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I have a lot of music composed for video games which I enjoy listening to. So naturally, I imported it into iTunes on my computer for ease of playback, playlists, sharing to devices, etc.

I noticed that these pieces have their genre marked as "soundtrack", which I didn't think much of initially. However, after a while I thought "is soundtrack even a genre?"
From the Wikipedia article of music genre:

A music genre is a conventional category that identifies some pieces of music as belonging to a shared tradition or set of conventions.

And further on:

[...] genre should be defined as pieces of music that share a certain style or "basic musical language."

As far as I can see, soundtracks do not necessarily all share any type of style or musicality. I have pieces specified as genre "soundtrack" that are classical in style, pieces that are rock, and pieces that are electronic; clearly these would not share many (if any) elements in terms of music.

So is "soundtrack" actually a genre of music, or is it being used incorrectly due to misinterpretation or other reasons?

*Note that I used iTunes as an example, but the music itself came with genre specified as "soundtrack" in the file metadata

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  • Imagine this. What if, for some bizarre reason, you had to actually go to a physical store to buy music. Wild and crazy, I know. But in this hypothetical case, how would you want to look for the music from a video game or from a movie or tv show? Also in this alternate reality you wouldn't really be able to buy individual songs that easily. You would have to buy some strange physical representation of music that would contain all the music from the movie. And what if that movie had lots of different styles of music, where should it be organized? – jomki Nov 16 '16 at 12:30
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In the technical musical sense described in Wikipedia, soundtrack isn't a genre. It's better to think of iTunes genre as a one-word album description chosen from a menu of simple choices. It's usually debatable, and often straight up wrong.

Most music players get their CD data from the Gracenote music database by default. Gracenote gets their data from anybody who submits it, often the artist or studio producing the album, but sometimes from a person playing the CD. So what genre means in this case is that someone (not necessarily a musician) is trying to think of a single word to describe the album. Soundtrack might not be a genre of music, but it is a type of album, so it's convenient to use in this case.

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[...] genre should be defined as pieces of music that share a certain style or "basic musical language."

This is reasonable as a broad statement, but it doesn't hold true for every case - soundtrack being one of those cases. As mentioned in this answer, genre labels can follow a number of different patterns in terms of what they actually refer to, and they don't always refer directly to the actual sound or style of the music.

When referring to a piece as in the 'soundtrack' genre, this could mean, for example...

  • It was written as a soundtrack for a particular film, TV show, or theatre production
  • It was intended to be suitable for use as soundtrack music, as would be the case for stock or library music (as found on, say, http://www.soundtrackbay.com/ or http://www.freesoundtrackmusic.com/)
  • It is in a musical style well known for its use in soundtracks - if you were to write a John Williams or Ennio Morricone sound-a-like piece, for example, you might refer to your music as being in the 'soundtrack' genre.

In many cases, the music might also be belong to another more style-specific genre - such as techno or jazz - as well as being 'soundtrack'.

Another reason a piece of music file might end up with a 'soundtrack' genre tag is if it was released as part of a soundtrack album. The Who's The Seeker isn't in itself in the 'soundtrack' genre, but might be tagged as such if obtained as part of the American Beauty soundtrack release in which it features.

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The first thing to recognize is that genres are not scientific and are not necessarily even technical. A genre might collect songs that have a similar sound solely because they were all made in a similar time and geographic location.

So the short answer to your question is: if you can find songs tagged ”Genre: Soundtrack” then yes, Soundtrack is really a genre.

A music genre is a conventional category that identifies some pieces of music as belonging to a shared tradition or set of conventions.

The shared tradition and set of conventions of the music in the Soundtrack genre is that the songs were all made to be the soundtrack of some visual media. That affects every aspect of the construction of those songs. For example, they tend to have muted lead parts compared to other genres because they don’t expect to have 100% of your attention. They tend to ebb and flow in a way that follows the ebb and flow of storytelling. They tend to have elements that build excitement or release tension along with the visual media they were written to accompany.

genre should be defined as pieces of music that share a certain style or "basic musical language."

This is entirely consistent with the previous quote. Muting lead parts so as not to interfere with spoken dialog is part of the “basic musical language” of the Soundtrack genre. Using contrasting soft and loud parts, using a lot of textured strings and other pads, and builds and releases are part of the “basic musical language” of the Soundtrack genre.

Maybe you are conflating “musical language” with “music theory.” Not the same at all. Musical language is much broader and includes elements of the performance and production.

For example, in the Dance genre, the music was all made for dancing. A danceable beat is part of the musical language of the Dance genre. But 2 arbitrary dance songs aren’t necessarily similar from a music theory perspective. One might have a strong quarter note feel and be written in a major scale, while another might have a triplet feel and be written in Egyptian scale, and both might use entirely different instrumentation. You could give the sheet music — which typically does not even include the drum parts — for both songs to a musical genius and they might not be able to tell you that both songs belong to the Dance genre. Music theory is just paper. It is less important than the performed music, not more important. The musical language that defines a genre includes aspects that don’t exist in music theory. For example, the Grunge genre refers in part to using a particular kind of guitar sound that was popular in Seattle in the 1990’s. Guitar sounds are not part of music theory, they are part of performance and production.

One way you can see that genre does not matter to music theory is that you can give the sheet music for a particular song to a band made up of skilled musicians and say “play this in Jazz style” and they can play you a Jazz version of that song. Then you can say “play it in Bluegrass style” or “Disco style” and so on and they can play the song again for you from the same sheet music in those different genre styles.

Further, most genres are named by people who are completely ignorant of music theory. Often they are listeners and DJ’s and music critics.

So you have to take them with a grain of salt. They are informative, not scientific. But you can make a playlist of all Soundtrack or all Jazz and it is markedly different than a playlist of just random arbitrary songs.

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I think genre were made to classify music so that people can find similar tracks with ease.

For example a rock music fan can easily find all his favorite and future favorite tracks in Metal section of any music service provider.

Similarly if you want to search for music used in some movie (say Interstellar) or game then it is much convenient to find that track in a separate folder along with similar tracks( eg Inception) in separate Soundtrack section then searching it in Classic section.

That is why it is great to have a genre section for soundtracks.

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It seems to me that labelling a song as belonging to the genre "soundtrack" would only make sense if the song was composed intentionally to accompany a given video game or a movie. The fact that today many soundtracks are built by picking existing songs should not suddently make these songs belong to a genre named "soundtrack" additionaly to their native genre.

But that depends on people definition of "musical genre". To me, musical genre only depends on "technical" musical properties contained within the song (eg tempo, chords, instruments, structure, etc.). But for some people, the genre of a song is also defined by "contextual" information (eg in which situation is the song played ?)