Culturally Situated and Image-based Genre Attribution

Genre recognition has become the holy grail of music information retrieval. What concerns me, before we worry about machine recognition of musical genre, is whether people can agree at all on what genre means, and what the various genres are. Wikipedia, Echonest, and many other sites (some now defunct) have put forth excellent information on various musical genres and their relationships to one another. My critique of the genre discussions I have encountered to date falls into two categories. One is the (necessarily, and not surprisingly) culturally narrow perspective of most work on musical genres. The other is the role non-aural, non-audio features play in the determination of genre. (These can be metadata, like release dates, or even more [sub]culturally determined information such as the clothing style of the artists.)

Let’s take the problem of narrowly culturally situated efforts first. There have been a variety of impressive resources on the Internet about the sub-sub-sub-genres of electronic music and of extreme metal. There is a wonderful degree of detail provided in these Web resources. However, the effort put into very subtle distinctions among “northern-based” musics (anything we typically understand as pop music, plus the folk and court musics of northern Europe and North America**)  is rarely, if ever, matched by the knowledge available, perhaps, in English, on musics from other countries. We typically find some half a dozen genres listed for Brazil, Mexico, Japan, or Cuba, and far fewer for China, Turkey, Belize, Honduras, or Mali. This is a typical case of out-group bias, which is easy to understand; all people are subject to out-group bias. The importance of understanding biases lies in the effort to move beyond them. Are the differences among Xote, Brukdown, Özgün Müzik, and Guarapachangeo less significant than the differences between Goa Trance and Happy Hardcore, or Grindcore and Power Violence?*** Of course not, but who can know every little detail about the impossibly rich musical landscape of every culture? (That’s why we need multi-cultural teams to work on genre recognition and classification.)

The other issue is one I am only aware of in terms of “northern” (western) popular forms of music, and it is the issue of image-based, fashion-based, temporal, and geographical genre attribution. In many cases, the clothes worn by rock and pop artists seem to determine their musical genre more than the sounds created and organized into musical works by those artists. For example, Billy Idol and Avril Lavigne are thought of as Punk Rock artists. Yet, and even without appealing to DIY ethics and political content, we can tell from the aural experience that these artists make (or have made) something sufficiently aurally distant from the music of CRASS, pragVEC, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, or BAD RELIGION, and that theirs are genres well removed from Punk Rock. (The artists listed do not all sound the same, but they share the elements of disaffected vocals, a lack of polish, and an overall dark despair with one another and with bands as far removed from them as Joy Division, The Paper Chase, Depeche Mode, and Sleater-Kinney, all of which have more sonic elements in common than they do with Idol or Lavigne.)

What makes the problem further difficult is that genre names are rarely descriptive, and all too often temporally and geographically limiting. Consider the genres NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), New Wave, Nü (new) Metal, Grunge, and Old-School Hip Hop.

Quite apart from the problem that “New Wave” actually has at least three different meanings, it is sonically possible (and common) for an artist making music thirty years after the end of the era attributed to one of these genres to make music with the same structure, affectation, instruments, sounds, and production. Which should we consider in determining genre: the year of release or the way the music sounds? New-millenial bands like Titanium Black and The Haunted, and even punk-rockers like Saviours, often play a flavor of Metal that sounds just like NWOBHM, but we are not supposed to call them that if they are from a different time, and especially, a different place. Likewise, ACCEPT and SCORPIONS (from Germany) sometimes played the same type of music, stylistically speaking, as Judas Priest, DIO, and IRON MAIDEN, but since they’re not British, we cannot refer to their music as NWOBHM. Or can we? Is it not the sounds and how they are organized that matters in determining music? (I think so.) Can anyone really tell, in a blinded listening test, whether a rhythm guitarist is German or British?

The Union Underground was a Metal band that had some success during the Nü Metal years. They had the look and the album art to be part of that era and that genre. However, listening to their music in 2008, I could not help but notice that the singing style really had little to do with Nü Metal, and quite a lot to do with Grunge, which was declared over by that time. As far as I can tell, no one talked of TUU as a late Grunge band.

