Categorising music isn’t easy. Generally, most music fans will use genres (and sub-genres) to distinguish between artists with different overall sounds, but the term often gets mixed up with "style." The fact that elements of genre influence style and vice-versa makes it difficult to clearly split the two terms, but they do have distinct meanings. Learning about the definitions of each reveals the differences between the two terms and helps you communicate clearly regarding music.
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Definition of genre
The genre of a piece of music is roughly defined as how well it conforms to the conventions of a particular sound, as determined by the community of listeners and producers of that music. Simplified, this means that a genre is a general type of music which shares characteristics with a group of others. Some common genres include rock, hip hop, blues, jazz, country and punk. The definition of a specific genre is unlikely to be clear-cut (rock and blues often blur together, for instance), but each has its own conventions. For example, punk is characterized by rapid pace, distorted guitars and politically or ideologically charged lyrics, whereas hip hop is primarily dominated by a bass line and drum beat, with an MC rapping the vocals.
Definition of style
Style refers to the different techniques and conventions in the production of music. Specific styles are often associated with groups of musicians, particular genres, certain time periods and different locations. As an example, a stylistic element of rock composition is to emphasise the “backbeat,” which are beats two and four from a bar in 4/4 time. Don’t worry if you don’t understand this particular point, it simply illustrates that style is related to the more technical elements of producing music. Similarly, it is a convention in jazz to use specific types of chords called “seventh” chords, and many jazz musicians also make the stylistic decision to include “tension” notes in these to make the sound more unique.
What’s the difference?
The difference between style and genre is essentially that genre is a term used to define a particular musical movement by members of that community, whereas style is a term used by musicians to refer to different compositional techniques and playing choices. Genres have their own stylistic elements (as discussed with jazz, above), but only musicians will really be able to identify them. In contrast, most listeners can identify the general genre of a piece of music without technical knowledge. As another example, the speed of Johnny Ramone’s (the guitarist in punk band the Ramones) playing and the overall sound he produces would lead a listener to identify it as punk, but a fellow guitarist might notice his stylistic choice to only strum using down-stokes.
Genres are further divided into sub-genres, which in some way blurs the boundary between style and genre. This is because specific stylistic elements are often the only way to distinguish a specific subgenre. For example, blues can be split into numerous sub-genres, including Delta blues and Chicago blues. These both share some common elements, but the different styles – such as the frequent use of acoustic slide guitar and fingerpicking in Delta blues compared to the electronic amplification and use of a plectrum in Chicago blues – differentiate the sub-genres.
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