Barthes;Foucault and Eco: Impact on Musicological Thought?

A few things to discuss this week. Firstly, I have been working on attempting to formulate an easy to understand musicological model that takes into account production – the music itself – and its reception. I will be discussing this with students over the next few weeks – but I would be interested in any thoughts regarding accuracy – and most importantly – is there anything missing? The link to the model can be found here

Finally, I have been considering how the thoughts of Michel Foucault – What is an Author, Roland Barthes – The Death of the Author, and Umberto Eco – The Open Work – impact music.

Barthes would regard an author as a capitalist construct, and ‘modern’ authors attempt to loosen the connection between art (music) and its creation. I other words the meaning of music is in its destination not origin. Eco links into this – mentioning by name a number of composers who engrain ‘openness’ into their music – something which has ramifications not only for the listener – but also the performer and composer. This begs the question – is ‘a work’ a combination of all of its recordings,performances, rough mixes, cover versions etc – or is it a single instance? If it is the former – how do we negotiate  a piece of music?

Read through the pdf files in the links and let me know.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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19 Responses to Barthes;Foucault and Eco: Impact on Musicological Thought?

  1. Anonymous says:

    What about the way music is listened to, has it got a different meaning if you are at a gig, doing the dishes, chilling out with friends etc. Still trying to get my head round the readings.

    I have always wondered with written classical music is it being performed today as the composer intended as there was no recording equipment around years ago to capture his/her work.

    Thinking of one of the guys you said about, Edward Hanslick, is it possible to see the beauty in the music just by reading the score as Lord Vetinari does in the discworld books by Terry Pratchett.


  2. Benjamin Franks says:

    What about music meaning something different in different situations, like at a gig, doing the dishes, chilling out with friends etc.

    Haven’t got my head round the readings yet.

    Always wondered if classical music played today is how the composers from years ago imagined it as there was no recording equipment to record their wishes.

    Talking about Edward Hanslick, can the beauty of music be seen just by reading the score as Lord vetinari does in the discworld books by Terry Pratchett.

    Benjamin Franks


  3. Polly says:

    I looked at the work of Rowland Barthes and noted a few concepts found within the text.

    Barthes attempts to seperate the concept of artist with the work to which (s)he has created. This notion is based upon the premise that the author’s own personal circumstances ect. are not planted within the music. The music stands independantly from the author. Furthermore, he states that the musical creation is based upon a number of cultural concepts, rather than the life or experiences of the individual (there is no ONE specific reason for the creation of a text, but a VARIETY). Therefore, I suppose this suggests that music is and can be more than a meer reflection of autobiographical notions, but provides a deeper, cultural meaning. Personally, I believe this notion to be slightly dated, given that some motiv, or inspiration must influence the creation of music, even if it is outwith that of culture ect. Personal experiences, although can be seperated from the text, must have been an influence to the creation and inspiration behind the piece.


  4. Simon Parton says:

    I read ‘What is an Author’ by Michael Foucault.

    He discussed the relationship between the author and texts, suggesting that authors are writers but not all writers are authors. He discussed the “death of the author” suggesting that they are only relevant as a part of the written work and its structure. He also proposes that in different discourses and cultures, the author may be viewed differently, as he states the author does not affect all discourses in a universal and constant way. In terms of popular music, perhaps this can be looked at in terms of how artists/composers are viewed in different discourses and how much of there work (i.e rough workings) contributes to the finished product and their status of an author.

    In terms of the musicological model, what about musical behaviours/practices that contribute to the consumption of the music similar to what Ben mentioned – sharing/socialising/influence etc…


  5. Gethin Ivins says:

    Reading the “What is an Author?” notes Foucault suggests that when trying to analyse a piece of music or indeed a specific artists style or genre, then you must study wider aspects than just musical factors – i.e. stepping outside of the box so to speak. Follows on from Simon’s point about authors being viewed in different cultures and such. Foucault also mentions how these discourses are different from our own discourses and if we reject these discourses then are we “missing out”.

    “The Open Work” link was unsuccessful and said it was missing.

    Gethin Ivins


  6. Michael Wright says:

    With regards to the musicological model, in our current era of ‘force-feeding’ listeners a small sample of songs through technologies such as radio/TV. On the other side of the coin, how the Internet has affected listeners musical choices. Again referring back to Ben and Simon’s point – linking to sharing/socialising/influence.

    I read “The Poetics of the Open Work” by Umberto Eco. This seems to suggest that musical writings are to open to numerous degrees of interpretation: whether this be emotional response, physical response, performance. What would be interesting to further explore is the relation instrumental music has with a listener, and whether certain personality traits are shared amongst those who actively listen to such music.

    Furthermore, exploring the concept that musical writings can be seen as a structural formula, where certain rules are adhered to in a given work, in order to achieve a particular outcome. For example, in classical discourse, how the writings are rooted in absolute replication performance after performance; are there any classical anomalies that offer freedom; and the reasons that these characteristics differ from other discourses.


