For instance, every band/artist is unique to what they call themselves (performer/stage name.) It would seem easier to describe a taste in music by specific bands you enjoy versus a particular genre. I frequently stumble across arguments between music enthusiasts whether or not an artist fits the genre they're given.

So, why did we start categorizing music and who initiated this movement? Are there set standards as to what classifies a band/artist to fit a certain genre (sound, lyrical meaning, music complexity,) or is it simply opinionated?

  • 7
    Imagine a friend tells you about a new band. You want to know what they sound like, so he mentions another band... which you don't know. His next suggestion is also unknown. Ad infinitum. Now compare to "they play a funk/rock hybrid": immediately you've got some idea.
    – BCdotWEB
    Jul 10, 2015 at 14:47
  • 7
    I've never seen such an array of good & varied answers. +1s to everybody :)
    – Tetsujin
    Jul 11, 2015 at 9:23

6 Answers 6


All these other answers fail to take into account the actual history of the use of "genres", or formats as they are known in the music industry.

This movement was initiated about 80 or 90 years ago in the USA, by the radio industry and the fledgeling record labels (the businesses that record, manufacture and sell phonographic discs.) The answer is all about marketing and money, and it is all charted in the history of Billboard Magazine, published weekly out of New York since 1894. The most important year or event in this story is 1936; I will explain below.

80 or 90 years ago the environment was different than it is today. Consequently, when the idea of musical genres was first delineated, it meant something different to what it means today.

The first appearance of music genres goes back to right after World War I, in the USA, when the industry of selling recorded music and marketing it to radio stations began. (At this time, radio stations were exclusively broadcasting live musicians playing in the radio studio, because there were not yet many record companies sending them records to play on the air. Furthermore one radio station would generally broadcast a wide variety of different styles of music that appealed to many different kinds of people, usually rotating the styles of music they played in blocks of several hours at a time on certain days of the week.)

Genres were created and clearly delineated by the record companies, the radio stations, and indirectly by the economic pressure from the companies who paid the radio stations to run advertisements for the products they sold.

The reason for this is that radio stations made money by selling time for advertisements. The advertisers would be more inclined to pay for time if they knew that the radio station could deliver to them a specific audience of radio listeners who would be likely to buy the product that they sold.

Here is an over-simplified example: If a company was already in the business of selling an acne-treating product that they were spending money marketing to white teenage girls (through magazines or television or billboards or specific retail drug store chains), then they wanted to find radio stations whose listeners were overwhelmingly white teenage girls. This is where they would choose to spend their radio advertising money. Radio stations quickly became more aware of this, so they began to differentiate and to change their previously wide-ranging musical broadcasts of many musical styles into very specific niches. In this example, a radio station would devote the entire airtime throughout the week to play music provided by record companies which was tailored to appeal only to white teenage girls. This means that the record companies got actively involved in combining record producers with songwriters and bands that would release a steady stream of new music that would appeal primarily to teenage white girls.

Thus the modern music industry was born. Genres were created based upon the demographics required by the companies purchasing the advertising. When record labels released newly-recorded music, they created promotional staffs that would recommend individual recordings to specific radio stations that catered to a specific genre in order to enable all the businesses involved to maximize the sale of both certain kinds of musical records and acne treatment to white teenage girls.

Billboard Magazine had been in operation since 1894, and it is still in operation. It is the USA magazine which from the earliest days of the radio and record industry reported on which records were being aired the most on radio, where, and which records were being sold the most in stores, and where. Billboard was and never has been a magazine for fans of music. Rather, it is an industry publication that helps music businesses follow trends and decide where to invest their marketing money to sell records.

Starting in 1936, Billboard magazine began organizing its reporting on the sales and airplay of specific records according to charts organized by musical genre. This was a confirmation and a continuation of a practice that had been going on for years beforehand. It goes without saying that the music industries in other nations of the world, whereever they had radio stations and record companies, followed the marketing methods being developed in the USA and adapted them to their own particular markets.

Billboard, weekly, would publish a "Pop" chart ("popular" music appealing to the most desireable and lucrative demographic for selling products through advertising, in other words young middle-and-upper-class white people in the USA), a "Race" chart (meaning the tracking of records played on radio stations that were specifically aimed at African-American listeners), a "Country" chart, a "Jazz" chart, and others. As the years progressed, the name and number and focus of the charts would shift.

