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Thursday, March 11, 2010

on genre

Current mood: vegetative

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Lately I've seen several threads on the Ultimate Guitar forums ranting about genres and subgenres. Here are some ideas that I found were common to several of these threads: "There are too many genres", "People are too obsessed with categorising their music", "All music should be placed under a single category" and my personal favourite, "I don't listen to genres; I listen to music". Let's take a moment to explore why ideas like these have so much appeal. Defining genre seems like a good place to begin.
In the article Categorical Conventions in Music Discourse: Style and Genre, Allan F. Moore describes genres as being "concerned with ways of erecting categorical distinctions, of identifying similarity between different pieces". A genre then is a sort of descriptive term that groups together music sharing similar conventions. For example, the genre term "heavy metal" implies conventions such as heavily distorted guitar, palm muting, riffing, and fantastical themes. Any song containing all/most of these conventions will likely be labelled a piece of heavy metal music.
In their book Understanding Movies, authors Louis Gianetti and Jim Leach outline the functions of film genres. Genre, according to them serves as "a critical tool" that provides critics with context and precedent against which to judge new films. Genre is also "a way of organising production and exhibition" by film studios. Lastly, it is "a guide to spectators" that provides audiences with the vocabulary to articuate their preferences. While all three of these functions also apply to musical genres, it is the third one that I most wish to discuss.
Let's play pretend. We are in a world where there is an abundance of very varied music, none of which has yet been categorised. You and I listen to a number of records, but I don't find any of the music very appealing. Finally, we stumble upon a song that I do like. There's something about it that I really enjoy, something that I find soothing. I want to find more music just like it. What sets this song apart? I manage to put my finger on it: it is slow. I ask if you know any more slow music. We now have a genre term.
The statement that "All music should be placed under a single category" does not only present an impracticality; it presents an impossibility. People have different preferences. Different people will be drawn to music that has different characteristics. They will find ways to distinguish between the music that they enjoy and the music that they do not enjoy, or between the music that they want to hear at a specific moment or occasion and the music that they do not want to hear at that specific moment or occasion.
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