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  • Writer's pictureSheldon Kessel

The Supergenre Theory

As an undergraduate music composition student studying under Henry Gwiazda I became intrigued by an entire world of music I never knew existed. As part of my private lessons Dr. Gwiazda had me listen to music he thought I would benefit from hearing. This music included everything from singer-songwriter types like Bob Dylan, to classics such as the Beethoven string quartets, to music I had no way of classifying or comprehending. These listening experiences were the beginnings of my explorations into the labeling and interpreting of musical genre classifications. Over the years my ideas have evolved into a broad all-encompassing genre labeling scheme which takes the form of a tree -- a taxonomic or genealogical-type tree. At the top of the tree is music -- just music. That is, organized sound, organized in any possible way. From this basic starting point of simply music, the first division is into, what I label, the three Supergenre Systems. The Supergenre Systems are Art Music, Improvisational Music, and Popular Music. These large divisions occur due to their broad musical and socio-musical differences. Making sense of these broad categories is a primary goal for this blog. Stay tuned to future posts for more information about them. The labels of Art Music, Improvisational Music and Popular Music seem to be more controversial than any perceived problems in creating the divisions. There is a perceptual problem with the "art" and "popular" labels, as if they are qualitative terms rather than categorical ones. I am in no way suggesting that Art Music is in some way more "artistic" than Improvisational or Popular musics. Nor do i suggest that in labeling a music as Popular music makes it appeal to a wide audience. ...and Improvisational does not suggest lack of coherent structure. All three are simply labels for making sense of this world of organized sound. On a superficial musical level, the three Supergenre Systems seem fairly clear. Art Music, as a label, takes the place of numerous constrictive synonyms such as "classical," "new music," "contemporary-classical," "chamber music," "Romantic opera," etc. to create an all-encompassing category for music which follows the western "serious" music tradition of following composers' intentions through written instructions. Popular Music could be seen as nearly the opposite of Art Music as it is transmitted primarily through oral tradition, tends to be simpler in form than Art Music and typically does not require formal training to become fluent in its musical language or technique. Improvisational Music is just that - improvisational. Improvisational music may have a general skeletal structure specified but it is primarily created as it is performed. With these very general definitions of my Supergenre Systems, and your prior notions of musical genre in mind. Check out these examples and try to decide how you might categorize and label them.

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