About the blog’s raison d’être

Purpose

Looking beyond traditional genre categorizations, this blog ties together strands of similarities among diverse types of music. As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, people seem more open to different types of music than in previous times. Or, they at least admit to it more readily. Furthermore, many musicians and composers have engaged with genres beyond the ones with which they are most commonly identified. Still, defining one’s tastes by genre remains firmly established for any number of reasons. If nothing else, it can provide shorthand for identifying one’s status, or it can aid with marketing products to specific demographic groups.

The confines of genre also remain a problem in sites that recommend music to users. Even to those who have diverse musical tastes, Amazon tends to make fairly safe recommendations while ignoring deeper similarities that might exist among specific works. Vendors are not alone, as music social networking sites do the same thing. Interestingly enough, it isn’t due to genre itself acting as a criterion. Rather, at least for music, a number of recommender platforms draw upon “collaborative filtering” algorithms that tend to skew towards genre, assuming that “similarity” can be assessed on the basis of (1) users purchasing, viewing, or listening to the same kinds of items or (2) items that tend to be purchased, viewed, or listened to together.

A 2009 study by Neal et al analyzed the top 10 pieces of music tagged with five emotional states (Happy, Sad, Anger, Disgust, Fear) on last.fm. All 50 of them fell under the umbrella term “popular” music. Although the definition of “popular” is subject to debate (at least considering various usages of the term), it is worth noting that pieces from other broad genres (such as classical, jazz, and “international” music) remained absent from the top ten results for all emotion-based tags. This alone may not indicate the pervasiveness of genre in defining musical tastes, but the results seem to indicate that the user base of last.fm skews towards more popular types of music.

Studies and Prospects

Initial inspirations for this research include Leonard Bernstein’s exploration of universality in musical language, as well as more recent work by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross (especially his 2007 book The Rest is Noise, as well as his blog of the same name). To complement the humanities perspective, research related to information and communication technologies (ICTs) can aid in the development of music retrieval systems that transcend genre. A system could draw upon the musical facets outlined by J. Stephen Downie, which have some connections to music psychology, which in turn have some degree of connections to the social contexts in which music (including genre conventions) emerge. It could have social networking aspects, where laypersons share hunches about similarities among seemingly different pieces of music. Systems-level work can also de-emphasize genre as a way of categorizing music, along the typical usage of user- or item-based collaborative filtering algorithms, by focusing more on things like audio content itself and rich textual information (especially if it leverages ontological mapping to connect related words). Nonetheless, progress has remained limited due to relatively small sample sizes, and because few people have actively engaged in research that relates to the possibility of cross-genre systems.

My own doctoral research focuses on the ways “avid recreational music listeners” conceptualize similarity, whether on the basis of musical or extra-musical traits, which could have implications for the development of recommender systems. Data collection consisted of semi-structured interviews with 20 participants between December 2014 and September 2015, along with a music seeking exercise when circumstances allowed. I expect to complete my dissertation at some point in early 2016.

Posting Content

This blog aspires towards analysis, rather than “hot” news briefs (which you’ll find elsewhere, anyway) and rumours to grab attention. My domain of knowledge and interests is also highly idiosyncratic, so don’t expect commentary on every “major” news story from every genre. My interests, understandings, and domain of knowledge are simply a foundation for further discussion on the commonalities found among diverse kinds of music.

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