Musical Genres

The following musical genres are ones that I am already quite familiar with:


As someone who learnt the piano as a child and also now plays the cello in an amateur symphony orchestra, I have had a lot of exposure to ‘Western art music’ and enjoy listening to many composers, particularly Romantic and early 20th Century (Chopin, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Ravel etc.).  This is the genre I am probably the most familiar with, and the one that I spend most time both listening to and playing.

Contemporary Classical

Other than some very famous ‘mainstream’ composers such as John Rutter (whose music I sung in choirs as a child), Karl Jenkins and John Williams, this genre is quite a recent discovery for me.  I have listened to some works as part of my background research for Composing 1 (e.g. Steve Reich and Michael Torke), and am looking forward to learning more about the development of contemporary classical music.

Early Music

As with the Classical genre, I have been exposed to Early music through my own playing, particularly of Baroque music (e.g. Bach’s cello suites), and find the historically informed interpretations very interesting.  I am less familiar with Renaissance and earlier music, but have listened to some and was quite surprised at the beauty and complexity of some 16th century madrigals.


There’s something appealing about the idea of a country having their own traditional music which is passed down orally through the generations.  I’ve recently moved to Scotland and was taught a ‘tune’ this way by a folk fiddler friend, which was a lot of fun.  It shares a common feature with jazz – that of improvisation – a skill I am yet to learn!


Jazz, like Classical, covers such a wide range of styles, and although I do like it as a genre, I feel that I am only really familiar with a very small part of the spectrum.  I have listened to and enjoyed music by famous ‘classic’ jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Duke Ellington; I particularly love the big band type of orchestration and upbeat swing music, but also enjoy more low key, sultry jazz.

Musical Theatre

I have seen just a handful of musicals, (‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Cats’ spring to mind) – it’s not my favourite genre, possibly because I find some of the popular songs to be not very musically interesting.  At school I remember being tortured by the repetitiveness of ‘Any dream will do’ from the West End show ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’.  Possibly I would enjoy the less popular ones more!


I have been to quite a few live opera performances, including La Traviata, La Boheme, Carmen, L’elisir d’Amore and Die Zauberflote.  I’m not a particularly huge fan of the operatic style of singing or recitative, but I love the intense emotion of the arias.  Again, this genre covers a huge range of musical styles – the music of a Mozart opera is radically different from one by Puccini or Wagner.


I have never been a particular ‘follower’ of pop music, other than perhaps a very short phase as a teenager in the 90s, however it’s virtually impossible to not be exposed to it in some form or other.  As a child I used to enjoy listening to my parents’ records from the 60s and 70s (mostly The Beatles), now I don’t actively listen to it at all.  Pop music for me has an instant association with the time it was written, and I think can say a lot about the social and cultural context.


I think I first became exposed to soul music through my parents, who were teenagers in the 1960s when Motown started to become popular.  I like the ‘feel good’ style of Aretha Franklin’s and James Brown’s music, and the catchy rhythms and bass lines of songs like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’.

To explore some of the genres I am less familiar with, I have listened to some examples of Rap, R’n’B, Rock and Techno Music.


Music in every day life

Below is a log of all the music I was exposed to in my day to day life for a week.  It was interesting to notice just how much music is around us all the time, although we are often not aware of it.



Purpose and my reaction

Telephone call  Jazz  This upbeat, ‘happy’ music was played to me over the phone while on hold.  Normally this sort of music goes quite unnoticed, although I can sometimes get irritated when the same short segment of music is repeated over and over again in this situation.
Ice cream van  Children’s popular song A fairly simple purpose – to let people know the ice cream van has arrived!  A very mundane every day occurrence that normally I wouldn’t even notice.  It can sometimes have the effect of bringing back memories from my childhood.
In the gym  Pop The purpose seems to be to motivate people for their exercise routine, but the majority of people bring their own music to listen to anyway.  I not only don’t enjoy the music played there, but can’t wait to leave to get away from it!  You can also frequently hear several different songs playing at the same time (on the gym floor and in the studio classes), which I find extremely distracting.
Aeroplane  Ambient On a flight back from a short trip to Amsterdam, I noticed music being played on the plane as it was being prepared for take-off.  I think this is designed to relax and calm passengers, and I’ve described it as ‘ambient’ as it was very much background music, extremely repetitive with not much in the way of melodies that you could extract from it.
TV  Theme I’m not a big TV watcher, the main music I noticed in this context was the intros to programs such as the BBC news.  This sort of music sets the mood for the particular program it is written for, so in the case of the BBC news it has a very urgent, serious feel.
Radio Classical My main exposure to radio music is in the car on the way to work (often radio 3).  My experience of the music is very much affected by the situation – e.g. whether there is somebody with me, or if I am thinking about the day ahead.  Sometimes it is just in the background and I am not too aware of exactly what is being played, and other times I am listening quite intently.
Theatre  Operatic Donizetti’s opera ‘L’elisir d’amore’ is a comedy, designed to entertain the audience.  The music is an essential part of the performance as in opera almost all of the story is conveyed through song.  I really enjoyed listening to it, and the music was at different times lyrical, emotional and comic.  I also particularly enjoyed the live aspect of the music; being close to the performers and seeing their expressions and movements adds another dimension.
Mobile phones  All sorts I must have heard at least half a dozen different mobile phone ring tones.  They have a very simple purpose, but these days you can find almost any kind of music being used, from TV show themes to classical melodies.  The effect on me is often one of annoyance, especially if I hear the same tune being repeated over and over again!
Orchestra rehearsal Classical This is one situation where I am actually taking part in making the music – in this case as a cellist in my local symphony orchestra.  It requires a much more focused relationship with the music, involving both technical concerns (what fingering to use etc) and interpretation (where are the climaxes, how loudly or softly to play, and the interaction between the different sections of the orchestra).  This is one of the most rewarding experiences of music for me.

What is Music?

I’ve been studying music in some way or another for such a long time now, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually asked myself the question, what exactly is music?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of music definition is an interesting starting point:

the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.

My initial thought on this definition is that music for me doesn’t need to satisfy all of these criteria.  I think it’s possible for music to be beautiful in its own right, in a very abstract way, without needing to express a particular human emotion.  The same piece of music can also evoke very different emotions in different listeners, or in the same listener at different times, and maybe none at all in some.

Equally I think it would be hard to describe some twentieth century music as having beauty of form and harmony; some of Stockhausen’s music comes to mind (although other people would disagree).  Much of today’s pop music is so bland and repetitive to my ears that I think it also fails this test; however I would still call it music, just not good music.  The problem with this part of the definition is that beauty is fundamentally subjective.

In some ways we are continually pushing the boundaries of what people traditionally think of as music – John Cage’s composition entitled 4’33” consists only of silence and background sounds.  I struggle to match this up with my own concept of what music is and it reminds me of recent movements in the visual arts, as seen in examples such as Tracy Emin’s work ‘My Bed’ (an actual physical bed, shortlisted for the Turner prize). Such works might convey an emotion, or make a political or social point of some kind, but what is it that makes them art or music?  Perhaps we need different words.

When I think of music I tend to think of the three main building blocks – rhythm, melody and harmony (all of which are lacking in John Cage’s composition).  I think my personal definition of music requires at least one of these to be present; usually rhythm, which is a necessary precursor for melody even if it is only very simple.