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Understanding Alternative Music

Updated on January 31, 2014

By Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin All Rights Reserved


Variety is the spice of life, so we are always in search of alternatives.

This is absolutely true of our attitude to music. Always much needed entertainment, musicians are always in search off new, creative forms of expression.

All of us would tire of listening constantly to similar tunes or styles of music. Alternative music as a genre should come as no surprise.


The origins of alternative music

Alternative music emerged as underground music popular all over college campuses. This musical genre saw its boom in the 1980s and became wildly popular in the 1990s, although it had precedents in earlier decades of the twentieth century, with musicians performing and recording alternatives to mainstream pop.

Alternative music is a broad umbrella term that describes a few sub genres that share common characteristics. All seem to descend from the punk rock form popular in the 1970s. These minor forms, including noise pop, jangle pop, industrial rock and gothic rock, gained recondition on college campuses, though few were signed to major record labels. They came about as a result of punk culture.

Characteristics of alternative music

The characteristics of alternative music are hard to define because of its many sub genres that have their own unique, defining features.

Originally describing any style of music that is part of the punk genre, alternative music is now a term that describes any variation of pop music.

The nebulous definition makes it extremely difficult to distinguish.

Forms of alternative rock and popular artists

Each genre of alternative music has popular artistes associated with it. These are some of these forms, explained, and a few acts that define them.

Alternative forms of pop, though outstanding in the 1980s and 90s, have their precedents.

Tangerine dream in concert

Pre-Alternative Era: The Predecessors of Alternative Music

Garage Rock

Though not quite of the 1980s, Garage Rock is often regarded as alternative music because it was not mainstream pop.

Popular in the 1960s,Garage Rock was non mainstream rock played in none other than a garage. Popular in the 1960s, garage rock singers often used lyrics that were more aggressive and unsophisticated than that found in commercial pop music. Guitars were distorted through a fuzz box.

Garage Rock was slowly beginning to disappear as college students became involved in their work commitments.

Defining acts were Question Mark and the Mysterions and the White Stripes.


This is rock and alternative music that became popular in Germany in the 1960s. Outside Germany, Krautrock referred to any form of music involving heavily distorted guitars, vocals and the use of synthesizers. The music was a mix of post psychedelic and progressive rock.

Both these forms use politically charged lyrics, owing to great social change happening in America and Europe. While the hippie movement made waves in America with its musicians playing progressive rock, the intellectual movement was becoming influential in European countries, including Germany.Krautrock was first performed In the German Music festival of Essen.

These social changes led to the development of avant garde music, including Krautrock. Defining acts were Can, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk.

Cindy Lee Berryhill live

Alternative Music of the 1980s and beyond

These sub genres or forms of alternative music emerged in the post 1960s era to become associated with the era of the 1980s and 1990s.


As the name of this genre of alternative music suggests, it parodies 1960s folk music written by folk acts like Ario Gutherie and Joan Baez, subverting its lyrics. This genre mocks folk music's seriousness and is generally evocative.

Anti folk music had its humble beginnings in New York by folk musicians who failed to get acts in established folk venues. Singer songwriter Lach started a club known as The Fort. Its opening coincided with the New York Folk Festival, so he created the New York Anti-Folk Festival to mark the opening of his restaurant.

Early anti-folk acts included Cindy Lee Berryhill, Brenda Kahn, Paleface, Beck, Michelle Shocked, Zane Campbell, and John S. Hall.

The Mock Turtles -Can You Dig It


This alternative dance music genre was named after the baggy trousers of its practitioners. It had its origins in the British city of Medchester, and was characterized by psychedelic, acid influenced guitar.

Because "Baggy" bands tailored their image to suit the scene, they were accused of jumping on bandwagons and deriving their songs from original sources.

Baggy Music was made famous by acts like The Mock Turtles, Flowered Up and The Soup Dragons.

Com Truise -Komputer Cast


This genre might give lovers of what is conventionally regarded as pop the chills.

What Chillwave is is music with heavy emphasis on the use of effects processing, looping and sampling.

Chillwave has often been defined by its naysayers as music which is cut and paste, often courtesy of a laptop. They define it further as having excessive looping and weak voices.

Against the voice of its critics, Chillwave has to be credited for reinventing music. It is known for taking archaic tracks, mostly of the 1980s, with decaying magnetic tape and giving them a fresh sound. It has elements of music outside of Western pop. Popular Chlllwave acts were Grffage and Com Truise.

Cocteau Twins-Lorelei

Dream Pop

The predecessor to Shoegaze, Dream pop centered around sonic textures that defined mood.

The form often utilized breathy vocals and guitar effects. The objective of dream pop practitioners was often to hook listeners with mystical, existential imagery.

Some of its defining acts were the Cocteau Twins, AR Kane, Creation and Projeckt.

Dvendra Barnhart never Seen Such Good Things

Freak Folk

This is an avante garde branch of folk music that uses acoustic instrumentation, often reinventing lost 1960s folk classics with uncommon sounds like baroque pop and psychedelic rock.

True to its name, the practitioners of freak folk often sprouted beards and flowers in an attempt to look primitive in spite of the present era. The lyrics of freak folk music were often based on less common themes as well.

Notable artists were Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart.
Freak folk was characterized as having a distinctive, individualistic style of singing. Acoustic sounds are a must in freak folk and any string instruments have to be plucked.

Freak folk broke in 2004 when Dvendra Barnhart compiled the collection Golden Apples of the Moon.

Nirvana Come As You Are

Grunge Rock

This alternative rock form emerged in the mid 1980s became popular in America's capital, Washington. Characterized by distorted guitars, angst-filled vocals and jarring song dynamics, grunge became a wildly popular form owing to the commercial success of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Albums which stood out were Pearl Jam's Ten and Nirvana's Nevermind.

Frank Zappa yellow Snow

Math Rock

This is a rhythmically complex style of alternative rock music that emerged in the 1980s. Often guitar based, it was branded as experimental or Indie rock.

This form made heavy use of irregularity. Rhythms were often played to odd time signatures. Stops and starts were often not at expected times or to the anacrusis of the score.

Artists who influenced Math Rock were Frank Zappa, Henry Cow, Jethro Tull and Genesis, among others.

Jimi Hendrix Purple Haze

Noise Rock

Noise Rock, too became prominent in the 1980s. It discards typical songwriting conventions of rhythm and use of tone. The music is typically atonal (without tone) and it's performers are, in large part, aggressive and confrontational in style. They often embraced controversial subjects in their music.

This is greatly attributed to performers like The Who or Jimi Hendrix, famous for destroying their instruments on stage.

Noise rock practitioners gathered to form bands in the 2000s, some as recently as the 2010s, including Zu, Metz and Disappears. Their music often features tribal polyrhythms.

Bangles-Walk Like An Egyptian

Paisley Underground

These bands became popular in the mid 1980s and were known for using psychedelic harmonies in their songs. They played in a folk-rock style that blended West Coast Surf Pop and Garage Rock.

Paisley Underground bands were very collaborative. Members from a few bands, such as Rain Parade, The Bangles and The Three O Clock got together to form Rainy Day releasing an album of song covers.

A defining Paisley band was The Bangles, which scored success with hits like Walk Like An Egyptian.

LCD Soundsystem All My Friends

Dance Punk

Dance Punk emerged in the late 1970s and was closely associated with the post punk and new wave movements.

Groups which performed Dance Punk Music often made heavy use of synthesizers. Krautrock also lent a hand in forming this alternative music genre.

Dance Punk in the new millennium was picked up on when new groups like LCD Soundsystem, Clinic and Death From Above 1979 started reviving Garage Rock and Post Punk elements. They were influenced by both dance and rock.

My Bloody Valentine -Only Shallow


Shoegazing involved the heavy use of guitar effects, with vocal melodies blending in as seamlessly as possible. Bands like My Bloody valentine extremely popular.

Shoegazing made heavy use of distorted guitar sounds and the dense, layered Wall of Sound technique which created a reverberant effect. The sound is emphasized instead of the vocals. It was regarded as a form liked by the middle and upper classes until it's decline in the 1990s.

Red House Painters - Katy Song

Slow core

Slowcore music was, as the name suggests, slow, bleak and minimalist with effects and layering. The Slowcore movement began as a rebellion against the hardness of grunge, with its musicians playing as beautifully as they could.

Acts such as the Red House Painters were the progenitors of the Slowcore movement.

