Divided By A Common Genre

When people ask me what music I like, I find myself struggling to answer. People usually answer by saying the name of a genre or a set of genres , like rock, hip-hop, country or even classical, but the thing is I don’t just like music from a particular genre. If it’s rock, country or classical, if I like the music I usually overlook the genre it is in and enjoy the piece of music for what it is. (Although to be honest, there are genres of music that I haven’t found pieces that I like, namely rap and jazz, but my guess is I would enjoy those genres if I am exposed to them enough.)

When you think about it, musical genres are a funny thing. On the one hand, fans can be very emotional about musical genres, often deriding people who do not enjoy the same music they do to be idiots, and criticizing musicians who compose in style that is significantly different from the norms of their genre (think of all the people who declare Tin McGraw or Green Day as not authentic country or punk). Then again, it is difficult to make a proper classification of music into distinct genres. What is the difference between Heavy Metal, punk and emo? Fans often have very strong opinions on this and would fight to the death for the integrity of their genre, but to outside observer the small differences that makes those genres distinct from one another is totally absurd.

On the other hand, there is a world of difference between the music of Loretta Lynn and Tim McGraw, yet both musicians are still considered Country. The same can be said of early rock and roll and modern rock and roll, or early Beatles and late Beatles. And what about songs that combine genres? “Stairway to Heaven” starts off as a folk ballad and ends as almost a heavy metal song. And what about entire genres which are blends of two different genres such as Rockabilly, which is a blend of rock and hillbilly (country) music?

Most people think of classical music as a single monolithic genre, but music historians divide classical music into three or four distinct periods that are as distinct as jazz, rock and hip-hop to be distinct. The four periods of classical music are Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary. (Some historians regard the 20th century as being a continuation of classical music, while others think classical music ended some time in the early 20th century, replaced with popular music.) But a person who is not an expert in classical music will find it difficult to distinguish between the genres in classical music. But you have to know such arcane knowledge in order to be considered a “real” classical music fan, which is ridiculous.

The problem with musical genres is that it makes people see music not for its artistic value but simply use it as a social label. People who enjoy classical, jazz or heavy metal often regard themselves as superior to people who enjoy pop or country. This is not only absurd, but also a kind of cultural arrogance, the same way that Europeans look down on Americans because we enjoy fast food and Disney movies.

We should enjoy all kinds of music regardless of their genre. In fact, the different genres of music have more in common than we might suppose. Almost all western music share a set of characteristics developed from classical music. The 7-note major and minor scale system is almost universally used in all modern Western music, including jazz, rock and pop. Not all music stick with a 7-note octave, for example traditional Chinese music use only 5, while Indian music can contain anywhere between 14 to 44. Most Western music use 4/4 time signature, although 2/4 or 3/4 are sometimes used. But other musical traditions use significantly different time signatures, or to be more accurate they don’t have a notion of time signatures at all because it was a Western invention. There are also tons of other features such as the phrase structure of songs that can be found in modern pop music that can be traced back to classical music.

The point is that we should regard all the music we hear with an open mind. We should make the assumption that there is good music in every genre, and all we have to do is to find it. We should also not judge too harshly the people who do not enjoy the genres we do not enjoy or enjoy the genres we hate. Also, we should not regard an artist who deviates from the norms of a certain genre as being a sell-out or unauthentic. There can be good art that comes out of blending different genres.

Music is a powerful thing, at its best it can tap into our deepest emotions. But it is also dangerous because certain songs can get stuck with certain deeply held beliefs and memories. The music you enjoyed in your childhood and adolescence will always be the best music. Getting stuck into thinking that certain music is the best is what prevents us from enjoying other types of music as we get older. This is a great loss because we should learn how to enjoy new music as we get older. It keeps us hearing to what is happening in the outside world, and opens us up to change. If we can listen to and appreciate the music of the younger generations it could also keep us young at heart.


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