An interesting pair that got me thinking further about image- and time-based genre attribution are Corrosion of Conformity and VOIVOD. Originally starting out in very disparate genres, in the farthest reaches of Hardcore Punk and Prog Metal, these two diverged in their music until their releases of the albums ‘KATORZ’ (by VOIVOD) and ‘CORROSiON OF CONFORMITY’ (by CoC, of course) in the late aughts. I find it nearly impossible to tell these two albums apart stylistically (though each is quite distant from the bands’ earlier output). When I saw CoC perform at Dante’s in Portland, they presented a marvellous synthesis of Prog agility and Punk attitude. (These two were not meant to go together, but it’s happening more and more.) Meanwhile, VOIVOD apparently drifted further and further into Punk Rock, and lost most of their Prog intricacies. Yet, if I were to stick to “what we know those bands to be,” I would be forced to attach opposite labels to songs from those two albums, which, even when I’m looking right at the readout on my display and know what I’m hearing, sound the same to me.

I mentioned Old-School Hip Hop above as well. Every now and then, you hear a new song, and it has that early, innocent flow we associate with everyone from The Jungle Brothers to MC Hammer. It’s old-school in that the time extents of rhythmic phrases in the vocals and the time extent of semantic phrases in the lyrics delivered by the same vocals coincide****.

Yet, maybe it was released in 2013. Yet, De La Soul was putting out music in 1989 that did not sound old-school; it was like what was going to happen ten years later. (I feel the same way about fu-schnickens’ 1992 album.) Some of the music in those old-school days was well ahead of its time, and some music that gets released even today brings back the old-school style. It’s the sound that counts, not the metadata.

There are many more examples, and perhaps better ones that I will add as I think of them, or hear them, but for now, I will conclude that, 1) genre studies and genre R&D need multi-cultural teams so that the level of attention to detail that is possible for Deep Psytrance vs. Gabber vs. New Romantic vs. New Wave will also be possible for ‘Bulgarian Rock’, ‘Hungarian Rock’, ‘Russian Pop’, and ‘Turkish Pop’. Sure, I’m glad someone in America even cares enough to put those on the map, but given the several hundred varieties of Electronica, Metal, and Hip Hop each, can we really believe there is only one variety of ‘Russian Pop’? (I know for a fact there are quite a few styles and genres within Turkish Pop.*****)


* Yet, no matter how much detail each scholar, researcher, developer, or enthusiast goes into, it is likely to prove insufficient for the afficionado of that sub-sub-genre. The Echonest blog (at recently included the following comment: “. . . somebody, somewhere might care about (e.g. “gothic metal” vs. “symphonic metal” vs. “gothic symphonic metal”).” Yes, somebody right here not only does, finds those to be rather obvious and relevant distinctions, which are further complicated by Nightwish’s recent experiments combining symphonic, power, and folk metal.

** Why I use the term “northern” rather than “western” will be the topic of another post.

*** Yes, these are real genre names. To a connoisseur who lives Grindcore, Power Violence may sound completely different, while to an outsider neither would be distinguishable from the earliest ’80s Thrash.

****As Hip Hop matured, it became less and less common for the sentence and its rhythmic phrase to start and end together. This seems to be a result of the recognition that rhythm allows one to rhyme with any syllable in a word, not just the last syllable. So, an MC who wants to rhyme, for instance ‘crime’ with ‘time’ does not need each sentence to end with one of those words; s/he can rhyme ‘crime’ with ‘time’ in a sentence that might go “It was that time [break here] I went off to the east coast” where ‘time’, due to rhythmic phrasing, took care of the rhyme, and the rest of the sentence could still be uttered. In much old-school Hip Hop, the semantic phrases had to end at the same rhythmic stopping point.

*****As for style versus genre, let me try a quick explanation. A guitarist can play the blues in a Be-Bop context, a Psych context, or a Funk context (to name a few), and an MC/toaster can rap on a Hip Hop song, a Reggaeton, a Rock or Metal song, or even in a piece of modern “classical” music. Similarly, a drummer can play funk, swing, or shuffle in a Jazz band, Rock band, Pop group, or an experimental combo. The elements these musicians bring in are styles (blues, rapping, funk, swing, shuffle), while the complete package of the musical experience will likely fall into a genre or subgenre, like Electro Swing, Funk Metal, Be-Bop, or Chorinho.

