Brackett identifies “a number of issues critical to the interpretation of popular songs” which will be examined in more detail throughout the book.
Relationships of: text to context, musicians to audiences, style to history, artistry to commerce
Overview of theoretical/methodological approaches:
– Comparison of Billie Holiday and Bring Crosby by analysis of “I’ll Be Seeing You”
– Hank Williams
– James Brown
– Elvis Costello
Synchronic analysis of a series of moments – cross-sectioning permits “the understanding of categories and hierarchies of styles and genres that gain meaning in relation to one another rather than in isolation” (p. 6)
Codes and Competences
“The notion of the ‘musical code’ offers a way of theorizing the connections between musical sound and such ‘extra-musical’ factors as media image, biographical details, mood, and historical and social associations” (p. 9)
Middleton’s two levels of coding – “primary” (form and syntactic relationships) and “secondary” (content and connotation) – both of these “feed into a number of ‘general codes’"
- norms ex: the post-1900 period of popular music
- sub-norms ex: the conventions associated with a particular era – mid-1960’s pop
- style ex: Teenybop, R&B, Motown Soul
- idiolect ex: The style traits associated with particular performers
- works and performances ex: Particular – Jimi Hendrix “Star Spangled Banner” on Live from Monterey
Middleton’s three main forms of “primary” signification – “sens (links “between the verbal signifiers and the musical signifying process), auto-reflection (the way in which structurally equivalent units refer to each other, including quotation, stylistic allusion, and parody), and positional value (the value of an element based on its syntactic position – this is the level that corresponds to the metalanguage of music analysis)” (p. 10)
Examples of Middleton’s “secondary” signification (p. 10):
- Intentional values = These are recognized, intended connotations of specific structural or thematic effects
- Positional implications = These are connotations arising from structural position
- Ideological choices = These are particular, preferred meanings, selected from a range of possible interpretations
- Emotive connotations = These refer to the agreed affective implications of musical events
- Style connotations = These are the associations summoned up by coding at the general level of style
- Axiological connotations = These refer to moral or political evaluations of musical pieces, styles or genres
Brackett notes that the relationship between primary and secondary is a question of relationships and that certain aspects of categories are conceptually dependent upon knowledge from other categories.
Brackett notes that the application of categorized codes may be reductive but that “the do permit discussion of meaning, which forms an important part of the everyday discourse of music” (p. 12)
In using “codes”, there is the question of competence not only with respect to the sender but also with respect to the receiver.
“Gino Stefani has outlined a model of musical competence which, in its hierarchies, parallels Middleton’s presentation of general codes” (p. 12)
- General Codes – basic conventions through which we perceive or construct or interpret every experience . . .
- Social Practices – cultural institutions such as language, religion, industrial work, technology, sciences, etc., including musical practices . . .
- Musical Techniques – theories, methods, and devices which are more or less specific and exclusive to musical practices, such as instrumental techniques, scales, composition forms, etc. It is at this level that one usually finds the definition of music as “the art of sound”
- Styles – historical periods, cultural movements, authors, or groups of works . . .
- Opus – single musical works or events in their concrete individuality
Who is the Author?
The question of authorship is linked to genre: singer/songwriter genre assumes authorship and results in “confessional” being the de facto mode of decoding. The question of authorship must account for “the complexities of the situation” and roles such as “songwriter, instrumentalist, arranger, producer, singer, and ‘star’” (p. 16)
Barthes – unity of text is in the destination not in the origin
Silverman – multiple authorial voices combine within the apparatus to create an author “inside the text”.
Bakhtin – privileged “dialogic” texts over “monologic” texts
“An uncritical application of this concept to discussions of popular music disregards the possibility of different listening situations having types of music most appropriate for them . . .” (p. 17)
Musicology and Popular Music
Context to text
Traditionally, despite their interdependence, contexts have been the focus of sociologists while texts have been the focus of musicologists. Recently, musicologists have been growing more interested in how contexts influence the perception of texts.
Different conventions of aesthetic value – “Art” music revolves around providing a transcendent experience; “Folk” music revolves around providing an authentic experience of community; “Pop” music values are created by and organized around the music industry. . . “Pop” can also “invoke the discourses of the first two. (p. 19)
The Musicological Quagmire
“There is some validity to using musicological discourse to describe popular music . . . In the end, if we attempt to use some aspects of this discourse to analyze songs from heterogeneous cultural contexts . . . then we must ask what guarantees the “fit” between the song, the audience, and the analytical discourse.” (p. 20)
Music in Culture
Brackett acknowledges several problematic issues: the study of popular western music differs from most ethnomusicology in that “the culture studied is not typically one of which the researcher is a member” (p. 22) in ethnomusicology; modern, industrial contexts raise problems that don’t apply in rural, pre-industrial contexts; “subcultural” theories fail to appreciate differences in musical taste within a subculture.
Metaphors for Music: spatial and temporal
Recordings emphasize temporality while written scores emphasize spatiality.
To see or not to see: the question of transcription
“Western notation is primarily prescriptive: it consists of directions for a performance” (p. 27)
“As already intimated in the discussion of musical coding and competence, the connotations of song lyrics are affected by conventions and the genres and styles to which these conventions refer.” (p. 30) Middleton presented a three-part model of words/music relationships:
- “affect”: words as expression – tend to merge with melody, voice tends toward “song”
- “story”: words as narrative – tend to govern rhythmic/harmonic flow, voice tends towards speech
- “gesture”: words as sound – tend to be absorbed into music; voice tends towards becoming an instrument
“A text continues to elicit interest if the questions to which it posed an answer continue to be asked” (p. 6)
“If musical meaning is conveyed through a code that is sent or produced by somebody then it also must be received or consumed by somebody.” (p. 12)
“The advantage of Stefani’s model over either a purely structuralist emphasis on codes which ignores their reception or a Chomskyian notion of linguistic competence which posits a trans-cultural human “nature” into which linguistic structures are programmed, is that it introduces the notion of context.” (p. 13)
“The musical codes and the manner in which the song is performed may either contradict or reinforce the content in the lyrics, adding new layers of nuance by ‘acting out,’ inflecting, and contextualizing them.” (p. 15)
“To some extent analysis – with its emphasis on individual works and their constituent parts – and rhetoric – which emphasizes conventions governing the relationships between pieces – are antithetical concepts. However, the metaphor of music as rhetoric still allows for the description of differences between orations, as well as an understanding of how individual orations follow generic conventions. . .” (p. 25)
“There is not necessarily one way of interpreting popular music, but. . . different types of popular music use different types of rhetoric, call for different sorts of interpretation, refer to different arguments about words and voices, about musical complexity and familiarity, and draw upon different senses of history and tradition.” (p. 31)