Make Music, Not Categories...

By Juan Rodriguez,

A Montreal Gazette article posted today has seriously questioned the need for musical styles... What do you think, should styles be completely eliminated and replaced by anonymous-sounding “music” played by anonymous players (or computers)? Do we really NEED music "Stars" or could the world do without them? Read the article below, and leave your thoughts in the comments... 

Is it rock or is it jazz? Is it heavy metal or death metal? Is it trip-hop or ambient, dance hall or ballroom, lounge or emo? Grunge or jangle pop? Is it neo-psychedelic or dream pop or math rock or paisley underground or, simply, shoe-gazing? Is it minimalist classical or postmodern baroque?

Hey, let’s call it fusion! Yeah, but what category of fusion? (With what is it infused?) Is it live or is it Memorex? Or should we call today’s music scene fragmented, and call it a day? (Could fragmentation become a new category? Just kidding …)

Back in 1965 fans became terribly excited with the invention of a new category of pop: folk-rock. Then, quicker than you could say A Boy Named Sue, along came country-rock. Today, it seems almost all of country music — what used to be called country ‘n’ western — is country-rock.

Why is “classical music” called that in the first place? The term first appeared in the early 19th century, recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1836, with an aim to canonize the “golden age” of music from Johann Sebastian Bach to Beethoven.

Why has Bird With Strings, from 1949, been roundly panned over the decades, even though Charlie Parker’s solos are improvisational gems? Well, strings equals classical music, which is not supposed to mix with jazz — everybody knew that. (True, these string arrangements were corny, even banal, but effective romantically.) Besides, it yielded the closest tune Parker had to a pop hit, Just Friends, and mass-cult pop and high-minded bebop were not supposed to mix.

Consider the confounding categorization of Summertime, the great George Gershwin tune from Porgy and Bess. According to The Jazz Standards, by Ted Gioia, Gershwin considered it a lullaby when it arrived in 1936; Billie Holiday recorded it shortly thereafter. But composer and scholar Alex North refused to include it in his classic tome American Popular Song because it came from an opera. Others linked it to a spiritual, Sometime I Feel Like A Motherless Child, or to blues-oriented songs like W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues.

Yet again, musicologist Peter Van der Merwe claimed the piece had more in common with Antonin Dvorak’s music. Wayne Shirley of the Library of Congress said the main harmonies of Summertime were derived from the “Tristan chord” by Richard Wagner. Duke Ellington had dissed Porgy and Bess for not using “the Negro musical idiom,” that it “borrowed from everyone from Liszt to Dickie Wells’s kazoo band.” (The Duke, who described himself as “beyond category” but was part of the jazz tradition as well as being a pop artist, eventually repented, reports Gioia; his 1961 trio rendering “sounds as if Ellington was intent on proving that he could still be cutting edge in the midst of the increasingly avant-garde jazz environment of the day.”)

Ellington didn’t like the term jazz, preferring “Negro music.” However, during the Black Power movement of the ’60s, “Negro” was considered condescendingly offensive, to be replaced by Afro-American, or black (more recently amended to brown), or the hazy “people of colour.”

Categories are useful, if used correctly (a big if), to give you a general idea of the musical territory the artist is mining (such as hard-rock vs. soft-rock). They’re most useful for radio programmers who believe that only one or two categories of music will appeal to the type of listeners (defined by demographers and advertisers) they want to appeal to. It’s when the listener can remember the category of music, but not the artist’s name that matters turn perverse.

In public places like supermarkets or elevators, people seem to want an other-than-silent environment. (Silence makes a lot of people nervous, scared, lonely). Thus, the birth of the category of Muzak, anonymous-sounding “music” played by anonymous players (or computers) for people who don’t want to hear anything more stimulating than lip balm. Ditto for another anonymous category: “smooth jazz.”

The Bad Plus, a “jazz” trio that pianist Ethan Iverson adamantly says is “not smooth jazz,” has re-worked rock hits as well as this year’s re-vamping of Stravinsky’s revolutionary epic The Rite of Spring. Iverson categorizes the band as “avant-garde populism,” adding “I’m the guy in the band that knows the least about rock … never cared at all for it and with the Bad Plus have grown to enjoy segments of it.”

As for breaking down categories, Iverson says: “The future looks bright, in some ways. More classical musicians are exploring improvising, growing more uncomfortable with the printed page. In the postmodern age, or whatever, it’s about having no restrictions …”

Just as Italian pop tenor Andrea Bocelli, the biggest-selling singer in classical music history, is described as the king of classical crossover (with Sarah Brightman the queen), John Zorn is the king of subverting categories. They include — but are not limited to — jazz, rock, hardcore, classical, surf, metal, klezmer, soundtrack music (spaghetti westerns), noise and ambient music.

“All the various styles are organically connected to one another,” Zorn told The Guardian. “I’m an additive person — the entire storehouse of my knowledge informs everything I do. People are so obsessed with the surface that they can’t see the connections, but they are there.”

As music, not categories.


  1. I believe that is is the direction the music industry wants to go. I'm reading more and more articles like this one all the time... They'd eliminate Billions by simply getting rid of "Musician /Stars." Just have all main-stream music made by robots & computers. If people want to learn to play a real guitar, they can do that at home, for fun! Who needs concerts, people can just jam at home if they want. Soon crime will be so bad, with nightly riots like Ferguson happening all over the USA anyway. We won't be able to leave ours homes after dark. The US dollar is going to collapse in a few years and then they'll be WW3 anyhow. Probably the nuclear fallout will be so bad we will need to stay at home for months on end. Yup. I predict Robots dude!

    1. No, Obama will save us. Remember what Jamie Foxx said, "give Honor to God and our Lord and Savior Barack Obama," Yup, we're saved Alan!