What Makes You So “Eclectic?”

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You may have a variety of musical influences, but describing your music genre as “eclectic” can give the impression that you are unable to define your own music

Eclectic music genre

When someone asks you to describe your music, think carefully before you drop the word “eclectic.”

It may be true that you have a variety of music influences and inspirations, but be specific. “Eclectic” as a catchall description of your music genre can confuse the issue and give the impression that the tracks on your album are stylistically all over the map – or worse, that perhaps you are all over the map and are uncomfortable defining your own music. Instead, try to look for the common threads and the ways you bring your musical influences together. Consider the specific elements in different genres that have touched and inspired you over the years and how you carry them into your own writing.

As a pianist and singer-songwriter, I have often been asked to describe my music and music genre, and currently I use the tag “piano-woven folk/pop.” It lets people know that my main instrument is piano, and that the accompaniments are textured and layered. It also gives an idea of what kinds of listeners might be in my audience.

A longer explanation would reference my various music influences and background in classical and jazz piano, but those terms aren’t part of my music description. That’s because on the surface, those are not the styles most immediate when people hear my songs. My classical piano training allows me to create varied soundscapes on the piano, and yet the songs do not sound like 19th century Schubert art songs. My jazz experience allows me to put together unusual chord patterns that are more lush than you find in most pop songs, but the rhythm of my music does not sound overtly “jazzy,” and I don’t spend long sections in the songs improvising as one might in a jazz tune.

So it has been helpful to refine the tag line to reflect what’s most obvious to people, and as they dig deeper, they will pick up on the underlying musical influences. You can work on your own tag line, using music genre/style words and your instrument. Or you can combine other styles or sounds, for example, “Chamber Folk” or “Hard Beats / Screaming Horns.” Or you can pull more popular “sound-alike” artists’ names into your tag line as a reference, if you don’t feel it will limit or detract from your own voice. Often artists fear the idea of getting pigeon-holed into one genre or description, but if you look at a tag line as a starting point, just a short phrase to introduce yourself, then rest assured your newly-interested audience will hear the nuances that truly make you who you are when they listen to your music.

Ideally, your unique (and eclectic!) sound is a combination of influences and personal creativity. It’s helpful to think back to the key moments in your musical life that changed and shaped you into who you are today. I can tell you a few of my own stories as a young musician. I began taking classical piano lessons when I was seven years old, like many young kids. For the first few years I was playing very easy music, but by the fourth year I began learning pieces that felt like “real music” by Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, and other composers. It was during my sophomore year of high school, right in sync with the adolescent drama of first love and first heartbreak, that I learned to play Debussy’s “Jardins sous la pluie,” which translates to “Gardens in the Rain.” It was an emotional breakthrough for me, and also a new level of connection at the piano.

If you haven’t heard this piece, I recommend the Aldo Ciccolini recording. Throughout the piece, Debussy uses the piano like an orchestra: he creates runs, arpeggios, chordal passages, and crossed-hand textures that incorporate every register of the instrument. Through each section, the listener can hear images painted through sound – little raindrops at the beginning, an escalating storm, crashes of thunder and lightening, and finally rays of sunlight with a rainbow peeking out. For the player, it is a fantastic challenge; for the audience, a delight. It was at this point in my studies I realized the piano could be infinitely expressive both technically and emotionally.

During high school, I had the opportunity to study jazz, and I found it both fascinating and intimidating. It was hard to invent notes off the page and to let go of my trusty plan! But I soon realized that jazz is guided by harmony. Even though the melodies are always changing, the underlying chord patterns lay a groundwork you can follow. After learning about the tradition and craft through standards in the Great American Songbook, I was introduced to unusual tunes like, “Falling Grace” by Steve Swallow and, “Evidence” by Thelonious Monk. My ears opened up to the way harmonies could shift surprisingly – even distantly-related chords could be connected by a single common note or a tone just a step away. Melodies could weave through in the same fashion if the chord structure was strong and clear.

Many times since then, when I have sat at the piano to write, it’s the harmony that comes to me first. And as I try new possibilities, it’s always the emotional reaction I feel that tells me if something is right for the moment. There can be many “wrong” sounding chord patterns, but when the right one rises to the surface, you might feel a chill down your spine or a tear in the corner of your eye. The sound of the piano is like a choir, made of tiny voices, each waiting for its own place to resolve. You can hear the keen, searching quality of harmonic discovery in the ballad introductions played by Keith Jarrett on a song like “Body and Soul.”

