Genre And Style – How Much Do You Know? by Laurie Riley

What’s your musical genre? Have you consciously chosen one? Do you really know all about it? How does it differ from others? Can you describe its nuances? Every genre and sub-genre or style of music is characterized by specific features, some obvious and some quite subtle, without which it just isn’t really authentic. Many nuances may be completely overlooked by players who don’t realize they are important, and maybe don’t hear them, because they aren’t familiar enough with the genre and don’t know what to listen for.

Some musical genres are intellectually oriented and complex, some are fun-loving and happy, some are all about life’s stories, some are contemplative or even soporific. The differences can actually lead to negative attitudes toward one genre by those who are accustomed to another, because we tend to assume that the “rules” of music are the same for all music. They’re not.

For instance, consider the difference between, say, dancers who perform Middle eastern “bellydance” and those who are trained in ballet. Although both require intense training to become truly skilled, the rules of movement are in many ways nearly opposite between these two styles. One observing the other might think them all wrong!

So it is also between musical styles. I once heard a man comment on native flute player R. Carlos Nakai’s music after a fabulous concert, “Doesn’t he know more notes than that?” Obviously this man had no idea that the Native American flute has only six notes, that the music is based on traditional native style, and what Nakai does with those notes is masterful. The man was listening for complexity of melody rather than variation of tone, intonation and ornamentation, and also didn’t realize that most native flute music is meant to be meditative and restful. Listen to R. Carlos Nakai:

I heard a story from a Celtic musician who played for a person who had become offended because she was repeating parts (i.e. AABB,AABB). That’s what Celtic music does! (Not to mention most traditional music of various ethnicities.)

Anyway, back to the subject of subtle nuance…

If you play Celtic music, can you describe the differences between Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Breton music? Do you know that Irish music is often ornamented differently from Scottish music and that there are types of tunes in one style that do not exist in the other? (I’d tell you, but that would spoil the fun.) Or that Welsh music is often quite chromatic because of influences from classical styles during the Baroque era? Or that traditional Breton music is a melding of French and Celtic styles?

What about skill? Does it take more skill to play one kind of music than another? Partita #3 by J.S. Bach,  for instance, is all about masterful skills, both of the composer and the musician; it’s very cerebral as well as beautiful. J.S. Bach’s music is mathematically and therefore aurally complex because he wanted it that way.

Now what about an even more complex style, which I mentioned in my last post: jazz. Although there are many sub-genres of jazz, and some is reasonably simple, much of what the masters are doing with smooth jazz and such is mind-boggling, even when it’s slow:

I‘ve noticed that the older a continuously-used genre is, the more complex it tends to become. For instance, in traditional Celtic music in the last 40 years or so, elements have been introduced from rock, pop, and other ethnicities, and players have also invented new techniques and written new tunes that are beautiful brain-teasers. An obvious example is that even some staid bagpipe bands play a tune called The Clumsy Lover which, although not as complex as some modernly played Celtic tunes, has a Reggae feel to its quirky rhythm and is not part of the historical tradition. And it’s a great tune:

I cringe when I hear someone call Celtic music “quaint” or “simple”. Obviously they’re not hearing the subtle variations or the ornamentations that make it truly traditional and define the genre, and they aren’t feeling what this music evokes. Or perhaps they’re learning all their “Celtic” music from a book. You can’t do that exclusively and expect it to sound right  –  it might be very pretty, but it won’t be Celtic. All the nuances that are up to the player just can’t be written into notation. You have to know how to add them in yourself, preferably automatically and habitually. This only comes with years of hearing and playing the music with others who are intimately knowledgeable in the genre.

Here is an example of Piobreachd, an ancient tradition in Scottish bagpiping in which the tune is played repeatedly but with more and more added ornaments each time. (If you wish to skip to the more ornamented part, go to about 6:45)

I love hearing harper/singer Seumas Gagne say “You can’t learn a musical genre well unless you learn to speak the language”. He’s referring to Scots Gaelic, which he speaks fluently and also teaches. Although I don’t speak Gaelic, I do think one has to immerse oneself in a culture before assuming they can really play that culture’s music. I notice that I can really “get” Spanish and South American music, Celtic music, and Appalachian music because I have studied those cultures all my life. On the other hand, I love hearing Bulgarian and Swedish and Greek and Mongolian music too, but I can’t pretend to learn to play them well; I know next to nothing of those cultures.

Another good example of what one might not hear without listening closely is how in French Medieval music the tunes sound simple at first hearing, but in fact this music is subtly complex (that’s not an oxymoron). Listen to these links on You Tube:

To understand a genre, it’s a good idea to listen to live performances. I used to hate Bluegrass music until I heard it live  –  now it’s one of my favorite styles.  It’s the complex side of Southern American music; playing bluegrass well music well requires great skill.

On the other hand, with banjo at least, there is a contrasting style: mountain “clawhammer” banjo traditionally was zone-out music, even when it was fast. You have to play it to really feel what I mean, but below are links to examples of a slower and a faster piece. As you can see, the faster piece is almost as mesmerizing as the slower one. This style developed in the remote mountains of Appalachia where farming was tough because the ground was rocky and the fields steep. After a day of farming, people just wanted relax with something that produced theta brain waves (though I’m sure that’s not how they would have described it).

A big mistake would be to open a book of music notation that says “Bluegrass Tunes” or “Celtic Tunes” or whatever, and think that because you are playing the notes you are playing in the style. Aside from the fact that some books are not written by people who are truly masters of their stated style, you just can’t notate all the nuances of a style. They can only be learned by integrating them through many, many hours of listening and, ideally for traditional and ethnic musics, also learning by ear at least to some degree. And if you want to get really good at it, study with a master of that genre. Whatever you do, don’t give up  –  sure, it takes time and focus, but the journey is ninety percent of the fun.

Immersing yourself in the culture from which a style of music arose makes a huge difference in how you appreciate it and how you play it. Studying everything you can about what, specifically, makes a genre unique will give your music that “certain something” that sets it apart from just playing notes correctly. It’s worth the effort, and can have a very positive effect on how well your practicing drives your skill level forward. Try it  –  you’ll enjoy it!

Laurie Riley – Reprinted with permission from Laurie Riley’s Music Blog

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