Friday, March 7, 2014

Musical Style and Genre

I can't think of a label for this post other than "typology of music" which seems an odd sort of label. I wanted to talk a little bit about style and genre because I see that, if you are a "millennial", meaning a 20-something person just discovering the amazingly large and complex world of music, you are coming at it from a world in which various forms of popular music (including actual pop, country, rap, hip-hop, metal, folk, alternative and all sorts of other genres) are dominant and alongside them are a few little niche genres like classical music, contemporary classical, neo-romantic and world music.

"Typology" is the study of types, or how to sort out and classify stuff. It is a perfectly useful activity that gets bad press in the popular musical press because it "puts labels on stuff, dude!" Hey, labels are how you tell the can of baked beans from the can of pineapple, so, very useful. Labels are also how you can tell the Beethoven symphony CD from the Captain Beefheart CD, so, also very useful.

We talk about different styles and genres in music. Wikipedia has a whole bunch of stuff about musical styles here. That link goes to a list of literally thousands of different named styles. Not very useful in terms of understanding the underlying principles. But it is cool, I suppose, to know that there is a style called "nardcore" that is quite different from the style called "nerdcore". The article on "genre" seems more oriented to classical music. Everywhere you run into caveats such as "these categories and boundaries are arbitrary", which is not a very useful comment.

Let me see if I can shed some light on this. Virtually all music throughout all of human history was what we might call "traditional". That is, it was local, intuitive and served fairly clear and limited social purposes. Folks got together on a Friday night and danced to whatever music was customary and available. Sometimes music for religious purposes was developed that was more meditative than somatic. There may have been more developed music from time to time such as the music used to accompany Greek tragedy, but we know very little about the details as they did not develop an adequate form of musical notation.

That was the big event in music history: the development of a notation that could accurately record the pitch of notes, the rhythmic texture and the different voices. This occurred in southern France and northern Italy around 1000 AD and was never duplicated anywhere else. It took about 500 years to perfect and we have been using this system of musical notation ever since. It has enabled a far more complex, sophisticated and durable kind of music to be developed that could best be described as "Western European art or concert music". Colloquially, it is called "classical" music, but that term always leads to confusion with the Classical period in music history from 1770 to 1827.

This kind of music, which is sometimes called "literate" music because it is based on a written tradition, contains nearly all that we would call "great" works of music. There are no great polkas in the sense I mean, nor great pieces of grindcore, nor great pieces of bluegrass. I guess I just seriously offended all lovers of those genres! Sorry, but I mean "great" in a certain specific sense. A "great" piece of music is one that has the kind of depth and perfection that means that it will last and be appreciated for hundreds of years. It is a piece of art music. Polka, grindcore and bluegrass are genres and therefore come with fundamental limits. If you do something too weird in a polka or bluegrass piece you will be accused of being inauthentic or unfaithful to the genre. The difference with art music is that you are expected to do something new, different and challenging in your symphony or violin concerto.

Symphonies and violin concertos, while often called genres (or forms) are really neither of those things. They do not have the strict boundaries of genre or definitions of forms. Only poor symphonies or violin concertos are "typical". All the great ones are unique.

So what I am going to claim is that art music (concert music, classical music) is unique in the sense that it is really not a style or genre. It is instead a cultural stream, based on the use of musical notation and written with awareness of the whole of that cultural stream going back to 1000 AD.

Now what I am saying here may seem odd or extreme because it is so different from what you read in the popular mainstream media where all genres are equally groovy and there is no awareness of history. But if you want to check on what I am saying, please read the Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin as it will give you a good overview.

The customary division of music into three broad categories of classical, popular and traditional is perfectly reasonable, though it does need a lot of explanation to be understood properly.

  • Mozart piano concerto: classical
  • Miley Cyrus "Wrecking Ball": popular
  • Scottish fiddle music: traditional
If you understand how the categories work, then you can figure out the typology of just about anything. Bob Dylan? Thoughtfully crafted popular music based on the sounds and genres of traditional American music. So virtually all those different musical styles that Wikipedia lists are all in the general category of "popular" even though a lot of them are such minute niches that they are not popular in the usual sense of the word. But they fall into the category of "popular".

So let's listen to a little Bob Dylan to close:


Bridge said...

Great thoughts, they resonate very closely with my own in that I find it uncomfortable to think about classical music as a genre. To me classical music is music, unfortunately it's very hard to voice such opinions without seeming like an elitist.

