Characteristics of Music: Hip Hop

Jul 7, 2021

What an incredible journey through music we’ve been on!

Over the last few months, we’ve explored the fundamental characteristics of a wide chunk of the musical spectrum, but we’re only really started to starch the surface of what music has to offer. We’ve explored everything from classical to pop, from jazz and R&B to rock and roll and country, and from folk to punk. Last week we even explored the characteristics of some of Canada’s Indigenous music. But when it comes to the wide world of music, we’ve only just begun!

This week we’re taking a look at something that’s more than a genre of music, it’s a cultural movement: Hip Hop.

What is Hip Hop?

More than merely a musical genre, hip hop is a cultural movement that has swept music, poetry, dance, art, fashion, and political philosophy up into itself. In fact, many people use “rap” and “hip hop” synonymously, but strictly speaking, rap is a specific musical technique that falls under the umbrella of the hip hop movement.

According to DJ, songwriter, producer, and hip hop pioneer, Afrika Bambaata, hip hop has four critical pillars:


Rapping, or MCing, is a vocal technique that uses both rhythm and lyrics, but typically doesn’t have a melody. With this lack of melody, it’s somewhat less like singing than it is like reciting poetry over a backbeat. As a matter of fact, the term “rapping” comes from a 1970s slang word for “talking” – anyone that was talking, reading poetry aloud, or giving a speech could be said to be “rapping.” As hip hop culture bloomed, the word “rap” took on today’s more specific definition. Today, rapping is a distinctive and common feature of most (but not all) hip hop music.


Or as it’s more commonly known today, DJing, is a way to make music with a turntable. Using records often produced by other artists, a creative DJ mixes, combines, and otherwise manipulates the music on the records to create something new. In the past, this has involved the DJ actually interfering with the normal functions of the turntable, speeding it up or slowing it down to change how the sound is played, for example. Today, however, with modern digital tools, DJs can create the same sounds electronically.


Sometimes called BBoy/BGirling, breakdancing is a unique, demanding, and instantly recognizable style of dance that few performers have mastered. Breakdancing has been a central element of hip hop culture since it began. However, thanks in no small part to its incredible level of difficulty, it hasn’t enjoyed the same mainstream succuss as other elements of the hip hop movement.

Street art

Street art is a visual art that goes hand in hand with hip hop. Usually created with spray paint, street art is known for its hectic visual style. Of course, not all graffiti is associated with hip hop culture, but the movement has created a unique style that is iconic.

Musical Characteristics of Hip Hop

When it comes to the music of hip hop, the central feature has to be the interplay between the rapper and the beat. Beats are often created from electronic instruments or samples from older recordings. In fact, few hip hop artists play physical instruments during their performances. The creativity of the style comes from finding interesting ways to weave beats and melodies together to create something right and new.

With such focus on the beat, hip hop beats can be sparse and relaxed, harsh and dark, and every imaginable combination in between. But what connects them all is a driving, steady beat and (usually) a minimalist approach to musical complexity, so as not to distract from the main focus: the lyrics and the rapper.

Rap has risen to become one of the most distinctive features and styles of hip hop culture. Rappers utilize the rhythm, lyrics, and their vocal tone to express themselves, and the best rappers are known for their “flow” – the way their words run together smoothly without the performer stumbling over them or becoming tongue tied. Rappers use their voice as an instrument, and often vary the sound of their voice, using course shouts or smooth flourishes depending on the needs of the performance.

What all this means is that the secret to good rap is in more than just the music. Great rap performers barrow poetic techniques like:

  • Internal rhyme, which is a rhyme that happens within a single line or verse, or between internal phrases, rather than at the line endings.
  • Meter, which represents the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or the lines in a verse.
  • Double entendres, which are figures of speech or a particular way of wording things that creates a double meaning. One of the meanings is usually obvious, while the secondary meaning often conveys a message that would be too socially awkward, sexually suggestive, or offensive to say directly.

With this emphasis on wordplay and message crafting, it’s no wonder rap fans hang on every word and try to analyze the meaning eve as they bounce to the beat!

Have you always wanted to join in on the beat? Do your kids show an interest in learning to play music? Either way, there’s a place for you at The Music Studio! Our professional instructors offer a wide range of musical programs for all ages. So whether you’re looking for a new instructor, hoping to pick up where you left off, or are on the hunt for someone to help get you or your little ones started, we’ve got a program for you!

Check out all our classes, lessons, and programs, all now available online as well, and sign up today! It’s never too early or too late to start a life filled with music!