Why Composers Should Break Free of Genre Constraints

I write music. Some of it is more electronic, some of it is written for instruments, much of it is a combination of the two. Some of it is light-hearted and off-kilter, some of it dark and immersive. It kinda runs the gamut, for better or worse.

Notice I didn’t even mention a genre in that paragraph.1 Because the truth is, talking about music in terms of genre can be more harmful than helpful sometimes.

Genre can be really useful for finding music or describing it in a couple of words. If you like atmospheric, melodic, hazy, beat-driven electronic music, then sure, go ahead and Google “chillwave” and you’re likely to find some stuff that’s up your alley.

But one thing that’s been driving me crazy in the world of hopeful-game-and-film-composers is when someone says “here’s an epic orchestral track” or “here’s my latest chiptune” track. And it happens all the time. It’s like they have a checklist of the most trope-y kinds of portfolio tracks.

The problem with this is these genre descriptors don’t tell anyone else anything about what makes your music unique, and even worse, could tell me that your music is very generic. If I a game developer, I would be a bit turned off when I saw those kinds of broad, generic descriptors.

Let’s look at a practical example: the music of Disasterpeace, one of my favorite video game musicians in recent years, makes music that might be described as “chiptune” at times. But to call the Fez soundtrack a “chiptune” soundtrack is to do it a grave disservice; it’s atmospheric, seemingly organic yet synthetic and bitcrushed, entrancing, emotive, at times minimalist, even groovy at a couple of moments. There’s so many words you can use to describe the soundtrack without even saying the words “chip” or “tunes.”

It’s even worse when someone describes the kind of music they write using just one genre. “I write epic orchestral music” is kind of cringe-worthy. I mean, yes, famous, successful, fantastic composers like Jason Graves often write “epic orchestral” music (but it also always sounds undeniably like Jason Graves). But that’s kind of the point; anyone can (try to) write music that fits the “epic orchestral” tag (to varying degrees of success). But what makes your music special when compared to the other “epic orchestral” stuff out there?

I’d love to see more composers, developers, and directors describe their music using more specific, emotive descriptors and palette. I somewhat recently had a great experience working with film director John Portanova on Valley of the Sasquatch; he was fantastic at talking about the kind of music he was looking for. “A strong, memorable theme,” “a sense of scale and adventure.”2 He talked about the kinds of instruments he wanted to hear (and didn’t want). It gave me a vivid picture of the kind of movie he was making, and made it much easier to craft a score that fit his vision.

If the music you’re writing is generic, then maybe it’s time to take a look at the way you write and think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Instead of writing a generic Inception ripoff, think about what you want your music to accomplish (maybe convey scale, pounding-heart intensity and action), and think about some other ways you can accomplish those goals.

I certainly don’t mean to insult anyone that’s done this kind of thing; in fact, I’m all but certain I have at some point. But I think using more specific and individualized descriptions to talk about our music would help all of us composers stand out a little bit, show what we all have to offer as individuals, and say exactly what we want to say with our music, rather than getting lost in a crowd of “chiptunes” and “epic cinematic symphonic”-ness.3

  1. I mean, I guess you could consider “electronic” a genre, but it’s kind of uselessly broad.

  2. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but I do remember he used at least most of those words!

  3. James Bordner wrote a very helpful couple of great, quick articles on Gamasutra about how non-musicians can talk about music in more helpful terms. I highly recommend them!

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