Music genres have the power to significantly enhance our enjoyment of music. When used constructively, they increase our comprehension of the art form, help us recognize innovation, and perhaps most importantly, improve our ability to appreciate quality.
This may sound surprising, and we certainly don't need to look far to find music listeners, artists, and even some journalists arguing against music classification along genre lines. According to detractors, the use of genres is unnecessary, elitist, or even ignorant, and it has the power to restrict artists’ creativity and diminish personal listening enjoyment.
Depending on who is applying the terms and how they're using them, it’s true that genres have the potential to be some of these things, and instances of misuse are easy to find. It's also true that genre names, like all aspects of language, are a limited and imperfect way of describing the subtleties of our listening experience.
However, those things do not detract from the immense pleasure and benefits available to us when we embrace genre classifications with a practical, common sense approach.
Music genres are important because they are one of the few and most effective tools we have at our disposal for understanding and discussing artists' creations. When used flexibly and descriptively, not as a means of rigid division, these classifications have the power to substantially improve our comprehension, recognition, and appreciation of the music we hear.
1. Music Comprehension
It’s 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 of comprehending the things we hear and describing them to others.
An accessible and relevant parallel to this process is animal taxonomy.
Biologists seek to identify all creatures on Earth and place them in relative categories in order to understand the relationships between them and their evolutionary branches. 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 into the small, specific taxonomic order Lagomorpha where they remain today alongside hares and pikas.
Music classification works in precisely the same way. It assesses individual characteristics of songs and albums and places them in categories based on their most closely related creations.
This means that genres are 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 form the edges.
The rabbit also illustrates an important aspect of music taxonomy: classifications change over time as more knowledge is gathered about closely related creations. This is particularly true in music as artists contribute to new and innovative genres. In this way, genres tend to be loose and flexible when they are new and become increasingly firm as hundreds and thousands of similar creations are made in and around them.
Genre terms are always an approximation and are always relative, meaning there are no “correct” or final categorizations.
However, just as with animals, there is gray area among music creations that causes blurred edges and overlap between categories. This is certainly true in broad examinations of genres, though it can also be relevant within a single artist’s discography or even a single album. For this reason, genre terms are always an approximation and are always relative, meaning there are no “correct” or final categorizations.
Additionally, few creations can be properly categorized 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 traditional heavy metal, blackened thrash, or chill synthwave.
This flexibility is also present in animal taxonomy, as biologists use informal terms like “true foxes” when making distinctions among animals.
It's a common misunderstanding – among supporters and detractors alike – to think of music genres as a rigid system of unyielding boundaries.
On their fundamental level, genre names are a reflexive means of description and comprehension that enables us to more easily perceive the relationships between artists and their creations. In turn, this helps us locate music that we will particularly enjoy, make recommendations to others, and have more nuanced conversations about our favorite artists.
2. Recognition of Artistic Innovation
There’s a concern in the world that music classification places a restriction on creative freedom and comes from a place of elitism and gatekeeping. People imagine it as forcing new music into old boxes, or perhaps worse, pushing creations out of those boxes for not fitting an established sound.
This concern is understandable, as unhappy fans have a tendency to express their distaste of new music by using genre comparisons, for example, "that band's new album isn't even metal."
However, the real issue in those instances is whether or not people are enjoying the music, not the terms they use to describe it.
It's worth remembering that all popular genres and subgenres of music exist, in form and in name, because artists branched out from established ideas. In fact, an examination of popular music over the past century makes it clear that the most successful artists have always been the ones who pioneered new ideas.
Other creators later borrowed those ideas for their own music and eventually the sounds developed into recognizable genres, but the biggest names in any genre are the ones who made the music first.
When used flexibly, genre names actually enable us to recognize and support these pioneering creators while giving related artists a marketing tool to help them reach interested listeners.
If we want to avoid generalizations and restrictions on creativity, music journalists, fans, and artists should not only be using genre labels but constantly adapting those labels in order to keep up with music innovation. At the very least, we need to stay open-minded to new terms and the people willing to create them.
Meaningful and relevant genre terms 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.
Lumping all artists under the same overly broad and ambiguous terms – such as “rock” or “electronic music” – disregards the identifying elements that make their creations special. This effectively reduces recognition of new ideas, obscures the music from interested listeners, and accomplishes the very thing genre detractors attempt to avoid: it unnecessarily forces new music into boxes with meaningless labels.
There’s no denying that the use of genre tags can reach a point of absurdity, though the fact the system is sometimes over-applied doesn’t negate the value of the effort. Meaningful and relevant genre terms 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.
When used in a constructive manner, music categorization embraces innovation and acknowledges when artists have created something unique and influential. This enables us to more easily find music that appeals to our particular tastes and honors the artists who have branched out and created something different.
3. Appreciation of Quality
Although the comprehension and recognition gained from genre classifications can be especially valuable for music journalists, artists, and A&R departments, the greatest reason for categorizing music on a personal level is to improve our appreciation of it.
Identifying specific artistic choices within a song and connecting them to related creations builds a broad and deep understanding of music within a particular style. In turn, this makes it easier to recognize influences, evolutions, and a specific artist's skill level. The absence of these connections leaves every song and album in a conceptual vacuum, devoid of context, and it becomes significantly more difficult to appreciate the finer points of the music.
Artists are constantly pulling influences from the music they're hearing. Their songs are not created in a void, and we certainly shouldn't listen to them that way.
It seems obvious to say, but attentively listening to a high number of songs in a genre 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.
Attentively listening to a high number of songs in a genre and considering their strengths and weaknesses in relation to one another is the best way to enhance music appreciation.
A professional wine steward has tasted hundreds, even thousands of wines and can pinpoint specific differences and similarities between them, assign them into relative categories, and discuss 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 appreciation and enjoyment of wine, and he is paid well for it. It would be absurd to devalue his interrogation of the similarities and differences between the wines he tastes.
In the same way, genre names, as an important tool in describing and understanding relationships between music, are an indispensable component of the listening experience. When used flexibly, they have the power to greatly improve our appreciation of artists' creations.
A Reminder: All Language Is Imperfect
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 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.
We use language to share our perceptions of the world in the best way we can. It's true that genre terms, as an aspect of language, are a limited way of describing music. Yet that is not a meaningful argument against their use as they are one of the few and best tools we have at our disposal.
Music genres are important because they are a fundamental means of understanding and discussing a cherished art form. When we use them to acknowledge the complex relationships between all forms of music, and not as a means of division or disparagement, genre classifications can greatly enhance our comprehension, recognition, and appreciation of the music we hear.