"What kind of music do you make?" or "What genre is your music? As an artist, you have probably been asked these questions before. It may have caused you to hesitate or even be overwhelmed, as you - like many other musicians - find it difficult to pigeonhole your music into a genre.
In order to give you a better introduction to the topic, we will primarily focus on what a genre is and how you can find out how to classify your music into one or more genres (or "subgenres"). To do this, we will cross-reference helpful sources, and define the current use of the term (music-) genre. It is important to note that we concentrate on popular (most consumed) genres, so as not to make it too long and too complicated.
Definition of "genre" and "music genre"
In distinction to the term genres, which is mainly used in literary studies, "genre" primarily refers to the film and music industry. The Merriam-Webster dictionary states: "A category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content". Genre, as the pronunciation suggests, comes from the French and is based on the Latin term "genus". Since the differentiation of musical genres is always a discourse between fans, musicians and marketeers, it is difficult to define this term. In the article Classification as Culture: Types and Trajectories of Music Genres (2008), the authors nevertheless try: there, music genres are described as "systems of orientations, expectations and conventions that bring together an industry, performers, critics, fans in making what they identify as a distinctive sort of music."
Are musical genres still relevant?
Now, some claim that musical genres are becoming less and less relevant, as today's playlists are more oriented towards moods than musical genres. But this is only partly true, because if you as a consumer go into a record store and want to buy music physically, you still have to find it in the right section (jazz, classical, black music etc.). If you as an artist want to upload a song to your MusicHub profile and release it on the popular streaming- and social media platforms, you will also be asked for the genre (step 1 "Release" and 3 "Track" in the release process). There is a reason for this: we need categories to simplify our everyday life and also to be able to communicate. As an artist, it is an advantage to know who the target group of your music is in order to better understand who your potential listeners are and what makes them tick. This is a possible way to develop your career in a sustainable way. It will certainly be of great help if you know a little about genres. To make this easier for you, we would like to give you a brief overview of music genres in the following section.
An overview of popular music genres
The differentiation and naming of music genres is always a matter of interpretation. One example is the website everynoise.com, where more than 6,000 genres are listed. Here, all conceivable sub- or micro-genres are also included, i.e. sub-categories (sub-categories of sub-categories, country-specific etc.) of the generic term genre and corresponding sound examples for them.
The music genre website musicmap.info lists more than 600 genres, which are broken down into 23 so-called super-genres, where the following eleven generic terms are the main focus in each case:
- Industrial & Gothic
- (Heavy) Metal
- Rhythm & Blues
- Blue Note
Away from these are Utility Music, Classical, World- and Folk Music in a broader music-historical context, but these play a role in the super-genres almost everywhere. This list fits the subdivision that one of the biggest record labels - Universal Music - makes on its website with regard to playlists: There, they list 25 genres, each of which includes Acoustic, Blues, Classical, Country, Dance/Electronica, Drones, Dubstep, Easy Listening, Electro Pop, Folk, Funk, Hip-Hop, House, Indie/Alternative, Jazz, Kitsch, Latin, March, Metal, Opera, Pop, Rock, Soul, R&B and World Music. This subdivision is due to the fact that all these areas are served and distributed by Universal Music, but there are also (sub-)genres that are not represented there.
In one of his blog articles, music industry expert Mark Mulligan speaks of four main categories: Rock, Dance, Urban and Pop, to each of which he assigns three further sub-genres, and which are again divided into further sub-genres. His so-called "genre ladder" is a good point of reference, as he developed it from the listener's point of view, which is of course particularly interesting for musicians.
A large proportion of music consumers are often unable to classify their own musical tastes precisely, which is why they are referred to here as "mainstream music fans" with regard to the four upper categories. On the first level below (e.g. indie, hard rock and metal for rock) are music fans who have differentiated musical tastes or can assign their favorite music to more precise musical genres. If we go down one level further, we come to "microgenres" or "niche-genres", where the connoisseurs or special consumers are located, who usually feel a sense of belonging to certain scenes. This is reminiscent of earlier decades where, as in the 1950's and 60's, there was the Rock'n'Roll movement, in the 70's the Classic/Hard rockers, in the 80's the ravers and in the 90's especially the hip-hoppers who shaped the popular music world. The clothing styles also corresponded to the respective genre or scene and an affiliation was clearly recognisable. This is a bit more difficult today, as fashion has become more mixed and with most people one cannot clearly tell what music they listen to.
Find out where your music fits in
If you already have an idea of what overarching genre your music fits into, try searching for subgenres using suggested sites such as everynoise.com, musicmap.info or chosic.com. Since you may be inspired by other musicians, you may know how they categorise their music (see Spotify bios, promotional texts on websites, etc.). Another clue is to ask friends and acquaintances. They may know more about genres, or they can simply tell you their emotions and associations that come up when listening to your music. Last but not least, you can listen to genre-specific playlists on Spotify & Co. and in this way better classify your own music, even if it is "somewhere in between". Don't forget: there are several hundred music genres already listed that you can use as a guide.
Now that we've hopefully introduced you to the topic of music genres, you may understand why it's helpful to categorise your music to some degree and assign it to one or more music genres. Streaming platforms like Spotify need to know the style of your music in order to categorise it. Promoters need music genres to pitch your music to magazines, radio stations or playlists. You yourself might need it to get inspiration from artists and fans and last but not least to be able to answer questions like "What kind of music do you make? ;)
- Classification as Culture: Types and Trajectories of Music Genre (2008) by Jennifer C. Lena & Richard A. Peterson
- How The Role of Genres Has Changed In Music Culture (2014) by Mark Mulligan
- The Genealogy and History of Popular Music Genres from Origin till Present (1870-2016) by Kwinten Crauwels et al.
- Categorizing Sound: Genre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music (2016) by David Brackett
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