In David Machin‘s thought-provoking book called “Analysing Popular Music“, he uses a semiotic approach to understanding popular music. Just as the use of certain words and phrases in language has meaning way beyond the literary meaning, so do the various aspects (subject, voice, notes, phrasing etc.) of a song. For example, when the note is number four on the scale, it is not just a note, but also an indication that the song is going somewhere else.
The analyses of David Machin are great. One question is to what extent does analyzing a song make you appreciate/enjoy/love it more? In other words, when you over-analyze a song (or poem, or person, for that matter) don’t you lose the emotional attachment, the ‘magic’?
Some researchers would argue that a romantic approach invokes an irrational/inferior/subjective way of looking at the subject. But when the subject is music, can you ignore the irrational? The emotional? The subjective? After all, most popular songs are about love and loss, not on the second law of thermodynamics.
And yes, as scientists we can try to analyze the weirdest of phenomena post hoc. For example the success of Sukiyaki, a pop song in Japanese of the early sixties. But how many of us could predict that it would conquer the American hit parade twenty years after Pearl Harbor?
In his conclusion, the author grants that the songwriters and performers need to take a leap beyond knowing the tools of the trade. He cites Michael Jackson (page 211) saying that “writing great songs is something you can’t do consciously. Rather you have to let the music come by itself. The job of the musician is to “get out of the way of the music.” Only then can truly great music is made.
The Glossary (starting page 215) is excellent. In my mind, though, one of the main parameters governing the success of a song is “danceability” (I’m sure that Michael Jackson would agree with me here). Can you dance to it, using the style of the era? And perhaps today as well. The way a song coaxes us to snap our fingers, clap, move our head and body, is key to its success. David, we need Volume Two!
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