Impulse Response: Mendelssohn vs. Monobloco

Mathematicians and engineers gain insight into a system by examining its behavior at the extremes. Given a mathematical expression, we take limits as a variable approaches zero and infinity. This gives us insight that is helpful in between as well.

If it’s a filter (an electrical circuit), we get insights into the behavior of such a system, even one that may never be subject to extreme conditions, by calculating (or simulating) its impulse response[1] (among other techniques).

We can also gain insights into social or cultural systems by exercising them with questions at the extremes. Here is one that can help in thinking about a cultural issue that I have been pondering for about thirty years, and reading and writing about since 2002.

Consider Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff. You may not be a trained musician or a music professor; most people aren’t. You may not even know the music of these composers very well. However, I am willing to bet that you, the reader, hold at least some vague notion to the effect that these people have created the greatest music on Earth[2]. Everyone seems to agree that they cannot be topped. Oddly enough, people who never listen to the music of these composers seem to hold that opinion rather more strongly.

Now consider Badenya[3], Babatunde[4], Muñequitos[5], Monobloco[6], and Rose[7]. Do you believe that there is any measure by which not just you, but anyone in the world truly believes this group of five is comparable to the previous group of great Germanic and Russian composers?

If I had been nicer, and asked the question using The Beatles, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Rush, say, the politically correct instinct for diversity would likely kick in, and most people, at least in my collegiate, liberal, urban environment, would place the two groups on an equal footing. But I want to exercise the system of thought regarding “quality of music” to the extreme. Are you uncomfortable yet? Do you believe that the Afro-Latin B2M2R is really on par with the dead white European B2M2R? Do you want to, but cannot actually make yourself think or feel that way?

I think that is where most people are, or at least would be if they were interested in this question. I must admit this is much more of an old-world concern than a typical American one. Having been brought up in the old world, at the confluence of Asia and Europe, this question still matters to me after 26 years of American living. Perhaps it is my background that has given me this impression: Any Turkish person, even if they never listen to this type of music, will tell you that Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart made the greatest music in the world (closely followed by Queen . . . and who is this Mendel-something?), and that it is certainly of much better quality than what they listen to every day. This is the idea behind the differently attributed quotation, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.[8]

So, what am I doing about all this? As hinted at above, I have been compiling and researching scholarly material on value and judgment in music since 2002, and writing an article, a very early and embryonic version of which can be dug up by those of a worldy (wide web)-sleuth-like persuasion.

The article, in its current form, examines numerous music textbooks and reference books for qualitative and quantitative measures of the value attached to musics from different cultures, following a broad review of the musicology literature on quality, value, and sophistication. It establishes that there seems to be a cross-cultural baseline of expectation that the sophisticated cultivation of certain aspects of music are valued more highly than equally sophisticated cultivation of other aspects of music.

[1] “Impulse” sounds harmless, but it is a function that attains infinite magnitude in infinitesimal time, and as a direct result, contains all frequencies. (And yes, we can make use of such an abstract concept.)

[2] Perhaps it isn’t as popular as Beyoncé, The Beatles, Mariah Carey, or Lady Gaga, but we still, somehow, consider it the greatest.

[3] Badenya: les frères Coulibaly, a group of musicians from Burkina Faso

[4] Babatunde Olatunji, Nigerian (Yoruba) drummer influential on jazz and rock music of the last four decades

[5] Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, a famous rumba ensemble from Cuba

[6] Brazilian supergroup that pioneered a popular fusion of many traditional and popular styles

[7] Doudou N’Diaye Rose, Senegalese (Wolof) master drummer and ensemble leader

[8] For example, see .

The Bias–Variance Tradeoff

Just like in Statistics, machine-learning models (typically called hypotheses) can suffer from a bias–variance tradeoff where models with low variance (high stability, low variability) exhibit high bias (high likelihood of being far off the mark) whereas models with low bias (high chance of accuracy, low likelihood of being off) can exhibit high variance.

