How suited is MusicBrainz for gathering and presenting subjective data? (such as genre)

There is one aspect about managing music in the digital domain that never stops bugging me.
It’s what is called ‘genre’.

And to relieve my own brain a little bit, I thought to bother other people with it, here.

One thing that MusicBrainz is very good, smart and wise at, is trying to get the facts straight. Or at least get them as straight as possible.
That’s not up for too much debate where it concerns items such as: artist names, instruments, dates, locations, publishers, etc.
And I have learned to have great faith and trust that MusicBrainz offers reliable results in all these areas.

But MusicBrainz also has the option to enter and store a much more subjective item as ‘genre’.
And compared to the items I named before, the ‘genre’ category is the one I don’t consider to be very complete or reliable.

This is not me critisizing the people that set and decide on the genre list, nor is it me critisizing the editors that are making an effort to populate these ‘genre’ relationships.

But I am wondering:

  • Can it be expected of all (or even the slightest majority of) editors that they are willing and/or able to add complete and sensible ‘genre’ data to the releases that they enter?
  • Are the end-users that do have a good knowledge and understanding of the music involved, and have sensible opinions on what music genres could be applied to them, actually adding to, and improving on MusicBrainz’ database in this respect?

To be honest, I have severe doubts on both points.

Far as I can tell this is not causing any real problems. But it makes me wonder:

  1. What are the deeper thoughts and goals behind MusicBrainz having a subjective category such as ‘genre’ in the first place?
  2. Assuming that it was understood and accepted that at first database entry these ‘genre’ relationships would not get populated in the most satisfactory way (if even at all), how was it anticipated that end-users with valuable knowledge and opinions on music genres would improve on this database?

Big dump of unvarnished thoughts incoming :smiley:
Some of these @hiccup has already acknowledged but I’m putting everything in.

Editors of MB are very used to working towards identifying and applying ‘concrete’ data, and as a result this tends to represent the ‘perfect’ data model for many here. The reality is that there are many valuable and useable types of data, including subjective and messy. That a band of X name that was formed in X year is great info. But comments on the bands page may well be what a future music historian, trying to paint a picture of the band, would salivate over. Put both together and we have a delicious hot info broth.

I see these this attitude as counter-productive. It implies that some people are more qualified to have an opinion on music - valid in some cases, but related to an element that we acknowledge to be at least partially subjective? When it comes to sorting your music, if the plebian population (presumably most of them) would classify something as ‘jazz’, is it really useful to have a jazz expert step in and say ‘no it isn’t’ - particularly when the DB is here for everyone to tag and sort their music, not just experts?

To illustrate my thoughts a little bit more, I think these are both equally valid ways to approach the problem:


A: A small group of experts enters genre tags. ‘Accuracy’ (however you decide to measure that) is very high, with few outliers.
B: A large group of the public enters genres. We have a much larger dataset, with a lot of outliers. We identify and remove the outliers.

I would say that I prefer the second, but I’m sure it depends on the user and what they need out of the data or out of the tags. I personally don’t have confidence those ‘experts’ are going to get round to classifying my noisegrind releases. Classical editors with popular releases/artists might prefer the more stringent method. is an example of method B, with a system hugely open to abuse. Junk tags are common. So why is my ‘genres listened to’ list so accurate? It uses group consensus to discard (not display/assign) the outliers. I find much more accurate an comprehensive than RYM, for instance.

MusicBrainz also currently has option B, with the tag/genre voting system assigning importance to a tag via a higher number. I have seen it to be effective so far.

imo large datasets are only useful if you can group, display or analyse sets of data. Genre is one of the most common (if subjective) groupings for music, so it seems a logical step. On the more practical side, tagging with genre is a major/common user need, and someone was interested enough to code the feature.

I would love to see some more features added, particularly auto-grouping of different spellings of a genre ([MBS-10062] Add aliases for genres - MetaBrainz JIRA), and perhaps a genre tree. But I think the current implementation is actually excellent at the basic function.


I understand what you mean about genre being too much of a personal opinion. What one person sees as folk-punk someone else will see as a noisy racket. Someone within Jazz will see all the fine differences with the styles, but someone from outside will stick anything with a saxophone in. Some of the ways I see Pink Floyd categorised is weird (had Arty-Rock(?) come up when ripping a Gilmour album at the weekend).

I personally think one of the better ways of genre tagging is how it happens now. Having that score alongside is useful. If 25 people think it is “Category A” and one person thinks “Category B” then it allows an algorithm like aerozol mentions to skim off a narrower result.

Though I don’t think the person who said category B should be ignored. It may upset someone from outside of Jazz having something referred to as Jazz, but that is how an outsider may well see it. And from there they may find real Jazz.

This also allows categories like “Rock” to dominate on a album with “Blues Rock” to be a sub-category with a lesser score.

Finding a release date for an album is easy as there is only (usually) one answer. Nailing a genre will always be opinion and there is no “right” just “most people think”.

