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What Is Reggae Music?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Reggae music originated in Jamaica from two similar Jamaican styles called ska and rocksteady. It can be identified by its backbeat rhythm and simple chord progressions. The lyrics are typically sung in Jamaican patois, a dialect of English. Bob Marley and The Wailers are some of the most famous reggae musicians.

Although reggae originated from a combination of ska and rocksteady, it was also influenced by American rhythm and blues (R&B), American jazz, and Jamaican mento. By the late 1960s, both Jamaica and the U.S. recognized reggae as a distinct genre of music. A 1967 single, “Long Shot Bus’ Me Bet” by The Pioneers, is generally considered the first specifically reggae recording.

The characteristic that distinguishes reggae music from other genres is its rhythm, or riddim. Songs are played in 4/4 time, with the emphasis falling on off beats. In addition, the third beat of each measure is frequently emphasized by a guitar or the bass drum, giving the music a distinctly African feel.

Percussion is generally provided by a drum set, tom-tom drums, and high tuned snare drums or timbales. A simple chord structure is layered on top of the drums by a guitar, bass guitar, and organ, piano, or keyboard. Many reggae bands use a trumpet, trombone, or saxophone to play short riffs or countermelodies in contrast to the vocals.

Most reggae lyrics are sung in Jamaican patois, a dialect of English, which many American and British listeners find difficult to understand. Some lyrics deal with Rastafarianism, a religion popular in Jamaica, which uses cannabis as part of a religious sacrament. Cannabis, referred to by the Jamaican slang term Ganja, is the plant that can be used to make the psychoactive drug marijuana.

One famous Rastafarian convert was singer and guitarist Bob Marley. Beginning in the early 1970s, Marley became internationally famous as a member of The Wailers, along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Other famous reggae musicians include Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, and Jackie Mittoo.

Many genres of music were influenced by reggae. Jamaican dub, American ska, and dancehall music all show its effects, as well as British bands such as UB40. Hip-hop and rap were also impacted by reggae’s rhythms.

Reggae music is associated with youth, rebellion, and rude boys, the street culture of Jamaica. The term “rude boys” refers to the often disaffected, unemployed, and violent young men that frequented the dance clubs where reggae began in the 1960s. As reggae music became a globally recognized genre, it became somewhat distanced from the rude boy culture, but reggae is still considered somewhat rebellious in nature.

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Discussion Comments
By seag47 — On Apr 21, 2012

@Oceana – I think the problem with reggae music is that it all is almost the same tempo. You probably can't think of any really slow reggae songs because you don't have any other speed to compare them to. They are all basically slow to mid-tempo.

Reggae songs all seem to follow a “boom-chick-boom-chick” rhythm, with the boom being the bass and the chick being the strum of a guitar chord. It is so predictable that it turns me off. If I've heard one, I've heard them all.

I agree with you that some music is just too fast and annoying, but I think that any genre should have plenty of variety in the speed of the songs. An artist should not put out an album of either all slow or all fast songs, because it gets boring to the listener.

By Oceana — On Apr 20, 2012

I am surprised to learn that reggae music was influenced by ska. When I think of ska music, I think of fast songs that sound almost like punk.

That is probably because the only ska band I am even familiar with is No Doubt, and many of their songs have a hyper beat and fast lyrics. I'm sure there must be many ska bands from decades ago, since they had to exist before reggae became a genre.

To me, reggae is somewhat slow. I can't really think of any fast reggae songs, and I like this, because music that is too fast irritates me and makes me nervous.

By wavy58 — On Apr 20, 2012

Reggae music makes me happy. Every time I hear it, I envision ocean waves and a warm breeze on a beach full of happy, laid back people.

I think that reggae music is often referred to as “island music.” Some bands incorporate steel drums into their songs, and this gives the music a definite tropical feel.

Even if the lyrics have nothing to do with being on an island, I still get that feeling when I hear the music. Maybe the beat reminds me of the waves, or maybe it is just because that is where I am happiest.

By StarJo — On Apr 19, 2012

I love it when pop bands play reggae music. UB40 has had several huge hits on the radio, and to me, their sound is very addictive and catchy.

There was another band in the early nineties whose style was reggae and who had a major hit on the radio. They were called Big Mountain, and they did a cover of the song, “Baby I Love Your Way.” The beat was distinctly reggae, but as a sort of surprise, a saxophone solo was thrown into the mix.

Since I only listen to pop music stations, I'm sure I have missed out on some great reggae music over the years. However, I've also had the chance to hear several awesome reggae songs that were good enough to cross over and become popular hits.

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