Amongst composers, Frank Zappa is known for his highly peculiar style. On guitar, he favored a Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown or Johnny "Guitar" Watson-inspired complex, left hand fingering, with lots of interaction with the drummer. As a composer, he loved to glue together separate elements and styles in an unpredictable collage of music. As a song writer, he is typified by industrial-strength sarcasm and a dislike of feminism. And he had a big nose and Johnny Otis's imperial mustache (recurring elements on album art).
Nick Cave, throughout the songs he's written, the novel (And The Ass Saw The Angel) and the film screenplay (The Proposition) has shown an enormous interest in four things: flowers, stomach-churning violence, discussion of literature — often in very unlikely places, and semi-heretical yet extremely pious examinations of religion.
If you see someone onstage playing a left-handed Hofner violin bass in something resembling a classic Beatlesuit, he is either Paul McCartney or someone trying to impersonate him as a Beatle. If he is playing anything written after Revolver or if there are no other Beatles impersonators, it's the real thing.
To a certain extent, The Beatles each had a signature style towards the end of the decade. John wrote songs with political, abstract, or drug-fueled lyrics, Paul wrote more straightforward love songs, George included a lot of spirituality, and, to the extent that he wrote and sang, Ringo's pieces were more playful and straightforward (to the point where Ringo songs were often considered the "kid-friendly" ones). Musically, Paul's songs usually require a greater vocal range than John's — compare the near-monotone "Across the Universe" or "Come Together" with "Yesterday" or "The Long and Winding Road" — while George's feature unusual vocal and guitar ostinatos, such as the line "I don't know why" in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or the opening notes of "Something".
Every single DragonForce song features the phrase "for the day", "far away", at least one reference to fire/warriors, and is at least three-quarters epic guitar solos. They're also all in the same time, key, and tempo.
Similarly, virtually every Manowar song is about at least one of the following: warriors and warfare, how awesome heavy metal is, and Norse mythology.
Nile songs can be distinguished by being one of the following: a light-speed technical death song that makes heavy use of Egyptian scales and is backed by extraordinarily fast and aggressive drumming, a lurching death/doom track with prominent atmospheric touches, or a sprawling epic that combines the two. Frequent folk interludes are also dead giveaways, as is the low grunt/high rasp dual vocal system of Karl and Dallas. Finally, there's also Karl's technical yet highly discordant soloing style.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has a habit where a number of pieces he writes have sections that end with a prominent trill at the big cadence. This was popular during the Rococo period.
Nine Inch Nails albums are usually concept albums. His music kept the exact same introspective subject matter (love, death, meaning etc) from the late 1980s to the early 2000s and reuses/d words like 'skin', 'broken', 'hole', 'bleeding', 'head', 'feels', 'falling/loss' etc. He both whispers and shouts a lot, often in the same song.
Johnny Cash had a very sparse, stripped down style for most of his career. This paired with his smooth bass-baritone voice made even his (numerous) covers immediately recognizable. One of his trademarks is the "boom chicka" rhythm played by a muted electric guitar.
Producer Rick Rubin's signature style is the minimal instrumentation, very few effects and overall feeling very stripped down.
Jim Steinman, almost every song has three distinct movements, is at least 7 minutes long, features a choir of angels at some point, and sounds like Meat Loaf is singing it, even if it's actually Bonnie Tyler, Celine Dion, or Air Supply.
If the lyrics you're listening have a lot of not-so-common words, seem to make no sense, go from Spanish to English or vice versa and are sung in falsetto it was most likely writen by Cedric Bixler-Zavala. The afro is quite stylish too.
Cattle Decapitation, while quite prone to Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly, has a pretty clear formula. It's a mixture of frantic, rapid-fire Harsh Vocals that frequently indulge in Motor Mouth and can go from anywhere to a low gurgle to a pseudo-clean nasally screech while mostly sticking to a mid-range bellow, guitarwork that is a mixture of standard brutal tech riffing, slam parts, and discordant, screechy lead riffs and solos that make frequent use of dissonant arpeggios and effects pedals, deep, rumbling bass that often shifts between following the guitar and contrasting it, and blast-heavy drumming that makes VERY heavy use of gravity blasts and highly technical ostinatos and vamps. The lyrics, meanwhile, are almost exclusively about either misanthropy and human wickedness or gore, frequently combining both. A subtle black comedic element is also very common, and irony is extensively used to drive the points home.
