Categories and “Classical” Music – A Response to “Convergenre: Music in the Age of Adaptation”

Deutsche Telecom telephone cardIn his article for the December edition of OPENWIDE, Samir Kashyap coins the term convergenre. This portmanteau describes the convergences that have occurred relatively recently among a number of different genres. After providing some examples of this trend, he questions the suitability of genre-based boundaries by asking, “at what point does it become difficult or even unnecessary to define music?” This piece builds upon such a notion by discussing the construction of genre, and by proffering that even so-called “classical” music plays a role in convergenre as well.

Pragmatically speaking, one cannot deny that genre-based categories still maintain some veneer of integrity. Originally designed for sound recording collections in libraries, the Alpha-Numeric System for Classification of Recordings (ANSCR) provides an example of a system for organizing “physical” formats, with an emphasis on the primacy of genre. On sites like and YouTube, collaborative filtering algorithms provide the basis for recommender systems. While not based on genre per se, they end up mimicking such tendencies.

Greenwich Library's compact disc collection

Despite genre’s pervasiveness, no universal standard actually exists for it. As Aucoutuier and Pachet mention, the total numbers of genres and subgenres, as well as the hierarchical structures of web-based taxonomies on various music-related websites, can vary quite a bit. Beyond such formal systems, a particular habitus that associates itself with recondite musical tastes might possess its own way of categorizing music. Within those contexts, the conventions of more mainstream top-down genre-based systems don’t apply, and “poseurs” risk exposure.

John Cusack and Jack Black in

Musical tastes can act as a signifier of one’s social status, which might account for some of genre’s staying power. Nonetheless, individual listeners can have musical knowledge, experience, and tastes that transcend genre-based categories. For those who have the access and inclination, new information communication technologies enable them to sample (in all senses of the word) music from a variety of genres.

Imagine a classical music listener who doesn’t enjoy all classical music, and who might actually prefer to find a piece from a “very different” genre that somehow reminds them of a favourite composition or composer. Even if they don’t possess the technical vocabulary to explain the parameters of what they’re seeking, they might be thinking of similarities that derive from some combination of a piece’s key, tempo, melodic contours, chords, and numerous other musical traits. Extramusical traits like lyrics, “aboutness,” and affective response (whether emotional, physiological, or both) could act as additional factors.

In discussing convergenre, it’s significant that Kashyap goes as far back as The Beatles’ usage of the sitar in their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles also became one of the first rock bands to receive keen interest from personalities typically associated with “classical” music, such as conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Furthermore, composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, perhaps best known for his work in “electronic” music, appears in the back row of faces on the album’s cover.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club BandIn The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross provides an account of how this came about. Paul McCartney wanted to incorporate Stockhausen-like aural effects into the band’s Indian-influenced “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from their 1966 album Revolver. The composer’s appearance among numerous other mugs on Sgt. Pepper acted as a way of acknowledging his influence.

Listed below are the pieces Ross cites as McCartney’s inspiration:

More broadly, Stockhausen acts as one conduit between “classical” and other music realms. Admiration of him by musicians in other genres, including Miles Davis and Björk, reinforce his cross-genre appeal. Another admirer was Beatles contemporary Frank Zappa, whose infamous reputation derived to some extent from his seemingly undisciplined interest in mashing together a variety of genres. David Bowie is another example of a musician who has drawn upon “classical” musicians for inspiration. One of them was Philip Glass, who returned the favour by composing the “Low” Symphony in 1993 as a tribute to Bowie’s 1977 album. Like Stockhausen, however, Glass isn’t typically associated with a traditional “classical” sound. The Late Romantic composer Richard Strauss, whose 1948 collection of songs Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) acted as an inspiration for Bowie’s 2002 album Heathen, seems much closer. To bring out their affinities, and perhaps what Bowie had in mind, I recommend listening to both of the following clips together (with some slight timing and volume adjustments).

Some musicians go even further back, bringing about such seemingly improbable confluences as Baroque and heavy metal. Nonetheless, Robert Walser’s article “Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity” provides solid evidence of such interactions. He also gives a broad overview of the incorporation of “classical” elements into rock music. Sgt. Pepper has a cameo, as do a number of progressive and art rock acts that emerged around the same time. Walser mentions jazz, too, which has interacted with the “classical” would almost as far back as the beginnings of the former. Ross discusses such interactions and cross-genre borrowings in great depth as well.

“Classical” music has had a long tradition of borrowing from folk music, too. At least in a broad sense, then, one could say that “classical” has always had strong ties with “popular” music. A fact obscured by various interests, whether for reasons of snobbery or reverse-snobbery. From that perspective, the kaleidoscopic and dizzying notion of convergenre is not a new one. If not in name, the phenomenon itself likely preceded the creation of genres.


Jason Neal is a third-year doctoral student in the Library and Information Science program. As one who shies away from shameless self-promotion, he encourages you to visit his blog on cross-genre similarities: Despite the name, it contains less German than the writings of Adorno.

One thought on “Categories and “Classical” Music – A Response to “Convergenre: Music in the Age of Adaptation”

  1. Pingback: What Is “Convergenre?” | Geheimnisvolle Musik

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