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Styles of Music: Types & History

Styles of Music: Types & History

About This Event

This lesson will detail three basic categories of music that will help to formulate an introductory knowledge of musical style and history. Examples will be provided for each category and notions concerning audience, production, and distribution will be discussed.



Music is one of the most fundamental forms of human artistic expression. We have no way of knowing when humans started making music, as such origins are lost in the mists of prehistory, but humans have certainly been making music in one form or another for a very long time indeed. Whether it is simply chanting or drumming by one or two people or the collaboration of more than one hundred musicians in a full-sized orchestra, music is one of the most emotive and compelling forms of art.


There are far too many styles, genres, subgenres, and traditions of music to list here; such an inventory would go on for hundreds of pages. Instead, this lesson will focus on three basic categories for producing and thinking about music: Western art music, folk music, and popular music.


Western Art Music

This category of music refers to the family of styles and genres that have developed out of the Western art music and classical tradition. This category of music is sometimes simply referred to as classical music but this term is somewhat misleading as the classical period in Western art music was a specific era that lasted from about 1730 to 1820 and does not really apply to periods before or after that time.


Western art music is characterized by compositional sophistication, virtuosity on the part of individual musicians, use of standardized musical notation, and association with the educated elites of Europe. Indeed, this last element is perhaps Western art music's most definitive feature. Western art music from the Middle Ages onward has positioned itself as the cerebral, culturally refined alternative to the folk and dance music of the common people. While individual composers may not have been members of the European aristocracy, with few exceptions they were funded by and making music for either the aristocracy or the church.


Folk Music

Folk music is not a genre, but rather a process through which music is produced. It is not composed by any one individual; instead, it is produced by a community over a period of time. Typically, folk music is constantly changing with additions being made while other elements are eliminated. Folk music can be understood to be the traditional music of any particular ethnic group or community that is passed down through informal means from one generation to the next.


Unlike Western art music, folk music is typically not notated or written down, although sometimes it can be. It is most often shared orally and taught from teacher to student by ear and can include anything from a cappella English ballads, to complex African drum patterns used for religious purposes, to the rich folk music traditions of South Asia involving sitars, tablas, and vocals. The key factors in distinguishing folk music traditions from other methods of musical production are its traditional basis and communal composition.


Popular Music

Like folk music, popular music is not a genre, but rather a process through which music is produced, distributed, and consumed. Popular music refers to any form of music that is mass produced or distributed, particularly if the music in question was written specifically for commercial purposes. Popular music is composed with the intention of profiting from that music's mass distribution, either through the record industry or through other means, such as for films, television, or online.


Rock music is perhaps the popular music genre par excellence, although genres like hip-hop, techno, and Bollywood soundtracks are also excellent examples. It can be argued that popular music did not really exist prior to the 19th century, when the recording and mass distribution of music first became possible.

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