In US politics, conservatives “stay the course” even if it’s the wrong course, perhaps because to admit error is unpleasant. This is analogous to high bias and low variance. Progressives, on the other hand, may be seen considering the validity of mutiple (including opposing) viewpoints. This is considered flip-flopping (an instability of opinion, so high variance) that can lead to choosing a stance that is better supported by evidence (low bias).

These, of course, are not the only two options. In human affairs, the remaining combinations also exist, but rarely in technology.

[After-the-fact clarification: High bias and high variance is not difficult to find in human affairs: Being far off the mark, and wildly adjusting one’s position is not only not unusual, it’s also not a bad thing. Critical thinking requires adjusting one’s views. Whether such adjustment takes the form of a conscious, well-informed honing in or a wild, unprincipled random walk is not addressed by the bias–variance tradeoff. The consistent coexistence of low bias and low variance also occurs with people; those people are quite impressive. It is helpful to remember, for this case, that low variance does not mean no variance, so we can still expect self-critique and adjustment from those individuals.]

“Math is hard”: Math, Science, the Arts, and Humanist Spirituality

It is a false dichotomy that those who seek to understand nature without imposing on it their own wishes of how it ought to be cannot, then, appreciate the majesty of its beauty. This false dichotomy is distressingly commonly held among people who consider themselves spiritual, and worse, also by those who consider themselves the opposite.

The adjective has come to indicate a proper subset of the actual set of spiritual people. The set of all spiritual people includes the religious and the non-religious, the scientifically oriented and the unscientifically oriented, and all those who create or enjoy art. Instead, the commonly understood meaning today is one who prefers metaphysical explanations and vague feel-good explanations to the rigorous objective pursuit of truth. This is not necessary, and the scientifically and artistically oriented (humanists, in short) perhaps ought to claim their form of spirituality.

I say this because there can be genuine spirituality in honest, rigorous science. Note that there is a distinction between science and technology — a distinction that has been all but lost in the understandable environmental guilt (and accompanying desire to make up for the mistakes of the past) felt by many progressive people in the northern hemisphere. This distinction is also blurred by the existence of applied science and applied research in general, specifically in the case of chemistry, and, I’m told, by the day-to-day work of physicists and chemists in environmental analysis. Nonetheless, for the sake of clarifying a point in the issue of scientific spirituality, I ask that you bear with me and assume that science and technology are essentially distinct and different.

It appears to be the case that, drunken with the power of knowledge and of technological development, humans worldwide (especially in the developed nations) have brought various forms of environmental harm and extensive threats to human health … yet, all the while making great strides in the elimination of many human-health problems. I understand the desire to lash out at “science and technology” *, but I think it’s a fallacy to blame environmental destruction on science and scientists alone, and to confuse science with technology.

People choose, time after time and around the world, to put comfort or profit before caution, safety, and a sufficient understanding of the consequences of our actions. Is it not true that critics of fossil-fuel use, for the most part, continue to drive cars, ride motorcycles, or fly in airplanes? And if that is inevitable, how many are either working on or supporting the development of clean(er) or more sustainable technologies? **

Some people are, of course. And I even know many who give up certain fundamental comforts and amenities that all citizens of developed nations have come to take for granted—and which most citizens of developing nations look forward to. Nonetheless, such people are in the minority.

My point is that pointing the finger at “science and technology” is hypocritical. We are all responsible. What scientists and technologist have made possible would not have caused harm if people weren’t eager to use technology  in ways that cause harm (directly or indirectly).

Furthermore, scientists are people, too. They need to put food on the table. I expect that many, if not most, scientists would prefer to live in a world where curiosity about the universe was encouraged and funded, and future funding depended solely on merit, not on the applicability of research to corporate profits or defense. Can you imagine a world in which research in mathematics, pedagogy, or music-information retrieval with no defense or business potential would be awarded the same level of importance as research that promises great profits or great military advantage? (I can’t.) Scientists, mathematicians, researchers, doctors, and technologists need to make a living, just like baristas, acupuncturists, and civil servants. What I find most problematic about blaming “science and technology” alone for environmental destruction and other ills (and they certainly were to blame some of the time, to some extent) is that it leads to anti-science attitudes and even pseudo-scientific beliefs.

