Franco Fabbri
Music Taxonomies: an Overview

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In the past two centuries, mass distribution of music in various forms (printed, recorded, broadcast, digitized) has enhanced the usefulness and scope of music taxonomies: from scores and collections aimed at music practice in the bourgeois parlour, to record labels and shelves in record shops, from format radio to music TV, up to the tagging of music files and recommender systems on the Internet (Giltrow and Stein 2009, Celma 2010), music taxonomies have been a vital tool for the music industry (Negus 1999, Taylor 2014), as well as an indispensable compass for listeners, musicians, and anybody wanting to talk or write about music. The number of acknowledged ‘types of music’ has increased by several orders of magnitude since the late 1990s, when hundreds of thousands and then millions of music files were made available on the Internet.

Early ‘modern’ studies on music genres – as a scholarly effort involving musicology, semiotics, sociology and anthropology – started to be published in the 1980s in the interdisciplinary field of popular music studies, due to the increasing importance of genres in contemporary popular music. At the same time, taxonomies came into the focus of cognitive sciences, where old Aristotelian concepts were challenged in a neo-Kantian perspective (Lakoff 1987, Lakoff and Johnson 2003, Eco 2000), also due to the availability of new technologies (like fMRI, functional magnetic resonance interactive) allowing for the exploration of human brain functions and of the nervous system (Levitin 2006). ‘Prototypes’ and ‘schemas’ became the new buzzwords, and ‘categorizing’ became the most used term to describe conceptualization and taxonomic processes.

As files with audiovisual content started circulating over the Internet, the need arose to attach digital ‘tags’ to them, to indicate their content and make it easier for users to find them. Soon, researchers in computer science started working on algorithms enabling the automatic recognition of musical properties through the scanning of audio data, as one of the most challenging tasks in the Music Information Retrieval (MIR) research field. With the expansion of interactive features in so-called WWW 2.0, the huge success of social media, and the advent of software applications recommending products to consumers on the basis of previous purchases, usages, or website visits, MIR researchers started considering ‘social tagging’, ‘folksonomies’ (Lamere 2008), and other user-generated sources of information as a complement to the analysis of audio content (Sordo, Celma, Blech and Guaus 2008).

The paper will offer an overview on current music taxonomies and underlying theories, focusing on the need to integrate different disciplinary approaches.


Franco Fabbri, « Music Taxonomies: an Overview », Musimédiane, n° 11, 2019 (http://www.musimediane.com/11fabbri/ – consulté le 23/09/2019).