« previous post | next post »

In today's Bad Machinery, Shauna abandons powerviolence and decides against crustcore.

Some of you will recognize that these are names of musical genres, well enough established to have Wikipedia entries. Thus

Powerviolence […], is a raw and dissonant subgenre of hardcore punk.The style is closely related to thrashcore and grindcore.


Crust punk (often simply crust) is a form of music influenced by anarcho-punk, hardcore punk and extreme metal.

A couple of weeks ago in Groningen for Methods in Dialectology XV, I happened on a sign with an ambiguous title. It was clear to me that "hard style" was probably a musical genre, and indeed Wikipedia explains that

Hardstyle is an electronic dance genre mixing influences from hardtechno, hard house, hard trance, and hardcore.

But is "dance" (or maybe "dance style") another genre? Or does the sign just mean that the event in the park is in some sense a "dance"?

Anyhow, this made me wonder again how many named genres of contemporary music there are?

As with vocabulary-counting in general, this is the sort of question that is guaranteed not to have a crisp answer. New genre names are being coined all the time, and some coinages thrive to one degree or another, while others more or less die on the vine.

This "Music Genres List", which claims to be "The most comprehensive list of genres of music available on the Internet", doesn't have powerviolence, thrashcore, grindcore, crust, hardstyle, much less shoegaze or post-metal.

Wikipedia, needless to say, has a much more complete List of Modern Popular Music Genres, which currently lists 756 items.  But some of the penumbra is surely missing — "tragic lounge" isn't there, for example, though I wouldn't know about it if an acquaintance hadn't once described her band's genre with that term.

Anyhow, has there ever been a time in history when the proliferation of named musical styles within one cultural continuum reached anything close to this number? And what are the forces that drive the process? Is it like revolutionary parties and religious cults and hunter-gatherer tribes?

Update — a couple of commenters point us to, which offers an interactive map with clickable samples,  a list of 1246 named genres, and a feature that will tell you the genre associations of a specified "artist". (Though the last one is a bit over-enthusiastic, it seems to me, probably because it's based on some kind of subspace distance metric that causes cascading similarities to bleed into weird assignments, like adding "British Blues" to Buddy Guy's genres…)



  1. Ian said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 8:27 am

    I'd say the poster is suggesting that the event is some sort of a dance. While "dance" in and of itself isn't really a genre, EDM, or Electronic Dance Music is a commonly-used umbrella term encompassing most varieties of electronic music. Perhaps they're just indicating that the party focuses mostly on hardstyle, but that other genres of EDM may be present as well.

  2. Keith said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 8:31 am

    Soft-shoe shuffle, Ragtime, Bebop, Delta Blues, Detroit Blues, Jazz, Jass… I think that perhaps the opportunity to publish one's opinions widely is what leads to the multiplication of labels.

    Crustcore-Banjolelepunk Crossover is my bag.

  3. phspaelti said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    Isn't the driving force that most musicians eschew labels?

  4. S Frankel said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    PhD in musicology here; also an aging punker.

    To answer the easy question, no there's never been a time when practitioners and fans of popular music have had the ability that they now have to form networks. Most descriptions of punk, at least, are of the type: sounds like Band X with a soupçon of Band Y and an admixture of driving bass from Band Z. The division into increasingly minute classifications was probably inevitable, given this mode of thought..

    So, also, is the fact that the classifications often don't mean anything. Some terms, such as "street punk," are more excuses for arguing than musically meaningful. But some are very clear. In the blog post, for example, "thrash" means fast and non-melodic, and "grind" means slow and sludgy.

    There was certainly a fracturing of classes in earlier times. Wagner, for example, insisted that his later large-scale works weren't operas; they were "music-dramas" – even though the very first operas, in early 17th-cent. Italy, were typically called something like "dramme per musica," a fact Wagner probably didn't know (gentle self-mocking irony was not his style). In the 19th and 20th centuries (not before, though, and I actually don't know too much about 20th-cent. Art Music, though), you certainly find a proliferation of genres in the cause of expressing individuality; but this is the exact opposite of the current proliferation in popular music, which is intended to link similarities.

  5. Dave O said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 8:42 am

    I'd say these are more styles than genres per se. Most are made up by bands claiming to be different than their contemporaries.

