Q was founded in 1986 by Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, who were dismayed by the music press of the time, which they felt was ignoring a generation of older music buyers who were buying CDs – then still a new technology. Q was first published by the EMAP media group in October 1986, setting itself apart from much of the other music press with monthly production and higher standards of photography and printing. In the early years, the magazine was sub-titled "The modern guide to music and more". Originally it was to be called Cue (as in the sense of cueing a record, ready to play), but the name was changed so that it wouldn't be mistaken for a snooker magazine. Another reason, cited in Q's 200th edition, is that a single-letter title would be more prominent on newsstands.
In January 2008 EMAP sold its consumer magazine titles, including Q, to the Bauer Media Group.
The magazine has an extensive review section, featuring: new releases (music), reissues (music), music compilations, film and live concert reviews, as well as radio and television reviews. It uses a star-rating system from one to five stars; indeed, the rating an album receives in Q is often added to print and television advertising for the album in the UK and Ireland. While its content is non-free they host an archive of all of their magazine covers.
Much of the magazine is devoted to interviews with popular musical artists. It is well known for compiling lists. It has created many, ranging from "The 100 Greatest albums" to the "100 Greatest '100 Greatest' Lists". Every other month, Q – and its sister magazine, Mojo (also owned by Bauer) – have a special edition. These have been about musical eras, genres, or a very important/influential musician.
Often, promotional gifts are given away, such as cover-mounted CDs or books. The January 2006 issue included a free copy of "The Greatest Rock and Pop Miscellany … Ever!", modelled on Schott's Original Miscellany.