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I am researching about music genres but I am confused if instruments played in music help in determining its genre?

What could be the differentiating features in genre recognition of music?

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  • For all imaginable genres this may be impossible to answer. Even if I stop short of voting to close due to needs more focus narrowing the choice may also help getting more answers. – guidot Jan 17 at 19:44
  • It depends on how tight the sieve of the genre's definition is. A harp doesn't make a rock song not rock. A drum kit seems to turn Irish folk into country if you're not careful, especially if your bass is electric. A bassoon doesn't belong in a string quartet. Singing fifths instead of unisons and octaves makes Gregorian chant into organum. – JohnnyApplesauce Jan 20 at 15:33
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Yes and no.

It mostly depends on the age in which the genre was born, but it should be noted that some labels often used as "genres" are more vague "instrumentation-based" (and, technically, not actual genres): it's pretty obvious that "Opera" requires singers, "Symphonic" can't be played by a percussion duo, and "Electronic" cannot be done without electronic instruments.

It is true that, usually, a genre is defined by the instruments that generated and popularized it:

  • rock music generally has at least one of guitars, drums or voice;
  • baroque is specific to instruments of its age: for instance you cannot have "strict" baroque music played with saxophones (that doesn't mean that you can't play baroque music with them);
  • EDM is by definition electronic, so it should be done using at least some electronic instrument (drum machines, synthesizers, etc);

As long as the genre-era instruments are used, any instrument can be used even if it's not one that is generally associated with the genre:

  • you can have a string quartet in a rock band;
  • some symphonic music of the 20th century used electronic instruments (like the ondes Martenot used in the Turangalila symphonie by Messiaen);
  • a friend of mine plays harp in a jazz band;
  • you certainly won't have modern drums in a romantic symphony;

Things get a bit weirder in the modern genres: on one side, some genres are really "vague", and on the other hand there are hundreds of very fragmentized "microgenres", which are controversely strictly defined.

"Pop" music is more a concept than a genre, also defined by its intention other than its music. "Jazz" is more than a century old, and it's valid for New Orleans' music done with marching band instruments in the 1910s as well as when played with electronic instruments. I won't even try to talk about "Rock".

Some genres of electronic music are defined by the age (and instrumentation) of their composition: songs that sound as 80-90s pop are considered "retro-pop" if written after that period. Some metal sub-genres are defined by specific usage of drums and guitars that have more than 6 strings.
Some genres are even specific to the lyrics: consider Christian metal.

So, in summary, the genre can also be determined by the instruments, but instruments alone can not determine the genre.

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  • Thank you for such an explained answer :) Can you please list what other features can be used besides instruments? – developer101 Jan 17 at 14:48
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    @developer101 well, it's not easy, and there's no absolute "rule": more than "what" instruments are used, it's usually a matter of "how" they are played, both considered alone and in the context of the others. Rhythm plays an important role in defining genre of modern music: a steady 4/4 bass drum is usually more "dance-oriented", alternation and syncopation leads to more "rock-ish" feelings, as with distorted guitars that play "power chords" (tonic, fifth, no thirds); harmonic structure is also considered, as pop and rock are often based on very few chords, while other genres have more -> – musicamante Jan 17 at 15:17
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    complex and longer harmonic progressions. Jazz music often has long progressions of chords rarely used in other genres. The whole structure is also a valid hint: pop music is generally based on 2-3 short and alternated sections (chorus, verse, bridge, etc) based on repetitions of few simple chords, as most rock music is (but pop usually has more lighter "tones"). Some groups of instruments are more typical of a genre (jazz, rock, latin music). There are dozens of aspects that could be considered, and that's also a reason for which identifying a specific "genre" is usually pointless :-) – musicamante Jan 17 at 15:26
  • I am questioning myself why I took this research topic. But your inputs are valuable. Thank You :) – developer101 Jan 17 at 15:39
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    @PiedPiper Tell it to ancient music fanatics who say that "if it's played with an 18th century violin, it's not baroque" ;-) Also, many classical and/or jazz enthusiast would even have harsh opinions on Loussier's music being one or the other... I know that baroque music played with modern instruments that didn't exist at the time is "still" baroque music (to some extent, actually: Tomita's or Gould's Bach renditions can hardly be considered "baroque" in the strict meaning of the genre), but that's exactly my point: genres are just approximate reference labels, beyond that they're pointless. – musicamante Jan 17 at 17:56
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My position is that genre comes from audience. Country is what Country fans listen to. Opera is what Opera fans listen to.

It isn't that Country is in 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4, and Rock can be in 4/4 and more odd meters because those are genre rules. Country is about social dancing and the dancers want songs they can dance to. Rock audiences are less about that and (dependent on subgenre) more willing to be musically challenged, so songs with odd meters, like "Whipping Post"'s 11/8 or "Turn It On Again" in 13/4.

The base Rock band has one or more guitars, one bass, one drummer and vocals. I can name Rock bands without vocals, without guitar and with two drummers, two bassists, keys, accordion, sax, various brass instruments, flute, mandolin, electric and acoustic violin, sitar, theremin and a long pipe and a propane torch, listed as a propane-o-phone. It is not limited by instrument.

Jazz is generally various brass instruments, a small drum kit, acoustic bass and piano. Some bands have lots of electric instruments. One band I know had tablas, classical guitar and oboe as the main instruments. It is not limited by instrument.

The genre whose instrumental choices seem most tightly constricted is Bluegrass. You should expect mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitar, banjo and acoustic bass. Bill Monroe has had accordion and snare drum on his recordings. It is not limited by instruments.

Composers know that audiences associate different instruments with different emotions and use that in their compositions. I feel that guitar can express melancholy, for example, but movie scores are more likely to use something like a french horn for that.

Genres are audiences and built on audience expectation.

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I would say it's the other way around. Instruments (weakly) determine genre. Given a piece of music, people like to classify into some specific genres. Sometimes based on the instrumentation. As mentioned before, a piano concerto needs a piano and a contrasting sound source, usually an orchestra.

Nevertheless, an orchestra playing "You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille" doesn't change it from a country waltz. (Using the melody as a symphonic theme does though. This is less common now due to copyright considerations.)

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