A Comprehensive Guide to Rock Music Subgenres

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

A look at some of the most popular rock music subgenres, from classic rock and roll to metal and everything in between.

Introduction to rock music subgenres

Rock music is a broad genre of popular music that originated as “rock and roll” in the United States in the 1950s, and developed into a range of different styles in the 1960s and later. It has its roots in 1940s and 1950s rock and roll, itself heavily influenced by blues, rhythm and blues, and country music. Rock music also drew strongly on a number of other genres such as electric blues and folk. Musically, rock has centered on the electric guitar, usually as part of a rock group with electric bass, drums, keyboards, and one or more singers. Typically, rock is song-based music usually with a 4/4 time signature using a verse–chorus form, but the genre has become extremely diverse. Like pop music, lyrics often stress romantic love but also address a wide variety of other themes that are frequently social or political.

One of the key elements of rock is the concept of subgenres. A subgenre is a genre within a broader genre that has distinct characteristics which set it apart from other subgenres within that genre. For example, within the broader genre of rock music there are subgenres such as heavy metal, punk rock, alternative rock, etc. Each subgenre has its own unique style and sound which distinguishes it from other subgenres within the same genre.

In this guide we will provide an overview of some of the most popular rock music subgenres with a focus on their defining characteristics. We will also recommend some essential listening for each subgenre so that you can further explore these sounds for yourself.

Classic rock

Classic rock is a radio format which developed from the album-oriented rock (AOR) format in the early 1980s. In the United States, classic rock developed from the late 1960s, reaching its height in the 1970s with artists such as Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Boston, Rush, Kiss, Queen, Van Halen and Tom Petty. The format was characterized by a heavy emphasis on album sales and promotion and a focus on classic rock artists.

In the early 1980s, classic rock lost its commercial viability due to the rise of MTV and the increased popularity of mainstream rock and pop music. Classic rock radio stations began to be replaced by modern rock or alternative rock stations. However, some classic rock stations have survived; in some cases, they have evolved into oldies or classic hits stations.

Hard rock

Hard rock is a form of rock music characterized by heavy instrumentation and a more aggressive sound. Hard rock developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s with bands such as the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple. Hard rock began to decline in popularity in the 1980s with the rise of hair metal and alternative rock, but has experienced a resurgence in the past few years.

Punk rock

Punk rock is a style of rock music that developed in the mid-1970s. Punk rock bands are typically characterized by their fast tempo, catchy hooks, and raw, aggressive vocals. Punk rock songs are often about social and political issues, such as teenage angst, anti-establishment views, and disillusionment.

The punk rock movement was started by bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Punk rock quickly spread to other parts of the world, including the United States and Australia. In the 1980s, punk rock experienced a resurgence in popularity with bands like Nirvana and Green Day.

Punk rock has influenced many other genres of music, including alternative rock, pop punk, and emo.


Post-punk (originally called new musick) is a rock music movement with its roots in the late 1970s, following on the heels of the initial punk rock explosion of the mid-1970s. The genre retains its roots in punk’s DIY ethic, but emphasizes a broad range of influences beyond earlier punk rock music. Common features of post-punk include discarding or subverting punk’s values and conventions; adopting an avant-garde sensibility; experimenting with style and form; and making extensive use of synthesizers, drum machines, and delay units in songs. Musically, post-punk incorporates a wide range of styles, including krautrock, dub, funk, free jazz, and ambient music.

The movement includes all sorts of different bands that cannot be easily classified into just one genre, which is one of the reasons why post-punk is hard to define. Additionally, many post-punk bands were inspired by specific genres or scenes that were happening at the time (e.g., industrial music or disco), so they may incorporate elements from those genres as well. As a result, post-punk can be described as a melting pot of different styles and influences.

New wave

New Wave is a subgenre of rock music that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the hallmarks of New Wave music is the heavy use of synthesizers and electronic instruments, which often gave the music a more experimental, avant-garde sound. Another defining characteristic of New Wave is the incorporation of elements from other genres, such as punk rock, disco, and pop. This eclecticism helped to give New Wave its unique character and appeal.

Indie rock

Indie rock is a genre of rock music that originated in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. Originally used to describe independently released record label product, the term became associated with the music of bands on said labels, including punk and post-punk groups. During the 1980s, the use of the term “indie” started to shift from its reference to recording companies to describe the style of music produced on punk and post-punk labels. During the 1990s, grunge and Britpop bands broke into mainstream success, leading to a more defined distinction between indie rock and alternative rock. In the 2000s, a number of indie rock bands experienced commercial success, making it a decade defined by intense creativity within the independent community.

Alternative rock

Alternative rock is a broad umbrella term that typically refers to rock music that differs from the mainstream sound. It generally incorporates elements of punk, indie, and experimental rock. While it can be difficult to pin down a specific definition of alternative rock, the term is usually used to describe music that challenges the status quo and conventional rock sensibilities.

Some common alternative rock subgenres include grunge, shoegaze, emo, post-punk, math rock, indie rock, and noise rock. Alternative rock has its roots in the underground music scene of the 1980s, when bands like R.E.M. and The Pixies began to gain popularity outside of the mainstream music scene. In the 1990s, grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam helped to bring alternative rock into the mainstream consciousness.

Today, alternative rock is as popular as ever, with countless bands and artists taking inspiration from the genre’s rich history. Whether you’re a fan of classic alternative or looking to discover something new, there’s an endless wealth of great music to explore within the world of alternative rock.


Grunge is a subgenre of rock that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Grunge music is typically characterized by heavy guitars, lyrics that are angsty or nihilistic, and a generally “sludgy” sound. Some grunge bands became very popular in the early 1990s, such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. While Nirvana’s success brought mainstream attention to the genre, Pearl Jam’s more radio-friendly sound helped keep grunge in the public eye. By the mid-1990s, however, grunge began to lose its commercial appeal, and many of the iconic bands associated with the genre disbanded or faded into obscurity. Even so, grunge continues to influence rock music today.

Nu metal

Nu metal is a subgenre of rock music that emerged in the late 1990s. It is characterized by a heavy use of distorted guitars, drum machines, anddigital sampling. nu metal also incorporates elements of other genres, such as hip hop, alternative rock, and grunge.

Nu metal became popular in the early 2000s with bands such as Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, and Linkin Park. The genre was criticised for its overuse of profanity and violence, as well as its misogynistic and homophobic lyrics. However, nu metal has since evolved and diversified, with bands such as Korn and Disturbed incorporating more positive messages into their music.

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