Music can divide opinion based on our individual tastes. Although it can be a painstaking process and one which provokes a great deal of debate, music is categorized into genres for the ease of listeners. Genre is also often confused with style, which is less about a musical title and more about choices musicians make in the process of producing music.
Style in music relates to a series of aesthetic musical choices made by conductors, arrangers and musicians. These personal choices involve variations in rhythm, ways of picking or plucking strings, mood, melody and dynamics. Style imbues a sense of individualism and personality into the music and makes certain musicians, composers and conductors recognizable without hearing their name. In the modern era, style may also relate to the way that music is presented with packaging and imagery.
Genre is the way in which combinations of musical styles, themes, sounds and instrumentation are categorized and sub-categorized to make them identifiable to music audiences. For example, blues music is easily identifiable by its lyrical content, instrumentation and musical style. The classical music genre is a slightly less specific genre as it spans several centuries, but it nonetheless tells a potential listener roughly what they can expect from the genre.
Sub-genre is arguably where style and genre become intertwined and where the differences between the two terms becomes difficult to distinguish. Genres are sub-categorized to distinguish between regional differences and variations in lyrical themes. For example, hip-hop is a collective term for music which is composed of a rapper or MC who raps over a produced beat. However, gangsta rap is a sub-genre of hip-hop because the lyrical content and musical style is specific to a collection of artists and certain geographic regions. It can be argued that the notion of a sub-genre is for marketing certain types of music to certain audiences by giving it a unique moniker.
Usefulness of Genre
The usefulness categorizing music into genres is debatable, as many artists enjoy switching between genres as opposed to sticking to one. For example, the Beastie Boys began their career as a punk band, before producing several hip-hop albums, some of which featured original funk and soul compositions. They have also produced music inspired by French artists, such as Serge Gainsbourg. Also, classical music is considered a genre, but as it describes a variety of music spanning centuries, the term is vague and unhelpful for those looking to find a specific type of classical music.
Based in Oxford, Tom Sterne has been writing music reviews and features since 2003. His articles have appeared in "The Oxford Mail," “Oxfordshire Music Scene” magazine and the Music In Oxford website. Sterne holds a Master of Arts in online journalism from The University of Sheffield.