I came into folk music much later, and kind of by the back door, mostly listening to contemporary singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, Jonatha Brooke, Sufjan Stevens, and Anais Mitchell. The lyrics in folk story-telling really grabbed me, and I began to recognize that the craft of lyric writing is just as deep as composing. Writing effective lyrics is a life-long pursuit, and there is so much yet for me to discover in this area, particularly through more traditional and cultural songs that have been handed down for generations. But modern artists have held on to some key principles learned from the past. When you take an aerial view of a folk song, it’s the structure of the lyrics that stands out. For example, in Anais Mitchell’s “Hades and Persephone,” she weaves together three connected choruses, each one taking a broader view, beginning with the heart, until we see the entire earth and sky.

PERSEPHONE (chorus):
all of his sorrow won’t fit in his chest
it just burns like a fire in the pit of his chest
and his heart is a bird on a spit in his chest
how long, how long, how long?

HADES (chorus):
you and your pity don’t fit in my bed
you just burn like a fire in the pit of my bed
and I turn like a bird on a spit in my bed
how long, how long, how long?

BOTH (chorus):
and how does the sun even fit in the sky?
it just burns like a fire in the pit of the sky
and the earth is a bird on a spit in the sky
how long, how long, how long?

In addition to the clear structure, there is a great deal of imagery in the lyrics. This makes the storytelling much more compelling and real. The imagery also carries the charged emotions each character is feeling. Having heard many great folk songs with this high level of lyric craft, it has become a life-long goal for me to bring the depth of folk into my own writing.

Coming back to my original tag line, “piano-woven folk/pop,” the “pop” genre is probably least prevalent when you look at the way my songs are composed. But on the surface, my songs do have catchy melodies and clear forms like pop songs. In addition, because I’m not playing a traditional folk instrument like guitar or banjo, it would be limiting to use only the word, “folk” – at least that’s my thinking at the moment!

And that’s another thing: our tag lines and our self-descriptions, just like our music, evolve and change throughout our lives. “Eclectic” may be the blanket term for all of us, but your version of eclectic and my version of eclectic could be entirely different, and as such, the word becomes meaningless. It’s important to be able to describe our sounds so we can intrigue and inform listeners. It’s no less artistic or creative to give a potential fan, reviewer, or booking agent the comfort of familiarity (what the music sounds like) and cohesion (what the music is made up of) in the form of a concise self-description. When they listen, you can relax and let the music speak for itself.

Piano Ball image via ShutterStock.com.

Photo of Anna Dagmar by Corey Hayes.

New York City-based pianist/arranger/singer-songwriter Anna Dagmar was three albums into a critically acclaimed songwriting career – weaving jazz harmonies, pop melodies, and classical piano textures – when she stepped into the folk community with her newest album, Satellite, drawing on influences such as Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, and Leonard Bernstein. Dagmar is an Eastman School of Music graduate, a Gold Prize Winner in the Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Contest, a Kerrville New Folk Finalist, and a member of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. Learn more at AnnaDagmar.com.

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33 thoughts on “What Makes You So “Eclectic?”

  1. I completely understand the need for an artist to accurately describe their work. I also feel that any label is limiting. As the founder of an online radio station, using the word ‘eclectic’ in the site name is actually liberating. It allows us to play a wide variety of music without being limited to a certain format.

  2. Interesting topic and comments. I too fall into the “what do I call this ” style. Years ago, I used to write what could be called eclectic/ eccentric rock. Back in the 70′ and 80’s our label rejection letters said we were either too progressive, or too regressive! I never understood how it could be both at the same time! After getting fed up with trying to make it in the music business, I stopped writing for about 10 years. When I started writing and recording again, I wasn’t trying to sell my music to anyone, just doing it for myself. Very liberating…I now go wherever I feel like going musically-no boundaries , no particular style. Not really jazz, not really rock, not a hybrid…I honestly have no idea what I’d call it stylistically. Fortunately, since I have no audience, it doesn’t matter!

