Lump it together and split the difference: taxonomy, folksonomy and the uses of genres…

On the back of a couple of Twitter conversations recently and borrowing my brother’s ipod (other MP3 players are available…), I have been thinking more about taxonomy and its bastard sibling, “folksonomy”.

A taxonomy is formal, top-down and rigid; a folksonomy is informal, bottom-up and flexible. Clearly, both have their uses – to identify books in a library one needs a common (and hence inflexible) system of classification – a taxonomy like the Dewey decimal classification, but to find books at home one might use a more manageable system (like/keep/recycle, perhaps).

The system you choose depends a lot on what your uses are.

In biological taxonomy, there is often a battle between lumpers and splitters: since the classification is a human construct (albeit one that aims to follow natural divisions), whether a population of organisms is a variety or subspecies or species is up for debate.

Splitters tend to argue that different types are separate; lumpers tend to minimise the differences. As an example, I used to work on bracken (many, many years ago!); back then, it was considered to be a single species with two sub-species and twelve varieties – all lumped together, in other words; I believed that now these had been split into two species and twelve sub-species – but I was wrong: the accepted taxonomy of bracken is that it consists of up to twelve separate species. In this case, the splitters have won.

Looking at my brother’s iPod, I saw that he is a splitter; I on the other hand seem to be a radical lumper. We classify the music on our players very differently, using the folksonomy. The genre field of the ipod database is where I noticed this. My brother uses hundreds of different genre – separating jazz, for instance, by time and location (“1960s West Coast Jazz”, “1970s UK Jazz”, and so on).

I use four different genre, reckoning that all my music can be classified by just jazz, rock, classical and folk. I tried to get it down to three, but however hard I tried I couldn’t pretend that a couple of the “folk” artists could be put into “rock”.

Whilst this reflects our outlooks – I would have problems trying to classify artists down to too much detail (would Dave Holland or John McLaughlin [warning – launches music!] be UK or US jazz? And is it jazz or fusion? Or jazz-rock?) – it also stems from the different ways we use our players.

I either know exactly what I want to listen to – in which case I will find the artist and the recording – or I play music on shuffle (by album), in which case I want a broad sample to choose from. I know the broad genre I’m interested in – jazz, rock or classical – and then I shuffle through albums until something grabs me.

My brother doesn’t shuffle at all: he uses the genre field to locate what he wants to listen to.

There are lessons in this familial divergence. The kind of classification used – whether a top-down taxonomy or a bottom-up or user-created folksonomy, and the fineness of the splitting or lumping – depends very much what the classification is going to be used for and who the audience is.

And coping with both a taxonomy and folksonomy (like iTunes does, through playlists) makes a lot of sense.


2 thoughts on “Lump it together and split the difference: taxonomy, folksonomy and the uses of genres…

  1. Liadnan

    I used to ignore the genre field when ripping cds, but for practical reasons I’m now working my way through putting it back in. This is primarily because we now have music streaming over UPnP to a music player which can’t deal with shuffling the entire collection.
    Most of the files are flac, which actually supports assigning one file to multiple genres. But others aren’t, so I ended up with a fairly rough and ready classification: “Rock, Pop, Indie, & other stuff”, “Jazz, Blues, Soul &c.”, “Folk, world, early &c.” “comedy” and “classical”.

    Most of them have overlapping problems but in the end life’s too short: all I needed was broad groupings. And the idea of a classical (in the broad sense) genre makes my teeth grate and I briefly flirted with splitting that up properly but decided I couldn’t be bothered since all of that is specifically sought out when I want it anyway.

    1. patrickhadfield Post author

      life’s too short” – indeed!

      It surprises me that iTunes doesn’t have user generated fields (at least, my version deosn’t – I have avoided updating the programme since I heard of some bad experiences…): using multiple genres would certainly make a bit more sense.

      There are actually a couple of pieces that are unclassifiable: I had to put Terry Riley’s “Rainbow in Curved Air” into classical, which really grated. But the function of genre for me is not actually to classify the music but to make it available when I shuffle, so I guess it works.

      I realised however that I had somehow put a recording of Prelude & Liebstrode into “blues”…!


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