Splitters and Lumpers: How We Break Music Down

Metal is diffused into numerous sub-genres: thrash metal, doom metal, black metal, sludge metal, and on and on. New sub-genres seem to be created every couple of years, their distinctions becoming more acute.

There are those in jazz who believe it to be “genre-blind” as David Hadju once put it. Jazz can use whatever is at its disposal and is still considered jazz. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, then, is as much jazz as his quintet recordings. It becomes an umbrella; a frame of mind rather than a limitation.

What is happening in these two examples?

Taxonomy might be able to help us here. Its practitioners usually fall into two camps.

First there are the splitters. They are those who, in Stephen Jay Gould’s words, “focus on minute distinctions and establish species on the smallest peculiarities of design.” The many sub-genres of metal are a consequence of the splitter mind frame.

Then we have the lumpers. Gould describes them as taxonomists “who concentrate on similarities and amalgamate groups with small differences into single species.” Someone making jazz an umbrella term is a lumper in action.

Two opposing world views…or are they?

We lump all the music of one composer under his or her name. And yet we also split it up, discussing Beethoven’s Viennese and Late style as if each belonged to a different composer respectively.

A music library on our laptops is a lumper. Hundreds of artists and songs coexist in one space. But then the search bar enables us to become a splitter. We can find tracks that fit within an album, artist, style, rating, what have you.

The Baroque era of music that we study in school is the product of a splitter. A slice of time has been annexed. What is for our consideration? Secular music, dance suites, opera, lute song, sacred music, oratorios, cantatas, organ works, and much more. All of these are complimentary and at once contrasting, lumped together between that slice we split.

If I look for a song on Youtube, I have completed a function similar to the search bar on my laptop. Splitting, right? Look at the search results: covers and rearrangements (many ethereal and dreadful), remixes of much variety, versions ranging from live to second takes, and more. That is beyond finding the one recording from that one album. Youtube has acted as a lumper too.

Splitters and Lumpers compliment one another. It is difficult to find one without the other in action. There are no splitters. There are no lumpers. We are all both.

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