  3. In general, the term ecletic being used to describe any type of musical genre, would seem only to truly apply to Jazz,or any parts thereof. Also, to answer an earlier question from Grambo, Zappa’s work, by my own definition, could very well be interpeted as heavyier electrical Jazz.

  4. While jazz musicians brought classical elements into jazz, classical composers borrowed from African-American music. This transferring of styles proves that even before the invention of jazz and before African-American music was valued by American universities, concert halls, and arts patrons, the quality and originality of black music had already captivated the leading artists of classical music.

  5. Famed guitarist-recording artist David Bromberg said (paraphrase), “Eclectic kills.” In other words, it doesn’t sell. Very few artists can run with it and sustain a career. Bromberg testified to that. David Bowie got away with it because he was able to ride strong theatrical or literary identities through to logical conclusions. Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello are eclectic, but only after establishing specifically personas. I’m eclectic for reasons that are very personal, but in “my old age” I’m learning to refine my focus and stick to clear definitions. Eclectic is OK, but it’s a catch-all for “mess.”

  6. I get what the writer is trying to say. So, let me posit this…

    My band’s music is most easily summed up as “eclectic.” It’s jazz improvisation over Brazilian and Funk rhythms played on rock tunes (check out our version of The Dead’s Eyes of the World on our website for a taste of all three elements woven into one). Now, we’ve come up with our own moniker to describe that: granola jazz. But when people ask what granola jazz is, that word inevitably comes up. What to do in a case like mine?

    1. Paul, One might describe your style of music as “World Fusion” or “Worldbeat,” which is a genre of music that blends Western styles of music with World music.

      In 2010, I put out an album called, “Eclectic,” which it truly was because every song is stylistically different and the album has all different genres. However, when asked to describe my music, I describe it as “Multi-Genre Swirled Pop for the Independent-Minded.” I call it that because even when I move outside of what I call “commercial music” genres into classical & instrumental music, my music has a melodic or rhythmic hook that stays in your head, like a pop song. I came up with that description in 2010, but I’m still thinking of updating it for my next album. Always changing…always growing as a musician…

  7. I perceive the point of this well-written piece to be the caution that even though your music may indeed be eclectic, by the traditional definition of the word, you may not want to summarize it by that particular word alone. When you think about it for a second, the word “eclectic” by itself doesn’t do a very good job of communicating anything specific to the interested music hunter. It may be too generic. It would be like someone asking what you’re bringing to the dinner party and you replying, “A side dish.” Okay, a side dish. That’s fine and I get it, BUT WHAT KIND OF SIDE DISH? Cheesy potatoes or squid a-la fish sauce? It’s a matter of defining what the listener can anticipate if they take the time to click the link to your music. For my particular taste in music, if I come across music being described in generic terms, I’ll likely not click. That’s just me. But if the description goes something like “electro new age pop with a nice mix of flamenco and found sounds,” I’m there, as fast as I can move the mouse and click.

  8. Very thoughtful piece Ana….this sheds new light on how I could describe my music if asked. “Eclectic” is definitely how I describe it for myself, but usually I tell people “jazz” for my instrumental music, which is what I primarily compose and record. In saying “jazz” – even though many tunes might not fit neatly into the jazz genre – I am really trying to say “instrumental.” So maybe my elevator definition is better stated as “keyboard-driven jazz/pop” or something like that.

    Good food for thought….Zach

  9. I too have struggled with this very thing, I think it’s hard to “label” my music, at least for me. I still struggle with it when I am approached by fans. I too have tried the “ask the fans” method and I have been graced with some great compliments but as yet a comprehensive and cohesive term to describe it in “the 15 second elevator” method as yet has alluded me. I thought this article was downright great and has sparked me onto to find that special label for my tunes as well. Thank You and I too enjoyed all the musical links to express your points, it was a nice touch.

  10. What is wrong with an eclectic album? My fans have very eclectic tastes and like that my whole album doesn’t sound the same.

  11. this is the worst write up I’ve ever read on this site. I’m ashamed I even clicked it and started reading… booooooooooo!!!

  12. Thanks for a great read. My music has many influences and I had also started to describe it as eclectic. But since I do want people to find me and be curious enough to listen to me if they do, your suggestion seems right on the money. (BTW – Thanks for the links to the music that you were referring to. Nice touch.)