I lived for over seventeen years in a progressive city that prides itself on its liberal politics, its arts, and its (so-called) alternative medicine, which I call non-evidence-based/non-mechanism-based medicine. (Let’s just call it NEB.) The reasoning for many who pursue NEB either as a career or as their primary health-care choice is that it involves “holistic” care, which sometimes is indeed holistic, but mostly has come to mean wishy-washy or that something has its roots in non-dominant/global-southern cultures or deep in the past (before humans were such environmental bullies).

Aside from the fact that math, science, and critical-thinking are grossly neglected by many education systems — hence many people simply do not have the tools to understand what math or science are like —  I believe, based on my observations, that it is the need to turn away from the harmful effects and shameful colonial history of the global north’s dominant nations that fuels the preference for unproven, vague, and in some cases, impossible treatments just because they originated far in the past or in foreign countries.

Acupuncture, for example, is said to be from ancient China. It posits the existence of chi, and the meridians along which it flows. Chiropractic is based on the (alleged) innate intelligence of bones, and although it, like its cousin osteopathy and  like homeopathy, is of European origin, it is old enough*** to be considered attractive by those who feel the need to dissociate themselves from the evils of technology. (Yet, I don’t see them giving up their cars and smart phones.)

And, it is those individuals who most commonly claim spirituality as their exclusive domain. Otherwise progressive, fair-minded, usually educated people who buy “holistic” pet food and gluten-free everything are also the ones who prefer acupuncture, homeopathy, reflexology, and cranio-sacral therapy to “invasive” “allopathic” **** conventional therapy, the last adjective also being one calculated to sound boring, old-fashioned (ironically), and non-innovative.

The only other group to claim spirituality are the overly religious. Oregon is home to a branch of Christianity that requires faith healing alone to be used for health care. (Criminal cases related to this have been in the news several times in the past decade.) Various organizations have sponsored or carried out studies on the power of prayer to heal. All of this sometimes drives the mechanism-minded, evidence-minded, and the mathematically or logically minded to abandon the concept of spirituality to the pseudoscientific, the anti-scientific, and the heavily religious.

I was one of those spirituality-abandoners for many years. I allowed myself to be robbed of my true nature. Spirituality is not the sole domain of the wishful thinker or the tradition-follower. Science, mathematics, and the arts are spiritual pursuits: They reveal the beauty of nature and the human mind (which is part of nature anyway). One of the most harmful expressions I have ever heard is “Math is hard.” Most things worth pursuing are.

Being an athlete is hard. Carpentry is hard. Cooking (well) is hard. Prioritizing is hard. Learning to drive a car or ride a bicycle is hard. (Learning to drive a semi truck is harder.) Being an auto mechanic is hard. Being a nurse is hard. Raising kids is hard. Being a professional musician is really hard. The same people who typically claim that math is hard have no concomitant fear about going into and succeeding in these other areas.

“Math is hard” is irrelevant. Everything is hard. At least, to be good enough to make a living in anything is as difficult as in math. People who make a living by playing basketball, League of Legends, or the guitar are the ones who worked tirelessly on their passion through years of frustration and failure. Somehow, society (in America) seems to say that it is okay to strive to be successful in sports, business, law, medicine, or even music, but not in math, science, and technology (except for IT and programming, and except very recently… and those “STEM” efforts really don’t seem to be going anywhere).

This doesn’t make sense. First of all, STEM fields are supposed to be financially rewarding careers (and sometimes, they are). Secondly, the joy of science is more satisfying than of League of Legends. I say this because the joy of math is deeper than any other wordly pleasure, perhaps with the exception of deep intimacy. The joy of engineering is on par with the joy of music-making (though a little different) because both are centered on creating through problem-solving.

