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Isaac Zuckerman

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What are musical genres?

We have had words like pop, jazz, rock, hip-hop, R&B, funk, and so on for many years. Now we have starting getting bored with single genres and seem to be looking to integrate different styles together such as "acoustic-acid-jazz," or "alternative-prog-rock" or "african-metal-jazz." With so much interbreeding of styles in this modern world, the question I always wonder is what are these genres in the first place? If there are rules or parameters, have we broken them? If they are broken, is the song not that genre anymore?

How do we categorize something this subjective in our heads? WHAT IS GOING ON?

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  • Jun 28 2011: So personally a long time ago I passed that point where I became a guy who's actually "into music" more than having it as a background detail; one thing I noticed is that since then it's hard to come to term with labeling, whereas before, like back in middle school I could easily say "Yeah, I'm into grunge, but not country." Now I cringe whenever I'm asked to describe music. Point being, I think there should be some worth to the value to the idea of "genres" to someone who actively engages and studies music more often than not; I don't think the term should contradict a love for music, and it shouldn't be a meaningless concept (superficial convenience, reference, marketing) that only belongs that inane, vapid majority everyone likes to believe they are better than.

    I've been studying music criticism for some time now, and what I've come to is that each major category of music emphasizes philosophical (not necessarily just aesthetic) principles. Like there are a ton of dimensions to music; each time a new genre appears, it tends to revolutionize one dimension, possibly forsake another. Pop music is based on tension and release; hence the dynamic of the genre having a "genius" like Brian Wilson and then the "quick fix" bubblegum pop of the radio.
    Jazz revolutionized the potential for individuality in music, but until jazz fusion (which is to say it took from pop and rock), there was no emphasis on tone; all of the quality and intellect could be just as well translated on paper as if it were being performed. It narrowed in on the composition element of music; e.g. music theory became more of a game than a study in physical sound.
    Rock sought to remedy this callousness by emphasizing passionate and emotional tones, not notes and scales. But it may have tossed away the wit of jazz and symphonic composers.
    Rap emphasized variations in and properties of speech, and so on and so on. So to really judge an artist, you have to take "genre" as an entire mindset with priorities
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      Jun 28 2011: interesting, thanks for that insight.
      • Jun 29 2011: But I mean the point isn't to pit one genre against another, it's just, for example
        Folk music (or I guess what became country, bluegrass, americana in the West) is a mirror for culture; if a folk song is loaded with the details of the culture in which it was written, it can't really be faulted for not having a unique voice distinct to the musician. The whole point of this folk song is to celebrate this collective identity (or at least portray it, more or less), but Rap, Jazz, and Rock mindsets should criticize it for lacking originality.
        I think that's the most definitive example I could come up with.
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          Jun 29 2011: do organizing genre to the point of who knows where take away from the end product? in your opinion?
      • Jun 29 2011: I think in the early stages of any genre it can be beneficial to some degree.
        For example, shoegaze before it became mired by the term, was a nice way to slice it off as being a deviation from rock, trying something new.
        Like the whole point of shoegaze is to balance the elegance and grace of New Wave with the abrasiveness of No Wave; if it wasn't declared as a movement (in calling it a genre) I don't know if Kevin Shields & co. would have ever set it off as having it's own emphasis and principles, you know what I mean?
        But maybe this method can be exploited for the pretentious, I don't know.

        And another way of phrasing it is this: Everyone knows classical music doesn't have to rock, right?
        *Sorry I don't know how to reply to a 3rd reply*
        • Jun 30 2011: because i study music, i find myself usually trying to describe all the music i hear very analytically and thus have gotten frustrated with this genre nonsense. would the people of this thread argue that the analytical approach of describing music in such detail actually takes away from just the main point of genres which is simply saying this song reminds me of that song, and that's as far as it should be taken?
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      Jul 5 2011: Jazz and classical music are infinitely more emotional and passionate than pop or rock.
      • Jul 6 2011: You don't think that may be the slightest bit narrow minded?
        I find it hard to believe that one can be more than the other, but in terms of tectonic shifts in music history and what would be deemed a "sensation", the widespread cultural view was definitely in contrast to your own. And sorry, I maybe should have added that in terms of emphasizing emotion, I was considering early to late blues and the rock that copped off it.

        But I should say in nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo way am I trying to capture an omniscient view of music with any credibility. I honestly have no idea why people like rap, folk revivalism, or pop country; I'm only optimistically suggesting fans of other genres see something I do not (which are probably not the things I said in the old posts). And so No, Isaac, I don't see it as taking anything away from it at all. Sorry if I enjoy thinking (and hoping others do too) about music.
        And when it comes down to it, it's just another thing to do.
        • Jul 6 2011: Please do not apologize for your joy in thinking about music! Music is one of the best things anyone can think about :)
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          Jul 6 2011: You indirectly described jazz as callous, I was basically responding to that.
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    Jun 27 2011: bands and record companys use them to essentialy sell themselves or hit markets that identify best with said genre

    people in general use them for a varity of reasons, some need to organize what they like by them, or to identify with. some just insist on organizing everything.

    One of my favorite difficult to genre-ize bands would be Streetlight Manifesto.
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    Jun 27 2011: As Scott said, it's a convenient term of reference. Sadly I often find that certain genres come loaded with all sorts of baggage that sometimes act as a barrage. I think for example that for many people, the simple utterance of the genre 'techno' will immediately put them off.

    I also find that some people seem to enjoy a certain type of music simply to live up to an expectation. Like the love of classical music certain people profess at the expense of everything else in order that it might give them an aura of sophistication (I love classical music myself although not at the expense of everything else). I guess music is used as a way to forge an identity for oneself as are many things.
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    Jun 26 2011: I think they are just convenient terms of reference. These days, it's seems driven by branding more than anything else.

    There's a lot of people out there that like music because they feel the genre represents them in some way rather than for the pure enjoyment of the song.
    • Jun 26 2011: It seems like a chicken and egg problem. Does the music make the people feel it defines them, or do the people choose the music, which in tern makes the music have the certain reputation/identity?