Sometimes I'm not completely sure when a song is a "rock song" or when it is from another music genre or even a "something-rock" song. How do you recognize it? Is it some bass rhythm? Some chord progressions? Some guitar picking pattern? The instruments? Some scale?

I find myself very confused with this. The rock in the 50's doesn't really have much to do with what people say it's rock in this days, and I even confuse some other genres with "rock" or "rock-something".

I liked a lot the music from Nirvana for example, and for me and a lot of people that was rock, until I discovered it was grunge which is a subgenre of a subgenre, inspired by other genres and so on...

Is there a way to recognize it by paying attention to some characteristic of the melody, or is it just the feel of it?

I looked in wikipedia and there are more than two hundred subgenres of rock, a lot of them mixed with other genres and stuff, so how do you know a song is a rock song, or that a group is a rock group?

Is there a simple or at least consistent way to know this?

  • Anything that can't really be placed in any another genre and is played with a small ensemble and electric instruments can be called "rock". – Stinkfoot Feb 18 '18 at 4:00

Rock music is defined by rhythm, not melody. Rock is in 4/4 time with the heavy beats being 2 and 4.

Rock and roll in the '50s has exactly this in common with all of your "sub-genres" that you consider to be "rock" today. It's that simple.

I'm constantly amazed at how many people around the world today have essentially only listened to rock music all their lives and don't realize that there are many other kinds of music today and throughout history that don't use 4/4 time with the heavy beats on 2 and 4 at all.

The majority of Western music that is in 4/4 time, throughout history, has a different beat, where the heavy beat is 1, while 2, 3 and 4 are weak beats. (Examples are the whole of European classical music, contemporary Mexican pop music, like banda and norteño, of which there is a lot in my neighborhood, and dances like the foxtrot or tango). There is also a great deal of music in the world that uses time signatures other than 4/4, such as the waltz, in 3/4, or the minuet, in 6/8.

If it is in 4/4 time and you clap along to it on the 2 and the 4, then it's rock music, or one of other related forms with a broader history such as the blues, jazz, country, R&B (rhythm and blues), or gospel. All of these forms come down to us from the rhythm of African-Americans, whose ancestors exported this rhythm from its birthplace in Africa when they were forcibly relocated to the New World.

Genres and sub-genres of "rock" notwithstanding, they all have this in common: the predominant rhythm is 4/4 with the heavy beats on 2 and 4. That is why all these sub-genres are called "rock".

Listen to other kinds of music that have nothing to do with rock, and you'll understand that the world of music is vast, but that rock is a very narrow genre with a very short history that just happens to be really popular in your particular culture in the present.

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    Then of course there is progressive rock where 4/4 might not be predominant. ;-P No rule without exception... – Ulf Åkerstedt Sep 19 '12 at 11:37
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    Indeed. But even prog rock and progressive metal use 4/4 with a rock beat often enough that it's clearly a defining characteristic. I am a huge lifelong fan of progressive rock! – user1044 Sep 19 '12 at 13:11
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    There is also a lot of music in 4/4 with accents on 2 and 4 that is not considered rock music. I think there are also other factors defining rock music, e.g. chord progressions and the choice of instruments. – Tom Pažourek Oct 11 '12 at 22:14
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    I agree with tomp. While 4/4 time with accents on 2 and 4 is a characteristic of rock music, it also is characteristic of jazz, classical and other genres. In addition to chords (power chords?), instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, drums), you also might consider song structure (32-bar, AABA) as a defining element. – seanreads Dec 28 '12 at 15:29
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    "Rock is in 4/4 time" - tell that to Neal Peart (Rush) ! ;-) just pointoung out exceptions to a rule – user2808054 Jan 2 '15 at 11:17

This is really one of the most subjective areas in music, and one that individuals who follow a sub-genre get most militant about.

In my opinion, the only real way to do this is by comparison with other songs/bands in a particular genre. There are exceptions, for example Industrial - which has well defined descriptions based around the use of industrial noises sampled as percussion - but even this has a great deal of debate.

Even sites like rock.about.com have limited information on subgenres, and they use listings of bands in that subgenre as an indicator.

This image from Whitehotmagazine.com shows how complex the subgenre fields are: enter image description here

tl;dr - don't worry about it. If you really need to know what genre a particular song is, find out who played it and try looking on their website, or asking a fan.

(For those who really want to know - Metaltech is Industrimental - bringing together classic rock, techno, industrial, funk and metal... :-)

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    Great diagram. Is there a higher res version somewhere? Some of it is pretty hard to read. – naught101 Sep 24 '12 at 0:21
  • Your link to the whitehotmagazine image just loads their logo for me, I'm guessing they cache it for those who visited the page while those of us who see the hotlink are out of luck :P – delete me Jan 2 '13 at 22:02
  • This one is a bit better (v2 of same diagram) - found by searching google images for "Ward Shelly Rock Genres": wardshelley.com/paintings/pages/fullpics/… Original images seems to be from this article : whitehotmagazine.com/articles/… – user2808054 Jan 2 '15 at 12:04

I used to think that Avril Lavigne was rock and that Coldplay was pop, but it's actually the opposite. Avril Lavigne uses lots of guitars on her songs, sounds very close to rock'n'roll, but it's pop. And Coldplay, sound too pop for me, with much more piano/acoustic guitar than electric guitar. But it's still considered a rock band.

Wheat Williams said that rock'n'roll is defined by RHYTHM, heavy beats on 2 and 4 in a 4/4 time signature, but I'm sure I've heard this backbeat in pop music as well. If you listen to a pop song called Don't Let Me Get Me by P!nk, you'll hear that empashis on 2 and 4, with guitar, but still, it's not considered a rock song. And I've heard a rock song that doesn't follow that pattern, which the emphasis are on 1 and 3.

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    I have made edits to your answer to try and make it fit. You should be aware that pop music can also be rock, or jazz, or pretty much anything. And as Ulf commented, there can be exceptions to any rule. – Doktor Mayhem Aug 28 '13 at 8:07

Air Supply and Slayer are both categorized as Rock. Rock, as a term, is meaningless.

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    Air Supply and Slayer both perform songs in 4/4 time with the heavy beats being 2 and 4. That's why they are both rock bands. – user1044 Sep 19 '12 at 15:19
  • Most Slayer songs are in 2/2... – Meaningful Username Jan 1 '15 at 16:09

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