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Geheimnisvolle Musik
  • Jason R. Neal, University of Western Ontario

Looking beyond tradtional genre categorizations, this blog ties together strands of similarities among diverse types of music. As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, people seem more open to different types of music than in previous times. Or, they at least admit to it more readily. Furthermore, many musicians and composers have engaged with genres beyond the ones with which they are most commonly identified. Still, defining one’s tastes by genre remains firmly established for any number of reasons. If nothing else, it can provide shorthand for identifying one’s status, or it can aid with marketing products to specific demographic groups.

The confines of genre also remain a problem in sites that recommend music to users. Even to those who have diverse musical tastes, Amazon tends to make fairly safe recommendations while ignoring deeper similarities that might exist among specific works. Vendors are not alone, as music social networking sites do the same thing. Interestingly enough, it isn’t due to genre itself acting as a criterion. Rather, a number of websites draw upon ”collaborative filtering” algorithms that tend to skew towards genre.

A 2009 study by Neal et al analyzed the top 10 pieces of music tagged with five emotional states (Happy, Sad, Anger, Disgust, Fear) on All 50 of them fell under the umbrella term “popular” music. Although the definition of “popular” is subject to debate (at least considering various usages of the term), it is worth noting that pieces from other broad genres (such as classical, jazz, and ”international” music) remained absent from the top ten results for all emotion-based tags. This alone may not indicate the pervasiveness of genre in defining musical tastes, but the results seem to indicate that the user base of skews towards more popular types of music.

Studies and Prospects:

Until more sophisticated music recommendation systems become ubiquitous, it seems suitable to give holistic consideration to other musical and extramusical facets that could maximize their potential. A poster presentation for the 2009 American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIST) conference in Vancouver was a preliminary attempt at envisioning such systems. Its companion paper provides a brief background and prospective theoretical framework as a guide for such an endeavour. For a more substantial examination of such prospects, read “Precedent or Preference? The Construction of Genre and Music Recommender Systems” (2012, pp. 15-39). It is available in print, and on Google Books.

It also endeavours to synthesize relevant ideas from many areas of study. Leonard Bernstein’s exploration and embrace of universality in musical language provides a crucial historical antecedent to the notions explored here. Another influence is more recent work by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross (especially his 2007 book The Rest is Noise, as well as his blog of the same name). To complement the humanities perspective, technology can aid in the development of music retrieval systems that transcend genre. A system could draw upon the musical facets outlined by J. Stephen Downie, or it could have social networking aspects where laypersons share hunches about similarities among seemingly different pieces of music. Systems-level work by such researchers as Paul Lamere and Stephan Baumann seems promising for de-emphasizing genre as a way of categorizing music. Nonetheless, progress has remained limited due to relatively small sample sizes, and because few people have actively engaged in such research.

Genre cross-pollination and transcendence is not a new concept to me, either. Although I have given it vague thought over the years, only recently have I begun thinking more closely about the implications. An upcoming series of postings, something like a musical autobiography, will outline how my musical tastes have led me to focus more closely on this topic.

If nothing else, I’m hoping that my own modest contributions will aid in helping people rethink the boundaries of genre in music. I invite you to join me in this journey, whether as a reader or a contributor.

Content of Postings:

This blog aspires towards analysis, rather than “hot” news briefs (which you’ll find elsewhere, anyway) and rumours to grab attention. My domain of knowledge and interests is also highly idiosyncratic, so don’t expect commentary on every “major” news story from every genre. My interests, understandings, and domain of knowledge are simply a foundation for further discussion on the commonalities found among diverse kinds of music.

  • Categorization,
  • Genre,
  • Music
Publication Date
Citation Information
Jason R. Neal. "Geheimnisvolle Musik" (2010)
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