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.