The categorization of musical genres is something that seems so matter-of-fact and innocent today among all music lovers. There are labels of genres and sub-genres that have become mutually agreed upon and used to describe the music we listen to in understandable terms. As a principle, it’s quite necessary; we need to be able to categorize music in some understandable way to help us know what we’re listening to, be able to compare and see developing trends, and to simply make some sense of the vast world of music. Somewhere down the line, though, it took a wrong turn. Eventually, our labeling of music turned sour, putting the entire music world in our own little boxes and using it for personal gratification over respect of its existence. It’s no ones fault outright, but I’d like to take time to shed light on this problem in hopes that it catches on with you in some way. We’ve had mislabeling problems like this throughout history, when the majorities, who want something more vernacular and accessible to use, outweigh the scientific minorities who have a more accurate term. In this case, I won’t necessarily say that there’s a right answer. I won’t think you’re stupid if don’t believe me. This is just an opinion, but I think it’s a very important one, because there are noticeable negative effects to the way musical genres are commonly being used. The way we are attempting to categorize music today is not only inaccurate, but also harmful in many aspects.
Let’s wind the clocks back a few centuries. Music has existed for at least as long as recorded time, but there never seemed to be a need to categorize it in any way for a long while. Simply put, that’s because for many generations there was only one way to write and perform music, and it had a rather indistinguishable sound. It wasn’t until around the 10th century where obvious different forms and tactics within a singular known style, known today as “chant”, expanded and became known around the Western world. Suddenly, music had personality and touches of influence. A real turning point came when music expanded beyond the monks at monasteries and existed in other settings for other purposes. Hildegard von Bingen’s work Ordo Virtutum, composed around 1151, was the first instance of drama and storytelling being set to music in a substantial musical work, and thus required a name beyond its title in order to differentiate it from other existing musical pieces so as to be properly received. Over the years, music had more and more purposes and ways to be presented, and that is where ”genre” was born. Soon, we had something called a “song”, which was a secular piece with vernacular text that was relatively short in length and could be performed in everyday life. Religious music had its own genres, such as a “mass” or a “motet”, depending on the organization of the music. Instrumental music then had its own revolution and we got even more ways to present music, such as dances, oratorios, concertos, symphonies, and operas, all rightfully labeled genres that, in one word, described the method of delivery and intent of the music. The piano gave rise to the sonata, and also resurrected the genre of the song when being paired with solo vocals in the 19th century. This in turn gave rise to the “song cycle” genre, where multiple songs were grouped together through textual connection and meant to be presented as one whole work. While many other genres died out, the song continued to rise in popularity and has become a huge part of the music world today, going through many different stylistic transformations. Its definition hasn’t changed: a secular piece in the musician’s own language of relatively short length that can be played anywhere.
Around the middle of the 20th century, though, we had a drastic change in our attempt at categorization. Music as an accessible and household existence meant for the cultural majority took a huge, if not final, victory over music meant for concert halls and specific manners. This was in part due to the failing of estranged and overly-intellectual musical minds in the first half of the century to produce meaningful music to the modern audience, and also very much due to the advancements in technology where music could suddenly be recorded and owned, as well as use an infinite amount of sounds. While a hugely important step in the music world, this is also where musical categorization started to become wayward and eventually detrimental. Instead of categorizing music based on how it was presented, we began to categorize it based on what it sounded like and what we felt as a result of it. It was surely a response to the explosion of completely new sounds and potential for cultural impact that music had.
That has ultimately done damage, though, starting with limiting the musician’s expressive freedoms. When people began to recognize they had a taste for specific musical tactics and approaches, they gave it a name so as to find similar music to store in their collection. That doesn’t seem so bad or wrong, but it has actually caused the musician to lose some creative power over their art. In one scenario, a listener may enjoy a piece of music, latch onto the genre it is categorized in, live happily ever after in that category and never gratefully experience music of any differences ever again. In another scenario, a musician has a great idea for a new work, but is afraid to do it because it’s radically different in sound and approach from their other work, so to not lose any fans they instead write what they’ve always written. In a related third scenario, a listener really enjoys a work from a certain musician, but when that musician writes new music in a way that is different from their labeled “genre”, the listener loses interest or blames the musician for not delivering what they wanted. This can be inversely negative too, with listeners grasping onto musicians based on one work but wanting new directions from the musicians in subsequent works, only to be disappointed with more of the same. Most listeners are somewhat smarter than what these scenarios portray, but it’s an overall cultural acceptance that should be stopped.
Creating such limiting and specific genres like art pop, math rock, shoegaze, emo, hardcore, grunge, disco, boogie-woogie, and gangsta rap have fed the listener with supposed rules of what can go into music, and is also basically telling people what to they do or don’t like before they even listen. You may say that it’s nice to be able to get a sense of what to expect and what the music will sound like beforehand, but you know what that really does? That takes away the listener’s ability to experience new types and new directions that music could go, slowly deteriorating new musical development. Knowing just a bit about what to expect based on these genres before going into a listen dampens your ability to fully take in what the musician is offering, because subconsciously you will be comparing it to previous expectations and music with that same genre label. Compare that with what we had historically; listening to a new sonata, all you may know is that it’s meant for a solo piano and that it will follow a loosely structured form. Listening to a new indie rock piece, and you have your own ideas about delivery of sound, organization of layers, musician’s intent, and what you’re expecting to feel. If any one of those preconceived notions aren’t fulfilled, the listener mistakes that for a lack of quality. The worthiness of a piece of music must never be judged in any way by these labels we have so horrendously come up with.