Oh - and certainly should not be just a small team of “experts” doing genre. The wider the opinions the better.


Why not? You can add what you think is the genre, and it will be upvoted or downvoted by others.
In this matter, to be frank, that’s the only way. Sometimes a band says they play “doom metal” and I often disagree, because well it’s not even “metal” (according to myself). But who can give an exact definition of a musical genre?
So MB went for a voting system, after, literally, years of discussions.

But why would an editor not add genres he thinks the music is? That’s exactly what I could call counter-productive.
If you think that’s jazz, then tag it as jazz. If 10 other editors upvote it, well, you were right, if no one votes, well, no one cares, if 10 editors vote for another genre, well, you were prolly wrong, and perhaps you can remove the genre you set.

Also, anything related to a small set of experts is void, because it requires millions of people to set genres on each recording produced in a year…

MusicBrainz team has to improve the genre feature in various ways:

  • aliases (rock’n’roll vs rock and roll …)
  • relationships (blues rock is related to blues and rock)
  • disambiguation (some genres spelled the same way, are in fact different, depending on the context)

But what is existing now is working pretty well. I’m trying to add genres based on artist/label qualification for the music (including Bandcamp tags, because those are set by the label or the artist themselves).
Other databases (metalarchives or wikipedia) are good sources too.

Also putting genres to Pink Floyd music is very easy, because it’s around since a long time, with millions of people listening and defining it. But genres are also evolving over the time, perhaps in few years it would be qualified as “traditional progressive rock” or “old-school stoner blues rock” or whatever, who knows.


This is where I :heart: the ‘loose’ system. That 100 people classified something as jazz tells me a lot about the music. That another 40 went on to classify it as free jazz gives me another interesting data point. But those 7 votes for electro pop?? Now we’re talking!

You can start to see where the music might sit in a spectrum, with (often) multiple influences. Even if it’s somehow ‘wrong’, I want to know that a minority thought an album sounded like electro pop.

Haha, I’ve heard “we don’t really like to box ourselves in, we don’t really have a genre” from bands so often. Or “we mix influences like jazz and soul and blues with extreme metal”. Then they play one song and, yup, that’s definitely just post-rock (or whatever). Genre is one of the few (only?) instances where I think the artist shouldn’t have any more say than Bob off the street.


I came here from the suggested topics, genres is one of my muted tags, together with digital-media and other stuff.

I have been totally ignoring genres, so far, but this topic and its explanations and examples titillate my interest. :grin:


When I created this topic, I had honest doubts and reservations about the quality, progress and usefulness of ‘MusicBrainz & genres’.

But now I have a better understanding of:

  • How Picard exactly handles and retrieves genres and ‘folksonomy’ tags.
  • How (easy it is) to see, add and/or improve genre data on MusicBrainz recording/releases pages.

And now that the amount of validated genres has grown immensely over the last couple of days, my doubts are pretty much gone.

I can understand that ‘genres’ are not an important matter to many users.
Especially if you have a more focused taste in music, and/or you know most artists and releases in your library, the added value of having ‘genres’ is very slim.

But, if you have an eclectic taste in music, and your library has grown into the size that you can’t even remember the names of many artists and releases you have added to it and what kind of music they make, ‘genre’ is an immensely useful concept.

To me it is a great help in finding music in my library that otherwise I might not even hear again, and it gives me a much better understanding of what sorts of music I like, and which sorts/genres I could probably ignore.

i think i understand your problem. to me, this points to a huge difference on how data is regarded in a database. while MB preserves and presents facts facts like a catalogue number or the medium format a release is issued in, genres on the other hand are no hard facts and left open to curation. while the system that determines wether a release is a specific genre is determined by voting (similar to rateyourmusic’s system, whose db in the meantime has more than 1500 individual genres, i think), the selection process what even is regarded as a genre is a bit more hidden in the depths of MB. also a ‘big’ part of the community on rateyourmusic discusses each and every change, addition and deletion and writes textes about aesthetics of the genres.
i don’t know if this comparison is fair regarding the differing goals of the websites, but my feeling towards MB genres and tags is, that they seem not to be located in a discourse of a music theory discussion and hanging loosely added to the database. this feature opens up the accessability, but for me it seems rather uninformative.


There is one thing about RYM that is a complete mystery to me.
Maybe you can explain?:

With all the effort they are putting into discussing and gathering all this great information, it seems that all that information only lives on their website.

In my case, I want to tag my own music with metadata I can retrieve from somewhere.
And I have the understanding that there is no way to tag your music using data that is in RYM’s database?
They have no API’s, no tagging tools, and no alliances that I am aware of with any software that can tag music files.

