As anyone who has read this blog will know, I have developed an ongoing interest in the ways in which music conveys meaning over the last few years. This has resulted in considering many academics’ thoughts – ranging from philosophers such as Susanne Langer (Philosophy in a New Key, 1941) to musicologists such as Phil Tagg (Musical Meanings, 2013), Alan Moore (Rock the Primary Text, 2001, 2013) and many others. Over the next few weeks, I intend to document short snapshots of some of the philosophical positions I have found either useful or interesting in my work as an academic, in addition to some ideas for areas I would like to explore further. There is no room for real detail here – but the intension is for the ideas to inspire further research for both myself and others. So week one – I would like to start with psycoanalytic approaches and musical taste


I have found basic psychological approaches to understanding music interesting – although I need to say up front it is probably the area I know least about. However, when we consider music psycoanalytically, it is possible to put the songwriter/composer on the ‘metaphorical Freudian couch’ – gaining insights into factors such as personality, family background, political convictions etc – that may not be otherwise apparent. I have found this useful with my Sting book for example, when his music often subtly reflects details such as his upbringing in the north east of England, his political convictions, his relationship with his parents etc . However, where as Sting tends to depict his personality in a relatively straightforward manner (although his personae is more complex), Frank Zappa would often disguise his true self by displaying his deeper views via the lens of a character – what George Lipsetz has described as Strategic Anti Essentialism’. Concisely speaking, it is basically easier to say things when you are saying it the via the lens of someone else!


Although it is more useful in terms of how I personally experience as opposed to analyse music, the impact of music on taste’ – or the phrase I prefer, ‘pleasure’ is also interesting, although as stated above, it is an area I have not researched fully. I have dipped in to the work of Immanuel Kant, particularly his notion of subjective and objective taste, but find the notion of been ‘disinterested’ when looking at an aesthetic object problematic. How can we simply switch off our subjectivity in order to judge something like music? Nevertheless, the difference of a piece of music being objectively ‘beautiful’ or subjectively (what Kant called) ‘agreeable’ is interesting. How can we make decisions on music being objectively beautiful? There are no set rules – so do we consider the popularity of a song As part of this discourse? The problem with this position of course is that it has often been influenced by a body called the music industry! Does the music industry actually tell us what good and bad music is? These are small questions that have big answers – and we may be beginning to move away from psycological approaches to music.

Finally, I know that there has been much research into the physiological impact of music on the senses, but have to confess I have not delved into this in any detail. The only books I have read in any detail (although a few years ago) is Hermann Von Helmholtzs’ On the Sensation of Tone (1875) and the really accessible book by Carl Wilson – Lets Talk About Love: A journey to the end of taste (2007). This book is really is worth a read – as the author attempts to understand his own aesthetic opinion of the music of Celine Deon.

So that’s it for this post. The next post will be on music and emotion

I have spent much time over the last several years trying to think more deeply about some of the issues associated with the ways in which students are prepared for higher education music courses. The National Diploma awards which were introduced around 20 years ago were a welcome addition – in particularly for those interested in studying popular music. They do however have their own set of issues – which will not be discussed here. I would instead like to consider the more traditional A Level award.

Having being involved in a number of consultations over the last few years – where I have seen first hand how a variety of exam boards attempt to work within the Department of Education guidelines for music, I think that one of the main issues – is the means of analysis that students are asked to employ, is often simply not appropriate for the style of music being analysed. For example, when attempting to analyse a ‘popular music’ track by Queen or the Beatles – is it reasonable to expect the students to employ the same techniques that would be used to analyse a piece of European classical music? This means of analysis may be easy to grade, as the answers are often either right or wrong, with the emphasis placed on the formal analysis, history, or social context of the music. This leads to questions related to identifying chords/intervals/modes/instruments etc, in addition aural awareness prompts such as ‘fill in the missing notes’ in a score. However, in addition to encouraging students to engage with this sort of formal analysis (which includes identification of the ‘elements of music’ and use of standard music theory) and production of music (for example genre formation, composer intentions, the impact of place and space) – should we be asking students to engage more profoundly with music reception? On a really basic level, this could be achieved by not only identifying the elements of music, but also considering how they can be channels for imparting meaning. This can range from considering how certain sounds reflect specific players, styles or historical periods, to more abstract harmonic progressions or tempos revealing very personal moods/emotions/atmospheres – in addition to encouraging an understanding of how this type of analysis is legitimate and valid.

I have also highlighted a couple of other questions below – which are there to prompt debate more than answer any questions – I am interested thoughts – in particular if anyone thinks there is a need for the Department of Education to change the guidelines for A Level music?