    Ishkur's good ol' Guide To Electronic Music is a great way to show how the various larger (and I would say actual) genres of electronic music breakdown into styles and sub-styles, and how they relate.

  6. A. Mandible said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 9:10 am lists 1263 genres; some, though are coinages.

    The issue is confused to some extent by artists coming up with a genre name that they intend to be applied only to them, like Morphine saying that they play "low rock" or Dananananaykroyd saying they play "fight pop". Googling for "tragic lounge" finds so few cases of it applied as a genre term (the only one seems to be a band called Kiss Kiss Kill) that I wonder if it's an example of this phenomenon, rather than a coinage intended to describe an existing genre.

  7. Alon said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 9:54 am

    LL's own Bill Benzon recently linked to a very cool attempt to identify how musical genres cluster based on band self-descriptions.

    Unfortunately, the data were sampled from Myspace, which offers a meagre 125 identifiers. I suppose one could try to crawl sites offering more flexible tagging systems (say, to obtain an answer to your question, although I imagine deduplication would be far from trivial.

    (Not even has a tragic lounge tag, though, even if crust, powerviolence and hardstyle are all there.)

  8. Bill Benzon said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 11:14 am

    There's been some relevant research. This is a post I put up in July of this year:

    Monica Lee (doctoral candidate at U Chicago) and Dan Silver (sociology, U Toronto) have a fascinating "big data" post on musical genres. They examine data from over a million bands on MySpace to determine what kinds of music go together. They start with a thesis Bruce Springsteen presented in a keynote speech at South-by-Southwest in 2012:

    There are so many sub–genres and fashions, two–tone, acid rock, alternative dance, alternative metal, alternative rock, art punk, art rock, avant garde metal, black metal, Christian metal, heavy metal, funk metal, bland metal, medieval metal, indie metal, melodic death metal, melodic black metal, metal core…psychedelic rock, punk rock, hip hop, rap rock, rap metal, Nintendo core [he goes on for quite a while]… Just add neo– and post– to everything I said, and mention them all again. Yeah, and rock & roll

    That is, genre doesn't matter any more because distinctions are so fluid. In Springsteen's words:

    It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down. It’s your teachers, your influences, your personal history; and at the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that still matters.

    So, Lee and Silver ask:

    Do we truly live in a “post-authentic” musical world, where norms and conventions around musical creation have weakened and individual creativity is born to run free (pun!)?

    Their answer: Not really:

    We found little support for his idea that American popular musicians freely roam across genres; they mostly operate according to what seem to be strong conventions about what genres go together. But not everywhere to the same degree. Indeed, if we conjure a picture of the Austin SxSW crowd, it looks a lot like the regression results: college students, radio stations, and the record industry. While America in general may not conform to the Springsteen Hypothesis, in some contexts it comes closer than others, and Austin is probably one of them. Considered in this way we might take Springsteen’s speech less as a general proposition and more as a specific expression of the expectations he and his audience have about the nature of musical creativity, one which is by no means universally shared. In other words, he was preaching to the choir.

    Just how they get there – that paragraph is third from the end of their long and rich post – is fascinating.

    They find that all that music falls into 17 clusters (e.g. Jammy, Popular, Dark, Rave, Keeping the Beat Alive). So genres are real. Conventions matter. Second, "less popular bands are on average somewhat more unconventional than popular bands, but the difference is not large." Finally, "it appears that college towns have the most scene-crossing while racially diverse metros anchor the main streams of American popular music."

    H/t Tyler Cowen.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    I wonder how many regional styles of popular music there were in the old days. Could people identify styles of fiddling the way they could identify dialects?

  10. S Frankel said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    >Could people identify styles of fiddling the way they could identify dialects?

    Oh my gosh, yes, and easily, and that probably goes for every other kind of music, for the obvious reason that people tended to sound like their teachers or, at least, used their teachers' style as a starting point. Radio and records tended to shake things up a bit, but there are still easily identifiable styles in fiddling or, for that matter, sean nos (unaccompanied Irish singing), or Javanese gendèr playing, etc. etc.

    Which, come to think of it, if we gave a name to each of these, would lead to a profusion of style terms.