Are RYM users simply satisfied that they can look stuff up on the website?


the developement of rym seems ultra-slow. it may be community driven, but the community can’t decide what will happen next. i think there are plans for an API, but everything drags on endlessly, even with their crowdfunding initiative 6-7 years ago on their back. the display of release information is outdated and the artist crediting is halfhearted).

for me it’s strength lies in being a recommendation website and an album listening/rating tracker that has some unique features (most prominently genres and descriptors) and a steadily growing and diverse community. i guess that the website may even have some impact on digital born music genres like the vapor movement.

the only thing i seem to be able to get out of this website easily, is a personal .csv with some information like their album identifier, name, artist, my rating … there is or was a tagging page, but it had really minimal options. for catalogueing a personal collection, i wouldn’t even know how to make this data productive. as i am thinking of it, maybe you can somehow export your ratings to your files. (not the track ratings though)

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RYM and MB are like opposites of each other, really. They emerged around the same time with different goals. RYM is a proprietary project that is not very good on a technical level, albums often have weird style/missing info, and there’s a queue in the way of everything. However, it excels at social features. Its rating system is more in-depth, the collections feature is better implemented than here so that people will create communal “boxsets” for exploring genres, it alerts you to new releases by artists you rate highly, and it has an advanced algorithm for weighing and averaging ratings in order to score and recommend albums. Most releases that aren’t controversial have a comment box so people can talk about whatever they want (almost always low effort ironic posting).

IMO it’s more likely that MB takes on the desirable parts of RYM than the other way around. I used it for a few months and getting anything done on it was extremely slow.


What also concerned me a little bit is that RYM seems to have some subscription model, that releases some additional information only to users that pay a monthly fee.
If that’s how it works, I could imagine users/contributors getting frustrated to have information that they may have contributed to themselves, being available only if they pay.
But I’ll be the first to admit that I am not sure I understand how it works and what data/information is restricted exactly from non-paying members.

If I remember correctly, paying them lets you see the average rating for a song and get recommendations based on individual albums. I think it also let you change your username. But this was before the big update happened so there might be more to it now.

It has long been a policy of RYM to be a walled garden with limited routes out. I noticed years ago, they have a policy disallowing external links (like Musicbrainz has to artist websites, to discogs/amazon for releases, etc). I suspect that this policy was not reached via community discussion, but was made by the owners of RYM. Presumably it was made to maximize ad views, which would explain the reluctance to have non-ad-showing methods for using their data.

However, with such a policy, it tends to cause a filtering of the user community in favor of users who agree with (or simply don’t care) the policy. Users who dislike the policy (sufficiently) tend to abandon RYM for alternatives like discogs or musicbrainz, while people who think it’s a good thing or don’t care stick around. Now, with the policy in effect for multiple years, whenever it is brought up on the RYM forums, there is a preponderance of voices who prefer it (because those who oppose it no longer use RYM, or read the forum).

I suspect there is a term for such a phenomenon, where if an organization has a policy in effect for long enough, people who disagree leave the organization, and are no longer around to be counted in opposition. I’ve seen it in other places as well.


I’m just glad MB’s genre system isn’t handled as unique attributes on releases/recordings/artists/… The edit notes would look like a YouTube comment section.

What genre is this?

Clearly deep house bruh

WTF are you talking about you dont know anything about music you stupid biscuit this is clearly tech house

ur both wrong idiots this is jupiter-infused mt everest melodic throat-aesthetical future house, read a book nerds

ye and how do u kno that

my mom made this

In all seriousness, the upvote/downvote system is pretty much a majority rule/wisdom of the crowd system, they’re well suited for these kinds of things. Fun fact: Majority rule systems are even being used to detect programming bugs these days.

Another fun fact: I’ve never actually seen the inside of RYM, only the IP ban screen. They banned my VPN :frowning:


Yeah, it was an interesting (recent) discovery for me how adding/editing genres work.
It’s quite different from how MusicBrainz handles voting and accepting other sorts of data.

(and please convey my highest regards to your mother? I’m in serious awe she is creating future house music)


What are the deeper thoughts and goals behind MusicBrainz having a subjective category such as ‘genre’ in the first place?

Genre is a topic I’ve struggled to wrap my head around because it’s accepted prima facie as being totally subjective. However, after giving it a bit of thought, I believe there is a fundamental objective measurement, if you will, that can be applied to determine overall genre.

To draw a parallel, let’s look at the visual arts - paintings. Within it, there are 7 major styles (impressionism, abstract, realism, etc.). I believe the same holds true for music: Jazz, Classical, Rock, Folk, etc. So, as with visual arts, there is and objective “category” that the piece can fall into and from there, as you drill down further it can become more subjective. For example, Jazz can (start) as follows…

Can it be expected of all (or even the slightest majority of) editors that they are willing and/or able to add complete and sensible ‘genre’ data to the releases that they enter?

I guess this is just a long, drawn out way for me to wonder why there cannot be a “main genre” where the music gets a general classification and then as we drill down we can get more subjective.

This is how I perceive a genre as well. In another post I actually called it a Musical Style, which allows for the concept of a tree that starts with the usual (Jazz, Classical, Rock) etc. and continues branching into a final musical style that try to place the album (or work) within a Genre Tree.

I even thought that we could use MB Series data model and use the “part of” and “parts” relationships to develop such a tree. Had 0 comments :frowning: