When we analyze music history, it's easy to organize changes in sound and popularity by decade. People can identify the sound of the '50s, for example, as something entirely different than the sound of the '60s, or the '70s, or the '80s.
It's an interesting phenomenon, but for the most part, popular music tastes don't suddenly change in correspondence with the opening or closing of a decade. Rather, I think our tendency to divide music up on a decade by decade basis is simply an effect of our natural inclination to categorize things.
In reality, popular music genres and sounds often develop slowly over time, starting in underground scenes, and eventually exploding into the mainstream. And when that genre has peaked in its popularity, it won't die when a digit changes in the calendar, it will taper out into the next decade, or might even remain for decades to come.
Sometimes, however, the decades do align with the close-out of a musical epoch. Take The Beatles for example, their career began in 1963 and ended, neatly, at the close-out of the decade in 1970. Disco, the dance genre that defined the '70s, is often thought to have ended on July 12, 1979, when an anti-disco demonstration turned into "The Day Disco Died."
Exceptions aside, the bands and sounds that define a decade don't suddenly die out at a decades closing. You'll still hear plenty of bands today making music that we listen to and think "Oh, this sounds like it could be from the '80s..." or the '60s, and so on and so forth. The modern rock band Greta Van Fleet sounds like Led Zeppelin, and Belle & Sebastian in the last two decades were making the same kind of folk-pop that Peter, Paul, and Mary were making in the '60s.
Still, while the division of music into decades may not be a wholly accurate method, it remains an incredibly useful tool for observing changing trends around us.
Using this tool, we can already identify the 2000s as having its own unique sound. When it comes to pop music, there's something distinctly "2000s" about the pop of artists like P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, Alicia Keys, and Beyonce. It's a decade also defined by auto-tune and rap-pop infusion; songs like "Down" by Jay Sean and Lil Wayne, "Replay" by Iyaz, and pretty much everything by Akon. Rap-Rock (Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, Linkin Park) and R&B of the likes of Usher also seem to strongly touch our nostalgia bone.
But what about this decade? It's already 8 years in. What will we say next decade was the sound of this one?
I think one of the most important developments of the decade has been the bass drop, or simply "the drop." We've seen the drop break into popularity through dubstep and EDM, and ultimately seed its way into pop and hip-hop. It's everywhere now, and it's a distinctly '2010s phenomenon.
When it comes to genres though, this decade has been defined by two major sounds.
The '2010s trap sound, pioneered by Atlanta-based rappers like Future and Gucci Mane, have made hip-hop more popular than its ever been before. So popular, in fact, that hip-hop has overtaken rock as the number one genre in the United States.
We've even seen trap seed itself into pop music by way of major hits like Camila Cabello's "Havana," which featured trap artist Young Thug. And the trap machine isn't showing any signs of slowing down, it's still exploding in the Soundcloud scene through rising stars like Lil Pump and XXXTENTACION.
Trap's popularity is undeniable. Just look at Stony Brook University's last few on-campus concerts: Fetty Wap, Post Malone, Future, and 21 Savage. In fact, as I write this article, 8 out of the top 10 songs on Spotify's Top 50 US Chart are hip-hop tracks, and 6 of those 8 are trap songs. Hip-hop's triumphant rise to the top of the charts will certainly be a decade-defining fact, and the Atlanta-based sound that made it popular will become an integral part of our collective memory of these years.
EDM is the second genre that has come to define this decade. David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Avicii, Zedd, Skrillex—this is the sound of our decade. EDM influences seem to have found its way into everything these days. Countless major artists have changed their original sound to adopt EDM trends; Maroon 5, Katy Perry, One Republic, Coldplay, Eminem, Linkin Park, and so many others, have released albums recently that are steeped in heavy EDM influences. When you see a particular sound cross genre boundaries so heavily, it becomes more than just a single genre, it becomes age-defining.
So, all that considered, what do these changing trends say about our generation? It's been said that the music of the '60s reflects the "peace and love" ethos of the counter-culture, the music of the '80s reflects the excess of the age, and the rise of grunge in the '90s comes as a rebellious reaction to the heightened conservatism of the '80s.
So what about the '2010s?
Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe hip-hop's rise reveals something about race relations or its cult of luxury something about our generation too. Or maybe the popularity of EDM is an example of the growing ubiquity of the digital age. I don't know, it's not my place to say.
All I know is this: in 2025, when we're looking back on this decade in terms of its music, two things might come to mind: Migos and The Chainsmokers. There may not be any deeper meaning than that.