There's a joke that each Power Metal band picks their own theme (eg. aforementioned Manowar) and puts it into most of their songs.
Tom Waits has his voice, and the tendency to use deliberately antiquated recording techniques. And it's not uncommon to come across references to Kathleen Brennan, his wife. The name "Beaula" crops up a lot, as do trains, rain, and the word "down". He also uses his instruments in very bizarre, hard-to-describe ways.
Expect to hear the word "schism" a lot if you listen to Anthrax, and a lot of songs about Stephen King novels.
And for some reason, they really like the word "no".
The largest commonality of all their work is its ridiculous nature. For this reason, they've often been described as a "joke band," but this isn't exactly true. Much of their work is serious in conception, it's just that the Johns have always been ones to champion absurdity.
Voltaireloves the violin and lyrics that would be kinda disturbing if they weren't so funny, except for the occasional philosophical, contemplative song. Even those usually contain a bit of wit.
Masashi Hamauzu, composer for such games as the SaGa series and Dirge of Cerberus, tends to use lots of strings and as one reviewer puts it, "crunchy" piano chords. And expect lots of stylish violin solos. The result is a very elegant and uplifting sound.
Particularly true for the piano. He loves putting the piano in battle themes (see: "Decisive Battle" from FFX, "Saber's Edge" from FFXIII) - to epic effect.
Is it a Polyphonic Spree song? Is it about the sun? Is it irrepressibly optimistic? Is there a choir part? Are there prominent flute/horn/harp/et cetera parts? Does it have "Section" in the title? Then yes, it's probably a Polyphonic Spree song.
If you hear a band with shouted vocals (often with a political message), a guitar with lots of delay (and other effects) played very rhytmically on the upper strings, an agressive pumping bass and drums that often back down a bit? Well then it's probably U2.
Especially if the guitar bits sound suspiciously like they were ripped off from U2's immediate predecessors, particularly the Comsat Angels or Gang of Four. And if the political message veers on anvilicious.
Religious symbolism mixed with (unconnected) sexual themes can also play into this style, as well as ruminations of fame and rock stardom. The band had a acute sense of irony since Achtung Baby as well.
Linkin Park had one for damn near all of their songs from their first two albums. Mike's rapping interspersed with Chester's sing-screaming, power chords in the choruses, calm instrumental backing during the verses, an energetic kicker following a quiet intro and lots of angst.
Iron Maiden, especially their material from the 1980s (think The Number of the Beast), is distinguished by their trademark "galloping" back rhythm, created from the bass guitar and the drums, and Bruce Dickinson's operatic wail and screams.
Guns N' Roses...is the song in question marked by loads of guitars and lyrics decrying Axl's persecution, abandonment, or hatred with regards to x, y, or z, sung in a baritone and falsetto register? Then it's probably a Guns N' Roses song.
Sonata Arctica uses grim lyrics with a sound that sounds like an exploding Skittles factory.
John Darnielle has a very distinctive voice, uses very poetic and erudite lyrics (often with no traditional chorus), and has recurring themes in his music (couples that hate each other, going to somewhere, etc).
Does the song you're listening to have a chorus made up of lines from other rap songs? There's a good chance DJ Premier did the beat.
RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan has a very minimalist production style which contains a lot of samples of dialogue from kung-fu movies and pitched-up soul samples (his later songs also tend to have heavy use of strings and piano). All of the Wu-Tang Clan members also have a distinctive style of rapping in their verses, such as Ol' Dirty Bastard's bizarre character sketches and Method Man's Gangsta Rap.
Composer Philip Glass writes repetitive "minimalist" music that is easy to identify as his. Indeed, when asked what style of music he makes, he'll tell you that it's "repetitive minimalism" - See his sometime collaborators, Kronos Quartet, for another example
A Disturbed song can be distinguished by the polyrhythmic, heavy-hitting drumming; distorted, chugging back-riffs; and David Draiman's aggressive staccato bark, growling animal cries and dramatic belting. Expect 80's-like guitar solos, rhythmic verses, melodic choruses and sombre, dark lyrics.
Paul Hindemith was known for his use of quartal harmonies (based on fourths and fifths) to create strange sonorities and his neoclassical forms. He drew a lot of influence from very early classical music.