Those who have been able to unite in themselves a sense of awe for the arts and the sciences are sometimes called humanists. Part of this is to be able to appreciate in art those ideas and feelings that one may not give creedence to in daily life. A humanist may truly appreciate Christian music (from Bach to OUT KAST, say), the wabi-sabi aesthetic of Japanese Zen art, Islamic architecture, or a painting that reflects Taoist values, just as people who identify primarily as followers of those beliefs or philosophies use the Internet ( a product of electromagnetics and semiconductor technology, hence physics) or may prefer seeing a physician to relying on prayer for health care. There is no reason not to coexist, disagree, and still respect one another as people, as long as no one forces (either through violence or the force of law) their ways on unwilling others. And while doing that (coexisting in peace), there is also no need for any one group to give up its right to spirituality.

Science rocks. Math is beautiful. Engineering is creative. Art is life. And each is its own spirituality.


* See song lyrics by Living Coloür, ANTI-FLAG, and countless other bands.

** Some do, of course, and I even know many people who give up some fundamental comforts and amenities that all citizens of developed nations take for granted — and which most citizens of developing nations look forward to. Nonetheless, they are in the minority.

*** (and sufficiently looked down upon by the mainstream)

**** Have you looked up the meaning of the prefix “allo-” ?   It seems to mean “other” or “outside” . . . How are herbs any less “other” to our bodies?

Dylan Evans’ ‘Placebo’, Languages, and “Yes Way”

I was reading the section called “Saying is Believing” in Dylan Evans’ book called ‘Placebo: Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine”,[1] which is one of my sources for an elective class I teach (called ‘Science, Medicine, and Reason’).

At the beginning of this section, Evans introduces the assent theory of belief, with references to C. Cherniak and Bertrand Russell. While I expect to talk about this idea in the near future, I will focus now on an example Evans gives, and share my thoughts about languages and translation. Evans says “If you want to explain why John took his umbrella when he went out this morning, the chances are you will say it was because he believed it was going to rain.” (p. 77). As a fully bilingual person who thinks and dreams in his second language, I nevertheless mentally transposed this statement, and found that the word choice for ‘belief’ (as used above) might correspond to a different word in Turkish than the primary word for ‘belief’: The word ‘think’ may be used instead in a good Turkish translation of Evans’ sentence.

I think this is informative about the meanings the word ‘belief’ can have. Do we really mean John believes it’s going to rain in the same sense that John might believe in God? I don’t think so. John may have been led to believe that the probability of rain on that day was 50% or higher (and perhaps it’s a different threshold for others), but typically, a religious person does not believe in God in terms of a 50% (or even, say, 70%) probability; they think of it as certainty. Could it be, then, that the word ‘belief” has (at least) two nuanced meanings? The sense of ‘belief’ as involved in faith must be different from the sense of ‘belief’ as involved in likelihoods.

If that seems unlikely, consider the word ‘no’. Obviously, ‘no’ is the opposite of ‘yes’. However, when it’s used in the humorous pop-cultural “yes way”, the “no way” to which it responds was not meant in the sense of opposition, but in terms of negating presence or existence. Here’s where fluency in another language helps: In Turkish, ‘no’ in the sense of “none” or “there isn’t any” is a different word from ‘no’ as the opposite of ‘yes’. That word, ‘hiç’ (pronounced close to “hitch”) carries a sense of “any”, as in “there aren’t any”.

“Yes way” is humorous because it doesn’t quite work; we recognize that. But we also don’t really think about why it doesn’t work. It’s just a sense, like a note that is out of tune. To the foreigner fluent in English, however, there is another way to access that sense of slight off-ness** which allows one, in my case, to recognize this yes/no pair not as the regular yes/no (evet/hayır) pair, but as a distorted any/any (her/hiç) pair, which remains unclear in English. (In English, “anyone can . . .” implies existence while “there isn’t any  . . ” implies nonexistence. The same word is used for opposite meanings. Not so in all languages.)

So, there it is: my introduction to the world of blogging, thanks to this quick thought that occurred to me while reading Dylan Evans’ ‘Placebo’.

In the next installment, I will examine the word ‘good’ (with respect to music and the two languages).

FOOTNOTE: [1] Disclaimer: I use logical/British/tech punctuation, not US punctuation, when it comes to placing commas and periods inside or outside quotations (but I’m aware of the US convention)

Placebo: Evans, Dylan. Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine, Oxford University Press, 2004, New York, NY, USA. First published in 2003 by HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © Dylan Evans, 2003, 2004.