  1. Should we be encouraging students to not only ‘realise a score’, but also transcribe directly from recordings? This is a common practice in popular music and it arguably requires just as much skill as accurately interpreting a score. For example a guitarist duplicating the exact sound, melodies (often solos) and harmonic backing off a record is a skill that requires a great deal of practice – which is arguably not currently being recognised by the Department of Education.
  2. In ensemble work – should we be encouraging students to not only focus on ‘playing their part accurately’, but also listen and respond to what their fellow band members are playing? This does not appear to be currently part of the A Level assessment scheme.

I would be very interested in thoughts and experiences anyone has encountered – including colleagues from outside of the UK. Does your compulsory (pre university) education system facilitate the study of popular music? If so – HOW?

Since starting my Sting book last year, I have become really interested in the relationship of music and memory. Although my Sting book is specifically focused on one musician’s complex love hate relationship with his hometown of Newcastle, something which I have found has assisted my own Akenside syndrome ‘issues’ with the area – my next project is going to be based on Merthyr Tydfil – where I know live. Alongside some colleagues at the University of South Wales, we are currently putting together a bid to the Arts Humanities Research Council related to archiving musical memory in the area. 

Welsh popular music has long been internationally prevalent through artists like Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey during the 1960s, rock bands such as Man, Budgie and Badfinger during the 1970s, The Alarm and The Manic Street Preachers emerging during the mid and late 1980s, and Super Furry Animals and Catatonia during the Brit Pop influenced Cool Cymru period of the 1990s. As recent as 2015, Merthyr Tydfil based quartet Pretty Vicious can be seen to be continuing this tradition – having recently secured a major record deal with EMI. It is apparent however that specific histories and memories of many of the early days of these artists are in the process of being long forgotten.
For example, Man, a well-known progressive rock band of the 1970s evolved out of The Bystanders and The Rebels, both of whom played extensively in local venues in Merthyr in the early 1960s. Although eventually moving to London and working with the likes of producer Joe Meek prior to forming Man, it is apparent that their activities around Merthyr in the early 1960s are still remembered. As controversial to a local web site outlined
“I remember seeing Hermans Hermits at the Castle Cinema backed by the Bystanders”
“The Castle Cinema. I saw Herman’s Hermits there, Pink Floyd, Peter Frampton, Small Faces, Cliff Bennett and The Rebel Rousers”.
“[…] the great folk club in the back room of the Brunswick” which featured Max Boyce.
“I travelled with another band to Ebbw Vale and in a rundown Miners’ Hall was competing in a four band challenge. There was hardly anyone in the audience but one of the other bands was called Tommy Scott and the Senators. Playing to a nearly empty hall, on stage, Tom [Jones] was still just outrageously raunchy. They won; he was just so different, and we were just a bit miffed. Later that year Tom’s life changed forever”.
Other long forgotten Merthyr based artists include The Saints, The Spirals, the Phil Gay Combo ,The Dyneatones (who are remembered as The Palace Cinema resident band), The Trembling Knees, The Crescendos, The Desperados, the Peter Lovis Group, Little alter and the Four Squares, and the Cheating Hearts (featuring Lynn Mittell – who later changed his name to Owen Money and progressed to form The Bystanders). In addition to the fragmented memory outlined above regarding Tommy Scott and the Senators (featuring Tom Jones) playing in Ebbw Vale, they are also remembered as playing in Merthyr, at both the  Palace Dance Hall the Heolgerrig Club.
It is these type of memories the project will attempt to unearth, focusing on the impact of place and space on musical memory, and how technology can capture all of this.
Interestingly, a local photographer recently uncovered a number of boxes With many photos related to 1960s Wales – many of which are based in Merthyr and some of which are music related. Are there similar finds to this related more specifically to music?
Prior to the project starting officially,  am interested in any memories anyone may have – including photos, recordings, ticket scans etc. So – please get in touch.


I took part in some consultancy work at the weekend on the new A Level Music Syllabus. Although the details are confidential for the moment, it got me thinking about the state of popular music based education during the school aged years. It seems to me that there are still some vestiges of the old pre national curriculum ethos in government legislation – where certain types of music are considered more worthy of analysis than others, making it very difficult for awarding bodies to be truly innovative. This mind set goes back as far as Plato – where certain types of art were considered more appropriate than others for the ‘well being of the state’. Being a ‘popular music person’ – I was hopeful when the national curriculum came about 30 years ago – that some barriers were being broken down – but boy this is a slow process. The 2nd factor is once popular music is accepted into a mainstream school curriculum – how do we encourage students to analyse it? Once again in my view – it is here where we need to get the balance between the ‘ease of marking’, the importance of the score – and providing some radical (in the school system at least) methodological techniques that enable school aged children to understand how popular music works. This has to include a  production perspective through to the text itself (which is not necessarily a score) – through to the reception of the music. This reception can be not only be collective (i.e. how audiences consume) but also how individual listeners make sense of what they hear. It is this where I think the most work has to be done, as current government legislation tends to focus on music production (in its broadest sense) and the text itself – with minimal opportunities for semiotic based appraisal.