Listening to a metal song with both screamed and sung vocals, fuzzed guitars, and crazy time signatures that change several times during the song? You're probably listening to Mudvayne.
The guitar work of David Gilmour from Pink Floyd has in itself a very distinctive signature style. He sets himself apart by playing melodically with very long sustain. He takes a page from Eric Clapton and uses note bending (sometimes extreme) to make amazing wailing sounds with his guitar and gentle breeze-through passages. His signature Strat sound is aided by his customisation of pickups and electronics. This is most notable in "The Division Bell" and his solo works. Also, David is a powerful user (and an industry innovator) of electronics. Notable is his use of ramping up the gain and turning down the volume for that heavy, saturated distortion which Hendrix pioneered. You can hear this well in one of his solos from "Echoes". His blistering solos in "Time" and "Comfortably Numb" also display a lot of these techniques.
Pink Floyd's ex-lyricist Roger Waters is well known for his preoccupations with war, insanity, isolation, introspection, loss of communication, politics and the collapse of society, often with a biting wit and cynicism.
Syd Barrett wrote most of Pink Floyd's songs in their early years, and they were usually fond remembrances of a carefree childhood, though colored by LSD. To people used to the cynicism of the Waters-era Floyd, the difference in style is pretty jarring
System of a Down's music is somewhat hard to define, but it does have some noticeable traits present throughout the discography. It relies heavily on the loud-fast dynamic, usually somewhere between restrained and insane. Melodically it has a spiritual, almost tribal influence from world music, most notably middle-eastern instrumentation and Armenian folk singing. Lyrically it drifts between absurdist and political. Whatever you want to call it, the style is theirs.
The Lonely Island's comedy music usually consists of a petty thing happening, then the same situation slowly getting pettier and more minor until the first scenario that looked like the jaywalking of Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking now seems incredibly major; but no matter what, everything will be incredibly hammy and treated as if it were the most serious of Serious Business. It also probably has a featured artist somewhere to sing the chorus, and a kick-ass beat.
Drake's songs will usually have him (or someone else) singing the chorus and a muted bass beat. It also may incorporate a "phone call" or some sort of Studio Chatter.
If you're listening to complicated rhythms, incredibly heavy and aggressive guitars, rap-like robotic shouts, and can't understand a word, you're probably listening to Meshuggah.
Paul Simon, especially when he was one half of Simon & Garfunkel and the main songwriter of the duo, was quite fond of reflective songs of introspection, especially when it came to the topics of love and relationships, mortality, and loneliness. To wit, the entire first side of the Bookends album can be summed up thusly: Instrumental intro, suicide song, a couple traveling to find themselves while incredibly lonely inside and "lost", a clearly dead relationship that neither person wants to talk about or end, old people talking about their lives, two old friends sitting together ruminating on being near the end of their lives, and finally death or the end of an era.
Rascal Flatts is defined by very heavily-produced pop country with Gary LeVox's extremely high-pitched and nasal voice with lots of melisma and oversinging. Many of their songs have a slow build from piano to full orchestration with bloated strings and screaming guitars.
The above is producer Dann Huff's signature style as well. (Huff produced Rascal Flatts from 2005-13.) He used to play guitar in a metal band before switching to country, so his songs are usually defined by heavy, ultra-slick production and an unusually high amount of overdriven electric guitar work for country, usually played by him. One notable exception is Hunter Hayes, who is comparatively more subdued and usually plays all of his own instruments.
And if it sounds like Dann Huff minus the screaming guitars, then it was probably produced by Mark Bright. This goes back to Blackhawk in the 1990s, carried through Rascal Flatts' earlier albums before they switched to Huff in 2005, and is seen in the present day with Carrie Underwood.
Keith Urban seems to have two settings among the songs he writes: soft, emotional ballads with restrained production ("You'll Think of Me", "Only You Can Love Me This Way", etc.) or fun up-tempo with an insistent beat ("Long Hot Summer", "Kiss a Girl", "Better Life", "Somebody Like You"). Also expect a lot of references to the sun/summer, radio, cars, and/or the phrase "yes, you did", and fluid, soulful electric guitar playing that still has an easily discernible melody.
George Strait has a pretty straightforward, meat-and-potatoes style, with very changes in production style over a more than 30-year career (although his current producer, Tony Brown, didn't get on board until 1992). He can best be defined as the country everyman.