    Off to read the Lee and Silver article

  11. Jeffrey Kallberg said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 11:40 am

    Another musicologist here (and one who has written about genre): One area that can muddle such discussions is the possible distinction between "genre" and "style." In much of the cited writings in this thread (including the very interesting Lee and Silver study), the two terms tend to be used interchangeably. If "style" is read or heard as a set of attributes that can inform "genre," then one will want to avoid such slippage.

    And given the function of "genre" as a concept that helps frame meanings in a communicative context, I wonder if there are parallels between the blossoming of genre names that are grasped by only a very small part of the listening communities and what might happen with nonce words?

  12. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

    Titles of nonfiction books and academic papers often take the form clever name: explanatory subtitle. Perhaps we should think of band names and genre labels in a similar way. On this view the genre label is just the "subtitle" component of the band's overall self-identification, which we might transcribe as something like Jethro Skull: rockabilly metal.

  13. Bill Benzon said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

    What I'd like to do is have people listen to a whole lot of music and classify what they hear into piles by perceptual similarity. Alas, that's a hopeless task. Aside from the fact that it would takes lots and lots and lots of time, people aren't going to make good judgements about music that they don't know very well. So, if you're not familiar with, say, jazz styles, then it's all just noise and the differences between classical bop and hard bop simply won't register.

  14. T said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

    Glenn McDonald, who writes outstandingly about music, is on the case. Check out this interactive map.

  15. Rubrick said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 4:22 pm

    I find it (as of just now) interesting that genre names are never applied to sports teams, even though such genres arguably exist. In baseball you'd maybe have Buntsteal teams and Powerslug teams, for example. Such "team styles" are certainly discussed by sportscasters et. al., but they don't seem to acquire named labels.

    Likely this has something to do with the fact that sports are about trying to win, rather than self-expression, but it's still curious. Can anyone think of any exceptions?

  16. Frans said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 4:27 pm


    Perhaps they're just indicating that the party focuses mostly on hardstyle, but that other genres of EDM may be present as well.

    Indeed, dance is simply Dutch for what you call EDM. It was probably borrowed from UK English, judging by this:

    When I first heard the term "EDM", I wasn't sure what it stood for. I assumed the "M" probably stood for music, maybe the "E" was European or eclectic, And the "D" could have been "digital", a reference to it being created on laptop software, perhaps. What I did not expect, however, was something as blitheringly obvious as "electronic dance music". It seemed like calling a genre "guitar rock" or "trumpet ska".

  17. ohwilleke said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 6:51 pm

    On one hand, there are lots of finely graded sub-distinctions in musical styles. On the other, there is a lot of consolidation of musical styles at the top level of division of music by genre.

    The gap between "modern country" and rock, broadly defined, has probably never been more subtle with a lot more cross-over activity than the historical norm. World music and jazz show strong rock influences as well.

  18. Jeff Carney said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

    Polonius! thou shouldst be living at this hour.

  19. AntC said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

    Anyhow, has there ever been a time in history when the proliferation of named musical styles within one cultural continuum reached anything close to this number?

    (Presumably this measure has to be relative to the population at that time in history?)

    Is there actually any difference amongst these self-nominated genres? To me, they all sound indistinguishably raucous. I stopped listening to so-called 'popular' music around the time punk and Abba came in. (No, I'm not claiming those two are similar genres. But they were equally awful. And things have only got worse since)

    I find much more variety amongst the works of one composer J.S.Bach — but then he is an exception, closer to God than man. How about The (Russian) Five; The (French) Six; C20th Russians Stravinsky/Prokofiev/Shostakovich/Khachaturian; need I go on?

    Let alone jazz styles! (as @Keith already pointed out).

    — see, peevology is not limited to language.

  20. Bill Benzon said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 8:04 pm

    @T – Thanks, wonderful map.

  21. David Morris said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

    Are at least some of these genre names coined by the listeners, as a kind of one-up-personship over other listeners? 'Oh, you listen to [triple-barrel genre name]? How 15 minutes ago! I listen to [quadruple-barrel genre name] now.' New = cool, old = uncool.

  22. S Frankel said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 8:30 pm

    Jeffrey Kallberg is, of course, right; we're mixing up terms and no good comes of that. But I think that the original post was actually about tags – that is, labels assigned to music, usually on a stylistic basis, for a specific purpose, usually indexing for easy machine retrieval. This is why sports teams or players aren't labeled with a style; there's be no point. In conversation, it's my impression, that when describing a new band, someone will compare them to other bands, and there's a certain amount of shared experience among the people talking, and some back-and-forth for clarification. This isn't possible on the internet (or in other cataloging enterprises), so tags are used instead.

