Music Description

Reason or Rhyme - Historical Analysis - Gender and Linkin Park - Non-formal Description - Review of Sgt. Pepper’s - Literary Descriptions - Reviews of To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN. - Babylon Montage - Beyoncé at Coachella - The Saxophone

The following pages on music are not intended to be scholarly and will not be of great interest to specialists. They’re intended to help first-year English students write about music in film, TV, credits, and music videos.

Reason or Rhyme

In English essays or exams you can describe music in your own terms, relating it to verbal and visual elements. For instance, in explaining the music in Bryan Ferry's "Reason or Rhyme" you could link a description of the non-verbal sounds to the words and ideas:  

The music is a jungle of pulsing, echoing sensuality, which is accompanied by the singer's notion of "a dance to the music of time." A far-off scintillating landscape of sounds goes up and down, climbing to the "sun and moon and all the stars" and falling back to Earth, as if in willing subservience to the woman who intoxicates him. In a voice matching the smooth, complex music, the singer tells her that the heavenly bodies “bow down” to her whenever she goes by. It’s as if he’s hearing ‘the music of the spheres,’ and she’s creating the tune.


Historical Analysis - Gender and Linkin Park

The following excerpt is from “The Sound of Rage and Sadness: The still-unfolding history of male angst in pop music,” by Spencer Kornhaber (The Atlantic, 10727825, , Vol. 322, Issue 1, the full article in html or pdf is available through the Douglas College Library).

The most important ingredient was Bennington’s wail and whisper, a volatile fuel to be processed by the others. To revisit the video for the 2001 Linkin Park single “Crawling” is to see his powers at full strength, and his special appeal laid bare. At the outset, a music-box ballerina spins, a woman cries into a bathroom sink, a pretty keyboard melody plays, and Bennington screams. The crying woman appears to be in an abusive relationship, and the scrawny singer, his hair in peroxideblond spikes, seems to narrate her emotions. His chorus—“crawling in my skin / these wounds, they will not heal”—is a strained roar, truly volcanic. His verses are soft and mannered. “Against my will, I stand beside my own reflection,” Bennington sings, looking into the woman’s face. Her nose is pierced, as is his lip.

Professional critics found such works mawkish, and heavy-metal purists dissed Linkin Park in crasser terms—gay or, yes, girly. That’s because, for all its testosterone rage, the band violated the notion that to be male is to be steady, unstudied, and tough. Linkin Park’s form of nu metal—the rap-rock style in vogue around the turn of the millennium—was polished and, for the band’s first few albums, notably devoid of swearing. The musicians were genre benders, stitching patches of hard rock, hip-hop, and new wave to a veil of soft, velvety pop. They had young fans and female fans, and young female fans. And they had Bennington: capable of lullaby gentleness and perpetually fixated on his own victimhood.

THIS BLEND, rather than betraying the history of emotionally aggrieved popular music, fulfilled a tradition of complicating the ideal of strong, silent masculinity. Look back at Rolling Stone’s 1969 pan of Led Zeppelin I, which described the high-pitched wails of the lead singer, Robert Plant, as “foppish.” Punk balked at prescribed roles and reveled in sexual transgression. New wavers like Depeche Mode knit the supposedly frivolous and fey sounds of disco into their gloom. Rock misogyny remained alive and well, but these maneuvers encouraged men to communicate in ways that would previously have gotten them labeled wimps.

Grunge, the scruffy rebellion of the early ’90s, most clearly embraced the political potential of such an evolution. The scene was no less male dominated than many rock scenes before it had been, but its practitioners’ moans conveyed a sense of chafing against bodily constraints and cultural expectations. In grunge, the critics Simon Reynolds and Joy Press heard “castration blues, the flailing sound of failed masculinity.” A song like Soundgarden’s “Big Dumb Sex” brutishly satirized the previous decades’ hair-metal machismo: “I’m going to fuck fuck fuck fuck you!” Nirvana’s roaring disdain for the social hierarchies of Reagan-Bush America was conveyed both in Kurt Cobain’s sarcastic lyrics and in his onstage cross-dressing. Sonically, the songs thrived on dichotomies of loud/soft and pretty/grating; the effect was less to gild aggression with sweetness than to wring drama and verisimilitude from the feeling of internal conflict.

Non-formal Description

In Wikipedia's page, "Musical Analysis," you can find these two examples of nonformalized analyses:

Impressionistic analyses are in "a more or less high-literary style, proceeding from an initial selection of elements deemed characteristic," such as the following description of the opening of Claude Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun: "The alternation of binary and ternary divisions of the eighth notes, the sly feints made by the three pauses, soften the phrase so much, render it so fluid, that it escapes all arithmetical rigors. It floats between heaven and earth like a Gregorian chant; it glides over signposts marking traditional divisions; it slips so furtively between various keys that it frees itself effortlessly from their grasp, and one must await the first appearance of a harmonic underpinning before the melody takes graceful leave of this causal atonality" (Vuillermoz 1957, 64).