Session guitarist Brent Mason has a crisp and clean "chicken pickin'" style that can be found all over country music, particularly on Alan Jackson and George Strait albums.
Speaking of Alan Jackson, he has a similarly clean-cut style to Strait, but with a heavier twang and more emphasis on instrumentation. Especially in the 1990s, his songs had frequent trade-offs among piano, guitar, fiddle, and steel. Unlike Strait, he also writes the vast majority of his work, and usually takes a personal approach, with several songs about his life and family (e.g. "Small Town Southern Man").
Songwriter Casey Beathard tends to write everythingin D major with an almost ridiculously limited melody. He also went from writing a lot of songs about drinking (e.g. "Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo" and "Drinkin' Bone" by Tracy Byrd, "The World Needs a Drink" by Terri Clark) to writing about being a father (e.g. "Ready, Set, Don't Go" by Billy Ray Cyrus, "Cleaning This Gun" and "He's Mine" by Rodney Atkins, "All I Ask For Anymore" and "Just Fishin'" by Trace Adkins, "I See Me" by Travis Tritt).
Producer Jay Joyce has several tricks that he employs on his country music work (Eric Church, Little Big Town). Among them are raw, uncompressed guitars; very strong rhythms with lots of loud snare drums and/or drum loops (the latter an extreme rarity in country); layered backing vocals; and all sorts of filters and reverb on the lead vocal track. He also likes adding little flourishes, like the harps on Church's "Homeboy" or mandolin/hi-strung guitar riffs on Little Big Town's "Pontoon". Yet another common trick of his is using low guitar tunings such as Drop C. Naturally, Joyce is also a guitarist.
Michael Knox is similarly heavy on the rock side of country production, only with a more straightforward and less flourish-laden approach than Joyce. In particular, Knox's style can be heard on Jason Aldean's material.
If you're listening to country and it's extremely brickwalled and tinny sounding, it was probably produced by Frank Liddell and/or Mike Wrucke. Expect a very heavy electric guitar that is turned Up to Eleven then compressed beyond recognition. Miranda Lambert, David Nail, and the Eli Young Band are the main acts who suffer, although sometimes some genuinely good production slips through on their songs.
Dennis Linde has a noticeable songwriting style. His songs are often quirky character sketches (e.g. "Bubba Shot the Jukebox", "Goodbye Earl"), about being obsessively in love with someone ("Burning Love"), or both ("Queen of My Double Wide Trailer"). His other trademarks include a very steady beat and a tendency to break out of 4/4 time for a bar or two.
The Peach Pickers (Rhett Akins, Dallas Davisdon, Ben Hayslip) love writing summery, cheerful songs with very lightweight lyrics (e.g. Joe Nichols' "Gimmie That Girl", Rodney Atkins' "Farmer's Daughter", and Blake Shelton's "All About Tonight" and "Honey Bee").
Session steel guitarist John Hughey, heard on many country recordings in the 70s through 90s, had a high-toned, fluid style known as the "crying steel".
Pianist Floyd Cramer developed the "slip note" style of playing — i.e., "slipping" from an adjacent note to the right note — which is often used in country music to this day.
Steve Miller, at least by the late 1970s, was very fond of tight double-tracked lead vocals and spacy analog synth embellishments (though his music stayed in a catchy, blues-based guitar rock style).
Jeff Loomis is known for his exceptionally aggressive shred style that relies heavily on the diminished scale to create a very dark, menacing sound.
Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers. Big-voiced harmonies, chorus at the start of the song, just one verse, then the chorus a whole bunch of times again.
Taylor Swift: Her first few albums were defined by acoustic but slick country-pop, often about a breakup or some other part of a relationship, with her distinctively thin sounding voice. Starting with "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together", she moved to a bolder and even slicker style, with her voice being the only element that stayed the same.
If it's on country radio, it has nylon-string guitar throughout, and a heavy emphasis on instrumentation and four-part harmony, with a little bit of jam band, jazz, soft rock, country, and bluegrass all rolled into one, it's likely Zac Brown Band.
Drummer Bill Bruford of Yes and King Crimson is well known for drumming in a jazzy, yet very precise European style, and for his popping snare drum sound, achieved by hitting near he rim of the drum. He is also known for rarely drumming in a straight 4/4 beat, and for messing around with odd time signatures. His work with Simmons electronic drums in The Eighties is also distinctive.