  7. Mike Despres says:

    I read Rowland Barthes – The Death of The Author.
    I think that the overall message in this essay is that: even though the Author may have been through traumatic things to write certain pieces of work, how would the listener perceive that? They certainly cannot know unless a biography is printed with it which it often is not. As Barthes suggests, text is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.”

    I think in terms of music this means that the perhaps the true author or composer who wrote that certain melodic line, has had that line repeated and repeated over and over, which has lost the true intentions which it once had.

    However I liked the ending where he says:
    “we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth”

    Which in my view means that you have to let go of the real meaning of something for something else to take over.


  8. Benjamin Franks says:

    I also had a look at Michel Foucalt – what is an author. I found it quite interesting that people’s writings would not be considered worthy of praise if they are not distinguished as authors. In the modern world would John Lennon’s drawings be as celebrated as they are if he was someone else and not famous. Would rubbish songs by well known artists also be successful too.

    John Cage makes a lot of noise, yet his output is considered musical work, is his banging of pots and pans (we all have done it) when he was younger a work and why not my inane whistling when I potter about.

    I read something last year about an experiment where a group of people who knew Pink Floyd were played a modern orchestral piece and told it was by Roger Waters. Another group was played the piece and wasn’t told it was by Roger Waters. It was really by a composer from Japan I think.

    The Roger Waters’ group liked it more because they liked Roger Waters


  9. Claire Laurenson says:

    I read Foucault’s article, and found it hard to deduce much from it since he’s taken so many of his points as far as they can go, I think. One thing that might be worth mentioning – though perhaps I’m just reiterating what he’s said, when he was speaking about Nietzsche’s work – is the problem encountered when trying to define a ‘work’. He speaks about the rough writings that may have been found after Nietzsche’s death, and why his rough drafts for his published works differ from random notations of addresses or personal lists. It could be said then that a work is only a work if the author intended it to be so – but would this be true in every case? There is no appropriate definition for a work, so although a random list written by Nietzsche should most likely not be considered worth publishing, there is no real proof that it is not.
    Even if the theory I just proposed about the author’s intentions was true, there’s then the problem of defining the ‘author’, which the whole article was based around.
    It’s a difficult thing to talk about, as Foucault says himself at one point in relation to one of the issues he raises – “Far from offering a
    solution, I shall only indicate some of the difficulties that it presents”. I feel like that’s mostly what the article does – it’s very interesting to read and to think about, but no real conclusions can be drawn from it.


  10. Claire Laurenson says:

    Foucault does also makes quite a lot out of the supposed relationship between writing and death – at first I think he’s just referring to the way an author can be granted immortality through his work, but then he goes on to speak about creative work “possessing the right” to kill its author. Here he refers to the three writers Flaubert, Proust and Kafka, and I’m not entirely sure what he means by this. I read up on those three authors and found that Proust apparently spent the last few years of his life in self-imposed solitary confinement in order to finish his book – but I can’t seem to find any kind of similar information relating to the other two authors. Maybe I’m taking his words too literally.


  11. Phil Johncock says:

    I read Roland Barthes’, “The Death Of The Author”. In summary, he draws a distinction between the author and the text, questioning their power over the text. He suggests that the importance of the ‘person’ attributed to a text is structured from “positivism”, “epitome” and a “culmination of capitalist ideology”.

    What this means for popular music is, a successful piece would be viewed as the work of a “meditator” not a person’s own genius. Barthes’ statement that the author is a modern figure, a product of our society, is one which, in my opinion links closely with the visual artist/performer, the face of the music, to who the prestige seems to be owed.

    Barthes reiterates the distinction between the author and text; “it is language which speaks, not the author”. In terms of music, this holds the view that when people listen to music, they are not hearing into the meaning portrayed by the artist/composer but by musical devices. what I would be interested in is why the artist/composer chooses the musical devises, if it is after all because of their personal backgrounds or something else entirely.

    “The removal of the Author… transforms the modern text…and read in such a way that at all its levels the author is absent”. Barthes goes further still to suggest that the idea of the author as a vessel for music puts a limit on the text. Again, this can be applied to pop music culture. On discussing popular music meaning, Frith 1987 states “we are not free to read anything we want into a song” suggesting because artists/authors are prevalent factors in the pop music culture, the limit that bathes talks about is prominent. and with the ‘correct’ emotional responses hinted through music videos, the limit is even more definitive.


  12. carza says:

    Interesting. I think he is simply referring to the autonomy of the text – we need to put it to ‘death’ in order to realise it’s full potential. However, from what I remember Kafka ended up going insane.


  13. Sean Kelly says:

    I read Roland Barthes “The Death of The Author”. The overall impression I inferred from this text was that the authors idolization is misplaced as it is the reader who is the decider of a texts mention or communication.