It was radio DJs and Billboard magazine editors and record company executives who actually created and named specific genres, using terms like "Rock and Roll", "Country" (which originally was called "Hillbilly") and "R&B" (which originally stood for "Rhythm and Blues" and before that was called "Race Records"). These "genres" were certainly not created and defined by musicians themselves. It was a giant feedback loop, which propagated ever-more-specific genres. The large national corporations who purchased the advertising time and marketed their products through the advertising certainly participated.

The term used within the USA music business to describe the "genre" of music played on a particular radio station is the term format. (Link to Wikipedia article) Check out this Wikipedia article and you will see that the different kinds of formats listed correspond more or less with what music fans refer to as genres, taking into account that formats and genres are always changing in a fluid fashion as time goes by. Over the decades the popular concept of "genre" has really always been about radio formats and changes in marketing business plans for radio stations, and this has been reflected in the charts published in Billboard magazine.

It is important to understand that individual musicians and whole bands who got into the music industry were steered by the record companies and their producers into creating specific kinds of recorded music that fit clearly into specific genres, for the purpose of maximizing the efficiency of marketing and sales. If a given musician or band ever wanted to change their "genre" or even to record different songs from different "genres" on the same record album, the record company tended strongly to prohibit this, because such an album could not be effectively marketed through existing marketing channels. Musical compositions became known as "product" because recordings were sold as physical items in stores, marketed through radio, and not as "art" or "music" anymore.

The problem with the idea of "genres" is that it caught the public's imagination. The public, along with the music critics in the press, seemed to enjoy the idea of "I'm a country music fan" or "I'm an R&B fan" and defining themselves thusly. I remember in the 1970s when country music fans would wear T-shirts that said, "If it ain't country, you can kiss my ass", meaning that they would only listen to music which the radio stations and record labels, and by extension the advertisers, defined as "country". For many decades, people became accustomed to only being willing to listen to music which was marketed within the specific "genre" that the fans had identified as the one they preferred.

Now things are very different today. Now that we have the Internet and we can experience and listen to a great variety of music, we no longer depend so heavily upon the ways in which businesses like radio stations, record companies and corporations who market to us define the genres.

But the result has been ever-more-increasingly fine "genres" anyway. For example, take the rock music fan who doesn't think in terms of rock music. He doesn't think in terms of liking hard rock. He doesn't think in terms of heavy metal. He prefers to assert that he likes only symphonic death metal, and "death to false metal." Or somebody will not acknowledge that he likes music made by African-Americans, but rather that he likes a specific sub-genre of hip-hop. Or somebody who doesn't think in terms of liking dance music, but rather identifies with a specific sub-genre of EDM or dubstep or acid house or whatever all those genre terms are these days.

The idea of musical genres was created and carefully crafted by businesspeople to maximize the sale of records, but also products like acne cream to teenage girls.

  • +1 on your answer, but I'm fairly certain that genres of music have been identified and talked about long before 1936 or even before the 20th century in general. Take, for example, within western classical music, the distinctions made between baroque, classical, romantic, and modernist music. Your answer focuses on the use of genre in the music industry, and that's cool. But I do think that the deeper answer to the "why do music genres exist" question is something along the lines of what other people have answered, i.e. "humans think in categories", especially when engaging with new things.
    – mlibby
    Feb 27, 2020 at 15:03

In answering your title question, I agree with the other answer here (from Tetsujin): genres exist because classification Is What We Do and our brains our wired for the use of heuristics (see, for instance, the writings of Herbert Simon). That is, labeling something by genre gives a sense of its innate structure and the "rules" by which it plays -- or, perhaps more interestingly, the rules it plays around with. (This is why (I personally believe) there is significant argument around whether or not artists fit into certain genres. It seems to be particularly endemic to some metal sub-genres, where there's even a term for 'trueness to the genre': kvlt.) More simply -- or more individually -- the label of genre is one of the shortcuts that helps me decide whether or not I may like it.

The rest of this answer concerns your other questions.

I haven't found any information on the explicit beginnings of assigning music genres. The classification by genre of art (in general; literature specifically) goes back almost as far as written history, to at least Plato and Aristotle. It's clear that musical genre defining is not solely a modern (20th century) pursuit; for instance, the term 'Baroque' was first applied to music in the early eighteenth century (source) in an attempt to differentiate then-modern music from the preceding century. Especially if the definition "genre" includes stylistic and differences in form, I think it's reasonable to assume that recognizable musical genre classification (baroque vs modern, Italian Opera vs French Opera) has been happening since at least the early 1700s, but probably even earlier.

