On Genre

I am very particular about how I organise my music collection. My CDs are arranged alphabetically, for simplicity’s sake, though as an added bonus I like how I end up with John Field side-by-side with John Frusciante; but whenever I put music on a laptop or mp3 player, I spend a great deal of time making sure the details are correct – I double-check track listings, make sure that the artist’s name is spelled right, and most importantly I make sure the genre is correct.

You see, I really like genres.

I understand the problems people have with them, to an extent. I know that, in some cases there is very little difference between certain genres; yet at other times, bands with wildly different sounds may all legitimately be given the same label.

To say that music is just music is absurd – it ignores the wealth of diversity within music and within different styles of music. Critics of genre-classification often falsely accuse people who like genres of attempting to pin everything down, as if music appreciation was taxonomy. But that’s not the case – I think that if a number of bands or composers share common qualities, then why not use some kind of name to identify music that has those qualities? It makes discussing music so much easier.

The downside of this is that if genre is a convenient label for discussing music, it also makes it much easier for audiences to judge music unfairly. We are all guilty of this – dismissing an artist on the basis of their style, rather than on the music itself. Genres do facilitate this kind of lazy thinking, but I don’t think they’re responsible for it.

This is as good a post as any to plug one of my favourite websites – http://www.radiotuna.com, a list of free, online radio stations, organized by genre. This was a great delight to me when I discovered it. It’s a neat compromise between choosing what kind of thing to listen to on an mp3 player and hearing new music on the radio, it satisfies my genre obsession, and it’s a great way to educate yourself on unfamiliar genres. I’ll happily admit that some of the genres they list were completely unfamiliar to me (I still can’t quite figure out what defines the subsets of reggae known as “lover’s rock” and “soca”), and I was surprised by the absence of some subgenres (they don’t have a category for “folk metal”), but overall I found it to be a comprehensive list.

When it comes to classical music, it’s a different story again. That name itself has many different meanings – do we label all “Western Art Music” as classical, or do we split it up into its various eras Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern? And the word genre itself has a different meaning –it refers to a type of work rather than the work’s style. A single composer may have music for piano and voice, an orchestral work, a suite for string trio, and an opera. They could all use similar material and be written in the composer’s highly personal and recognisable style, yet in this context they would all be considered different genres. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll tend to organize by era – and it’s much easier for someone else to browse my collection this way.

Ultimately, I think that genres are a useful tool. Understanding what distinguishes different styles of music from one another, even if those distinctions are fine, helps me as a listener appreciate the subtle elements that contribute to creating great music.

As always, thoughts, questions and criticisms are welcome in the comments section.

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2 responses to “On Genre

  1. Hi Bill,

    As i am much a stickler for organising in general (books my authors, dvds by directors, music on mp3 more typically artist solely, albeit automatic regards to format) I have found myself constructing playlists based on genre – not to mention sound and other commonalities within said songs or bands.
    however, I find the only problem i can have with this is overlooking gems that would otherwise hit the spot.
    Say you’re browsing, coming across your horror section, you think “no, i’m not in the mood for horror” alas there would have been one film/book thrown into that section [for lack of better articulated options] that would have greatly sufficed.
    The commonality is the downfall in this case.

    What has helped me with building familiarity with genres [polite way of saying i’m fastidious] is that when i’m in need of ‘deep muscle music therapy’ i really need to fine tune what it is that reciprocates my appetite… you’re right though, a lot of people do see this as trying to “pin down” however i see it as more of an articulation

    as plug begets plug;
    I discovered this site [http://www.progarchives.com/Progressive-rock.asp] quickly after being introduced to the genre ‘Goa Trance’ a genre which I had been seeking for a long time yet didn’t quite know it. But it made me realise the depth of the near necessity of genre specificity.
    Personal example, whilst having one of those conversations with someone, I mentioned that i was a fan of Progressive Metal, to which I was then asked did I like Dream Theatre (and a few other bands). However all I could reply here was “Eh… no, not ‘that’ kind of Progressive Metal”
    clearly the aforementioned ‘that’ is important, at the mere mention of Prog Metal, two different styles were attached by myself and the other person.
    – also, props for the radiotuna plug, had it on the go for the weekend and discovered some great stuff… Future Jazz, seriously.

    Regarding what yourself and I discussed re; Comedy music.
    I see a parallel, albeit very very slight, with what yo were saying about Classical composer’s varying style of work.
    I find comedy music, and musicians is kind of lifting from genre in the sense that if there’s an artist, or comedian to be apt, releases a music album, there is generally individual songs that are an array of different styles, hip-hop, rock, blues, jazz. generally very. The comedy itself is the common unity in this work, not the music genre.
    But we’ve already gone beyond this point in person, so I’ll leave it with you for what’s to come.

    • I don’t think that the problem of inadvertently overlooking a work you’d enjoy is a greater concern when organising music by genre than by any other method of classifying. You could just as easily look at albums arranged by artist, or books by genre, and miss the one that would really suit your mood.

      You’re right, the more unifying element of comedy music is the comedy itself; however, I’m inclined to treat this as an extramusical concern, the same way I would disregard some genres that are named after more theatrical elements of a band’s performance. Viking Metal, for example, seems to me to be less to do with the music and more to do with the lyrics and theatrics. Musically I’d consider most Viking Metal bands I know to be folk metal or black metal. But yes, our conversation has led to some research and time spent thinking about comedy music, so I hopefully will get around to blogging about that some day.

      I agree about the “depths of genre specificity”- that’s something that I kinda refer to near the start there, about “bands with wildly different sounds may all legitimately be given the same label”. I specifically had ska in mind there. The Skatellites, Madness, and Reel Big Fish are all ska, but they all have very different music. Subdividing ska into Jamaican ska, second wave ska, and third wave ska clarifies these different sounds, but it doesn’t mean any of those bands aren’t ska. The issue then becomes one of utility- at what point is it useful to distinguish between different subgenres? For some people, there’s no need to seperate mainstream rock from heavy metal but for others, identifying three of four different types of black metal is an absolute necessity. There’s no right answer as such – it’s an issue of personal taste and preference, but it’s important to remember just because you do not or cannot make a distinction does not mean the distinction does not exist.

      Thanks for the comment!

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