The Use of Loops in Popular Music

I am presenting a paper with a colleague on the creative use of ‘loops’ at a conference at Liege University in early March. To get some creative ideas flowing, I thought it would be useful to blog the development of my thoughts. The conference abstract is as follows –

The Impossible Made Real: An exploration of the immediacy and hypermediacy of signal processed loops on in the work of electric guitarist composers.

All popular music has a degree of repetition at a micro and/or macro level, a paradigm that has also been shown to be true in both the European classical tradition and music of most other cultures. The occurrences of these events can range from the smallest motific melodic fragment, to ‘phrase’ (question/answer) and ‘section’ (verse chorus) repetitions, to riff based harmonic/melodic patterns.[1] These repetitions usually occur on an intra compositional basis, but as evidenced by the pervasiveness of sampled loops in contemporary dance music and rap, can also work on inter compositional levels, resulting in potential conceptual allusions of musical (and non musical) factors between texts. This paper intends to examine the creative incorporation of a specific type of repetition in popular music, that of loop-based composition and improvisation within the work of electric guitarist composers. After presenting a brief overview of the history of tape and digital based looping as pertinent to popular music and the electric guitar in particular, the paper will examine the means through which looping enables guitarists to interface with listeners on a more profound level than more widely debated performance paradigms, with analysis not only able to consider factors such as technical capacity, timbre generation, versatility etc,  but also the intricacies of the disembodied voice that looping precipitates.[2]As noted by academics such as McClary,[3] Auslander[4] and Zac[5] electronic modes of production often aim to precipitate ‘immediacy’ in the listener, becoming noticeable only when closely scrutinizing the text. However, loop based guitarists such Robert Fripp, David Torn and Bill Frisell often straddle the divide between the immediacy of more conventional electric guitar performance paradigms and the practice of hypermediacy, where the music acknowledges multiple acts of representation and makes them apparent to the listener.[6] Susan McClary’s observation that ‘the closer we get to the source, the more distant becomes the imagined ideal of unmediated presence and authenticity’[7] is noteworthy, and this paper intends to implement this methodology by exploring the means and impacts through which the listener and performer can interface with both ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ environments, including the man vs. machine dynamic.

Although the subject matter of this abstract focuses on guitar players, and is very likely to change slightly, we intend to build a typography of the use of loops in popular music, before figuring out how selected guitarists use them.  Over the next few weeks I will be presenting some initial thoughts on the ways that loop’s can be considered both on the impact of the original source, and also the ways in which they have been creatively employed in the new work.

More later – but any thoughts off anyone in the meantime very welcome.


[1] Richard Middleton refers to short and long repetitive cells as musematic and discursive respectively.

[2] Alongside its associated lack of authenticity.

[3] Andy Bennett, Barry Shank, and Jason Toynbee, The popular music studies reader (Routledge, 2006), p23.

[4] Philip Auslander, Liveness (Routledge, 2008), p76.

[5] Albin Zak, The poetics of rock (University of California Press, 2001), p47.

[6] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation (MIT Press, 2003), p.33.

[7] Sheila Whiteley, Andy Bennett, and Stan Hawkins, Music, space and place (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p167.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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2 Responses to The Use of Loops in Popular Music

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