What’s in a genre? The classification of music is more complex than it sounds
We listen to music, we love music. But have we given thought to the different genres that the tunes of our playlist belong to?
Of course, labels like rock or metal are now seen as so ordinary that we barely pay any thought to their origins.
Interestingly, metal music is said to have begun in the late 1960s in Britain. Rock has roots in, or evolved from, country music and blues.
There will always be disputes though. What defines music as of a specific genre is rather vague.
That being said, there are three accepted variables: valence, the emotional feeling of the song; arousal, the energy level of the song; and depth, the songs’ emotional insight.
In June, UK singer-songwriter Jack Savoretti released his new album Europiana. Incidentally, he says it takes the name of an entirely new music genre – one that draws from his roots and Swiss-Italian-British-American upbringing.
Or as he puts it, “The music of my childhood summers, remade for today.”
Making new labels
Which leads to the question: Can a music genre be created just like that?
The answer is yes. However, whether the genre you have invented will be accepted by the music community at large is a whole different matter.
At the end of the day, most people will just associate music they listen to with genres they already know. Again, back to the usual metal and rock – or pop, grunge, folk, blues and country.
Think of genres as branding. If enough people know it, then of course, the genre becomes a valid one.
If it’s so obscure that you need to explain what it is, then, sadly, it’ll probably be relegated to the bottom of “nobody knows what this is” pile of forgotten music genres. Something only you (and your friends) would be talking about.
But Savoretti seems to be on the right track. In the past, a few music genres have developed their names from song and album titles.
Take for instance, ambient music. It apparently was named and popularised by British musician Brian Eno in 1978 with his album Ambient 1: Music For Airports.
Others like hip-hop have been attributed to song lyrics (or in this case, what was spoken). It originated from the words of American DJ Lovebug Starski, who rhymed “hip-hop, hippy to the hippy hop-bop” at early parties.
Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 song Rapper’s Delight later took the name hip-hop and ran with it. The opening line of the lyrics went: “I said-a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie.”
The track is credited for introducing hip-hop music to a wide audience, reaching the top 40 in the US, as well as the top three in the UK and number one in Canada.
Not your average genre
While some music genres have gone on to be immortalised in the music scene, others have fallen through the cracks of obscurity. Some exist as subgenres – offshoots of actual, popular genres – while others are just plain odd.
Folktronica for example, is a mashup of both folk and electronica. It mixes the acoustic rock elements of the former, with dance rhythms more identifiable with the latter.
UK artiste Bibio produces music that perfectly fits this genre. His tunes have a distinct analog lo-fi to them. His song Old Graffiti reminds listeners of that old 1970s funk, mixed with folkloric style.
You also have music genres that seem to have pivoted from the original. Consider horror country music. It focuses on darker subjects – ghosts, demons or corpses, rather than the usual country songs singing about failed relationships.
There is also gothic country music. The songs often examine poverty, criminal behaviour, religious imagery, death, murder, the devil and betrayal.
And if ambient is considered an actual music genre, how about saying hello to its lesser-known younger cousin, lowercase?
Lowercase is described as an extreme form of ambient music, where very quiet, usually unheard sounds are amplified to audible levels.
Composer Steve Roden is associated with the genre. He characterises it as music (if it can be considered as such) that “bears a certain sense of quiet and humility”.
As he puts it: “It does not demand attention, it must be discovered. [The] work might imply one thing on the surface but contain other things beneath… It’s the opposite of capital letters – loud things which draw attention to themselves.”
Other less-than-common music genres take the original and simply turn it around.
Unblack metal is like metal – with the usual fast drumming, shrieking vocals and complex guitar riffs, but it focuses on a different message. Instead of existing within paganistic themes, it uses religious lyrics.
Now, if we all would just take the time to just step out of our bubbles and explore the music world in entirety, what music genre would come as the most surprising?
Folktronica, horror country music, lowercase or unblack metal? There are hundreds more genres that most of us have never heard of.
After all, the depths of the music world offers unbridled possibilities.
Cover Credit: Monty Fresco / Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
Writer | Jake Thanh
Jake Thanh does not see himself as cultured – because he is not a yogurt. He instead prefers being viewed as a person in touch with the world, and all the wonderful experiences that come with living life to the fullest.