Okay, we have imported, rated, and ran statistics on iTunes. But as your library gets bigger, it becomes more and more difficult to find artists and songs. Thankfully, iTunes uses the Music Genre as its basic sorting system which makes it easier to find the style of music you want to listen to.
Default Music Genres include: Classical, R&B, Rock, Jazz, etc. These are fine if you have 40-50 artists from diverse musical backgrounds, but what happens if you listen primarily to one genre of music? What do you do if you are a serious collector and listener of music and are frustrated with the standard labels? What do you do when you have over 100 artists and 10,000 songs? This blog post is meant to address that challenge.
To start with there are have been three approaches to what a Music Genre is:
1) People Ignore It. Some people say that Musical Genres are too presumptuous of a field to use. They are indignant that the label ‘pigeon holes’ artists unfairly. That is partially true. Led Zeppelin is considered to be the earliest hard rock/metal band even though they played some folk inspired music. Are they British-Blues? Hard Rock? Something else? Some people will give up and just ignore the use of Music Genres which is to lose out on the benefits of having a proper sorting system. The fact is that Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd have more in common with each other than Louis Armstrong means that these similarities and differences should not be ignored. A label such as Music Genre is a tool, an imperfect one, but a necessary one to help you enjoy your music.
2) People Simplify It. For example, there has been past (failed) attempts to create a unified Genre Tree. The hope is that by finding the links between the different Music Genres we would then decide how to label a particular artist. Its a noble goal, but one that will never work because it operates on the mistaken assumption that Music Genres are linear things. It is the conventional wisdom that the Blues created Jazz which created R&B which created Rock & Roll which created Rock. Its nice and tidy, but makes a fundamental error of judgment.
While Artists and Music Genres do influence each other, this does not mean that one creates the other. Music Genres are very dynamic. We will find Artists influencing each other almost immediately. It happens too fast to say that there is a single lineage that all music comes from. Instead, it seems more reasonable to think of Musical Genres as evolving alongside each other. This kind of thinking is what we find in Convergent Evolution, where species can evolve similar traits despite not being directly related as we see with the appearance of wings amongst birds and bats. We see the same thing in Music Genres with Traditional, Art, and Popular music forms all developing independently in each nation. There is no evidence that a single nation gave all of the music traditions to the rest of the world.
3) People Confuse It. Some people think that a Music Genre is the same thing as the mood of the music. They believe that Chill Music is a Music Genre. Sorry, but it isn’t. Its a style that can be found across multiple Genres such as Jazz, Pop, Rock, and Electronica. ‘Break-up songs’ and ‘Love songs’ are also not Genres. While mood or song intent is important, it is not the same as a Music Genre. That will be a topic for a future blog post. 🙂
Another pet peeve of mine is when Genres are labeled with biased terms like “Classic Rock” or “Contemporary Pop”. Who decides if something is classic or not The word ‘contemporary’ is just as problematic. When Bing Crosby performed in the 1930s it was considered to be contemporary at that time. Yet now we call it Classic Pop making the term ‘Conteporary’ too relative to be helpful. Labels should be accurate and objective enough that they stand for something.
So what is proper way to work with Music Genres? Let’s start with a definition I came up with: “A Musical Genre is a combination of historical and social conditions that dynamically influences a collective musical interpretation of the world.”
My point is to stop thinking of Music Genre as a static, catch-all term to slot artists and bands into. Its an error I originally made as I started working with the concept of Music Genre. I have since discovered that instead we should think of Music Genre as a world view shared by a collective of artists. It is about how they make sense of what is happening around them. For example, the African American experience in the American South show at least two different ways of understanding life though music. The first was Gospel music and the second was the Blues. One was religious and the other was secular and each provided different interpretations about how life was treating them. The same can be same of Rock music in the late 1960s, where we see artists interpret life in different ways through heavy metal (Black Sabbath), power-pop (The Who), and progressive rock (Pink Floyd). All were British bands, but with very different ways of looking at and interpreting life.
Music Genres are dynamic. They are born and die, and sometimes are reborn. New ones are being created all of the time because life and society is dynamic and always changing. So, what should you label your genres? Whatever you want. Its your collection, but allow me to to suggest a Music Genre system based on the excellent resource at AllMusic.com:
AllMusic.com not only possesses an extensive list of Genres, but also breaks them down into descriptive Sub-Genres. I use the Sub-Genres to create my own Music Genre labels for iTunes. Instead of iTunes standard labels of “Rock” or “Alternative and Punk”, I adopted labels such as: “Rock: Mainstream”, “Rock: Punk”, “Rock: Metal”, etc. Jazz music would have labels like “Jazz: Dixie”, “Jazz: Swing”, “Jazz: Big Band”, etc. The Sub-Genres becomes a way to capture distinct eras of a Music Genre. My early 1960s British bands would be labeled “Rock: British Invasion”; while my 1970s bands that looked like hippies and preached peace would be my “Rock: Folk” bands.
Since I personally have very few Jazz or Blues artists, I don’t have any Sub-Genres for those artists. The dynamic is that the more artists of a particular Music Genre I collect, the more Sub-Genres I will need to better organize them. As soon as I start collecting 20+ artists of a particular Music Genre, I will employ Sub-Genres labels as a way to better organize my music library. Listening to more artists expands my musical tastes and knowledge which is captured in a more diverse list of Music Genres in iTunes.
Finally, there is no right way to label your music in iTunes. Its flexibility allows you to create as many different labels you want, but to be useful, your system should have just enough detail to allow you to find what is the same and what is different between your artists and songs. The purpose of iTunes’s Music Genre is one of utility, not about being right.