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The Listener and Analytical Methods

2.   Literature Review


2.4.1   The Listener and Analytical Methods

If it is now evident that one should examine the musical elements of popular music, then another issue arises: what, specifically, should one study? Recalling Hennion’s article, one can look at form, harmony, melody, rhythm,

instrumentation, timbre, as well as the lyrics, production features and their inter-relationships.

38 Covach, “Pangs of History in Late 1970s New-Wave Rock,” 194.

39 Moore, Rock: The Primary Text, 17. Italics are original.

This matter will be temporarily placed aside for the answer is conditional on another question: who is listening? As Chris Kennett points out, “listening to the same music in different situations, with different purposes and with different intensity, will affect the analytical meanings which may arise from the experience.”40 Kennett broaches this problem by constructing a hypothetical experiment in which a drum ‘n’ bass song, ‘Shadowboxing,’ played in a wine-shop, is ‘analysed’ by different customers.41

For the store manager, the song expands her musical tastes and she is grateful for the mediocre sound-system which enables some balance between the treble and bass frequencies. By comparison, the young bank-clerk, knowledgeable of the song, is disappointed by the poor sound quality and lack of bass. Finally, the retired Major, partially deaf from fighting in WWII, can only hear the bass and gets frustrated listening to the “repetitive pop music.”42

Kennett’s experiment is entertaining and probably accurate; but is the “cultural-acoustic model” useful for analysts?43 Kennett admits the scenarios are

facetious, but one can ask, what would happen if the Major were not deaf? What if the bank clerk was white not black? In short, “[creating] texts from

listenings”44 is unhelpful because the results are infinite. One may gain a well-rounded picture by considering all responses to a particular song, but this is clearly impossible. Kennett’s model is beneficial, however, if it encourages analytical self-awareness. That is, by defining the listener, one implicitly acknowledges the potential for different hearings of the same music.

Sociologists studying reception have, in general, not followed this approach, often relying on “monolithic listening publics.”45 In the case of hysterical Beatles’ fans, this assumption may be justified, but it hinders nuanced or detailed interpretations. Sociologists respond with surveys or focus groups,

40 Chris Kennett, “Is Anybody Listening?” in Analyzing Popular Music, ed. Allan F. Moore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 197.

41 Ibid., pp. 209-217

42 Ibid., 213.

43 Ibid., 217.

44 Ibid., 216.

45 Moore, Rock: The Primary Text, 6.

which produces quantitative and qualitative data from listeners. However, these techniques are restrictive and limiting. “Circle a number” or “very much-not very much” continua reveal little about listeners’ opinions; likewise, focus groups force participants to respond within a specific and non-familiar setting.

These are not profound objections, but they suggest another listener must be found.

Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s A Generative Theory of Tonal Music is predicated upon the “musical intuitions of a listener who is experienced in a musical idiom.”46 The authors admit this person is idealized; however, they argue that a listener well-versed in a particular style could “identify a previously unknown piece as an example of the idiom.” Furthermore, they suggest that amongst

“experienced listeners,” there will be considerable agreement on how to hear a piece.47

These criteria are appropriate and the writers are aware that individual hearings may diverge.48 In terms of setting limits, their “experienced listener” seems justified, but in practice, the actual “listener” may be hard to define. For example, what is the borderline between “experienced” and “inexperienced”?

What if a listener can identify Beethoven’s first symphony but not his ninth?

Again, one reaches an impasse.

Moore establishes the strongest argument. Similar to Kennett, he contends, “it is the mode adopted by the listener that determines what the music will yield.”49 Therefore, given that he addresses rock as a “primary text” as “constituted by the sounds themselves,”50 the reader can expect Moore to hear the harmonies, the melodies, the rhythms, and so forth, without necessarily interpreting particular cultural or social meanings embedded in the sounds.

46 Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (Cambridge, MA.:

MIT Press, 1996), 1. Italics are original.

47 Ibid., 3.

48 See, for example, their reference to “conservative” and “radical” hearings of metrical structure, ibid., pp. 22-25.

49 Moore, Rock: The Primary Text, 25.

50 Ibid., 1.

The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology51 highlights the multiple analytical approaches that can arise from such a standpoint. The topics covered in the edition include KT Tunstall’s live performance on Jools Holland using loop technology52; gender construction in rock backing vocals53; and personal interpretations of various songs using Pierce’s semiotic theory.54 The three essays all begin from “popular music qua music” but demonstrate the degree to which various musical elements can be accorded significance within this framework.55

Richardson mentions the harmonic progression used by Tunstall in ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’ (a repetitive, minor blues sequence, i-VII-V7) but focuses more on the instrumental layers created by the singer and her loop pedal. He then considers how her performance and use of technology communicate ideas of authenticity and locate Tunstall within a folk-indie-rock aesthetic.56

By comparison, Fast examines the female backing vocalists in songs by the Black Crowes, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, asking how they convey notions of gender. Like Richardson, Fast refers to the songs’ formal elements but engages primarily in critical interpretations of the vocalists. Thus,

This excerpt [from ‘Great Gig’] sounds like a tortured scream arising out of pain, not like singing at all. The scream ends the overture and ushers in the band; Torry, standing in for woman, gives birth to the album and the narrative.57

51 Derek B. Scott (ed.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009).

52 John Richardson, “Televised Live Performance, Looping Technology and the ‘Nu Folk’: KT Tunstall on Later…with Jools Holland,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology, ed. Derek B. Scott (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 85-101.

