Cytogenetic alterations underlie the development of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), whether tobacco and alcohol use, betel nut chewing, snuff or human papillomavirus (HPV) causes the disease. Many of the molecular genetic aberrations in HNSCC result from these cytogenetic alterations. This review presents a brief introduction to the epidemiology of HNSCC, and discusses the role of HPV in the disease, cytogenetic alterations and their frequencies in HNSCC, their molecular genetic and The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) correlates, prognostic implications, and possible therapeutic considerations. The most frequent cytogenetic alterations in HNSCC are gains of 5p14-15, 8q11-12, and 20q12-13, gains or amplifications of 3q26, 7p11, 8q24, and 11q13, and losses of 3p, 4q35, 5q12, 8p23, 9p21-24, 11q14-23, 13q12-14, 18q23, and 21q22. To understand their effects on tumor cell biology and response to therapy, the cytogenetic findings in HNSCC are increasingly being examined in the context of the biochemical pathways they disrupt. The goal is to minimize morbidity and mortality from HNSCC using cytogenetic abnormalities to identify valuable diagnostic biomarkers for HNSCC, prognostic biomarkers of tumor behavior, recurrence risk, and outcome, and predictive biomarkers of therapeutic response to identify the most efficacious treatment for each individual patient's tumor, all based on a detailed understanding of the next generation biology of HNSCC.