Where Does The Meaning Lie in Music?

Ok – this is a new type of blog entry for me.  I am going to experiment with discussing some of the issues me and my students are dealing with in my Musicology Class at the ATRiuM in Cardiff. We are currently dealing with the various ways that a piece of popular music can be analysed – and have looked at a continuum which starts at a rationalistic/absolutist approach to ‘truth’ (inspired by Plato, then taken on by Descartes, and incorporated by early pre popular music musicologists such as Guido Adler and Eduard Hanslick, compared to an empirical/more personal perspective of what the meaning of music is. So – the task for this week was to read through the following articles: Stan Hawkins article entitled ‘Prince: Harmonic Analysis of Anna Stesia‘ and Sound, text and identity in
Korn’s ‘Hey Daddy’
.

The big idea is to encourage discussion on how the author negotiates this epistemological divide. Watch this space

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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14 Responses to Where Does The Meaning Lie in Music?

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  2. Luke says:

    Ive just read through “sound text and identity in Korns music”. I like how he’s made connections between certain musical/sonic components of the song and thoughts and feelings that are put across in the lyrics. I think in this case, with Korn, a lot of the assumptions he’s making about menaings of lyrics or musical components are true but i don’t think its necessarily true with every genre of music. For example, If you were trying to analyse meanings from say a jimi hendrix song – the lyrics and music are so abstract that they dont necessarily offer themselves up for obvious interpretation.

    Another problem with doing this, is it is a completely personal opinion. You can draw from conotations associated with certain tonal aspects – for example, a minor chord is going to sound sad (a simple one). But its really a personal opinion and if music conjours certain emotion in someone, that isnt “usual” or expected – no one can say that its the wrong way to interpret that music.

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  3. Luke says:

    Ive just gone on to read the rest and my second point is mentioned – nevermind!

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  4. Luke says:

    Also, when he analyses lyrics, i dont think he gives the meaning of lyrics enough thought, or is maybe approaching them in the wrong way. Saying that people can only relate to the lyrics if they reflect a personal experience directly, he doesnt mention the possibility that lyrics are there for the listener to interpret and to relate to thier own experiences, as they wish.

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  5. Michael (spud) says:

    In agreeing with Luke about the lyrics, a listener will interpret meanings from lyrics differently from other listeners. It even says in the article that the Korn singer was abused by someone and his parents didnt believe him – but listeners thought that his parents were the ones abusing him – lovely! But you get the point.
    It also says in the article that the instruments are ‘crucial to the depiction of the meaning of the text.’ Im not sure about this. The chorus seems to fit with the lyrics because its pretty heavy and angry. Though the bassline and the guitar parts in the verses seem quite funky, which doesnt really fit with the horrible lyrics.

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  6. Tim says:

    The article does seem to try and pin-point how the lyrics fit with the music and I think the author does a good job of this. There is obvious comparison between the music and the lyrics. However some of the musical ‘meanings’ he picks out seam to be a little tenuous. The table summery of the instruments and their meanings seams a little rushed and I think maybe more analysis of the sound world Korn create would have been more beneficial. For example the vocal line in the chorus symbolises anger, however the line is not shouted by Jonathan Davis, it is distorted afterwards. This distortion gives the chorus that angry feel in my opinion. Several studio techniques were employed (from what i can hear) to achieve this end. These techniques are perhaps more crucial to the piece than the harmony itself

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  7. Patrick says:

    I found the Korn article interesting and agree with what everyone’s said. I’m generally not a fan of the author’s style. To me it feels like he’s missed the point a bit in a few places. As Spud said he hasn’t really seemed to pick up on the juxtaposition of the sound we hear and the lyrical content.
    I think the table that highlights what each instrument part is doing and the interpretation of it is interesting and I liked the analysis on paper, but, as soon as I listened to the song I felt the author was reading too much into everything. Alot of the sounds that are heard on this track seem to be heard alot on that album (From a first quick listen that is- I’m actually completely unfamiliar with Korn). The use of the whammy sound in the verse and the use of that gnarly distortion in the chorus combined with tortured vocals are repeated on almost every track it seems. From what I understand it’s all just part of Korn’s unique sound rather than something used for a specific meaning on one track. This might not be true but it’s just what I took from it.
    I think the analysis of Anna Stesia was a much better read. I didn’t agree with everything but the approach seemed to be more based in some music theory to back up a few points and whatnot. The author broke down the track and analysed the chords used and the structure. It just seemed more in depth to me so it was easier to get on board with what was being written.

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  8. rob says:

    I found the Korn article more interesting as some of the points seemed like assumptions but not necassarily ‘the truth’ of the piece. I agree with Pat’s comment that a lot of Korn’s music is also based on this style and sound, and that that detracts some of value of what he is stating.

    I thought the Anna Stesia analysis was much more effective because of how he broke the track down and then related the different parts to eachother. For examples ‘using a Csus chord to convey the sound of longing for the girl’ of which he is singing about.
    He also had a well balanced analysis which considered all aspects of the track.

