The United States is one of the world’s most prolific producers of popular art. The rich cultures and unique backgrounds of all Americans make the country an ideal place for art to flourish, and this diversity has had an obvious influence on music. People in the United States collectively appreciate a huge range of musical styles, but the most popular genres among Americans are the following four.
Rock and roll, or simply “rock,” originated in America in the 1950s, but quickly spread to England afterward. Each of these two countries played an important role in the development of the genre, but both have their own definition of what rock music is. From a general perspective, rock may be best defined as music with a strong beat that uses electric, amplified instruments to play fast-paced songs, though ballads in rock music are also commonplace.
Rock music would not have found the widespread success that it did without the guitar amplifier, then a new invention, as the amplifiers allowed musicians to play their music louder and to larger audiences than ever before. The intense energy and sense of belonging that young rock bands created for the youth of the mid-20th century carried the genre forward through the decades and allowed it to evolve, rather than die out. Some of the most important early musicians to influence the development of rock include Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, who each contributed to the sound and lyrical content of the genre.
R&B, which stands for “rhythm and blues,” and hip-hop music are two styles that were grouped together in the late 20th century to represent one larger genre. R&B was the first of the two to enter the American music scene, and the term was used to describe a complex, melodic sound that appeared in the 1930s in African American communities. Inspired by jazz and gospel, the genre also incorporated elements of blues music, but relied on upbeat tempos and witty lyrics rather than the emotional, call-and-response style singing of the blues masters. Eventually, thanks to performers like Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Sam Cooke, this genre spawned what is now known as soul.
R&B continued to evolve, inspiring different styles within the genre, and eventually became one of many influences in the creation of hip-hop in the 1970s and 80s. Born in African American communities in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop is known for the incorporation of turntables, rapping, break dancing, and spoken rhyme into its songs. Pioneering artists in the genre include DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, the Cold Crush Brothers, and Kurtis Blow.
Unlike the rest of the genres included on this list, pop (short for “popular”) music is not easily defined by its characteristics, because they continually evolve and change with the times. Pop music is a name for a form of music that is purposely commercial, designed specifically to appeal to a mass audience. It is written by professionals who attach their names to the music, and thus stands in stark comparison to folk music, which was traditionally written by unknown musicians and achieved mass popularity in America through widespread performance and word-of-mouth in the early 20th century.
In the late 1800s in America, popular music was the kind of songs found in vaudeville or music halls. Later, rock and soul music would dominate the pop charts, an occurrence which continues to influence the pop music of today. No matter which genre of music has the greatest influence on pop at any given moment, most pop songs have a memorable melody, catchy lyrics, and a chorus that repeats several times. The subject matter of pop songs often focuses on the highs and lows of romantic relationships. Modern examples of pop music include songs from artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Adele, and Lady Gaga.
The country genre has a long, rural past—one rooted in the folk traditions of the American South, especially of the Appalachian Mountains. In general, country music encompasses songs made from a simple chord progression and simple, memorable lyrics that tend to follow a storyline. Country music incorporates the sounds of traditional instruments, many of which are stringed, including the banjo, the fiddle, the mandolin, and many different variations of acoustic or steel guitars. Vocalists in this genre also often sing in accented American English, with a “twang” to the voice.
Country music evolved in the homes and gatherings of people from mountain towns long before it was brought to the attention of the public. The first country songs were recorded for larger circulation in the 1920s. Once country hit the radio through broadcasts from programs like the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, the genre inspired a generation of performers. Some of the earliest and most influential names in country music include the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Merle Haggard. Though modern iterations of this style have evolved to incorporate more elements of pop, many artists continue to retain core facets of country music in the lyrical content and vocal style of their songs.