Pure Speculation: Some Thoughts on Music Genre

 Pure Speculation: Some Thoughts on Music Genre

A Recovering Music Snob

I’m a big Radiohead fan, something that often goes hand in hand with a sense of superiority regarding music taste. It became all too easy to look down on certain kinds of music because it appeared to me in some way simpler, or somehow less well written – less interesting – than that of Radiohead or similar artists. As my music taste has expanded, however, and I’ve thought about it more, my opinion on the matter has shifted dramatically. At this point I would consider myself a recovering music snob. 

My primary source of this snobbery was directed at electronic music. Because historically music has been played exclusively on acoustic instruments, it can perhaps require a certain level of open-mindedness to appreciate that you can be as skilled and innovative with a synthesizer as with a violin. Once I found some electronic music that I actually liked (an ambient techno artist called  Kiasmos, if you’re interested), I was able to start shaking off some of those associations I had with electronic music that understandably get in the way of the ability to simply listen and enjoy music.

I used to think of electronic music as a genre to be looked down on, as if describing it as a genre makes any sense at all. (Imagine categorizing all rock, jazz, classical, funk etc. into a category named ‘non-electronic music’ or ‘acoustic music’.) I am obviously aware that very few would really make a case for electronic music being a genre all to itself, given the immense diversity found within the boundaries of that label; but for me this realisation was a paradigm shift: specifically, the moment I recognised that the term ‘electronic music’ does not function like the term ‘rock music’ but more like terms that, as I said, few people would really use, like ‘acoustic music’, ‘guitar music’ or even ‘non-electronic music’. 

Genre as Vibe

Now that I have actually taken the time to explore electronic music (though I’ve barely scratched the surface), one thing I find so interesting about it is the fact that the various genres and subgenres contained within it are often categorised as such based on their vibe or mood rather than on the specific components of the songs. My guess would be that, as the range of sounds available to artists has grown exponentially – through sampling of all the world’s music as well as pioneering sound-design efforts – the ability to create a similar atmosphere or mood in a song without using the same components has become a lot more achievable.

You can’t make classic jazz music using just synthesizers and drum machines, because that’s not what classic jazz is (I’m now expecting someone to read this shaking their head at me thinking I know what classic jazz is. To clarify, I can’t sum up ‘the essence of classic jazz’ or any other pretentious notions like that, but I can still say with reasonable confidence what classic jazz is not). You can, however, make EDM, techno, house, DnB etc. using sounds, textures, samples and instruments that other producers of the same genre do not use.

There are obviously still big correlations in terms of the components of songs of these genres. A staple of techno and house is a four to the floor kick drum; EDM obviously has to have an energy to it that you can dance to; drum & bass tends to use specific drum patterns; and then of course tempo is obviously a big factor in categorising and distinguishing between different genres of electronic music. But there are still a lot of exceptions to these kinds of statements, and to me that is interesting when you consider that this did not use to be the case at all.

Blues music is another example that illustrates this point well. You could rightly make the case that classic blues music is linked by a certain range of moods and emotions evoked by and portrayed through the song; however, the components of the song are almost always the same. The song structure, choice of instrument, tempo, rhythm etc. often do not vary that much and so similar moods are created through similar means. Nowadays, these kinds of boundaries are being torn apart by the factors I mentioned earlier – and a techno or house track, for example, can contain almost any combination of instruments as long as the beat is steady and pulsing, and the kick drum is at the foundation of it all for the most part. 

Blurred Lines

I also love how blurred the lines get in electronic music. So many artists I admire now are so difficult to place into a specific category, and to me that’s a clear demonstration of how innovative the musical landscape has become. At some point, given the speed at which music is evolving, we can surely expect the term ‘genre’ to become almost obsolete, as artists become more and more idiosyncratic in their approach to making it, the tools they use and how they decide to utilise them. I suppose perhaps musical innovation could plateau as we reach the limits of possible arrangements of pitch, rhythm and timbre, but one does not like to dwell on such depressing matters.

The Epitome of Bitter-Sweetness

There is so much good music in the world that you will never run out of new music you love (if you look hard enough) and you will also never listen to even a fraction of the music you could come to love. This is surely the epitome of bittersweetness. Genre, I would argue, is best thought of as just a tool for finding new music you like based on what you already like (or in what direction you sense your music taste could expand), as well as a means of finding and connecting with other people who like the same kinds of music. 

That last point where music genre as defined by ‘vibe’ is key, because the kind of ‘vibes’ you enjoy and that resonate with you will often correlate (overly speculative, I know, but it rings true to me) with elements of personality, and therefore you’ve got at least a half-decent chance of meeting somewhat similar people to yourself via the genres of music you listen to. Even if it’s something more elusive than shared elements of personality, there’s something about your psychological makeup that has left you liking certain kinds of music, and it is that, rather than the music itself, which allows you to connect with others of similar taste beyond the overlaps in your music taste.

Genres as Signposts

It is difficult for me to say if I’ve properly thought this through. I’m all too aware of how self-perpetuating our thinking can be, so it may well be that someone less invested in their own opinions could dismantle my points with worrying ease. Regardless, it is an interesting topic to think and write about for me, especially because the people who I have heard speak about genre either speak about it with far too much certainty – believing they know specifically what defines a certain genre as though they were reading it out of a sort of musical cookbook – or they make disparaging comments about the futility of trying to categorise music into genres at all. 

It’s true that there is so much music in the world now that it can seem nonsensical trying to endlessly generate labels for it, which is partly why so many artists hate being pigeonholed. Still though, I try to see genres just as signposts that you can use to find your way through unfamiliar territory. Knowing the genre of music you’re listening to is incredibly helpful if you’re looking to expand your tastes, or find music similar to what you already like. 

The Map is Not the Territory

Music genre as a concept seems less and less able to provide any kind of accurate description of the music contained within its boundaries, and although it is often not the artists themselves who categorise themselves by genre or subgenre, it is still worth recognising the utility in the concept of music genre, and where that utility ends. 

The value of music genre as a concept lies in its functionality, not in its coherency as an accurate description of the musical landscape. This is why I am arguing that the concept is a kind of useful bullshit, in the same way a map is. The map is not the territory, and the two should never be confused for each other, but as long as you recognise that distinction, the map can help you find your way.

If you enjoyed reading this, consider reading my previous article here, or checking out more great articles on MancMuse.

Robbie French

A university drop out who moved to Manchester for the love of music. Getting started by reviewing gigs, Robbie's looking to hone his craft and get more involved in the industry. Lots more to come from him.

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