  13. Eclecticism in music
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Eclecticism is used to describe a composer’s conscious use of styles alien to his or her nature, or from one or more historical styles. The term is also used pejoratively to describe music whose composer, thought to be lacking originality, appears to have freely drawn on other models (Kennedy and Bourne 2006).

    I consider my music eccentric, although my approach is eclectic.

  14. I really enjoyed this article becuae it hit home. I tend to label my own music eclectic because I truly think it is. But that doesn’t communicate to others anything substantive about the music. I think Tom Waits epitomizes label evasiveness and, admittedly, I am highly influnced by Waits although in my view I sound nothing like him. Neverthtless when I took my recent release to Amoeba records in San Francisco the guy asked me what he should put my CD under and I struggled. I asked him where he puts Tom Waits, he stopped on his tracks, looked at me and sait: “that’s a bold statement.” I apologetically explained that it was not my intention to compare myself to Waits any more than I would say I am God-like. But the damage was done… Lesson Learned: need to figure these things out before I release the record and have to explain it at records stores, websites, and virtual stores.

  15. Thank you. You’ve helped to clarify some points that, until now, were somewhat murky. It’s all good folks. If someone learns one thing, then it’s worth writing about. The next article might be about people who ‘know it all’ 😀

  16. I understand what you’re saying, Matt, but Dagmar is absolutely right. My music can also be defined as very “eclectic”, but I’ll bet the album I’m finishing up right now sounds nothing like your “eclectic” music, and I have no clue what yours sounds like, so what good is it for either of us to call our music “eclectic”? Don’t we want people to be drawn to our music? That’s only going to happen if they get a good idea of what it’s like, either by its description or its sound. A wise person once told me that, eventually, when I finally am ready to send my music out into the big bad world, somebody somewhere is going to put some kind of label on it, and it may not be a label I like, so I’d better come up with my own label that represents my music the way I want it to be represented. As much as I hate to do it, and as much as I want my music to speak for itself, it just makes sense to slap my own label on it so somebody will be enticed to even pick it up in the first place–then the music can do the talking. Personally, when I hear “eccentric” I don’t necessarily picture something positive; maybe it just means “weird”, and some weird I like, some I don’t, but I probably won’t drop $10 or more just to find out. If it’s any consolation, I STILL don’t know what to call my own music, and I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. But I’m determined to come up with something intriguing and truly representative of what I do because I want to suck you into dropping that $10 on me!

  17. Here’s another way to do it: Ask your fans, “How would you describe my music?” Then listen to what they have to say.

    After all, your first attention is on the music, right?

    Ultimately, if you want your music descriptor to communicate, you need to look at the experience folks have when they listen to you. Pay attention to the actual words they use to describe your music. You might need to summarize or use synonyms…just make sure those fans would recognize their feedback in what you choose.

    Until I did that, I used “eclectic” because my range is indeed that. I freely go from folk to rock to blues to jazz ballad to art tunes to whatever. It’s all me.

    But then I asked my fans to describe my music. Almost immediately a pattern came up in their descriptions. The end result: I went from “acoustic eclectic” to “Big Soul Folk”. the short version of “Big Souled Folk for the Heart, Head and Heels.” Wouldn’t have gone there on my own, but the fans took me there.

    My two bits.

    David

    1. Due to this excellent comment, I checked out your website. Due to your website’s pleasant opening page, I clicked to enter. Due to the enjoyable photography and generally fun design of your pages, I went looking for your music. Which, due to its own merit, I will buy and, no doubt, enjoy very much. David is doing it right, folks!

      I don’t just buy music; I buy experiences. Thanks for sharing yours!

  18. It’s interesting you bring this up, I was just struggling with a description for my music on my new website and chose the word eclectic. This may be true, but I can draw upon your insight for a better description. Thanks.

    1. Yes it is over one word. Like it or not one word may be all it takes to make or break the listeners attraction to a song or a portion of a song. Or it may make a potential investor in your music run for the hills. Song lyrics are all about words and the imagery they convey. If this subject seems boring or elemental to you, then maybe it’s just what you need to hear. No disrespect intended.

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