Music Classification and Ducks

electronic music genres

If you ever wanted to see how convoluted music classification can be, look no further than Wikipedia’s list of electronic music genres largely sourced by Ishkur’s Guide To Electronic Music.

There are 23 main genres of electronic music, each with a bunch of sub-genres, including names like:

  • Clownstep
  • Dark Psy
  • Power Noise
  • Hard NRG
  • Italo Disco

It’s a demonstration of either how large this genre really is or how it takes itself too seriously.

On the other side of this, see how many electronic music genres you can find on the iTunes Music store. Just one: Electronic.

I’ve always thought there was a problem with this genre. It seems that a lot of music gets tossed in this category because Ishkur’s genres are too complex for casual listeners. As of this writing, iTunes’s Top 10 electronic albums contain music from Owl City, Basement Jaxx, and the Postal Service. In fact, Owl City claims 3 of those Top 10 spots.

I like Owl City fine, but to me it’s really Pop music with electronic instruments. But what do you call it, Electronic Pop? Just about all Pop music has electronic instruments.

And it’s not like other genres don’t have this problem. Is Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! a rock record? Or is it New Wave – or even Post Punk?

The same thing happened in the 90s. There seemed to be a time when Rock/Pop was the main genre. Then Nirvana came along and were labeled Alternative Rock. Now it seems that most records that have come out since then are labeled Alternative.

Which of course means that it isn’t the alternative.

Other artists in that Electronic top 10 include:

  • Passion Pit
  • Justice
  • Deadmau5
  • Jean Michel Jarre
  • Röyksopp
  • Chromeo

They’re all included in the Electronic genre, but anyone familiar with them knows that they’re all different.

This didn’t used to be a problem, but we also didn’t have iTunes or Pandora or Last.fm. There was a lot of music before, but not as easily and readily accessible – so now listeners are suddenly faced with classifying it all, hence the need to get increasingly granular when it comes to defining genres.

Part of this is why I watch Last.fm’s Boffin project with interest – it’s meant to bring their tags to your local music collection.

My own genre list in iTunes has become the victim of increasingly complex taxonomy – mostly for stuff I didn’t even put there. Others have decided that what used to be folk should now be singer/songwriter, and that Spanish Pop Music should be Pop Latino or World. But what’s World music to me is someone else’s Popular music.

Some artists have even come out against some of these genres, like IDM – Intelligent Dance Music:

British electronic music and techno artists, including Aphex Twin, Cylob, and Mike Paradinas, have criticised the term IDM. Paradinas has stated that the term IDM was only used in America. Allmusic Guide describes the IDM name as

A loaded term meant to distinguish electronic music of the ’90s and later that’s equally comfortable on the dancefloor as in the living room, IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) eventually acquired a good deal of negative publicity, not least among the legion of dance producers and fans whose exclusion from the community prompted the question of whether they produced stupid dance music.

The same thing even happens in Classical music. In college I was doing an assignment on 20th Century Minimalism, so I listened to a lot of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. What interested me was that Steve Reich had also rejected the Minimalism label assigned to him. Or, perhaps to be more accurate – he didn’t embrace it:

The point is, if you went to Paris and dug up Debussy and said, ‘Excusez-moi Monsieur…are you an impressionist?’ he’d probably say ‘Merde!’ and go back to sleep. That is a legitimate concern of musicologists, music historians, and journalists, and it’s a convenient way of referring to me, Riley, Glass, La Monte Young […] it’s become the dominant style. But, anybody who’s interested in French Impressionism is interested in how different Debussy and Ravel and Satie are—and ditto for what’s called minimalism. […]

I asked my Music Theory teacher at the time about this. If these composers didn’t even like what they were classified as, then what should they be classified as?

His response?

“Who cares?”

Which to me meant that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

Ultimately listeners are the ones who decide what genres work for them – and I’d say that most of those listeners would probably be more interested in listening to music than defining what it actually is.

For my own purposes I think that Ishkur’s guide is too specific, yet I find labeling everything under it as Electronic is way too broad. There’s a necessary compromise in there.


Image from Flickr user savethedave and used under a Creative Commons License