It happens, without fail, every time I carry an instrument in public. I’m usually at the airport. I’ll have a saxophone or a guitar strapped to my back because it’s too fragile to check underneath the plane. I ease it into the overhead bin and as I settle into my chair, the person seated next to me asks, with genuine warmth and curiosity, what type of music I play.
What type of music do I play? I’ve encountered this enough times that you would think I’d be prepared with a quick, easy answer. After all, people only ask out of interest and kindness, they are not expecting a discussion of aesthetic philosophy and music theory. I should just politely say, “rock” or “jazz” and ask them what they do. But the problem is, I (and most songwriters I know) don’t think of the music we make in terms of genre.
It’s not in any way wrong for a listener to view music like this. As a listener, I certainly do. And I’ve often found myself being the one asking that same exact question to other musicians, while simultaneously acknowledging it’s a near-impossible question to answer. Genre is how we talk about the end result of the musical process. The product. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg with the actual meaning and intention of the song living hidden beneath the surface.
As listeners, we engage directly with the end result. But as songwriters focused on the generative process, genre is essentially a byproduct much of the time. While there are certainly occasions where songwriters sit down and intentionally restrict themselves to the defining qualities of a particular genre (maybe writing for commercial purposes or a soundtrack), it’s far more common for a songwriter to start with an emotion, a story, an idea or a mood than to start by asking, “What genre am I going to write this song in?” While some stories or moods might strongly suggest a genre – the story of my girlfriend stealing my pickup from the rodeo might suggest a country genre, or a sultry mood might suggest cool jazz for example – most songs originate from the somewhat universal themes of love, loss, joy, etc… and could potentially be expressed in many different genres.
Shortly after the origin of inspiration for the song comes the melody, the chords and the words in some varying order. Most songwriters I’ve met follow their internal ear, a sound they are hearing in their heads. It’s entirely possible that this sound is a fully formed 1940s-style swing band or a death metal power trio, but if so, it’s usually more a factor of the songwriter’s tastes, influences and natural inclinations, than of consciously forcing the sound toward an already existing genre.
Instrumentation, tempo, and performance style are usually the very last elements to come into focus in the songwriting process, and these are the things that most define genre to the outside listener. A songwriter will think, “Too much melody and harmony will get in the way of these elaborate lyrics I’ve got. I just need a straight-forward beat with a lot of open space to deliver these lines,” and we as listeners will hear rap. Or they might think, “This song needs an explosive, driving beat and extremely distorted guitars to really express the frustration of the lyrics, which should definitely be screamed at top volume,” and we’ll hear punk.
Every songwriter is also a listener. We have all, consciously and unconsciously, internalized elements of various genres we listen to. A songwriter’s final product is a unique combination of intention, influence and ability.
Genre is a functional shorthand, and of course it’s normal to traffic in abbreviations when we’re just having a quick, polite exchange with a stranger. I have asked this very question of others many times despite myself. So, what type of music do I play? I guess it depends how much time you have to chat.