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2.   Literature Review


2.4.2   Analysing “The Notes”

demonstrate, the manner in which more detailed musical elements “operate” can vary depending on who is listening.

It follows that if one demonstrates how “constituent elements…operate,” then these elements must be important, to some extent, within the context of that music. As Roger Scruton states, it is a “matter of critical argument, whether this or that feature should be given the prominence which a particular analysis confers on it.”65 Therefore, given this study proposes a musical analysis of the Nature’s Best songs, it is necessary to prove that the actual music, as constituted by its sounds, has some inherent value beyond one’s subjective opinion. This is a much-debated position within popular musicology and it is this issue to which the following section turns.

popular song because one cannot consider every detail at every step. At this point, some justification is required.

Traditional analytical methods were developed in conjunction with classical music and its practices; hence, analysts emphasised notated features such as harmonic progressions, structural divisions, melodic construction and

development, and rhythm. This practice reflected the discipline’s positivistic foundations. Notated pitches and rhythms, for example, could be counted and measured discretely. Perhaps also, score-based analysis mirrored the idealized concert culture in which attendees sat and listened attentively in silence. In an environment that neutralized performing elements, it is understandable that analysts focused on the “notes.”

Without simplifying history further, two things have become clear in time. First, the analytical approach was ideologically driven. Enough academics have launched scathing Marxist critiques so no more is required on that matter.

Second, and more relevant, traditional analytical methods have an uneasy

relationship with popular music. As Phillip Tagg points out, there is an historical

“nonchalance towards other parameters not easily expressed in traditional notation.”68 This attitude sits poorly in popular musicology because sound effects, timbre and performance gestures are significant in the popular music text. The question is: are “the notes” still important in popular music?

The answer is yes, but not unconditionally. It is pertinent to examine first the problems that arise when the “notes” are over-emphasised at the expense of other details. Wilfrid Mellers’ Twilight of the Gods, a traditional musicological analysis of The Beatles’ catalogue, is famous, or infamous, for this reason.

Mellers relies on formalistic methods, warranting some criticism, but he

insightfully connects aspects of The Beatles’ music and their careers, suggesting equally he should not be dismissed as a caricature of popular music analysts.69

68 Tagg, “Analysing Popular Music,” 42.

69 See Simon Frith, “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music,” reprinted in Simon Frith, Taking Popular Music Seriously: Selected Essays (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 260, 269.

His approach, however, is particularly problematic when analysing ‘The End’

from Abbey Road. Describing the final guitar solo, Mellers notes

the dominant sevenths in rumba rhythm…rocking a tone lower than the starting point, getting nowhere. Suddenly the hubbub stops; there’s a tinkling of A major triads on a tinny piano; and Paul’s voice returns to sing

‘in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.’70 The first problem is Mellers’ assumption that the A major triads are the important feature, as if the “hubbub” finally ‘gets somewhere’ when the piano enters. According to Shepherd, this conforms to a view of music in which dominant sevenths must resolve and harmonies drive towards a climactic focal point, analogous to the recapitulation in sonata form.71

Second, Mellers correctly identifies the subsequent transition from A major to C major that concludes Abbey Road, but he seems unable to explain it

theoretically. From a teleological perspective, C major is the important musical destination, yet Mellers offers no interpretation, possibly because such a modulation, from A to C, as effected by the Beatles, does not fall squarely within musicological rules.

Most importantly, Mellers ignores the guitar solo prior to the A major triads.

This section features McCartney, Lennon and Harrison ‘jamming’ in two-bar fragments on clean, slide and distorted guitars, respectively. As Vulliamy suggests, it is these details that the “rock music lover…finds the most musically satisfying.”72 Therefore, Mellers omits a crucial part of ‘The End’ for a lacking harmonic interpretation.

Mellers’ account is an excellent example of the hermeneutic problem. His analysis is technically correct and one cannot say that what he hears is wrong, per se. But the manner in which he has interpreted ‘The End’ is influenced by the formalist standpoint of musicology, which places high currency on

70 Mellers, Twilight of the Gods, pp. 122-123.

71 John Shepherd, “A Theoretical Model for the Sociomusicological Analysis of Popular Musics,” Popular Music 2, Theory and Method (1982), 147.