Bryan Townsend said...

From the very beginning on this blog it has been my intention to make the claim that there are objective aesthetic values in music, that it isn't all relative. If you search under "aesthetics" in the blog you will probably find a lot of posts about this. I am surprised that I haven't gotten more pushback on this. But, I haven't. People really don't believe that all music is of the same quality. They just don't want to say so in public!

Rickard said...

I'm a bit confused here. On one hand you say a polka can't be considered a great piece yet other there are many great pieces in genres such as "minuet", "sarabande", "waltz" or "tango". Anyways, I agree that classical music should be innovative. That doesn't mean a non-great baroque piece is not classical music. It is after all written in that style rather a traditional style. And on the other side of the spectrum we have Beatles which can't be classical as the music is in a popular style, within the popular music culture and for the purpose of big fame, money alla popular music. Basically, great pop music doesn't equal classical music. Bad classical music still equals classical music.

Rickard said...

I meant to put quotation marks on genres, not on minuet, sarabande, waltz or tango. Dunno what happened. I guess I'm tired.

Bridge said...

I agree with you Rickard, but I suspect Bryan was referring to popular polkas. There are of course examples of superficial minuets, sarabandes, waltzes and tangos seeing as they (as well as polkas) were originally meant to first and foremost to accompany dances of the same name. It wasn't until later when composers started to appropriate these forms and write them with the purpose of being experienced on their own. It is of course absurd to imagine somebody actually dancing to a Chopin waltz.

Could be also he is referring to the Latin polka which I don't believe has been used much in classical music. I heard a lot of in during my stay in Paraguay, with a local variant on the polka. It has a binary and ternary polyrhythm. The music is very simple but it's actually pretty exciting.

Bryan Townsend said...

I've argued these questions from various angles on this blog. You are quite right, Rickard, in this post I went at it from a different perspective. Here what I wanted to do was lay out the basic typology of music, which does divide up pretty neatly into traditional, popular and classical. I was choosing examples to clarify the categories. But once you have the basic idea, then you can start to notice that music that doesn't fit quite so neatly. The counter-example you could have chosen to throw at me might have been the Chopin mazurkas. What about them? This is a case where a classical composer chose a traditional genre and transformed it into genuinely classical music. You see, that is what I didn't talk about in this post: how some music can be moved from one category into another. Take the sarabande, for example. Its origins, in 16th century central America, were probably a traditional dance. It became very popular and even banned for obscenity in the 17th century. But by the time we get to the 18th century composers like Bach are writing sarabandes that are profound pieces of classical music. The sarabande had been transformed. Moving in the opposite direction, if you take a piece by Mozart and set it to a disco beat, you are moving a classical piece into the popular category.

You mention the Beatles. I have argued in various places here that I think that some music by the Beatles is probably transformative and while it may have started out as popular music, it could well be considered classical in a few years or decades. I suspect that any music can be moved from one category to another depending on what you do with it. My Surreal Reel for violin and guitar, for example, takes a traditional Irish reel and transforms it into a piece of classical music.

A trickier example is the one you mention of a non-great Baroque piece, one of those countless, rather dull, pieces of Baroque dance music that seem very uninspired. Yes, we do call it "classical" music because of the style and genre. But perhaps it just falls a bit short? If classical means to in some way transcend the ordinary styles and genres, as Chopin's mazurkas do, then perhaps a rather dull and uninspired Baroque minuet is not quite "classical". Maybe it is just "historic"?

Rickard said...

Good point about music being able to change categories. I don't agree that a dull baroque piece is not classical music. I think there's rather a scale in classical music with very bad/very dull at the bottom and the greatest music at the top. And besides, "historic" seems very ambigious, it could be traditional, classical or even popular when you think about it. Anyways, I'm currently wondering where to put video game music. In some cases there is a clear distinction through which you can tell if it's classical, traditional or popular. But in most cases I think it's a case of some kind of middleground. Maybe mostly somewhere inbetween classical and traditional in most cases. But it's ofc hard to classify something as broad as video game music unless it's done for each different case.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, you may be correct! I'm not sure we can have a nice tidy typography of music as there are always problem examples such as that dull Baroque minuet and video game music. For sure, I don't know enough about the latter to comment intelligently. The first thing I would want to do is study the history of video game music. We do need to always take each piece of music on its own merits.

Rickard said...

