I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the term “genre” as it is applied to music. It seems as though somewhere in the last 20 years or so, someone just randomly decided to re-define the term, and the rest of the world just went along with it. I suddenly feel myself sounding like an old person wagging my finger on the front porch, saying, “Back in my day…” but in any case, the meaning of the term has definitely shifted.
If one were to look in any music textbook to find a definition of genre, they would encounter something like this: “Types of musical composition.” (Burkholder, Grout, Palisca. A History of Western Music 8th ed., NY: Norton, 2010, p. 7.) Taken from the book sitting right on my desk… So, granted “type of composition” is vague, but the term was intended to refer to the structural, stylistic, and performance characteristics that differentiate musical objects, such as the opera and the symphony, etc.
What is generally understood as genre today is, in fact, musical style, “A characteristic way of treating the musical elements.” (Kamien. Music: An Appreciation, 6th brief ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 56). So, while something like jazz is a style, a song in that style is a genre.
So, when did these terms get confused and why? I suspect it happened with the birth of iTunes. “Style” seemed too vague to describe the distinctions between, say, country and blues, and “genre” is a fancy word. Look up genre, and the standard definition leaves enough space to use, and boom! A term is forever bastardized.
And yet, it would seem that many have adopted this misusage. I quick ran a search for “music genre” on Amazon, to see what kind of books were adopting the wrong use of the term. Once I got over my astonishment at getting over 72,000 hits, I realized that Amazon groups printed music by genre (using the established definition of the term), but there were still numerous scholarly books on popular and non-Western music that used the word “genre” to mean “style.”
I suppose part of the problem is the lack of distinction among actual genres in popular music. A popular song is pretty much a popular song, i.e. a relatively short work, recorded for commercial purposes in a non-art music style (that’s my definition, for those of you keeping score).
So, what difference does it make? Well, I, for one, think it is important to use terminology correctly, and as such, I spend much of my professional life correcting students about the improper use of the word genre.
The really sad thing about all of this is that there are some really fascinating topics regarding musical style that would be fun to discuss, if not for the constant threat of someone bringing up “the g word” and ruining my day…
I find it really funny how obsessed listeners and artists get about picking apart the differences between one style and the next. The example I use in class a lot are to play examples of “Norwegian Death Metal” compared to “Swedish Black Metal.” Seriously? Can anyone hear a difference? And yet, if you bring this up to a die-hard fan of either sub-sub style, they’ll go to the ends of the earth defining the differences between these two styles.
With that in mind, if we return to the definition of style for a moment, the term implies that some combination of musical characteristics should not only hold together music of a specific style, but that this grouping if characteristics should make it different from other styles, right? For example, the way music sounds are combined in bluegrass set it apart from the combinations heard in hip-hop.
How does that apply to a style like emo? I can honestly say I’ve listened to huge amounts of emo music, but, given what I have heard, I can honestly say that I don’t hear a lot of unifying musical characteristics, but rather what brings this style together seems to be more based on lyrical content. And, as I find myself saying at least a million times a year, lyrics are not a musical element. In fact, looking to the internet for a definition of the word emo, I find, “a style [yay!] of rock music characterized by expressive, often confessional lyrics.” Uh-huh….
Suffice it to say, I find the whole issue somewhat confusing… and incredibly frustrating when the terminology I teach students gets distorted into something else. I can see why it has happened, and I’ve been guilty of misusing “genre” myself, but I can’t help but wonder why such a big deal is made about musical style.
It almost strikes me a musical stereotyping to place a collection of distinct, individual works under s single heading. Sure, it makes cataloging easier. It helps with searches. But, on one hand, we have artists who seem to eschew the notion of genre/style all together – like the hipsters who claim “my music has its own style,” and on the other, like in the ridiculous case of Norwegian death metal, artists who label their music to the point of absurdity. There are also plenty of artists who blend styles together into strange and often fascinating fusion styles. Does style even mean anything anymore?
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.