    Through the comparison between primitive societies and modern capitalistic cultures Barthes draws a line showing how one author is an intermediary between the story and its spectators. In contrast, the author of a work in a modern society is seen as a creator, and that their creation is an artifact of who they are (“Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, Van Gogh’s work his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice”).

    Using Mallarme’s thoughts on the subject would have us believe that literature (as an entity perhaps?) is far more important than anyone working to create a “piece” of literature. Bouvard and Pecuchet’s thoughts are similar, stating that any persons attempt at creating a new text is nothing more than a form of imitation and replication of the past.

    Bathes’ conclusion seems to put forward the idea that the reader of a text is the true controller of its meaning. While the author has taken the time to amalgamate separate cultures into a larger dialogue between one another that only means they have created a text that consists of many things that have at one point, already existed. The reader in this circumstance, has the power to decipher a text how they see fit.

    A link to highlighted parts and annotated thoughts –


  14. Evija Dreimane says:

    I read the essay “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes.
    He suggests that the author is ‘the man who writes’. The beginning of writing is ‘the death of the author’, which afterwards creates a freedom for the reader. Ways in which the reader interprets or judges the work are more important than the original reasons why the writer wrote something. The meaning of the book ‘lies in its destination, not the origins’.
    Furthermore if you look from a different viewpoint, is there the author at all, maybe he or she is just a writer, and maybe we all are readers. Someone made words, put them into the dictionary and figured out how to build a sentence etc. Is he/she the author? It is all about the language, the writing, not the author. The author is just someone who is using the language, rephrasing and recycling words, building sentences or simply doing things that have been already done before in terms of language and writing. Quoting Barthes ‘the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.’ Is that all it takes to be the author (‘eternal copyist’)?


  15. Steffan Hughes says:

    I enjoyed Foucault’s early argument- “How can one define a work amid the millions of traces left by someone after his death?” Given that this was written in 1969, it is a fair enough argument, but surely is out dated now due to technological advances in most recent years. Arguably, the internet is now a blank canvas for any author that wants to publish/post/display their work to a wide audience. Pre-internet it would have been far harder to find traces of work but blogs/ social network sites e.t.c have now embedded everything we post and write for future generations to read. In a musical content, the “importance of the autho”r has been highlighted in the last century due to copyright laws. The collection societies (PRS, MCPS etc.) are something that emphasises the importance of the authors belonging. This is something that was not operable centuries ago but by now may mean that the txt is slightly out dated.


  16. Lewis Jones says:

    I read Foucalt’s “What is an Author?” and ascertained that what he is doing is questioning and examining the relationship between the author and his/her work. He distinguishes between scientific initiators of theory, psychological and philosophical writers like Freud and Marx who “open the flood gates” to discourse, and literary authors who currently face he predicament of being seen as less important than the work they are producing. He also argues that society creates the ‘author’ according to signs and features of his/her work and modifications of his/her perspectives seen in his/her other works.
    Similar ideas can be found in a musical context. Songwriters who took current styles and broke rules by modifying elements of their style and structure created the Motown, punk, new romantic and dance genres. Unless the songwriters were also the artists, their status also faded until new songwriters used similar processes to the ones they had used. Examining styles, clues, common themes and musical structure is analogous to the process that is used when identifying authors.


  17. Anonymous says:

    Katy Lewis
    I read ‘What is an Author’ by Michael Foucault,

    He discusses many things about authors names, significant authors names and how people perceive them, if they are attached to certain accredited affiliations, they have achieved a status and therefore we should believe their work. As Simon and Lewis add, Foucault believes authors are writers but not all writers are authors, many people can write something, but not everything has an authors name attached.
    When he talks of fictional writers, he mentions that they aren’t voicing their personal expressions, that they have no personal boundaries and no restraints; once the prosody is down the author has been disregarded and has no name. But isn’t that what fictitious authors want, for the public to be immersed in their work?.


  18. Katy Lewis says:

    Katy Lewis
    I read ‘What is an Author’ by Michael Foucault,

    He discusses many things about authors names, significant authors names and how people perceive them, if they are attached to certain accredited affiliations, they have achieved a status and therefore we should believe their work. As Simon and Lewis add, Foucault believes authors are writers but not all writers are authors, many people can write something, but not everything has an authors name attached.
    When he talks of fictional writers, he mentions that they aren’t voicing their personal expressions, that they have no personal boundaries and no restraints; once the prosody is down the author has been disregarded and has no name. But isn’t that what fictitious authors want, for the public to be immersed in their work?.


  19. Ben Roach says:

    Having read ‘The Death of the Author’, it is apparent that Barthes is asserting the relative insignificance of the author of a text, when compared with the reader, in establishing meaning. I agree with this contention; if the author was the deciding factor in the creation of meaning, music would lose its universal value and appeal. Granted, the authors of popular music works usually command a great deal of power over the listener’s (especially initial) impressions, however, it is they (the listener) who control the ultimate meaning derived from the work – “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.


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