Over the last few years, we on the Music Analysis team here at Pandora have been immersed in a massive project revolving around the question of genre. We set out to identify, name and define all known musical genres - to the best of our ability - so we could then apply those genres to over a hundred thousand artists and millions of songs.
The result of that project is a sprawling, complex interlocking musical tree of nearly 1400 different genres that is one of the most comprehensive musical genre systems in use. We call it the Analyst Genre Taxonomy (AGT).
Creating the AGT has required a team of trained musicians to spend thousands of hours researching, writing, hunting out perfect examples, and debating… endless debating, to come up with a functional system for tagging artists and songs with genre. Note that I say “functional,” not “finalized,” because with genre, nothing is ever final.
Since genre is fluid and ever-expanding, this a somewhat Sysyphusian task that forced us to step back and address some fundamental, almost philosophical questions before we could even begin.
What is genre? Is it exclusively a musical phenomenon - a combination of specific instruments, harmonies, rhythmic patterns? What about musically-adjacent things like the subject of the lyrics, the recording techniques, even the age of the instruments being played? Or how about completely non-musical elements: time period, cultural context, sexual or racial identity, the age of the artist, geography?
Is genre just a marketing concept or is it an integral part of the compositional process? How do you draw distinctions between different genres while also acknowledging their relationship and overlap? For example, how do you simultaneously emphasize the differences and connections between New Wave and Synth Pop or Avant-Garde Jazz and Free Improvisation?
How do you handle sorting genres that genuinely straddle the fence between entirely different musical universes: Reggae Rock, Folk Pop, Funk Jazz, Country Rap?
And then there’s the question of nomenclature. There are many genres that people identify with several different, interchangeable names, like Soft Rock and Lite Rock, or Nashville Sound and Countrypolitan. And there are totally distinct genres that people use the same exact name for, like “Electronic Music,” which could refer to 1950s Moog experimentation or EDM… or both.
Then, of course, there are genres that have evolved so much from their original form that their name has lost its meaning. Bedroom Pop from 1997 has nearly no relationship to what we call Bedroom Pop today. Oldies used to refer to material from the late 40s-early 60s, and now refers to late 70s - early 90s.
Then you’ve got something like Adult Album Alternative, (which, as an aside, was a term clearly invented by a music industry professional, as no musician ever thought, “I want to write an Adult Album Alternative song.”). Every single one of those words has aged out of its original meaning. “Adults,” are now Millennials and Gen-X’ers instead of Boomers. What used to be heard as “Alternative,” now sounds entirely mainstream. And “Albums,” as a phenomenon, are no longer the way most people engage with music. So is there any value to that genre name anymore?
Furthermore, what feel like extremely important genre distinctions today might not even be recognizable a couple decades down the line. Is the distinction that was made in the 1980s between Synth-Pop and Sophisti-Pop even audible to today’s listeners? How about the endless parsing of Breakbeat sub-genres? Will the people of 2100 hear the distinctions between the 33 different genres of Metal that we have carefully identified, or will it all just sound like Rock to them?
Perhaps most importantly for staying relevant, how do you decide when a new sound has earned full-fledged genre status? Artists, critics, scholars and marketers are constantly throwing new terms and names at the wall to describe new music or reclassify older music. Some of the names stick and some don’t. When does Glitchcore gain enough traction to be called a legit genre? When exactly did Cloud Rap tip that scale? Are there enough Paisley Underground or Madchester or Hyphy or Sertanejo Romântico artists that it’s worth continuing to call those unique genres, or can we safely roll those artists up to their parent genres? Should TikTok music be considered a genre entirely unto itself?
Any time you set about naming things that already exist and sorting them into buckets, you’re going to run into impossible problems. For example, we run the risk of potentially offending makers and listeners by getting something wrong. It’s dicey for any one person or institution to claim to have the definitive say on any of this stuff. And, while we’re being honest, we struggle with how to handle the music that truly defies genre.
Regardless if a track or an artist doesn’t fit neatly into a slot (and few actually do) we still have to put them somewhere. Even truly singular artists like Moondog, Ryuichi Sakamoto or Diamanda Galas. Consider, if you will, that hat that holds two cans that you can sip from straws. Should you store that with your hats or with your drinking vessels? Or should you have an entirely separate box where you keep all your multi-use objects? Despite it being difficult, messy and often less than ideal, we have to do something with the many musical drinky hats out there.
If you spend enough time pondering these questions (which, to the annoyance of our managers, boy oh boy did we ever) you will inevitably wind up asking the big one: Is genre real?
As musicians and listeners, we usually say, “No,” as we don’t like to perceive ourselves or our tastes fitting into pigeonholes or believing that our inclinations can be reduced to a two-word description.
A top-forty DJ or a record exec might say, “Yes,” with the kind of confidence necessary to retain their job in the multi-billion dollar music industry.
As Music Analysts, we say, “We can’t answer whether or not genre is real, but we need a way to help listeners find music they like, and this is just one tool in the toolkit, albeit a pretty handy one.”
If genre were the only thing we were using to identify an artist or song, it would be a lot more problematic. But since it’s only one of hundreds of other traits that we consider, it removes some of the pressure to get our genre definitions 100% perfect (which, as noted above, is impossible).
As for the real answer of whether or not genre is real, I’d say, “What do you think?”
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