Are Music Genres Important? 3 Ways They Improve Our Experience With Music
Music genres provide us with an indispensable tool to improve our experience with music. When used constructively, genres have the power to substantially increase our comprehension of music, increase our recognition of innovative artists, and perhaps most importantly, enhance our enjoyment of music on a personal level.
This may sound surprising, and you certainly don't need to look far to find music listeners, artists, and even some journalists arguing against the use of 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. However, none of that diminishes their potential upsides.
Music genres are important because they are one of the few and most valuable 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 enjoyment of the music we hear.
1. Comprehension of the Art Form
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 the relationship between all creatures on Earth and place them in relative categories. 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, 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 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 Creative Innovation
There’s a concern in the world that music classification places a restriction on creative freedom. 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. From an artist's perspective, this concern is understandable, as unhappy fans have a tendency to express their distaste for new music by using genre comparisons.
However, when used flexibly, genre names actually enable us to recognize and support pioneering creators as well as give those artists a marketing tool to help them reach interested listeners.
Disinterested listeners absolutely prevent artists from finding success, but genre boundaries never have.
It's true that genre-defying artists encounter plenty of obstacles in their careers, including a tendency among some listeners to prefer familiar sounds as well as journalists and playlisters who worry about losing their audience by embracing divergent music. But the specific language listeners use to describe the music is only a byproduct of the actual obstacle these creators must overcome.
A band looking to evolve outside the realm of thrash metal, for example, has no reason to worry about people claiming "they're no longer a thrash band." The genre name isn't the issue, that's simply how people are communicating the fact they no longer enjoy the music.
The real concern for artists is finding new, appreciative listeners, not finding people with broader concepts of genre terms.
It's worth remembering that all popular genres and subgenres of music today exist, in form and in name, because artists branched out from established ideas. In fact, an examination of popular music over the past century reveals that the most successful artists are always the ones who pioneered new ideas. Others 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 were there first.
Disinterested listeners absolutely prevent artists from finding success, but genre boundaries never have.
The truth is, if we want to avoid generalizations and restrictions on creative ambition, 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 constructive, forward-thinking ways, 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 helps artists market their music in a way that separates them from those who came before.
3. Listening Enjoyment
Although the clarity 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 listening enjoyment.
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 innovation, influences, 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, 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 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 relationships between music, are an indispensable component of the listening experience. They are a means of enhancing personal enjoyment and sharing relevant music with others.
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 an 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 music as an art form. When done effectively, by adapting the terms in response to new ideas and making flexible comparisons between creations, the classification process greatly enhances our comprehension, recognition, and enjoyment of the music we hear.