As for whether or not there are objective standards for genre inclusion... the answer is more or less a frustrating "kind of", in the "know it when I see it" vein.

Furthermore, there is often considerable theoretical disagreement about the definition of specific genres. 'A genre is ultimately an abstract conception rather than something that exists empirically in the world,' notes Jane Feuer (1992, 144). One theorist's genre may be another's sub-genre or even super-genre (and indeed what is technique, style, mode, formula or thematic grouping to one may be treated as a genre by another)... Conventional definitions of genres tend to be based on the notion that they constitute particular conventions of content (such as themes or settings) and/or form (including structure and style) which are shared by the texts which are regarded as belonging to them... It is seldom hard to find texts which are exceptions to any given definition of a particular genre. There are no 'rigid rules of inclusion and exclusion' Gledhill 1985, 60). 'Genres... are not discrete systems, consisting of a fixed number of listable items' (ibid., 64). It is difficult to make clear-cut distinctions between one genre and another: genres overlap, and there are 'mixed genres' (such as comedy-thrillers). Specific genres tend to be easy to recognize intuitively but difficult (if not impossible) to define. (source)

Instead of quoting the whole thing, I'll just recommend reading the whole thing, as it provides a fairly summation of this question.

That said, this theoretical/academic answer is not overly useful in a world where services like iTunes and Spotify exist and "genre" is standard metadata. For a better overview of the "practical" efforts to define genre, check out the information produced by The Echo Nest, which lists Spotify and other services as clients. In particular this blog post discusses a modern, algorithmic, take on assigning genres.


Humans like pigeon-holes. They make people feel comfortable that they can categorise something, to put it in a slot they already understand.

Humans are very uncomfortable with things that don't fit existing preconceptions. It probably stems from the time we lived in trees, ate fruit & small animals & ran like hell from lions & tigers.
Survival instinct.

Is that a gazelle? Is it a lion?
Getting that wrong could be a grave error. The first zebra ever seen by a human was likely cause for consternation… Looks like a horse, striped like a tiger… can I eat it, or will it eat me?

Simply, we do the same with music. We compartmentalise; we like it to fit a known concept.
Is it dance or rock, check.
It's dance.
Is it contemporary or old?
It's old… big pigeon-hole, it will fit in 'old' for now, don't need to categorise further.
It's new - OK, we're closer to these pigeon-holes so we can see more of them… let's get closer…
… the closer you get to a specific band or genre, the smaller the pigeon-hole we want to put it in.

Back to the African savannah of some million years ago -
Is it a lion? Nope.
Will it eat me? Nope.
Can I eat it? Yes.
Can I catch it? Nope. Then I don't care.
Can I catch it? Yes. Then I'm more interested in whether I'll like the taste.

BTW, anyone who complains tigers don't live in Africa missed the point ;)

…And that then brings us to tribal behaviour [which is so broad I'm not going to touch it] except..
Does my friend/peer like this football team?
Does my friend/peer like this music?


Most genres initially develop within a tight-knit, geographically delineated community of musicians and fans. They embody, in some sense, the culture and the preoccupations of that group. As they diffuse outward, they become a bridge between that subculture and the rest of the world.

Although people can and do like music of all genres, being a fan continues to convey information about who you are, culturally speaking. Are you a reggae fan? A jazz fan? A country music fan? A heavy metal fan? Are you a purist, or do you prefer the pop-music version of all those genres? Your answer (at least potentially) tells me something about yourself.


Great answers here, I believe the short answer is: to describe, classify, categorize, and organize different patterns found in different music styles. Very useful for some music-related activities, but not necessarily useful for performing or enjoying music.


I notice 3 things from my long music-listening history, all of which lead naturally to the idea of genre

First of all, instrumental vs song as music. Even in rock there were periods when a group like the Ventures was considered a distinct musical expression.

Next, instrumental virtuosity (esp improvisational) versus instruments solely as a backup to a singer. John Coltrane doing Favorite Things is so different from Julie Andrews. And I remember Herbie Hancock , who played piano with an orchestra in high school -- he was that good -- said that when he found jazz he thought 'how do they do that?"

so instrumental vs song and virtuosity versus backup and then my final category would be exemplified by Electronic Music, Ambient Music, even "New Age' where the whole point is the sound and not the musician Klaus Schulze has to be in that category, the genre of 'pure music'

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