The Beatles - Flying

Space Rock

This genre of music was born out of the need to express man's feelings on being in space, greatly explored from the 1950s onward. The genre was noted for it's very heavy use of effects and synthesizers to create the effect of being in outer space.

Pink Floyd's album, The Piper and the Gates of Dawn, with tracks like Lucifer Sam was a prime example of space rock. The psychedelic song Flying by the Beatles also achieved the same effect.

Belle and Sebastian I Want the World To Stop

Which is your favorite Alternative music genre?

See results

Indie Pop

Indie pop was a term used to describe the music of artists on independent labels. They often made use of jangling guitars and song structured influenced by 1960s pop.

The genre took on a rather childlike, cute sound, earning it the nickname "twee".Acts like Belle and Sebastian and The Field Mice were progenitors of Indie Pop.


Alternative music, while chartered by fewer practitioners, has left it's mark on pop music today.


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    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Rebecca!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Very interesting! I was totally unaware of all these 'sub genres' . Thanks for enlightening me!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Mary!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Audrey.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Janet!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      7 years ago from New York

      Thanks for all the information Michelle. Though a music lover I knew little about alternative rock, until now that is!

      Voted up, useful, interesting and shared.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, DDe!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Ann!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Pochinuk!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Ruchira!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      I guess it's the angst-filled and too-strong vocals, Sheri!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Where rock music is concerned, I'm with you, Suhail!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      They're lesser known genres! Thanks for sharing!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Dianna!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      That's the thing about evolves everyday!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Bill, it's noted.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Kidscrafts!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks Creator.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      7 years ago from California

      Wow--lots of subgenres I have never heard of!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      7 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Understanding Alternative Music is an interesting and well informed hub. The choices are great.

    • janetwrites profile image

      Janet Giessl 

      7 years ago from Georgia country

      I have had absolutely no idea of alternative music. For this reason, I could learn so many new things from this hub! Very well-written and interesting. Thank you for sharing.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image


      7 years ago from Orange, Texas

      Very enlightening, Michelle. I had no idea there were so many different forms of alternative music. I was into country in the 80's and 90's, so that's probably why this hub is very educational to me!

      Voted up and interesting.

    • profile image


      7 years ago


      I am very uninformed in the music-types your hub highlights.

      Thank you for generating a list for me.


      I understand "anti" but never heard of anti-folk or freak ; interesting folks in these group.


    • Ruchira profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      wow! had no clue about the alternate musics

      thanks for a well researched hub michelle.

      sharing it across!

    • Sheri Faye profile image

      Sheri Dusseault 

      7 years ago from Chemainus. BC, Canada

      Great article. My son sings in a death metal band and I really didn't get it until he explained it is not about being angry, but about being alive. I can't say I really like it, but understand it a bit better now.

    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 

      7 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      Great article on my favorite pastime Michelle! I was not expecting an article of this nature coming out of Singapore hahaha.

      I was always into listening bands like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath and the bands influenced by them. My own thing was that grunge rock, the only alternative rock genre that I listened to, was influenced by Led Zep. From that genre, I listened to and liked Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots much more than Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.

      However, my main interest to-date remains in blues based hard rock bands, especially of the 80s.

      Voted up and shared!

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      As always Michelle interesting and well informed. Thanks for the great hub and wishing you a good weekend.


    • oldiesmusic profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      Very well-researched hub. I have known and loved shoegaze (especially MBV and Ride), dreampop and indie pop (particularly "twee" pop and chamber pop in particular). There are other subgenres like baggy that I wasn't aware of, thanks for introducing them too.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      7 years ago

      My gosh, I think I am now showing my age: I have not heard of most of these music artists. Great post on alternative music, people like me will be well educated after reading.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      7 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Michelle, all I could think while reading you excellent article is 'where was I when all of this was happening?' :) As always, exceptional work!

      Have a wonderful weekend.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You might want to change something on grunge became popular in Washington State...not the nation's capital. :) I'm all for alternative music.....back when I was a little kid, rock n roll was alternative.

    • kidscrafts profile image


      7 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Wouaw, Michelle! I didn't know there were so many genres and forms of alternative music! Very well researched, written and presented!

      Voted up, useful, interesting and awesome!

      Enjoy your weekend!

    • Cre8tor profile image

      Dan Reed 

      7 years ago

      Very well written and interesting Hub! Thanks!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Alternative Music Genres


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