Hermeneutic reading of a musical text is based on a description, a 'naming' of the melody's elements [... Meyer gives] the following description of Franz Schubert's Unfinished Symphony: "The transition from first to second subject is always a difficult piece of musical draughtsmanship; and in the rare cases where Schubert accomplishes it with smoothness, the effort otherwise exhausts him to the verge of dullness (as in the slow movement of the otherwise great A minor Quartet). Hence, in his most inspired works the transition is accomplished by an abrupt coup de théâtre; and of all such coups, no doubt the crudest is that in the Unfinished Symphony" (Tovey 1978).

Review of Sgt. Pepper’s

The following excerpts are from the The New York Times’s June 1967 “Original Review of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The review is in general quite negative, which is surprising given the status of the album from the Sixties till today. Wikipedia comments: “An important work of British psychedelia, the album incorporates a range of stylistic influences, including vaudeville, circus, music hall, avant-garde, and Western and Indian classical music. In 2003, the Library of Congress placed Sgt. Pepper in the National Recording Registry as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". That year, Rolling Stone ranked it number one in its list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time". As of 2011, it has sold more than 32 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums. Professor Kevin Dettmar, writing in The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, described it as "the most important and influential rock-and-roll album ever recorded".

Like an over-attended child “Sergeant Pepper” is spoiled. It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises and a 91-piece orchestra. On at least one cut, the Beatles are not heard at all instrumentally. Sometimes this elaborate musical propwork succeeds in projecting mood. The “Sergeant Pepper” theme is brassy and vaudevillian. “She’s Leaving Home,” a melodramatic domestic saga, flows on a cloud of heavenly strings. And, in what is becoming a Beatle tradition, George Harrison unveils his latest excursion into curry and karma, to the saucy accompaniment of three tambouras, a dilruba, a tabla, a sitar, a table harp, three cellos and eight violins. […]

“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is an engaging curio, but nothing more. It is drenched in reverb, echo and other studio distortions. Tone overtakes meaning and we are lost in electronic meandering. The best Beatle melodies are simple if original progressions braced with pungent lyrics. Even their most radical compositions retain a sense of unity. […]

With one important exception, “Sergeant Pepper” is precious but devoid of gems. “A Day in the Life” is such a radical departure from the spirit of the album that it almost deserves its peninsular position (following the reprise of the “Sergeant Pepper” theme, it comes almost as an afterthought). It has nothing to do with posturing or put-on. It is a deadly earnest excursion in emotive music with a chilling lyric. Its orchestration is dissonant but sparse, and its mood is not whimsical nostalgia but irony.

With it, the Beatles have produced a glimpse of modern city life that is terrifying. It stands as one of the most important Lennon-McCartney compositions, and it is a historic Pop event.

“A Day in the Life” starts in a description of suicide. With the same conciseness displayed in “Eleanor Rigby,” the protagonist begins: “I read the news today, oh boy.” This mild interjection is the first hint of his disillusionment; compared with what is to follow, it is supremely ironic. “I saw the photograph,” he continues, in the voice of a melancholy choir boy: “He blew his mind out in a car / He didn’t notice that the lights had changed / A crowd of people stood and stared / They’d seen his face before / Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords.” […]

The song is built on a series of tense, melancholic passages, followed by soaring releases. In the opening stanza, for instance, John’s voice comes near to cracking with despair. But after the invitation, “I’d like to turn you on,” the Beatles have inserted an extraordinary atonal thrust which is shocking, even painful, to the ears. But it brilliantly encases the song and, if the refrain preceding it suggests turning on, the crescendo parallels a drug-induced “rush.”

The bridge begins in a staccato crossfire. We feel the narrator rising, dressing and commuting by rote. The music is nervous with the dissonance of cabaret jazz. A percussive drum melts into a panting railroad chug. Then “Found my way upstairs and had a smoke / Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.” The words fade into a chant of free, spacious chords, like the initial marijuana “buzz.” But the tone becomes mysterious and then ominous. Deep strings take us on a Wagnerian descent and we are back to the original blues theme, and the original declaration, “I read the news today, oh boy.”

Literary Descriptions

Here are two literary descriptions of music — from “11 of the Best Literary Descriptions of Music.”

“The theatre doors were closed, but I could hear some music, like a long repetitive whine, coming from upstairs. I went up, pushed the door and it opened… I walked to the front and heard him say, ‘Right, once again, from the twenty-fourth, everyone. Ready,’ and he hummed the melody. [//] The music sounded sad and strange again, even more drawn out. I’d never heard anything like it. I sat down without a sound. I studied the ceiling and empty boxes, and let myself be carried away by the sounds, which seemed to come from the conductor’s arms.” (Angeles Mastretta — Mexican Bolero, Arráncame la Vida))

“Tess had heard those notes in the attic above her head. Dim, flattened, constrained by their confinement, they had never appealed to her as now, when they wandered in the still air with a stark quality like that of nudity… She undulated upon the thin notes as upon billows, and their harmonies passed like breezes through her, bringing tears into her eyes. The floating pollen seemed to be his notes made visible, and the dampness of the garden the weeping of the garden’s sensibility. Though near nightfall, the rank-smelling weed-flowers glowed as if they would not close for intentness, and the waves of colour mixed with waves of sound.” (Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles)


Babylon Montage

In the following excerpt from “Serializing the Past: Re-Evaluating History in Mad Men, Monique Miggelbrink explains how music at the end of a TV show can bring together complex narrative threads and suggest larger narrative arcs.

