when other words for music from black artists were considered offensive. So it’s hard to describe music in this genre. I think that this music was originally very similar to soul music, only it was more rhythmic and had stronger links to blues, but it’s hard. Even today, I think the definition is pretty much pop music made by black people. And then when white people covered the same songs, the same genre term was used. 

Do you know what genre I’m describing? The answer is R&B or rhythm and blues. In the 70s and 80s, Michael Jackson was making pop records that were R&B and then in the 90s, there were groups like Destiny’s Child and artists like Usher and Toni Braxton who were clearly R&B. Their music was pop, but I think it was more sophisticated than some of the heavily produced pop bands like the spice girls and take that. I’m not sure though and as I said, it’s hard to define.

Number 9. The ninth most popular genre of music on Spotify is another American music genre and it’s not really popular in the UK. It’s a bit like R&B, but it’s made by white people and the men who make it all dress like cowboys. One of the most famous artists of this genre is the singer Dolly Parton who is popular in the UK. You can see why things are complicated. Dolly Parton wrote a song called I will always love you. This was covered by Whitney Houston. Whitney Housten’s version is described as a soul ballad. A ballad is a song that tells a story. But when the song was written, it was the ninth most popular genre of music. 

Do you know what genre I’m talking about? The answer is country music. As I said, it’s not really a big deal in the UK. Occasionally country artists become popular, but not like they are in the US.

Number 10. The tenth most popular genre is another hard one to describe because the origins of the genre come from how the music is produced rather than features of the music itself. You see, this genre is used to describe music that has been produced by artists without the support and control of a big music production company. Bands and performers that produced music using small recording companies, not produced by the big companies were creating this type of music. I think that the musical term was heavily influenced by a movement in the UK in the 1980s, but that might just be because I’m from the UK and that’s what I think of when I hear the word. 

Do you know what genre I’m talking about? The answer is indie. The word comes from the adjective independent because the bands were not connected to big music companies so they could make music however they wanted. Today, indie describes a kind of rock music. It’s not very heavy, kind of, rock music you can dance to without headbanging. The genres alternative rock and indie rock are used for the same sorts of bands so I don’t think the original meaning of being independent of a big record company is that important. However, you do still get independent music, though it might not be what people think of when they think about indie music.

I was really surprised that apart from indie, there was no other rock or rock’n’roll or metal or grunge or punk on the list. I mean, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Extreme both have new albums out, but they are not getting the hits on Spotify, I guess. 

Also on the list were the following genres that I’m afraid I’m not really sure about. There’s trap, which is a type of rap. The term originates from houses where drugs are sold or something in America. I’m not sure how that became a genre, but it’s on the most popular genre lists. There’s also indietronica, which I can make a guess at as I think it combines indie and electronica. There’s synthpop, which I would also guess to be pop music with lots of synthesiser sounds, neo mellow, which may be a type of lounge music, big room … Sorry. I have no idea. What is big room? And the last genre that I really don’t recognise is urban contemporary. Now urban was another term that was used for a while to refer to cultural movements that originated in black communities in the UK, I think so it could be that, but I’m not sure. I think that this means I am old now!

How did you do in the quiz?

I hope you were able to identify some of the genres. 

I do love reading your comments so please leave me a comment on the site or a rating or a review on Apple podcasts. I love to hear from you and any comments or suggestions you have. 

If there are any topics or songs or scenes from a film that you would like me to talk about or anything else you would like to hear, I would be delighted to make a podcast for you. So please visit LearnEnglishVocabulary.co.uk and say hello.

Thanks for listening.

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