53 Susan Fast, “Genre, Subjectivity and Back-up Singing in Rock Music,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology, ed. Derek B. Scott (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 171-187.

54 Allan F. Moore, “Interpretation: So What?” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology, ed. Derek B. Scott (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 411-425.

55 Derek B. Scott, “Introduction,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology, ed. Derek B. Scott (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), 21.

56 Richardson, “Televised Live Performance, Looping Technology and the ‘Nu Folk,” pp. 90-95.

57 Fast, “Genre, Subjectivity and Back-up Singing in Rock Music,” 184.

Fast’s vivid and poetic description serves to “[alter] our perception of the thing we hear” by using metaphorical language58; in other words, she encourages the reader to hear ‘Great Gig’ as a woman giving birth.

By comparison again, Moore explains personal interpretations of songs using Pierce’s classes of signs. Because of his musical training, he responds frequently to details of pitch and harmony. Of The Kinks’ ‘See My Friends,’ he writes,

“Compare three (E) sequences: ii-V-IV-I; ii-V-IV-Ic; ii-Vb-IVc-I. They seem to me to become progressively less assertive, more accommodating; less forceful, more delicate.”59 When discussing The Vapor’s ‘News at Ten,’ Moore similarly emphasises the internal pitch relations — “the [bass] line is beautifully balanced between its outer points (G and E), swinging constantly via the F#.”60

Robert Walser works from a similar position in Running With The Devil. A significant element of the book is analysis of the modes and harmonies used in heavy metal music. Walser justifies this focus through ethnographic research —

“mode is…widely acknowledged by heavy metal musicians as a crucial part of the musical production of meaning.”61 That said, Walser relies almost

exclusively on the recordings, not audience reactions, for his analysis. His work is thus similarly founded on his response to the music.

To summarise, an idealized listener is desirable, but removed from the sphere of musical experience. An entire culture or social group of listeners is unrealistic because it negates individual experiences. The best listener for any analysis is, therefore, the analyst. This, however, raises hermeneutic issues regarding the interpreter’s influence on the textual interpretation. For it seems, in the above examples, that the analysts each hear what they want to hear, in order to satisfy their research aims. The question is whether the analytical process is ultimately subjective, reliant on the whims of a particular individual.

58 Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 373.

59 Moore, “Interpretation: So What?” 418.

60 Ibid., 423.

61 Robert Walser, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (Hannover: University Press of New England, 1992), 46.

The answer to this question is partly yes and partly no. Analysis can be

considered objective insofar as there are developed and established methods for describing the components of European music composed since, approximately, the seventeenth century. That is, if a string is plucked and vibrates at 440 Hz, most analysts will regard this as an A above middle C. If, simultaneously from other strings, frequencies 5/4 and 3/2 times above the A are produced, most analysts will hear an A major triad. And if, in a piece of music, this combination is heard on the stressed beat of the first bar and was preceded by the frequencies of an E major triad, then most analysts will hear A major as the tonic.

Everett states, regarding a I-V7-I progression, “if we do not agree that it shares the same meaning in ‘Twist and Shout’ that it has in Chopin, then we cannot agree that it has the same meaning in Mozart’s 40th Symphony as it has in his 41st.”62 There will be some leeway in interpretation when analysts move to more complex musical details — inversions or chromatic chords, for example — but the basic point stands: analysts and listeners can agree on the fundamental ingredients of tonal Western music, a category to which Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and almost all popular music belong. This is, perhaps, what Wilfrid Mellers had in mind when he spoke of “musical facts.”63 Although not objective in the Aristotelian sense of the word, to posit analysis as entirely subjective is to deny and dismantle the entire musicological tradition. Even with the recent disciplinary debates, few would be willing to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

Ian Bent argues that the analyst’s role is to identify the “constituent elements [of the work] and explain how they operate.”64 It is in this latter task that analysis becomes more subjective. There would be considerable agreement that an A on the downbeat of the first bar, with requisite harmonies, is “operating” as the tonic, but as the essays from the Ashgate Companion to Popular Musicology

62 Walter Everett, “Pitch Down The Middle,” in Expression in Pop-Rock Music: Critical and Analytical Essays, 2nd ed., ed. Walter Everett (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 170-171, n. 24.

63 Wilfrid Mellers, Twilight of the Gods: The Beatles in Retrospect (London: Faber and Faber, 1976), 16.

64 Ian Bent with William Drabkin, Analysis (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987), 2.

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.