The sound accompanying the ending credits—realized through instrumentals, original music from the 1960s, contemporary pop songs, diegetic noise or just silence—displays a more or less intense culmination for and commentary on the contents of the discrete episode. In this regard, the show uses music toward narrative functions to bring episodes to an implicit end. The episode “Babylon”, for example, concludes with Don and his mistress Midge attending a performance of the song “Babylon” in a Greenwich Village bar. The old folk song, based on Psalm 137, was adapted and released by the singer-songwriter Don McLean in 1971. The lyrics deal with Jewish exile in Babylon and the quest for unity and match the counterculture setting of the sequence perfectly well. While the song establishes a melancholic atmosphere, it comments on an accompanying montage. Viewers see Rachel Menken, whom Don had courted earlier in the episode, folding ties in her department store, Betty putting on lipstick on her daughter, Sally, each of them absorbed in thought and calmness. While Don is listening intently to the song, Roger and Joan, engaged in a long-term affair, are departing a hotel room, leaving like strangers. The music unites these fragmented images through its affect and tone, highlighting the theme of loneliness. At the end, the song fades into diegetic traffic noise, and finally into silence.


Review of To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN.

The following is from a review of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly — written by Kyle Anderson (Entertainment Weekly, 10490434, 4/3/2015, Issue 1357; available through the Douglas College Library).

POP RADIO AND BRAINY critics alike embraced Kendrick Lamar's 2012 breakout, good kid, m.A.A.d city. And rightly so, though the album was essentially high-minded pastiche: a fun but scrappy grad thesis on the past two decades of West Coast rhyme. Its long-awaited follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly, doubles down on density, embracing the entire history of black American music in the process—not just chest-pounding rap but throwback soul, churning jazz, Sly Stone-style riot funk, front-porch blues, and highly politicized spoken word.

With its heated social commentary and shape-shifting song structures, Butterfly has the freedom of a mixtape—samples range from Michael Jackson to cult folkie Sufjan Stevens—but the production values of an Oscar-worthy cinematic event. For every flag-planting fireball like the thumping "King Kunta" or galvanizing "The Blacker the Berry," there are pauses for affairs of both the heart (the dreamy "Complexion [A Zulu Love]") and parts located somewhere south of it (see: cheeky sex jam "These Walls").

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The following excerpt — from a review of DAMN. by Matthew Trummell — is from Pitchfork, April 18, 2017. The videos “Fear” and XXX” are from DAMN. (2018).

The record’s few lulls succumb to what surrounds them. The springboard bounce of “HUMBLE.,” the war chant of “DNA.,” and hot steel of “XXX.” show Kendrick in his element, fast and lucid, like Eazy-E with college credits and Mike WiLL beats. The production is taut and clean, but schizophrenic, often splicing two or three loops into a track and swaying between tempos, closer in kin to good kid, m.A.A.d city’s siren-synths than Butterfly’s brass solos. If he was “black as the moon” on his last album, he’s an “Israelite” here, refusing to identify himself by the shade of his skin but fluent in the contents of his D.N.A. Butterfly floated along to soften its scathing stance—“We hate po-po” sounds better over a smooth saxophone—but with so many “wack artists” in play, what’s the reward for upliftment? Kendrick is so alone at his altitude that when he acknowledges Fox News, let alone Donald Trump, it feels like a favor to them both.


Beyoncé at Coachella 

The following excerpt is from By Anna Leszkiewicz, in New Statesman (13647431, Vol. 147, Issue 5415, available through the Douglas College Library). I’ve included a crowd’s eye view of the concert as well as the polished official video of “Formation.”

Musically, it was all brass and bass – an outrageous, infectious horn section honked its way through her most iconic riffs, with an emphasis on rhythm in dance breaks full of clapping, shouting and stomping. Beyoncé has so many riffs that make her audiences quiver and shriek with anticipation: from the bouncing vibrations of “Formation” to the distorted whining of “Drunk in Love”.

She teased the audience with mash-ups of several distinctive phrases, or long silences between tell-tale notes. After the line “Suck on my balls, pause” in “Sorry” she stopped the song completely to stage a ritual humiliation of her male dancers that was both tongue-in-cheek and thrilling. Other iconic lines, like “Everything you own in the box to the left” (“Irreplaceable”) and “I’m a – a diva” (“Diva”) became cheerleading chants. For Beyoncé, songs have always been three-dimensional objects, never limited to their existence on her records. With a host of iconic music videos and live performances, and two visual albums, Beyoncé’s music is inseparable from her visuals – and her physicality.

The Saxophone

In the following excerpt (from Per le Antiche Scale, in Italian in Three Months, 1976), Mario Tobino suggests that music is therapeutic and also not dependent on usual definitions of sanity. In this case, the psychiatrist remains in awe of his patient. I’ve included the Italian original and a side-by-side translation. I’ve also included a video of a wonderful saxophone rendition of “Baker Street” by Richi Jones — note the audience that doesn’t even seem to be listening!

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