Definition of Music Genres – Purposes, Difficulties and Confusion

If you listen to Dance music, you are not just listening to Dance music, but you often need to refine, which genres (Dance, House, Techno, Trance, Breaks, Hardcore…) and subgenres (e.g. within Trance: Uplifting Trance, Progressive Trance, Vocal Trance, Psy-Trance, Hardtrance, …) you prefer to be able to orientate in the ocean of available music and scenes.

The appearance of new music genres is an ongoing, never-stopping process. New sub-, sub-sub-genres and fusion of (sub-)genres occur again and again, which can cause confusion. But why do new genres constantly come up? I have done some research in this topic, during my PhD studies, which I examine in this blog post. Click “read more” to see the full article:

In general, definitions of genres and subgenres are a difficult task, because the definition of a genre can vary from community to community, and genres are evolving constantly. A musical genre is defined by its characteristics or criteria, which are ascribed and acknowledged by a community. Their definitions are connected with codes, which support the communication in communities and identification of musical events, such as songs and artists (Kirss 2007). Therefore, the problem to define a genre is its subjectivity. An artist can be categorised in different genres, depending on who makes this definition. German well-known artist Paul van Dyk calls his own music ‘Electronic Dance Music’; in media, retail and by his fans he is categorised as ‘Trance’ artist. Consumers, who are not involved in electronic music scene, often call electronic music as ‘Techno’ or ‘Dance’, which are two generic terms for the entirety of electronic dance music (Kirss 2007).

Consumers also use genres as an affiliation to a social group (McLeod 2001), or as a help to create and express their identity (Lena and Peterson 2008). Sordo et al. (2008, p. 1) state that “emotional, cultural and social aspects influence our music understanding”. Genre definitions also enforce the gate-keeping mechanism of those social communities for new members, because they have to know the codes of the particular scene (McLeod 2001). Lena and Peterson (2008) divide genre types in four origin categories from a sociological perspective, which are either avant-garde, scene-based, industry-based or traditional. Their determined electronic music genres (Techno, House, Jungle) derive from an avant-garde and scene-based origin.

McLeod (2001) determines that the appearance and establishment of new genres and subgenres may be reasoned either in:

  • Stylistic evolution: the new genre is stylistically different to other existing genres
  • Marketing issues: New genres can rather be marketed as ‘the next big thing’ than old genres can do. Therefore, the definition of a new genre may help to promote the more or less innovative new genre
  • Cultural differentiation: Genre terms help to differentiate them from other genres, even if it is only a cultural differentiation, when the musical or stylistic differences are not sufficient to divide these genres.
  • Or as an example of accelerated consumer culture: Electronic music is highly innovative. This also causes that consumers always expect new style and sound developments and innovations.

Kemp (2004) defines genres as a “’language’ or currency in musical, economic, technological and other communities, and genres enable users or members of the community to communicate efficiently and effectively in musical determination and dialogue” (Kemp 2004; p. 21).

Music genres and definition are constantly changing and evolving, which complicates its concrete definition (Kemp 2004; St John 2009). Sordo et al. (2008) refer to a review by McKay and Fujinaga (2006) that rather music genres can be used to describe artists than categorising and sorting the music itself. Sordo et al. (2008) investigate the agreement between expert and consumer definitions of electronic music and conclude that the definitions of these two groups do not match as much as other genres. This may be caused by the numerous genres and sub-genres in electronic music, in comparison to other genres. The occurrence of a high number of subgenres is linked to the development of the music itself, but also to the other reasons mentioned above by McLeod (2001).

Therefore, it can be concluded that the purpose of genre definitions can be differentiation from other genres (either forced by artists, consumers or marketing). The difficulties are that music genre definitions are highly individual, which may cause confusion among participants from diverse backgrounds. However, mass media and especially the Internet support the communication and information about music among artists, media channels, consumers and industries, which may help to establish common genre definitions.


References in this article for more information:

Kemp, C. (2004). Towards a holistic interpretation of music genre classification [Online]. University of Jyväskylä. Available from

Kirss, P. (2007). Audio based genre classification of Electronic Music [Online]. University of Jyväskylä. Available from

Lena, J. and Peterson, R. (2008). Classification as Culture: Types and Trajectories of Music Genres. American Sociological Review [Online]. Vol. 73; pp. 697-718

McKay, C. And Fujinaga, I. (2006). Musical genre classification: Is it worth pursuing and how can it be improved. In: 7th International Conference on Music Information Retrieval. Proceedings of ISMIR 2006 Conference. University of Victoria. 8th – 12th October 2006. Available from

McLeod, K. (2001). Genres, Subgenres, Sub-Subgenres and more: Musical and social Differentiation within Electronic/Dance Music Communities. Journal of Popular Music Studies [Online]. Vol. 13, pp. 59-75. Available from

Sordo, M. et al. (2008). The quest for musical genres: Do the experts and the wisdom of crowds agree? [Online]. ISMIR 2008 – Session 2c – Knowledge Representation, Tags, Metadata. Available from

St John, G. (2009). Editor’s Introduction. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Music Culture [Online]. Vol. 1 (1); pp. III-VI. Available from

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