What do you think about ragtime? It comes from the Afro-American tradition (although it has an orgin in march music too). So in a sense it can be seen as popular music (i.e. Afro-American plus it contributed to other popular styles I guess, plus it was considered popular music over 100 years ago). On the other hand it could be seen as a traditional (i.e. folk) music style because of the Afro-American origins. Still, it could be seen as classical. Maybe the most important ragtime composer was Scott Joplin and about him we can read on Wikipedia:

"When Joplin was learning the piano, serious musical circles condemned ragtime because of its association with the vulgar and inane songs "...cranked out by the tune-smiths of Tin Pan Alley."[50] As a composer Joplin refined ragtime, elevating it above the low and unrefined form played by the "...wandering honky-tonk pianists... playing mere dance music" of popular imagination.[51] This new art form, the classic rag, combined Afro-American folk music's syncopation and 19th-century European romanticism, with its harmonic schemes and its march-like tempos.[39][52] In the words of one critic, "Ragtime was basically... an Afro-American version of the polka, or its analog, the Sousa-style march."[53] With this as a foundation, Joplin intended his compositions to be played exactly as he wrote them – without improvisation.[27] Joplin wrote his rags as "classical" music in miniature form in order to raise ragtime above its "cheap bordello" origins and produced work that opera historian Elise Kirk described as, "... more tuneful, contrapuntal, infectious, and harmonically colorful than any others of his era."[15]"

So maybe it's taking popular or traditional music and make it classical. A very nice ragtime:

Ofc ragtime was adapted by Debussy and Stravinsky for instance: and

Bryan Townsend said...

Once you get the basic typology figured out: classical, traditional, popular, then you start to notice all the pieces that seem to span two or more categories. Scott Joplin is a great example. His music is easily as sophisticated, as, say, good minuets and trios which are always considered classical. But it has both popular and traditional elements. And what about Astor Piazzolla? His tangos are often heard in classical concerts these days, but obviously have traditional and popular roots. He also studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, as many classical composers did.

Rickard said...

From Wikipedia:
"Joplin historian Bill Ryerson adds that, "In the hands of authentic practitioners like Joplin, ragtime was a disciplined form capable of astonishing variety and subtlety ... Joplin did for the rag what Chopin did for the mazurka. His style ranged from tones of torment to stunning serenades that incorporated the bolero and the tango."

I think the comparison between Chopin's Mazurkas and Joplin's rag might be pretty suiting. And also the same comparison could probably be made with Astor Piazzolla. And we can throw in Johann Strauss while we're at it (polkas & waltzes (although Chopin's waltzes are more classicalized I guess)). They all successfully merged the traditional and popular with the classical. I wonder what the next step would be, what could be classicalized? I'm sure there are plenty of traditional genres (mainly dances, for instance while Chopin composed many mazurkas he composed just one krakowiak and no obereks or kujawiak (I think) which are other Polish dances, or there are probably certain latin dances which haven't been classicalized yet) which haven't been classicalized to a comparable extent. Maybe making a popular genre classicalized? I wonder what would suit, certainly not most of it.

Bryan Townsend said...

If we take a more detailed look at a comparison between Scott Joplin's rags, Astor Piazzolla's tangos and Chopin's mazurkas, we would probably want to make a few distinctions. Joplin's rags are still tied pretty closely to the genre as, a bit more surprisingly, are Piazzolla's tangos. This is still, though tenuously, genre music. Though I have no problem also saying that it can also be seen as classical. I have gone on tour with a flute player and we played Piazzolla's Histoire du Tango and there was no question of it being accepted as a perfectly reasonable addition to a classical program. Mind you, with a singer I have also performed Paul MacCartney's "Blackbird" in concert (with a pre-taped blackbird track) and I felt that was also perfectly acceptable. It is partly in how you present it.

But to get to what I wanted to mention, Chopin's mazurkas and walzes more fully escape the genre category because of what he did with them. He gave them a much wider range and depth. As a composer, Chopin is on an entirely different level than Joplin or Piazzolla. An indicator of this is that he wrote a lot of other stuff that has no connection to any pre-established genre. See his sonatas, concertos, ballades, nocturnes, preludes, etudes and so on for a host of examples.

Rickard said...

Yes, Chopin ofc is on a different level but Joplin and Piazzolla are nice composers too. My range of my classical music taste is very broad and try to explore many different classical music composers, ofc there are composers and pieces I enjoy more.