Ed Mann has recently been in touch with me regarding my post from last week on ‘Zappa and Censorship’. He has informed me that my post seems to have been totally taken out of context on some discussion forums/Facebook sites. Although I have not personally seen any of these dialogues, I want to take this opportunity to try and be as clear as possible about my own position. Firstly, I unreservedly do not condone any ‘anti Gail’ or anti Zappa Family Trust verbal attacks, especially when they are undertaking abusively. I think the paper I wrote on the Zappa Family Trust a few years ago has been misquoted as being anti ZFT – but it is certainly not – it is simply a statement of the facts as I saw them. Although I disagree completely with the notion of withholding permission to perform Zappa’s Music, I do so without holding any personal grudge. The last thing I would want is for me to be responsible in any way for painting a negative slant on Frank Zappa’s legacy. I love his music – and I am grateful to the people who deliver it to us – namely the Zappa Family Trust. Over the last decade, I have attempted to celebrate this man’s music by trying to heighten his presence in the academic community. I certainly do not want to be associated with any hate inspired abusive comments. I am therefore appealing to everyone to engage in debate, but without resorting to hate. I apologise unreservedly if anything I have posted has caused any upset. This certainly was not my intension.

My post the other week about doing a Frank Zappa talk as part of the forthcoming Frank Zappa music festival in Bangor has just taken an unexpected and very disappointing twist. The festival organisers have been told by the Zappa Family Trust, that if I or the Muffin Men partake in the festival – they will not be given permission to play his music! So – I have been told that I can’t do my talk – and I presume the Muffin Men have been informed they can’t perform! On top of a similar situation I had with the 200 Motels at the Southbank last year (where I was asked to write the programme notes for the concert) – it appears that I too, for whatever reason, am being told that I cannot discuss issues relating essentially to freedom of speech. The great irony in this is that the paper that I presume is causing the problem – is actually a tribute to a man who I consider to be one of the greatest composers of living times. Although some people have viewed it as ‘anti’ Zappa Family Trust – in actual fact it is exactly the opposite. Either way – it is a shame that anyone/body has the power to impact the creative decisions of venues and festival organisers. I for one, am pleased that my research has moved on to other areas.

I have been discussing melodic and harmonic analysis with my students over the last few weeks. As a random exercise – we thought it would be useful to consider how some of these techniques are incorporated into the top 10. Although it is difficult to closely consider the vertical aspect of a melody without an instrument (or great ears), it is relatively easily consider the horizontal.  The general conclusion was that much of the music we managed to listened to is divided into either 2 or 4 bar question/answer phases – sometimes fluctuating between the two. Is is also interesting to consider how the interest of the piece is perpetuated when the melody and harmony is seemingly predictable – the interest has to come from somewhere: arrangement, lyrics and production being the main culprits. Many of the students also noted that it was problematic to analyse music they did not ‘like’. This resulted in a discussion surround how far a musician has to compromise in order to make a living out of music!!

What I have documented below are just a few notes of that were discussed – they require far more time to result in a comprehensive analysis – so feel free to add observations.

‘Uptown Funk’ by Mark Ronson: Makes use of lots of direct repetition or rhythmic sequence for question phrase – answer phrase. The harmonic sequence is so simple there would be no need to analyse – but lots could be said about the production.

‘Thinking Out Loud’.  The opening phrase of the verse is very close to ‘direct repetition’ between question phrase and answer phrase. However the subtle change makes the classification ‘rhythmic sequence (See previous posts to understand what this means). The refrain section (2nd section of verse) doubles the length of the question phrase. It is interesting to consider how expectation is set up in the listener – we sort of know what will happen before it happens – the sign of a good pop song! Interestingly – songs like ‘Wish You Were Mine’ play around with the expectations of the listener – as it is difficult to know exactly when a particular section (the verse) is coming to an end until you are more familiar with the song.

These pieces were not closely analysed as we only had time for one listen to all ten songs – but it is clear that the same sort of melodic formulas that were used to write popular song 50 years ago – are still used today – but not all of the time! Some of the dance related tracks, which rely so heavily on repetition sometimes break some of the traditional ‘rules’. As previously stated – once my Sting book is finished – this is an area I will be investigating further – toward the end of the year.



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