Style and Genre

Was music genre a problem before iTunes?  Most certainly a first world problem, although I am not the only one trying to tame their digital music collection.

Daniel Chandler’s An Introduction To Genre Theory

Chandler makes a few interesting points.  Firstly, that genre evolves according to pressure from the media it classifies:

The interaction between genres and media can be seen as one of the forces which contributes to changing genres. Some genres are more powerful than others: they differ in the status which is attributed to them by those who produce texts within them and by their audiences.

Secondly, genre can describe the relationship between audience and performer.

Related redefinitions of genre focus more broadly on the relationship between the makers and audiences of texts (a rhetorical dimension). To varying extents, the formal features of genres establish the relationship between producers and interpreters.

Wikipedia Definition of Music Genre

Wikipedia talks about a differentiation between Art music, Pop music and Traditional music.  This categorisation has a lot wrong with it, and for me it rapidly falls over when any mention of “Art Rock” or similar is made.  A lot of what I listen to is not very commercial – especially by today’s standards – and yet falls into a pop category in the way I consume it.

Genre can also relate to sociological origins – which is a lot more useful if, for instance, you have a lot of music from film and soundtracks.  Even if the originating context is orthogonal to other notions of genre.


Daniel Stout reckons you should simplify your collection to 25 genres(!).  He then suggests a whole load of subgenres for each genre, which IMHO makes genre tagging less useful, not more useful – if you care about the distinction between blues rock and bluegrass, the chances are you listen to a fair amount of both.  When I tag my music I want to raise the visibility of all of the stuff I listen to infrequently, rather than sort the music I listen to a lot into smaller and smaller categories.

The Tippapotomous asks whether it’s possible to automatically tag digital music by genre.  What they find is that different online resources already have different classifications.  They do have a nice seperate article about rating songs, which is pretty similar to my own strategy.

Using the classification of Allmusic or Discogs is neat but actually not useful if it includes terms you don’t identify with.  By other definitions I have a lot of New Age music (Vangelis, Robert Rich, Mike Oldfield) but it would never occur to me to use that terminology.  Because I am music lover, not a patchouli scented crystal-waving hippy.

At least, not any more.

A flat list of genres and subgenres can be divisive.  What I want is the opposite, to classify my music in such a way that it takes notice of crossing genres, so when I create a playlist it won’t create dissonance but will create interesting contrast between tracks.  An electronic downtempo playlist could, for example, take elements of minimalist classical music, electronic ambient, vocal downtempo such as trip-hop and so forth – but insert hard rock or gangsta rap and it doesn’t work.

So, an alternative approach is to use the Content Group Description tag as an auxiliary grouping field – for example taking the Allmusic definition of “Genre” and “Styles”.  *Content Group Description* is identified as *Grouping* in iTunes.

From the [ID3v2.4] spec

TIT1   The ‘Content group description’ frame is used if the sound belongs to   a larger category of sounds/music. For example, classical music is   often sorted in different musical sections (e.g. “Piano Concerto”,   “Weather – Hurricane”).

That’s confusing.  Is the Genre or the Content Group the “larger category of sounds”?
Then there’s Apple’s interpretation:

Grouping:    the grouping (piece) of the track. Generally used to denote movements within a classical work.


p>In other words the pop-loving cretins can keep their filthy hands off the Grouping field.  Still that interpretation only matters to a tiny proportion of listeners, so the Grouping is up for grabs as a wildcard field for any metadata you like.

There’s one very good reason to pick Genre over Grouping, and that’s the way iTunes orders music – genre is a high-visibility field whereas Grouping and Comments aren’t.  Of course some people feel iTunes is the tool of the devil and wouldn’t use it anyway.

Final word

I ended up making an excel file and adding terms to it that could be plugged usefully into the genre or grouping field, trying to decide whether they were useful Genre terms, Grouping terms, of both.  Generally if I have a lot of music in a well-defined genre (e.g. darkwave, industrial) or a small amount of music that I only care to group broadly (e.g. Jazz) then using the genre field is a good idea.  Anything else and the Genre field can get congested and less useful; at this point adding metadata tags in the Grouping is handy.  Metadata I plan to use includes “Ambient”, “Goth” and so forth.