Notes: categories 7/26/10

[This is the first in a series of notes on various topics that I’m posting bit by bit, rather than waiting until I have accumulated a whole battery of related material (which can take quite a long time) before posting on the larger topic. This one’s on categories — folk categories, technical categories, scientific categories, ad hoc categories, etc. — and the associated labels.]

In assembling an iTunes playlist of versions of the American gospel/folk song “How Can I Keep From Singing?” I’ve been bowled over by the variety of Genre labels assigned to the tracks I’ve chosen. When I had 14 tracks on the list (there will eventually be 17, out of the 100+ available), there were 9 different categories labeled in the Genre column:

Christian & gospel
New Age

How does this happen?

I gather that there’s a master list of genres provided by the company (Gracenote) that maintains the database of relevant information. A user of iTunes registers some classification from the list, which is then provided on iTunes thereafter, though later users can change genre labels on their own machines (as I have done a number of times when I found a label just too wrong to put up with).

That is, we have technical taxonomy here, with some ad-hoc characteristics: “soundtrack” is a useful label for some purposes, as is “singer/songwriter”, but neither labels a type of music; instead, the first labels the source, the second labels the artist.

In addition, the taxonomy is applied by users, rather than authorities or experts, which makes it akin to “user-generated” taxonomies in other spheres. Users fairly often choose labels that are more appropriate to the artist (“classical”, “pop”, “New Age”, “rock” in the list above) than to the performance style of the particular piece of music in question.

Finally, some classifications (“easy listening” is one, though it doesn’t happen to appear on the list above) really label function. The “Christian & gospel” classification is likely to be used that way, as a label for music whose function is to praise God or Christ, regardless of its musical style.

The result is a peculiar hodge-podge of labeling, and I haven’t even mentioned the fuzzy category boundaries at issue here.

“Amazing Grace” is just as bad.

[material added 7/27:]

For 32 tracks on my two AG playlists, there are 13 Genres (I’ve boldfaced the two obvious categorizations):

gospel & religious
classical [Joel Cohen & the Boston Camerata]
world [Ladysmith Black Mbazo]
rock [Elvis Presley; Jerry Garcia]
country [Willie Nelson]
jazz [New Orleans Saxophone Ensemble]
blues [Leadbelly]
inspirational [Mahalia Jackson]
unclassifiable [Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, on bagpipes]
alternative [Ani Difranco]
singer/songwriter [Judy Collins]
R&B [Aretha Franklin]

It becomes clear that a lot of these labels are supplied by the companies that make the recordings, so it’s much like the classified section of the (U.S.) Yellow Pages (the physical object) these days, with a bewildering profusion of categories. (More later on the Yellow Pages, with reference to athletic shoes, dinnerware, and more.)

2 Responses to “Notes: categories 7/26/10”

  1. Ned Deily Says:

    Two of the more unusual among my iTunes genres:

    ATC [= Air Traffic Control]
    Almighty [= Almighty Records, a British dance music label]

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Now that I have all 17 of the tracks I was aiming for, there are 10 Genres. The St. Philips Boy’s Choir (don’t fuss at me; that’s the way it’s punctuated by Gracenote) rendition is categorized as Holiday (where the holiday in question is Christmas, all through the year).

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