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Help us, Hipsters. You're Our Only Hope.

An examination of the utility of the sub-genre.

By Dean ConwayPublished 7 years ago 4 min read

Musicology is the study of music.

Within classical musicology, there are terms given to certain musical formats or layouts of pieces of music. For example, let us imagine a hypothetical piece of music that has a certain length of music that we would call Part A. Imagine now a piece of music that is distinct from this Part A, which we will call Part B. If a piece of music arranged these parts in the order AABB, meaning that our Part A was played twice, followed by two playings of Part B, we would apply the term ‘Binary Form’ to this piece.

These classifications become more complex as time goes on, giving rise to more involved forms like the Sonata Form. This form is a tad more prescriptive than the aforementioned Binary Form. In Sonata Form, there are usually 5 sections. The Introduction, The Exposition, The Development, The Recapitulation and The Coda.

The Introduction is self-explanatory; it essentially serves as a lead-in to the piece.

The Exposition is where the main musical ideas are presented.

The Development is where these musical ideas are, for lack of a better term, ‘played with’. They are altered and developed in ways that intricate the piece and build on what came before.

The Recapitulation is where we return to the original ideas and lead into the Coda, which in simple terms is an outro.

Here we can see how, by using a certain term, we can describe the basic framework of a piece of music.

Let us think now about contemporary music.

If I were to say the phrase ‘rock music’ to anyone, certain things would come to mind; electric guitars, heavy drums, distortion, etc. We can see that even today we have certain terms that are used to describe the framework of a song, which we call genres.

Somewhere along the line, however, we decided that this was not prescriptive enough. And thus, the sub-genre was born. We now had a plethora of words to use to describe songs down to the letter. Rock became the umbrella term for metal, hard rock, punk, and others.

While I think that it is great to have single words that can describe the nature of a song quite easily, I do think that there is a problem with flying too close to the sun.

When I look at the electronic music scene, I am slightly annoyed by the extensive sub-genre division which is to be found.

Now, I do agree that electronica as an ‘umbrella term’ genre has and should have many different sub-genres, as it is quite the complex genre which has many great opportunities for artistic expression. These sub-genres are things like techno, house, disco, et cetera, which are all sounds that are quite distinct and require terms that can differentiate them. However, if we take house music, for example, we can see that even this sub-genre has subdivisions all of its own. Even just looking at the Wikipedia listing, which is by no stretch of the imagination a concise list, we are given the following tree.

House music

Inside house music, there is: Acid house, Ambient house, Balearic beat, Chicago house, Deep house, Future house, Tropical house, Bouncy house, Diva house, Handbag house, Electro house, Big room house, Complextro Fidget house, Dutch house, Moombahton Moombahcore, French house Funky house, Garage house, Ghetto house, Ghettotech Hardbag, Hard house, Hard NRG, Nu-NRG, Hip house, Italo house, Jazz house, Kwaito Latin house, Microhouse, New beat, Outsider house, Progressive house, Rara tech, Tech house, Tribal house, Trival Witchhouse.

This extensive sub-genre division seems ridiculous to me, as the alleged difference between house and acid house is that acid house has deeper bass lines. Electro house is apparently house music that clocks in at between 125 and 135 beats per minute. Perhaps I am being overly dismissive but I don’t think that a window of 10 beats per minute is enough to warrant the creation of a new term.

It is worth mentioning too that I do not see this as a problem restricted to house music. This problem is deeply seeded in other genres such as punk and metal.

I believe that this extensively restrictive nature of such clinical subdivision places a choke-hold on the discovery of new music. If I am listening to future house (characterized by a muted melody with a metallic, elastic sounding drop) and go to find more future house, I am essentially searching for a tiny new variation on the song I have already heard, which does no good to broaden my musical palette at all.

For this reason, I find it funny that the hipster is ridiculed for their search for off-kilter music and art outside of the mainstream. With this extensive reliance on such outrageous subdivision of genre, we are in danger of stagnating the music we listen to and trapping ourselves in a rabbit hole of uniformity. In a way, we need the hipster now more than ever to show us how to broaden our horizons.

Save us, hipsters, you are our only hope.


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