It seems these days that there is just a ridiculous amount of genres and subgenres and sub subgenres. And still more forming. There are so many that no one can even keep track of them. More importantly, most people don't actually know how to define them.
So why do we need to be able to define them? Why do we even have genres? Do we need them?
Of course we need genres! As confusing as all these genres are it's way more organised to have them around. Genres help to categorise music into how it's composed, where it's from, it could refer to a specific era in time, a specific culture, what demographic it might be aimed at, the mood or energy that it creates, etc, etc. I could go on and on. But the important thing is that this categorisation means that you can walk into your record store and ask them "Have you got any punky electronica kinda grime, kinda like new wave grime, but kinda like more broken beats, like kinda dubby broken beats but kinda a little bit soulful, like kinda drum and bassy but kinda more broken drum and bass, like kinda broken beats, but breakbeat kinda drum and bass. Do you know what I mean?" (Allen, 2006) and the shop clerk can say "Yeah bro check out this album,". Simple. But again, the question "Do we need to be able to define genres?". The everyday person? No. An audio professional? Definitely!
It's essential for an audio professional to recognise the genre of the content that they are creating. Making a dramatic horror type score for a disney animation just isn't going to fit. Just as mixing a thrash metal band in a hip hop style won't sound right. Unless that's the artist's intention of course. In which case subgenres are formed. Subgenres are formed when the artist clearly has the characteristics of a genre but doesn't quite seem like they fit with the other artists in that genre. For example, metal-core outfit Parkway Drive definitely have the heavy metal characteristics but it just doesn't quite make sense when you sit them next Led Zeppelin, who were pioneers in creating the heavy metal genre.
Now, it's important to note that composition and structure of a song is significant in defining its genre. However, it is very possible to have the same song recreated into different genres. As we see a lot of today through many cover artists worldwide. So to showcase how widely genres can vary from each other I have chosen to analyse a song alongside two covers of that same song, but in various genres. The song that I will start with is Creep by Radiohead, of the alternative rock genre. The covers will be by swing jazz outfit, Postmodern Jukebox; and the Belgian female choir, Scala & Kalacny Brothers.
Creep is a great example of the alternative rock genre. Alternative rock came about in the early nineties. It stems from the rock genre mainly for the instrumentation that is used (i.e. Heavy drums, bass guitar, distorted electric guitar and vocals). However, it falls into its own category by the fact that it usually uses slower paced tempos, more emotional (depressing) lyrics and (with all due respect) sloppy playing. By sloppy I mean they leave in their mistakes. The singer's voice will crack or fall on a note flat. The guitarists won't always play perfectly in time (or sometimes not tune their guitars). This sloppy playing gives it a raw character and a bit more emotion. Within Radiohead's Creep it can be observed that Thom Yorke's vocals are very dry through most of the song. Almost to the point where he is talking rather than singing. But this presents a sorrowful 'I have nothing left to offer' emotion. The guitars are also intentionally sloppy yet effective. The guitar in the verses is just picking a basic rhythm from each chord but it is not specific. As in it doesn't repeat itself exactly, which gives the impression that it is always improvised around a basic pattern. The guitar in the chorus is just strummed as fast as possible despite it not falling in time with the tempo. All of these characteristics are perfect examples of what makes for an alternative rock track.
Below can be seen how the two covers of Creep differ from the original. The first three images are the soundstage representations of each track.
The Postmodern Jukebox soundstage shows us straight away quite a difference from Radiohead's soundstage. It is very three dimensional and instruments are nicely separated and positioned the same as if it was being performed live on stage. The instruments used are all acoustic. Drums, piano and upright bass for the rhythm section while saxophone and trombone play an accompanying melody.
It can be observed that the instrumentation in Radiohead's Creep is very standard for a rock track: drums, bass, 2 x guitars, vocals and some piano towards the end of the song. The soundstage is very two dimensional. Every instrument is pushed as close to the listener as possible and everything is quite centred.
The soundstage for the Scala & Kalacny Bros (S&KB) differs dramatically once again. Very minimalistic instrumentation with only vocals and piano (although there are vastly more vocalists in this performance). This soundstage is also quite three dimensional yet all vocals and piano are quite distant from the performer. This is also subject to the fact that this is a live performance rather than studio recorded.
These next three images are song maps that I have produced with the use of Pro Tools. these show the instrumentation, structure, key, tempo, timing and energy of each track.
Something important to note about the performance of these tracks is the tempo. Unfortunately it can't be visualised well on these images but each track has quite different tempos. Radiohead play at a fairly steady 93 BPM, which is quite standard for alternative rock. Postmodern Jukebox play much slower between 56-63 BPM. It is typical of jazz musicians to play at their own tempo as to control the energy of the song (in this case playing faster in the chorus to add intensity) and to allow for improvisation.
While on the topic of improvisation it is important to mention that it is a vital part of jazz and Postmodern Jukebox are a great example of how it's used. While the drums, bass and wind instruments play quite structured rhythms and melodies, the piano and vocals don't appear to have any set rhythm or melody at all. The vocalist has a basic melody to follow (which is that of Radiohead) but seems to dance around that melody throughout the entire song. This is while the piano seems to be improvising just to accompany the vocal. Almost as though they are dancing with one another. And talking about dancing, this version actually differs from the usual swing jazz number as this genre is meant to be danced to. But it definitely has its share of slow numbers. The signifier that really makes it a swing jazz track is (yep, you guessed it!)...Swing! If you listen to the basic tempo it's not a straight one, two, three, four beat. It's more like oonnee, two, tthhrreeee, four. The one and three beats are drawn out while the three and four are short and punchy.
But back to tempos, the S&KB track appears to use every tempo in between the other two tracks, ranging between 64-86 BPM. This constant and dramatic change in tempo is used to vary the intensity and emotion of the track similar to that of jazz styling. However, the choral pianist varies the tempo bar to bar rather than section to section, which gives a constant swelling effect similar to that of an oceans tide.
So as you can see genre plays a massive role in music (and creative media in general). A song can be made into any genre and sometimes it can benefit to find a genre that fits the song rather than the other way around. I have previously even written songs in one genre and hated it, then rewritten the song into another genre and loved it. It's all a matter of what works.
The Genre Radio Demo [Image] (2015). Retrieved October 4th, from http://static.echonest.com/demo/genre/genre.html
Lily Allen. (2008, Nov 27). Lily alllen LDN [video file]. Retrieved October 4th from, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmYT79tPvLg
Radiohead. (2008, July 18). Radiohead Creep [video file]. Retrieved October 4th from, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFkzRNyygfk
Postmodern Jukebox. (2015, April 7). Creep - Vintage Postmodern Jukebox Radiohead Cover ft. Haley Reinhart [video file]. Retrieved October 4th from, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3lF2qEA2cw
Tobias Biendl. (2011, Jan 17). Scala & Kalacny Brother - Creep (HD) [video file]. Retrieved October 4th from, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ado5PMjr5k
Pro Tools 12 [Image] (2015). Avid. Retrieved September 24th.