2.5.1 Neil Young Got it Right: The Nature of Cultural
2.5.2 Here to Stay: The Language You Speak
2.5.3 Here to Stay: The Musical Genre You Work in
2.5.4 Knowing Something about "Foreign" Genres Will Help Your
~ • ~ • ~ • ~
My my, hey hey
Rock and roll is here to stay
YOUNG ("My My, Hey Hey")
It's not just rock 'n' roll that's here to stay. It's also hip-hop and jazz
A musical genre is a cultural infrastructure—something
so many people know about and support that it becomes a more or less permanent
artistic (or technological) fixture in the mainstream of society.
You cannot easily dislodge an infrastructure, even if you and a
lot of others would prefer something else in its place. Technological
infrastructures especially have monopoly characteristics. The
internal combustion engine and the Microsoft Windows operating
system are technological infrastructures. A lot of people don't
particularly like either of them. But, as is characteristic of
infrastructures, they stick around because so many people use
them, and alternatives have unappealing drawbacks (inconvenience,
lack of support, expense, etc.).
The language you speak is a cultural infrastructure. Everybody who
speaks the language you speak shares the same vocabulary (more
or less) and uses the same grammatical rules.
Artists working with language manipulate words and grammar to
create works of art such as novels, plays, and song lyrics.
Successful language artists innovate with words and grammar, but
preserve enough of the language's commonly-used vocabulary and
observe enough of its grammatical rules to ensure reasonable
As mentioned in Chapter 1, artists who break all the rules do not
communicate with anyone on any humanly accessible level.
If an artist working with language employs too much fractured
grammar and too many twists of vocabulary, the novel or play or
song lyric becomes incomprehensible. Without adequate adherence
to convention, audiences find the work inaccessible and simply turn
away from it, confused and irritated.
languages blend to form a new language, the new language tends to have a unique
identity with a unique vocabulary. Those who don’t know the language cannot
understand it until they learn the language, because words have referential
Not so with music.
several musical genres blend to form a new one (such as rock, originally a blend
of R & B and country), the new genre can easily be understood. You can recognize
a tune whether it’s played as a rock, jazz, or country arrangement because
musical notes do not have referential meaning.
Like languages, musical genres are cultural infrastructures.
Most musical genres, once established as infrastructures, do not
fade away (although, like some languages, some musical genres
have become extinct for various reasons. A couple of examples are
noted below). A musical genre functions something like a language.
Each musical genre has a particular set of stylistic elements, which
millions of songwriters and performers working in the genre observe.
These elements define a genre, just as vocabulary and grammatical
rules define a language.
An established genre does not go "out of date," any more than
an established language goes out of date. Musicians use various
technologies to create music, and those technologies go out of date.
New instruments and electronic gear render old gear obsolete. But
musical genres, being art forms and not technologies, do not
rock, for example, emerged in the 1970s. Today new punk bands are forming all
the time. Their members write new punk songs and record them on equipment that’s
different than the gear that existed in the 1970s. Moreover, when hip-hop and
electronic dance music came along, they did not replace punk.
with bluegrass. New bluegrass bands are constantly forming, performing and
recording both classic and new tunes in the bluegrass tradition. When bluegrass
was “invented” in the 1930s and 40s, it did not replace traditional country
music. Neither did “new country,” a couple of generations later.
All of this applies to every major genre and sub-genre: heavy
metal, hip-hop, jazz, blues, reggae, folk, electronica.
and performers create new genres and sub-genres of music all the time. Some
stick around and become cultural infrastructures, some don’t.
Listening to the great songs of other genres will spark your musical
imagination. You will be able to better envision how you could
incorporate elements from other genres into your own musical art,
the way language artists incorporate elements of style, grammar and
vocabulary from other languages into their works.
more you listen to, remember, and absorb at least a sampling of the best songs
of genres other than your own, the more likely you will be able to create a
unique body of original songs and a performing style that sounds like nothing
anyone's heard before. A sound that grabs the ears of audiences and holds them.
A signature sound and style (see Section 11.2).