Semiology in Music: Phil Tagg as an example

OK. This week’s musicology session examined the techniques employed by Phil Tagg – on of the most influencial musicologists when it comes to popular music. The powerpoint is included below, but the key questions I am asking the students to focus on include

  • Finding an analysis object
  • Identifying some ‘parametres of musical expression’
  • Describe a couple of musemes
  • Indentify 3-4 ‘inter objective comparison materials’ (music that sounds like the original track)
  • Identify emotional responses to both the ‘analysis object’ and the ‘inter objective comparison material’

Sounds complicated, but its not. I think one of the most useful things that come out of this is for the musician to consider why they respond to music in specific ways, and to consider the the emotive response is personal or universal.


About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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3 Responses to Semiology in Music: Phil Tagg as an example

  1. Curtis Edwards says:

    A good song to analyse is Hold Out by the reign of kindo. Youve probably never heard the band but theyre worth checking out kind of a jazzy proggy melodic pop/indie/alt rock band. The song opens with some really dreamy/floaty chords which pass in and out of each other. A parametre from this could be sadness or upset due to the minor notes expressed in the chords which are built up with the use of drums and 3 part harmonies which bring the intro to a crescendo till everything breaks down to a simple jazzy drum pattern which is very light and gives off a latin feel. Minor melodies in the vocals progress in the song giving the song a powerful feeling of sadness whilst the frenetic instrumentation gives more of a sense of confusion or aggression to the music. The title hold out really does make the song sound as if its last ditch attempt at trying to achieve something(pulling out all the stops)

    Musemes- Guitar in the chorus(Im holding on for dear life) Very spanish…possibly playing either a harmonic minor or phrygian phrase.

    Piano chords in the verse. Triplets which add notes in progressing up and down scales…broken chords. Sound as though they are leading up to something(evidently the chorus) which builds tension.

    Musical interlude after first chorus- Possibly dual guitar harmonies with a piano all playing at the same rhythm but different notes. Creates a very proggy feel of playing quick melodies together using different instruments…something frank zappa or yes were associated with.

    Inter objective comparison materials-

    Mars Volta-Drunkship of lanterns….similar drum rhythms…latin rhythms associated with Mexico and other latin countries.

    Muse-Dark Shines- The guitar plays around with similar phrasing seen in the song using phyrgian and harmonic minor melodies which wouldnt be seen out of place in flamenco music.

    Grammatics-D.I.L.L.E.M.A. – both singers in grammatics and reign of kindo show a similar style to their vocals…both draw out notes with a crisp clear voice which doesnt carry too much vibrato and both experiment with falsetto.

    Emotional responses- Drunkship of lanterns in comparison to hold out is much more frantic and aggressive giving a powerful mysterious vibe to the music whereas minor melodies are emphasised more in hold out giving it more of a feeling a of sadness.

    Dark shines in comparison has more of a sinister vibe to the music due to the content of the lyrics and the way they are sung …. although minor melodies are shown through out due to the heavier feel of the song it is more powerful then Hold Out and feels more melancholic.

    Dilemma in comparison is more mysterious and proggy which doesnt give off as much of a sadness due to the strange choice of instrumentation the band employ such as heavy violin/guitar breakdowns and again is more powerful which has made me consider the fact that of all the songs which sound like hold out none convey quite as much sadness and that maybe it is very unusual for a band to use minor and phyrigian phrasing with latin rhythms to create a sad melodramatic pop song.


  2. Michael (spud) says:

    The song I choose to analyse was A Crow Left Of A Murder by Incubus.
    It starts with electric guitarist Michael Enzinger playing the main riff which is very speedy and aggressive. This is possibly caused by its repetitive nature and, the first museme i will describe, the way it ascends and descends in pitch with one note using a minor 3rd, giving the riff a funk/blues-feel. The use of repitition with the riff acts as a call and response, making it sound as if two guitars are playing although its played on just one. This again adds to the blues feel of the riff and reminds me of Everything Is Broken by Bob Dylan, with the repetitive riff and the rise in the bass note, until returning again to the orginal riff. Both songs, with the use of this call and response mechanism, obtain a driving rhythmic feel. There is also a noise at the start made by DJ Kilmore, which almost sounds like the tuning of an old radio. This, I feel, although small and short, is very prominant to the songs mix and feel at the start.
    The drums and bass guitar kick in after the four bar intro of the song to create the first verse, giving the song a huge injection of energy and pace. The bass guitar mimicks the electric guitar, making it sound even more dominant and aggressive. The drums are quite straight forward in the verses, with the bass drum accenting the rhythm played on the electric and bass guitars, similarly to This Is A Call by Foo Fighters. The vocals are very short one word lines drawn out over four bars, with a small quick phase to accent the arrival of the chorus. The vocals here are similar to the vocals in Weak and Powerless by A Perfect Circle, with the phrase ‘weak and powerless’ drawn out over four bars in the chorus and with the words ‘over you’ quickly sung to mark the arrival of the verse. Also the words ‘yeah do you get it’ are repeated here with the guitars accenting it, creating a distinct museme.
    In the chorus both guitars play a three chord pattern which accents the vocal melody, making it sound distinctly epic. The drums also play in half-time, adding to this epic feel, and again accenting the vocal melody. This is similar to Tonight, Tonight by the Smashing Pumpkins, with the drums going half time in the chorus to accent the vocal melody, giving the song an epic feel.
    The bridge is the final section that is different and prominant in the song. The drums cut down to rim-shots, and then half way through, after four bars, start playing normal snare hits on every beat, giving the bridge a build and again a dominantly rhythmic texture. And with the arrival of the chorus, the drums drop out completely. This is unexpected and gives the song a very interesting twist, almost tying in with the songs title, which means to not follow the crowd or the norm. The vocals are left alone with the main guitar riff singing the words ‘un…learn….me’, almost in a sinister chromatic rise of pitch before giving a dramatic drum roll to end the song with a chorus repeat.


  3. Anonymous says:

    i thought a good song to annalyse using this methodology was northen lites by super furry animals.
    there is a musesme in the form of the mariatchi trumpet line and this also doubles as an inter objective comparison for example propane nightmares by pendulum (also at the begining.)
    or the latin rhythm section samba pa ti or other santana tracks also the kettle drum line used in various clypso tracks such as the beats on by world order.

    in the case of the trumpet parts of each songs they both provide the emotional response of something that eludes to being far away from track that is about unfold taking you somwhere else before the mathem starts. and you can identify this clearly in both tracks. one because of the calypso beat and the other because of the banging synthetic beat which have no relation to the organic trumpets.


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