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4.5: Defining Rock Types

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  • There are three types of rocks: igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. Each of these types is part of the rock cycle. Through changes in conditions one rock type can become another rock type. Or it can become a different rock of the same type.

    A rock is a naturally formed, non-living earth material. Rocks are made of collections of mineral grains that are held together in a firm, solid mass. How is a rock different from a mineral? Rocks are made of minerals. The mineral grains in a rock may be so tiny that you can only see them with a microscope, or they may be as big as your fingernail or even your finger.

    Rocks are identified primarily by the minerals they contain and by their texture. Each type of rock has a distinctive set of minerals. A rock may be made of grains of all one mineral type, such as quartzite. Much more commonly, rocks are made of a mixture of different minerals. Texture is a description of the size, shape, and arrangement of mineral grains.

    Rocks are classified into three major groups according to how they form. Rocks can be studied in hand samples that can be moved from their original location. Rocks can also be studied in outcrop, exposed rock formations that are attached to the ground, at the location where they are found.

    Igneous rocks form from cooling magma. Magma that erupts onto Earth’s surface is lava. The chemical composition of the magma and the rate at which it cools determine what rock forms as the minerals cool and crystallize. Sedimentary rocks form by the compaction and cementing together of sediments, broken pieces of rock-like gravel, sand, silt, or clay. Those sediments can be formed from the weathering and erosion of preexisting rocks. Sedimentary rocks also include chemical precipitates, the solid materials left behind after a liquid evaporates. Metamorphic rocks form when the minerals in an existing rock are changed by heat or pressure within the Earth.

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