    My impression, also, is that some tags are transparent in meaning and widely understood (thrash, metal, thrash metal, Ramones-core, doo-wop), and others engender great controversy (street punk, skate punk).

    The Lee and Silver diagram is weird. If their statistical model is appropriate and was used correctly, then their data must be bad. Here are just a few examples. "Classical" and "Classical-Opera" are in different clusters, with no connection between them. Perhaps both were very thinly represented on 2007-era MySpace, and the few examples happened to use one tag or the other, but not both. Thin representation might possibly explain the odd three-member cluster Classical, Comedy (which have only a thin connection), and Swing (which has no connections with any other tag – not even the many forms of jazz).

    I can't think of any explanation for the thick connection between Hawaiian and Rap, or the isolation of Industrial House from all the other kinds of house music. There's a minor terminological oddity in that "ska" is linked to various punk tags, not to reggae; this is obviously because the self-tag "ska" is a shortened form of "ska punk," which fact would be obvious in context, but looks odd on the chart.

    There are many, many examples of this kind of grouping problem, not to mention some pretty important tags that are missing (or maybe I'm just missing them): soul, cajun. zydeco.

    The Glenn MacDonald map was a lot more interesting (first time I ever heard Faeroese Pop!), but there are some obvious problems there as well – his algorithm should, for example, not count tags that begin with the word "more" as separate.

    @ AntC: Yes there is a difference. If you can't hear it or, more likely, aren't interested in learning about the differences, then you don't have to bother with them. I don't know anyone who listens to only one kind of music; I also don't know anyone who likes all kinds of music. Bill Benzon mentions this above.

  23. S Frankel said,

    August 22, 2014 @ 8:39 pm

    oops – sorry; it's Disco House that's disconnected from the rest of the House Musics, not Industrial House (which is two tags, not one).

  24. D.O. said,

    August 23, 2014 @ 1:26 am

    Is there anything inherently appealing in binomial nomenclature? It seems that people begin splitting a new genre on sub-genres as soon as it is established enough to shed the reference to the yet more generic type from which it split off.

  25. Chas Belov said,

    August 23, 2014 @ 4:08 pm

    @T Omg Thank you thank you thank you for the Glenn McDonald link. I collect world popular music (about 70 languages at this point, made so much easier with online music services). Despite some odd errors, (e.g. Chinese Opera includes rock group Overload and pop singer Alex To), this is a treasure trove.

  26. Dan T. said,

    August 23, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

    Ah, Bad Machinery comes up here again… you're the one who introduced me to that excellent strip last year with your post about the "daggy hair".

    Hot funk, cool punk, even if it's old junk
    It's still rock and roll to me — Billy Joel

  27. Meesher said,

    August 23, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

    If it's any help, the nearest flyer I have to hand for a punk gig describes the bands as "crusty doom d-beat," "sludge metal," "fastcore grinders," "fastcore," and "power fuckin' violence."

  28. AntC said,

    August 24, 2014 @ 12:09 am

    @T Glenn McDonald's interactive map is brilliant use of technology; but it's giving me severe genre dislocation.

    Classical styles from the Indian sub-continent are bunched together, which makes sense except that they're dangling off a node of Traditional Scottish Folk, and Norwegian Jazz is jammed (!) amongst them. Surprisingly, Swedish Jazz is quite distant (sensibly amongst many jazz genres), but close by Classic Chinese Pop (well, maybe) and Gamelan.

    Not sure I 'get' McDonald's organising principle (probably my Western Classical Music upbringing getting in the way); but it ought to be a principle that could relate to the sound-pattern of languages (cadence, rhythm, tone) — to try to keep some vague connection to Language Log. And from what he describes, I would expect it to put Gamelan, Classical Indian (ragas) and Baroque (Passacaglias and Chaconnes) in the same constellation.

    BTW the sample labelled 'Baroque' features a modern concert piano (not harpsichord) in a genre that sounds distinctly C19th.

