Do Genres Stymy Musical Discovery?

Do genres stymy musical discovery?

It seems like a normal orchestra concerto––percussion, musicians equipped with large basses and delicate flutes, full brass and string sections. A well-dressed crowd. Conductor Mike Patton enters the stage in a sharp black suit with a red pocket square and begins a symphony. The stringed instruments commence with a playful melody resembling a Vivaldi concerto, percussion picks up into a bubbling crescendo and then––suddenly––Patton stares into the crowd and emits a scream most would only conceive in a punk song. The band accompanies Patton as he continues to belt a rumbling roar in his metal-infused composition.

As an experimental composer, Patton’s bohemian compositions blur the lines between two distinct genres: classical music and heavy metal. Though an extreme example, Patton’s musical panache underlines how genres can become somewhat irrelevant when classifying certain styles of music. At best, genres enable listeners to place music into neat categories by classifying different melodic styles and sounds, but all too often listeners use genres as an echo chamber for their musical tastes. When relied on too heavily, genres pigeonhole listeners into a singular music type instead of fostering exploration into the vast corners and subtle recesses of music.

“I hate country music” and “punk music sucks” are common sayings music listeners throw around reflexively. Some listeners refuse to even hear songs from certain genres. Though listeners can point to legitimate reasons for dismissing entire genres, such as the often-formulaic lyricism of pop country and the ever-growing popularity of mumble rap in hip-hop, these precepts encourage musical stagnation instead of exploration. A solution is to reduce the power of genres which can help listeners find new and enjoyable music. Country music doubters may be surprised at the raw emotion and musical brilliance of Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, and punk skeptics may find elements of early rock in punk-group The Ramones and Irish folk in Dropkick Murphys. Listeners who abandon genre stereotypes open their musical horizon to new expanses and discover new bands and musical varieties that they otherwise would have overlooked.

Above: Though unlikely to show up together in a Spotify or Pandora radio station, Alt-J and Frank Ocean share similar music styles and even lyrical themes. Source: Festival Snobs and Genius.

If not genres, how can listeners categorize music? Genres offer an easy classification method, but there are instrumental, stylistic, rhythmic, cultural, and myriad other methods to classify music. Compare Frank Ocean’s song “Solo” off Blonde to Alt J’s hit “Tessellate” from their debut album An Awesome Wave: both songs feature slow verse progressions, echoing piano chords, and cathartic vocal crescendos. Alt-J, self-classified as “alternative dub-pop”, seems fundamentally different from Frank Ocean, who has been placed in Spotify’s R&B genre. Yet, these artists share similar melodic and singing styles. And these musical networks are everywhere: Tame Impala fans can find psychedelic nuggets in songs produced by rapper Flying Lotus; fans of indie folk group The Head and the Heart may unearth how the band’s twanging guitars and lyrical themes share similarities with early country legend Johnny Cash. When listeners limit themselves to select genres, they severely constrain chances to discover and savor these musical networks interlacing genres to other genres.

Popular music listening platforms like Spotify and Pandora, claiming to have magical algorithms that select songs for listeners through their radio and “Discovery Weekly” features, employ a genre-centric music discovery process. On Spotify, clicking on the “Related Artist” tab usually yields an extensive assortment of bands in an analogous genre with extremely similar music styles. Alt-J never appears as a related artist for Frank Ocean, and Tame Impala rarely enters a Beatles Pandora station. Though music listening platforms have intricate algorithms that can help listeners find new music, they still follow a timeworn model for choosing songs based predominately off genre instead of countless other ways to categorize music, like syncopation and lyric themes.

Above: Spotify genre and mood playlists offer limited variation in the musical styles of songs within each classification. Source: Spotify.

Like politics, listeners should not linger within echo chambers that confirm their own proclivities. Music is a vast form of expression and art best enjoyed through exploration, and music listening platforms like Spotify and Pandora should cultivate musical discover by reconfiguring radio and streaming algorithms on the basis of more multifaceted features in music—or at least allow listeners to search music by other classifications besides simply genre or mood. But most importantly, listeners should stop thinking about music in terms of genres. Music is a melting pot, and pigeonholing yourself into one musical style is not only unproductive—it’s looking at an entire form of art through a single dimension.