A few days ago, i listened to an album described by its label as “ritual ambient”, which i found an intriguing idea for a genre; yesterday, i spent time with another release on the same label, listed as “ceramic IDM”. i’m not sure i can even begin to unpack quite what that description is driving at (can “ceramic” be an adjective in this context?), but it got me reflecting on the nature of musical genres and subgenres, and more besides. i believe the present practice has its origin in four deeply significant developments from the 20th century.
The first is the deeper and more authentic understanding of music from past generations. It’s interesting to reflect that, until the early 20th century, even a composer as significant as Mozart was rarely performed. The increase of scholarship—no doubt aided by the development of easy international travel—brought a huge wave of understanding of earlier musics, and a corollary of that was the classification of discoveries. Prior to this, the musical period from Bach to Beethoven was referred to by the simple term, “classical music”, invented around the 1820s. Now, music of this period was re-classified under the well-known “Baroque” and “Classical” headings, and the century just past was judged to have been a “Romantic” period, all of these in part borrowing from architectural and literary terms. This is the origin of music’s division into genres.
The second, to some extent contemporaneous with the first, is the point of crisis in the development of classical music. When tonality fell apart, composers became similarly fragmented, going in all sorts of directions in the quest for new ways to shape and structure their music. The earliest experiments were given the lame description, “Free Atonal”, before giving way to Schoenberg’s curious invention, “Serialism” (not that he tended to call it that), which, in its extreme form became “Integral Serialism”. But since not everyone wanted their music to be like this, composers seeking to continue strands from Romantic music were branded “Post-Tonal” or “Neo-Romantic”; others, looking to earlier models were “Neo-Classical”. Suddenly, it seemed, there were numerous styles, when hitherto there had been a single, broadly recognisable style that had had considerable momentum. This is the origin of the proliferation of musical styles.
Third is the divergence of the classical and popular forms. From the evolution of blues and jazz onward, the popular forms of music began to take a marked shift away from their classical counterparts; hitherto it had been a much closer stylistic relationship. Furthermore, composers before the 20th century had often written both; Mozart, again, composed what he thought of as “serious”, important works, such as his symphonies and quartets, in addition to popular works, such as divertimenti—including the famous Eine kleine nachtmusik—and contredanses (it should be noted that Mozart’s contractual requirement to write music for popular events was something about which he was consistently unhappy). Now, however, composers generally became one or the other; few were able to bridge the ever-widening stylistic “gap” (a notable example being Gershwin). Early popular music was frequently derided by those who felt it was a degeneration of the values deemed present in classical music (a view which fails to take into account the vast range of classical music written to suit popular taste), so popular music needed to be assertive to survive. It asserted its substance in many ways, one of which was in its self-definition, and of its diversification into subgenres. Jazz, for example, soon evolved into “Trad Jazz”, “Swing”, “Big Band”, “Bebop”, “Free Jazz” and, later, “Avant-Garde Jazz”; the single term “jazz” quickly lost any accurate sense of meaning, needing additional information to be clear. This is the origin of musical subgenres.
Finally there is the rise of popular music as a commercial entity. By the 1950s, pop music was in its ascendancy, boosted by the invention of the 7″ single in 1949. A decade later, it had became the dominant musical force, helped by the invention of the cassette tape (1964), and fed by that newest of phenomena, the “teenager”. As an extremely lucrative enterprise, and with the public’s desire for records and tapes by artists now attracting worldwide fame, shops group their wares into categories: “pop”, “rock”, “easy listening”, and so on. This is the origin of genres used to guide and expedite commercial demand.
Together, these four developments have led to where we are presently, with seemingly as many musical genres as there are composers (Wikipedia lists several thousand). and there’s a danger in this urge to seek to classify and define, for listener and composer alike. All music is diminished when summarised in this way, as any given genre will only succeed in excluding some aspects of the music. i’ve seen two attempts to get around that; some musics are listed under multiple genres, which goes against the whole point of the exercise; the alternative, far too prevalent in non-mainstream music, is for it to be described as “unclassifiable”. Genres and subgenres are glib terms already, but “unclassifiable” is entirely meaningless, tantamount to “expect the unexpected”. In fact, expectation is at the heart of all of this; borne from pop music’s commerciality, genres today say less about the music than what we want from the music. It seems that, for most people, music should only be approached if there is some indication in advance of what that music will sound like. Is it unfair to criticise that? after all, if i saw an album listed as “country and western” (shudder), i’m likely to steer a course in the opposite direction. All the same, i do believe it to be an unhelpful practise, both because the desire to know about music beforehand stems from a fear of the unknown and a longing to be surrounded by familiar sounds and structures that are reassuringly “safe”, and also because the belief that a genre speaks anything but the most trite kind of “truth” is erroneous anyway. The best music—like the best anything—evades our attempts to describe it in succinct terms. and why would we want to?