  29. dporpentine said,

    August 24, 2014 @ 7:53 am

    Actual underlying musical differences are obviously a different topic than the names we give to those differences, but I strongly suspect that you'd have to go back to the very beginning of human culture to find a time in which musical styles have been so narrow–just the thinnest possible variations on tonal harmonies and 4/4 time signatures, generally with syncopated beats.

    There were assuredly thousands and thousands of years when every little outpost of human civilization produced something distinctive and changed as the people in that group changed. The teeny-tiny slivers of the musical tradition that have been passed on to us since musical notation was developed are the equivalent of paleolithic arrow heads–interesting objects for study, yet offering only the barest hint of the world around them.

  30. S Frankel said,

    August 24, 2014 @ 8:21 am

    @dporpentine – Not to disagree with you when you point out that there's been a McDonaldsing of the world's musics, and a drastic decline in traditional and art ("classical") musics everywhere, but I suspect that 4/4 time is pretty common, especially in popular musics, because so many of those developed from work songs. Even just walking will generate a 4/4-kind of rhythm.

  31. Daniel Allington said,

    August 24, 2014 @ 4:26 pm

    Great post! And I'm also really grateful to Bill Benzon for the link (in comments above) to Monica Lee and Dan Silver's essay, which – to my shame – I hadn't known about. I say 'to my shame' because with a couple of colleagues I've been working on something similar, using data from SoundCloud. There's a report on a very preliminary version of it here and here and in the comments there's a little discussion of how it's progressing now that we've got a more robust sample. We're not using anything like such big data as Lee and Silver, but we're integrating the quantitative work with interviews to try to understand the significance of such patterns for actual working musicians.

  32. Jack said,

    August 24, 2014 @ 7:33 pm

    I think the term "hardstyle" came about because it had something to do with a particular dance style also called "hardstyle" that might have predated it. As far as I can tell, a YouTube search for "hardstyle" would get you a lot of hardstyle music and also a lot of hardstyle dance (done of course to hardstyle music). It could be that the dance style developed with "hardcore techno", which, in its 90s Dutch incarnation, sounds almost exactly current hardstyle, and the music was named after the dance after somebody influential decided it wasn't the same style of music anymore.

  33. Terry Collmann said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 8:10 am

    The urge to slice everything into smaller and smaller pieces appears to be universal in human endevavour. The Beer Judge Certification Program recognises more than 90 different beer styles, several of which ("Irish Red Ale", "Robust Porter", to attack but two) are dubious, at the least.

  34. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 4:29 pm

    Certainly within rockish music the explicit naming of finer and finer gradations seems to have accelerated rather dramatically since the '70's/'80's. There ought to be a big-dataish way to check that by looking at record reviews and things like that over time (although you have to find publications at the same level of mass-market-v.-cultish-obscurantism tradeoff to make things comparable over time, I guess). One factor that might be driving increased differentiation over time is that in an old-style brick-and-mortar record store there were only so many different categories under which records/CD's would be filed assuming you didn't just have absolutely everything in the store in a single alphabetical-by-artist array (I think most stores usually used well under a dozen genre categories for inventory classification – maybe more if the place carried substantial classical/jazz and otherwise not-"popular" stuff), so some genre titles (e.g. "World music") were devised largely as catch-alls so stores would have a place to file stuff that didn't fit elsewhere. In a post-brick-and-mortar era, the cost-benefit analysis for finer gradations is different, plus you can "tag" a particular artist as fitting into multiple boxes at different levels of generality, whereas in the old days if "metal" and "punk" were segregated from the general "rock" inventory (a pretty high-level taxonomic split by today's standards) and if a given record was in one section it by definition was not in the others you often had to guess where the particular store had drawn the line if you wanted to find what you were looking for because there were plenty of close calls, and finer distinctions would have made the search process harder.

    Some useful genre labels used today (krautrock, freakbeat, probably Northern soul – where "Northern" refers not to where in the U.S. the records were made but where in England they were appreciated) were largely developed / used retrospectively – i.e. that's not necessarily how either the artists or audience referred to the sound at the time it was first being produced. But those have stuck precisely because they were found useful by a critical mass of users. I don't know about early jazz but I think similarly a lot of the semi-standard taxonomy used to describe subgenres of blues was devised decades after the fact by fans and record collectors.

RSS feed for comments on this post