    Korn’s music seems very easy to judge by ‘face/ear value’, however he seems to be going to far the other way and looking into it too much.

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  9. rob says:

    oh and the table used in the Anna Stesia analysis seemed very useful as it allowed easy analysis of the instrumentation, structure, texture, and chord progressions.

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  10. calum says:

    fusion is a very vague term to use to categorise your music although it is most definately becoming a more appropriate term these days with the emergence of so many genres, or subgenres that are just that, a fusion. Maybe if the term was slightly more specific, in the case of Korn Metal/ Rap fusion.

    I agree with the author that it is important to look into the personal lives of the musicians themselves, in this song it is definitely the case, but in other musics not so necessary.

    I agree with the point raised by Patrick that the whammy sound and gnarly distortion are merely characteristics of Korn’s music, they may appear to represent abuse and frailty but i doubt the artistes thought this deeply about it while making the track!

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  11. Jamie says:

    Just read the Korn analysis of ‘Hey Daddy’. An easy read, I like how he begins with a brief description of the genre Nu-metal and what it contains to differ to heavy metal. Also, he describes the music theoretically by explaining the modes and timbre of instrumentation. This gives a basic view of what the track is going to sound like before you’ve even heard it.

    I agree with Luke about the fact that people interpret lyrics in different ways. Korn were one of my favourite bands, started listening to them when I was 11/12ish, not much of clue about what the lyrics meant in this track ‘Hey Daddy’ or the rest, I think I just assumed that he was talking about some enemy/bully who’d really affected him emotionally. However, I could relate to the sub-genre as I listened to other bands like Godsmack and Limp Bizkit too. It’s originality and creativity of the music (even though the riffs are quite straight forward to learn and play, as Pieslak said), the ‘clicky bass’ and heavily dropped tuned guitars (7 string).

    Pieslak mentions how the music brings out the meaning of the lyrics, wah-wah to represent child’s muffled cries, high-end EQ bass to represent sleazy drunk father.(as Patrick says, the entire album of tracks are very similar in style, I’d argue their entire material is very similar) and they often follow the same structure of low dynamic verse with Phrygian motifs, and then the dynamics heighten for the chorus with the overall texture ‘sounding’ larger but just due to the distorted guitar power chords and heavy cymbal crashes breaking through, sometimes doubling the tempo. Dynamics and timbre techniques are common with Korn to establish emotions through form.

    The most important part which I agree with is that he believes each culture has its own musicology.

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  12. Luke Thomas says:

    In reference to the coming final essay; I feel it is worth pointing everyone in the direction of the Anna Stesia paper – when writing any musicological analysis I feel it is always going to be very difficult to discuss a particular section of the piece of music – without taking a fair chunk of the word count out simply trying to explain which section it is that is being discussed. In addition to what Rob said above; I feel we can all learn from the very precise and clear form chart displayed at the beginning of the Anna Stesia paper. Without taking from the word count all sections are clearly laid out for the reader in a very simple way – it is then possible to reference sections of the chart when discussing elements of the track (rather than needlessly spending your time trying to describe which bit of the track you’re talking about).

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  13. John Nicholas says:

    I’ve just been doing some work on how the meaning of a song is portrayed through its lyrics. I believe that in one way, the poetry of a song is what holds most of the meaning because the meaning is captured in words and is presented in such a way that all you have to do is know the language to understand it. Through my analysis, I have found a designated meaning of a track from the background and the lyrics and then see how this particular meaning is channelled through different elements of the song – melody, harmony, intervals, rhythm etc. The meaning of a track can be put forth in the lyrics but as Felix Mendelssohn claims “musical expressivness” is too specific to be put into words or captured in a simple formula”.
    One of the main ways i’ve found that a music’s meaning is transfered from composer to lisenter is through emotion.
    I’ve been looking at the work of Stephen Davies (Musical Meaning and Expression), he states two theories regarding the song’s message evoking emotion in the listener, the expression theory (which focuses more on the composer and their emotion is expressed in the musical work, this gives it its meaning) and the arousal theory (the musical work gets its meaning from the emotion that it evokes in the listener – e.g if the listener is saddened by a piece of music, the music is therefore sad. He also states that “Music is a vehicle for the communication of human feelings” (Davies 1994:170)

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  14. Chloe Cooke says:

    The form chart displayed in the article ‘Prince: Harmonic Analysis on Anna Stesia’ by Stan Hawkins was visually refreshing to look at after reading the analysis of the piece. I felt like the table was able to sum up the composition without having to use up more word count in the article. Personally, I find it easier to comprehend the concept of harmonic analysis by looking at something visual. I appreciate the fact that this article allows readers to do so. From looking at the arrangment in chart form, the table makes the composition seem very complex. However, after analysing the table, the arrangement of the song is made very clear, which makes following the analysis much easier.

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