Since we are now able to own music and listen to it whenever we like, it’s no surprise that our way of categorizing music has become more specific. However, the long-lasting detriment to these genres is that music becomes nothing more than a tool for the listener to use. With these genres, we’ve tried to put ourselves above music and use it in order to gratify our human needs at the click of a button. You want to feel relaxed while in a social setting? Put on this chillwave punk. You need to exercise and want to feel energized? Use this playlist of pump-up dream pop. You want to get ready for a night on the town? Simply grab some new age crunk and you’re good to go. Again, it seems harmless, but it’s really ruining our experience of this vast, magical world. Sadly, putting music into a single phrase based on someone else’s, namely the media’s, reaction to it is all that music has become for many, and it’s all thanks to these wayward genres. Music is not a mere tool. It is an art form more powerful than any of us can imagine, and to cut it down in the ways we have with these genres is a serious problem.
Back to what I said at the beginning, though: the principle of having genres is necessary. So, what should we make of this mess we’ve made? Let’s go back in history and see how we’ve previously dealt with it. Genres were seemingly formed by how the music was organized and presented. They had nothing to do with how it actually made the listener feel. No one ever called Mozart’s music “shrill dance” or Mahler’s music “thunder brass”. Looking at today’s music, there are obvious collections of similar musical organization and presentation. I believe there’s one dominant genre today, and it’s called “album”. An album is a specific way of organizing music, being a collection of songs meant to be experienced from beginning to end, either with a connecting thread and storytelling element, or as the tried and true way to share more than one song at once, which has become quite powerful. “Album” as a genre is a pretty radical idea given what backward ideas we have today, but there seems to be a lot of truth to it. Do you think that may be too broad and doesn’t help narrow anything down for you? Tough. The music world is huge, and you shouldn’t try to shrink it. Let it control you. There are other prominent genres active today aside from the song and the album, such as the musical, the soundtrack, and one that doesn’t have a hugely agreed upon name that may best be called ambience or soundscape. While I said I wouldn’t come out by saying “I’m right and you’re wrong”, there is one key fact that does somewhat prove, at least to myself, that my views on genre and more accurate than the mainstream ideas. That is the fact that mainstream media can’t seem to make sense of any music made before the 20th century, and they don’t even try. While so used to categorizing based on sound and feeling, they can’t seem to categorize some wildly different sounds and approaches, lumping all music made before 1900 (and some past 1900) as “classical”, which is just hilarious. That is literally wrong, and I can’t help but ponder why those who are so meticulous in today’s genre labeling think that it’s appropriate to lump 10 centuries of music together into one category, as if no musical developments occurred during that time. Newsflash: genres created back then are still being widely developed today. That shows me, perhaps above all else, that the current genre labeling system is completely inaccurate. The same goes with the idiotic genre of “world”. Just because the music wasn’t made in the US, Canada, or Western Europe doesn’t mean it’s suddenly void of personality. That music from another culture is difficult to describe based on our systems today further proves my point. Yes, it comes from a different culture, but don’t just stop there and push it aside like that. Music knows no cultural boundaries; while immensely important to cultural expression, it ultimately exists outside of human conceptions such as culture.
What about labels such as rock, pop, rap, and jazz? In my mind, those are styles, not genres. Despite what the agreed upon definition may have been for the last 50 years now, I think that genre and style should be two separate entities, just as they were for hundreds of years before, for all the reasons I’ve already stated about how music should stop being categorized by style. Genre helps us understand how the music is organized and should be presented, and style only describes what the musician does musically to get there. The problem with that is, there isn’t and shouldn’t be one singular word or phrase that can possibly describe the style of a certain piece of music, let alone multiple pieces at once. Style is the musician’s influences, personality, thought, philosophy, voice, intent, and many other creative nuances all wrapped into a work of art. To put that into one word would be inaccurate and belittling. It may have been easier to do that when these terms were first coined; Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were pioneers that developed a brand new style of songwriting, and the media needed a way to describe it, so the term “rock n’ roll” was innocently born. Years later, when even more developments came along and musicians grew in diversity despite keeping similar influences, instead of getting rid of the silly media moniker, we tried to shove it all into one bag and create sub-genres upon sub-genres to give it more room, but really to just feel better about ourselves and have a false sense of intellectualism. Today, there are countless stupid genres that are a random word followed by the word “rock”. It’s to the point where it literally makes no sense in the scope of the music world.
Calling music something as generic as rock, pop, rap, and jazz is rather innocent and not a big deal, since there are incredibly noticeable differences in musical tactics between them that aren’t confusing. There is also a strong lineage of different influences. However, since we have to allow the freedom for musicians to cross over into any territory they want, those terms still don’t really do any good. You can describe the style of a single piece, but what good comes from trying to describe multiple pieces at once? It causes more harm than good. Categorizing by genre is important; categorizing by style ranges from being unnecessary to being harmful. Those four generic style labels will have to stay for now with the way the music world simply operates, and as the lesser of evils I can live with it. However, it’s difficult to live with the many labels that are called genres found on music forums, streaming sites, and just everyday media. It may seem harmless, but I’m witnessing it hurting the music world on so many levels. Musicians, I’m asking all of us to buck the trend. If you are ever asked “what’s your sound like?” or “what genre is your music?”, it’s a trap; answering will do more harm than good to you in the long run. Screw marketability, we’re talking about your passion and freedom being at stake here. Give a very generic, meaningless, confusing answer, or reference this episode of “The Music Observer” if what I have said rings true to you. Just as all humans are scientifically 99.7% exactly the same, all music is much more similar than you may have noticed, and categorizing it the way we do today is unnecessary and harmful. Every piece of music ever created can be boiled down to three distinguishable elements: melody, harmony, and timbre. I dare you to prove me wrong.