Genres exist to make it easier for customers to find what they’re looking for.
Genres are like a map with labels, arrows, and a legend. Thanks to genres, we can expect a country song to sound this way and a jazz piece to sound that way.
One solution is that we can put a band like Mammal Hands into a subgenre. What kind of music do they play? They play jazz music. But they sometimes play their jazz music slowly. So we can put them into the “ambient jazz” subgenre. But once we start talking about subgenres, things get complicated.
Here’s a detail of the list of electronic music subgenres from Wikipedia.
Free Tekno? Bouncy Techno? Skweee? Intelligent dance music? Yeah, intelligent dance music. We can look no further than Richard D. James, the father figure of “intelligent” dance music, to understand how silly things get when we worry too much about categories. He says,
It’s basically saying ‘this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.’ It’s really nasty to everyone else’s music.Richard D. James on Perfect Sound Forever
So what kind of music is Aphex Twin actually making, if it’s not what the Board of Genres says it is?
Richard D. James is making music.
Daniel Handler is writing novels.
And Sofia Coppola is directing movies.
Genres are categories. Categories make it easier for us to put things into boxes and bins so that it’s easier for us to find what we’re looking for. So what’s the problem, then?
The problem is that we rely on genres to tell us what we should look for.
Country music has a style that puts people like me off from listening to it. But Fleet Foxes is a band that you could sort of call a “country” band. But if someone were to tell me that it’s sort of like a “country” band, they’d convince me to listen to anything but.
And so this brings me to the idea of motifs. I can’t give you the textbook definition because I’m not classically trained in music. I’m trained in my own taste. I know what kind of music I like, and why. So a motif, to me, is a theme – kind of diction – expressed through the music no matter what genre. I like music that’s dramatic, powerful, simple in category, but technically complicated and difficult to appreciate. Kind of like a Dostoyevsky novel.
We like genres because they’re useful. Genres point us in a direction. But motifs are what bring our souls into an ephemeral trance when the players hit that orgasmic key and tempo change. A motif is how music invites our senses, in the words of Nietzsche, “to enjoy themselves.”