King Crimson itself, in The Eighties, deliberately steered clear of using hi-hats or cymbals, so Bruford used long, high-pitched cylindrical drums known as octobans in place of cymbals. This (along with bassist Tony Levin's use of the Chapman Stick) contributed to the otherworldly rhythmic sound Crimson had in that decade.
If you're listening to a song that's unmistakably metal but has radio-friendly hooks, Latin percussion, an upbeat atmosphere, soaring melodies combined with distinct growls and Spanish vocals, it's almost certain that it's Ill Nino you're hearing.
Brad Paisley: Guitar solos with lots of clean, rapid-fire note runs. His songs are usually tongue-in-cheek humorous and sometimes even satirical ("Celebrity", "Ticks") or surprisingly introspective ("Letter to Me", "Welcome to the Future").
Kenny Chesney: Loves to sing about the Caribbean islands, and sometimes incorporates that influence. Often fond of soft, acoustic numbers with an introspective or escapist bent (e.g. "I'm Alive"). Even his up-tempos such as "Beer in Mexico" or "Pirate Flag" represent his desire to be alone with his thoughts on some island somewhere.
Robert John "Mutt" Lange is known for his heavy rock-styled production and immense use of overdubs. The style took on a country bent when he produced for now-ex-wife Shania Twain in the mid-late 90s and 2000s.
The bridges Leslie Fish writes are nearly always set to roughly the same tune as one verse plus the chorus, and are placed between the penultimate and last verse. She employs an acoustic guitar with an old-fashioned, piquant-intervalled vigor. She has a gruff, cowboyish voice. She loves space travel, civil libertarianism, and Kipling.
Heather Alexander has a heartbreakingly gorgeous alto voice, and is generally to be found singing about Celts, pageantry or both.
Queens of the Stone Age have truly made a name for themselves with their weird style. Odd tuning, weird timing on the vocals and bass, heavy amounts of fuzz, and unique drum fills.
Stock Aitken Waterman's production style: heavily synthesized, drum-heavy, very loud dancepop. If it sounds remotely like the Rickroll, it was probably them.
Dwight Yoakam: Sparse production, usually with Pete Anderson's guitar at the forefront. Often has a 1960s honky-tonk beat with a modern edge, defined mostly by Yoakam's nasal, slurring, almost Bob Dylan-esque voice.
Martina McBride: Slickly produced country-pop with a very belty soprano voice, often about a domestic issue such as violence/abuse, societal wrongs, illness, or just the joys of everday life.
Japanese post-hardcore/electronicore band Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas (not to be confused with the movie) have a very unique style. Is it a harsh vocalist contrasting with an auto-tuned clean vocalist, mixed in with a post-hardcore band playing alongside synths or J-core/rave sounding sequences, usually both? On top of all that, and most importantly, does there seem to be no verse or chorus in the song? Yes? It's them.
Are you listening to an instrumentalelectronic rock song, does it have Hip Hop-style drum beats, is it heavily bass focused, does it have lush synthesizers, and does it feature minimal, yet highly strung guitar? If you answered yes to all of these, you are listening to a Ratatat song.
If you're listening to a song with synthesizers galore, creepy lyrics and distorted vocals, there's a good chance that you're listening to The Knife.
Richard Wagner's music is famous for brass ensemble writing, though, contrary to Common Knowledge, more of this is quiet than loud; the Valhalla theme from The Ring of the Nibelung is a paradigmatic example. (Its scoring features the quartet of horn-like instruments specially invented for the work that have come to be known as "Wagner tubas.") Wagner's later operas (which he preferred to call music dramas) have long through-composed acts with a high density of Leitmotifs; the half-diminished seventh, popularly known as the Tristan chord, is actually prominently featured in several of them.
Country Music singer Willie Nelson is known for his reedy, jazzy voice, with ragged phrasing just off the beat, and simple nylon-string guitar riffs (while most country acts use steel strings instead).
Rodney Atkins: A high, gravelly singing voice, light instrumentation, and the female backing vocals mixed so high that they nearly drown him out. Lyrical content is usually about the joys of family and/or rural living.
Bill Anderson is known for his slick 60's country-pop where most of his lyrics are spoken in a soft, hushed voice instead of sung, thus earning him the nickname "Whisperin' Bill".