72 Quoted in ibid., 147.

“harmonic-syntactic structures,” to use Dahlhaus’ term.73 The consequent analysis is misleading and misrepresentative, and does little justice to ‘The End’

from either a musicological or aesthetic perspective. In short, Mellers’ “critical argument” is not sound.

Although this case serves as a warning, it does not render the “notes”

meaningless or irrelevant. ‘Rip This Joint,’ the rollicking second track from the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, attests to this point. The song contains only two chords, D and A, a limited melodic range, and maintains a fast rock-shuffle beat throughout. Robert Christgau concisely appraises the Rolling Stones thus,

If the guitars and the drums and Jagger's voice come together audibly in those elementary patterns that no one else has ever managed to simulate, the most undeniable rock and roll excitement is a virtually automatic result.74

These words can be applied to ‘Rip This Joint.’ The fundamental feature of the song, it seems, is the idiosyncratic combination of musicians — Watts’ precise drumming foils Jagger’s furious vocal delivery and the lackadaisical fills from Richards. In this case, formal analysis should apparently give way to critical interpretations of timbre and the group’s performance, details that enhance the song’s narrative of a freewheeling ride across America.

The formal details, however, foster this criticism. That is, Jagger sings in his upper chest voice, hence the strained vocal timbre. Likewise the tight rhythm section provides a strong foundation upon which Jagger and Richards can perform without restraint. Furthermore, Everett argues that songs with a limited harmonic palette, specifically just I and V, are “effective and direct in getting

73 Carl Dahlhaus, “Wagner’s Musical Influence,” trans. Alfred Clayton, in The Wagner Handbook, eds. Ulrich Müller and Peter Wapnewski (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 553.

74 Robert Christgau, “It Isn’t Only Rock and Roll: The Rolling Stones,” Village Voice, 30 June 1975, from http://robertchristgau.com/xg/rock/stones-75.php (accessed 5 May 2011). The context of this quote is a concert review and not specific to ‘Rip This Joint’; however, I think, in general terms, the idea is applicable to a lot of the Stones’ music.

[their] message across without distraction.”75 Thus, one could interpret the simple harmonies as allowing the spotlight to fall on Jagger and Richards who invoke the sense of freedom and wild abandon. ‘Rip This Joint’ thus suggests it is necessary to analyse or at least consider the pitch details, even if it is a precursor to critical evaluation or interpretation.

Everett supports this argument. In an imaginary situation, he refuses to play at a party unless someone finds him an “Epiphone Texan guitar tuned a whole step low” and a string quartet because “you’d never recognize ‘Yesterday’ on the piano.”76 Further, Everett states, “timbre must take a back seat to pitch in terms of core structure in all or nearly all of the music of the pop-rock literature.”77 This is a bold claim and Brackett counters by citing the Epiphone guitar, the string quartet and Paul McCartney’s voice as exactly those features that distinguish The Beatles’ version from the thousands of imitations.78 There is, therefore, a complementary relationship between pitch and timbre, the combination of which helps to define the popular music text.

In saying this, pitch relations play an ontological role in popular music. That is, much of the essence of ‘Yesterday’ lies in the opening lyric that descends from the supertonic to the tonic, the initial chord progression I-vii7-III-vi, the

concluding plagal cadence in each verse, and so forth. These details help listeners identify ‘Yesterday’ as ‘Yesterday’ regardless if performed by Bob Dylan, Ray Charles or Boyz II Men, confirming that the “notes” are an important aspect of popular music.

Thus far, the analytical standpoint has been justified by considering various debates within popular musicology. The discussion has been unified by a common theme: the need to approach popular music from a wide-range of perspectives. Although theoretically sound, in practice one cannot study

75 Walter Everett, The Foundations of Rock (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 216.

76 Walter Everett, “Pitch Down The Middle,” 170, n. 20.

77 Ibid., 111. To his credit, Everett later demonstrates, in a section titled “Vocal and Instrumental Colour” (pp. 117-126), how the two strands inform each other.

78 David Brackett, “Essay Review,” review of Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis, eds. John Covach and Graeme M. Boone; and Expression in Pop-Rock Music: A Collection of Critical and Analytical Essays, ed. Walter Everett, Popular Music 20, no. 2 (2001), 281.

everything. This is not problematic as long as the scholar is conscious of his or her limited position. Therefore, by focusing predominantly on the “notes” of the songs, not the performances, not the music videos, and not the social contexts, this research covers a fundamental, but single element of Nature’s Best.