For whatever reason, the human brain likes boxes. We love to be able to categorize things for the sake of comparison and contrast, to simplify our understanding of the vast diversity of what’s out there.
Let’s take a perfectly simple example: apples and oranges. On one level, we can say they’re both fruits. The human cranium comprehends this box and applies the characteristics accordingly.
But, c’mon. If you’ve tasted an apple and an orange, you know they’re completely different. Sure, they belong to a category we’ve created but have a morsel of both and their respective flavors shout out their individualities.
This is a roundabout way of bringing the conversation to music. For years, we’ve been trying to categorize music in a similar way. There’s rock, blues, pop, folk, jazz, etc. - big ole buckets to group together the musical works of artists in an attempt to achieve some understanding and cohesiveness. Over time, new as well as smaller, more nuanced buckets have come about, like grunge rock or bubblegum pop. This has served to provide a sharper and more detailed understanding of particular feels of songs, but also to accommodate the constantly evolving world of music.
And this brings me to an interesting point. Genres simply aren’t enough. Perhaps at first, they were, when the dissemination of music was new and broad strokes were helpful for the public’s understanding. But today, the list of genres is long and only getting longer. Is it really the best way to categorize?
There are other ways. You could always compare one artist to an amalgamation of other artists. This happens all the time. For instance, “have you heard of (fill in the blank)? She’s like a mix of Carole King and Adele, with a little bit of Paramore thrown in!” If you know the artists being mentioned, this is arguably more effective than saying “pop/folk and pop/soul and with a bit of edgy pop/rock mixed in”.
As streaming music (Spotify, etc.) has become ubiquitous, playlisting has become more and more popular. That is, a user can create a category and add songs in a playlist under that particular category. The category knows no boundaries! For instance, it could be “Summer Vacation 2019”, “Coffee on November Mornings”, or “The Happiest Playlist Ever”. I’d posit this is a much better way to understand a song than via a genre. It denotes a feeling, a connection beyond words, a link to a particular experience. And it doesn’t matter if one song is instrumental piano, another song is slow blues, and another is an early 2000s pop tune, if the listener thinks they all feel like “Songs for Spring Afternoon Rain”, then they co-exist in an emotional atmosphere. If the curator so chooses, they can share their playlist, and so the playlist’s unique category provides understanding and cohesion for others.
In the end, all of these attempts to slice and dice pale in comparison to the best answer of all. No categorization, no description, no boxes - just experience.
If you’ve heard somebody and gotten to know their songs, you don’t need to break down their work. You just know it. You know how it sounds and you know how it makes you feel. Somebody who’s heard the same artist knows the same for themselves because they’ve had their own personal experience. And you both speak in a different language about the music, without simplifying descriptors. You both have an understanding beyond articulation, completely unique to that artist or song.
There is and never will be a substitute for experience. If you’re wondering what somebody sounds like, forget about genres, other artists, or playlists, and just press play and discover for yourself.
Editors note - The theory Matt has put forth in this article not only applies to music but genres of all art as well. Think about it!
More articles by Matt Bednarsky here.