Genre terms are one of the most valuable tools we have for understanding and communicating with one another about music. The responsible use of music classification helps us understand creations in greater context, making it easier to identify patterns, recommend new artists to one another, and find creations that are the most satisfying to our individual tastes. It also allows us to recognize and honor the creative decisions of the hardworking artists who make the music, including and especially those who branch out and experiment with new styles. Finally, appropriate use of genres has the potential to greatly enhance personal listening enjoyment.
This may seem surprising for some, as it’s not unusual for music fans, artists, and even some journalists to claim that the use of genres is unnecessary, elitist, or in some cases, ignorant. These detractors also frequently claim that genre classifications place restrictions on artists’ creativity and diminish personal enjoyment of the music.
It’s true that when done improperly, applying labels to music has the potential to be some these things, and instances of misuse are easy to find. It’s also true that genre terms, like all aspects of language, do not convey the subtlety of the listening experience. However, none of these factors are reasonable arguments against the process of music classification, as the potential benefits far outweigh the troubles caused by their wrongful application. When used properly, music taxonomy substantially increases the clarity, recognition, and appreciation of artists’ creations.
It is human nature to attempt to make sense of our world and our experiences in it. On the most fundamental level, this is the reason behind music classification: it’s a way to accurately perceive the things we hear and describe them to others. Genre names are an immensely useful tool for talking about music and the relationships between songs, albums, artists, and eras. An accessible and relevant parallel to this process is animal taxonomy.
Biologists seek to classify animals as a means of perceiving commonalities and differences between all creatures on Earth, many of which share overlapping traits. Importantly, this process of classifying animals is imperfect and ultimately subjective, meaning there are no hard and fast limits or boundaries.
For example, until the early 1900s, rabbits were classified as rodents (order Rodentia). As more information was gathered about the animals and their nearest relatives, biologists shifted their perception and moved rabbits and hares into the small, specific taxonomic order Lagomorpha where they remain today alongside pikas.
Music classification works in precisely the same way. It assesses individual characteristics of songs and albums and places them in categories relative to their most closely related creations. The boundaries of genres are therefore defined by the density or sparseness of common traits: dense clusters of similar creations form the heart of a music style while relative gaps in creative approaches or distinct differences form the demarcation lines.
The rabbit also illustrates an important aspect of music taxonomy: classifications change over time as more knowledge is gathered about creations and their relatives, particularly as artists contribute to new styles of music. In this way, genres tend to be loose and flexible when they are new and become increasingly firm as hundreds and thousands of similar albums are made in and around them.
However, just as with animals, there is gray area among music creations that causes blurred edges and overlap between categories. This is true in broad examinations of genres, though it is often relevant within a single artist’s discography and even within a single album. For this reason, genre terms are always an approximation and are always relative, meaning there are no “correct” or final categorizations.
Moreover, few creations can be properly described using a single label, and in the interest of clarity, it is perfectly natural to describe a song or album using multiple genre names, adjectives, and blend words, such as death-thrash, cybersynth, and traditional heavy metal. This flexibility is also present in animal taxonomy, as biologists use informal terms like “true foxes” when making distinctions among animals. Crucially, genre names are, on their fundamental level, a reflexive means of description and recognition, not a rigid system of boundaries.
On the subject of boundaries, there’s a common assumption that music classification creates a restriction on creative freedom. People imagine it as forcing new music into boxes with unnecessary labels. There’s no denying that classifications can reach a point of absurdity, though the fact the system is sometimes over-applied doesn’t negate the value of genre classifications when used properly. Meaningful and relevant labels have a tendency to stick while frivolous ones are forgotten, and so the creation of new labels is an exploratory process with no significant long-term drawbacks.
In fact, if we want to avoid generalizations and restrictions on creative ambition, music journalists, fans, and artists should be constantly adapting our language in order to keep up with music innovations. At the very least, we need to stay open-minded to new terms and the people willing to create them. To respect artistic exploration, the creation of fresh genre names is essential and must be an ongoing process. Lumping all artists under the same generic terms, such as “metal” or “electronic music,” disregards the identifying elements that make their creations special, thereby reducing recognition of new ideas and accomplishing the very thing genre detractors attempt to avoid: it unnecessarily forces new music into boxes with meaningless labels.
This brings us to the aspect of music classification that is the most frequently criticized: the idea that categorizing an artist outside the boundaries of a specific genre is disrespectful to the artist. As acknowledged before, there are those who use genre classifications as a form of elitism, claiming that one style of music is inherently superior to another. Although everyone has personal tastes and preferences, no argument should ever be made that one style of music is fundamentally more valuable than another. The people who use genre terms in this way are misguidedly abusing the taxonomic system and do not represent the process or intent of music classification.
The appropriate application of genre labels couldn’t be more different from an elitist endeavor. Music categorization acknowledges when an artist has created something unique and deserving of special recognition. For example, saying that Slipknot is a magma act, not a metal band, is not a slight to the group. It is a way of acknowledging that the original and unique ideas the band created in the late ’90s and early ’00s clearly separated them from the musical approach of metal bands, particularly those who thrived through the ’80s and early ’90s. For the sake of clarity and recognition, that innovation deserves to be acknowledged with new language and descriptors that reflect the group’s high level of creativity.
Although the clarity and recognition gained from classification is valuable to music journalism and history, the greatest reason for categorizing music on a personal level is to enhance enjoyment and appreciation. Identifying specific artistic choices within a song and connecting them to related creations builds a broad and deep understanding of a genre. In turn, this makes it easier to recognize innovation and a specific songwriter’s skill level. The absence of these connections leaves every song and album in a conceptual vacuum, devoid of context, and it becomes difficult to appreciate the finer points of the music and its innovations.
It seems obvious to say, but attentively listening to a high number of songs and considering their strengths and weaknesses in relation to one another is the best way to enhance music appreciation. This is true for all things in life, yet those who do it for music are curiously criticized for it and accused of not enjoying themselves.
For example, no one would accuse a sommelier of not enjoying his wine, or a cicerone his beer. A professional wine steward has tasted hundreds, even thousands of wines and can pinpoint specific differences and similarities between them, assigning them into relative categories and discussing the relationship among them. The sommelier relays this information to others in order to help them select a wine they will particularly enjoy. In other words, the sommelier’s job is to enhance enjoyment of wine, and he is paid well for it. It would therefore be absurd to question or devalue his interrogation of the differences between the wines he tastes.
Attentively listening to hundreds or thousands of albums within a musical style and making conscious comparisons between them is the surest path to enjoyment for precisely the same reasons. Genre names, as an important tool in describing these differences, are therefore an indispensable component of the listening experience and a means of enhancing appreciation when discussing music with others.
Language is an inherently limited prospect; it’s a contrived attempt to describe the human experience and it frequently fails to capture the subtler points of existence. However, this fact is not a common argument against the use of language altogether, and few aside from monastic devotees would consider it. To acknowledge that life is indescribable is not to say that language is pointless.
In the same way, it is true that genre terms, as an aspect of language, are a limited way of describing music. Yet that is not an argument against their use, as they are one of the few and best tools we have at our disposal. Like all language, genre terms are a fundamental means of understanding and discussing the things we experience in life. When done properly, by adapting the terms to observe specific evolutions and pinpoint prominent musical ideas, the process of classifying artists’ creations greatly enhances the clarity, recognition, and appreciation of the music we hear.
Cover image and concept taken from Iron Skullet’s article What is Synthwave?