Analysing Popular Music: Image, Sound, Text

November 4, 2010

Author: David Machin

Edition: First

Publisher: SAGE

Pages: 240

Price: £60.00 and £19.99

ISBN 9781848600225 and 0232

When David Bowie released an album using heavy dance beats was he still a rock artist? And when producer Goldie delivered an hour-long classical piece, did this mean he was no longer a drum and bass artist? The fact is that, musically at least, the structures that define popular music genres are a little more fluid than the music industries would suggest - which makes it hard to analyse music in terms of genre.

Theorists working in the area of popular music studies are well aware of the shifting, almost liquid nature of genre. It is clear that restricting the reading of music style to the music itself is only just part of the story. Such a reading isolates the text from the wider context, which is damaging to any clear understanding. The context in the case of popular music includes things such as subcultural style, imagery, lyrics and even location.

In this innovative and invaluable book, David Machin has attempted to address the areas of representation, textual analysis and semiotics in popular music. He presents complex ideas in a way that will be useful to students of media, culture and communications and to any scholars with an interest in why music is made meaningful but with no background in musicology.

Indeed, a criticism of the text is that its use is limited to beginners, but such an argument overlooks the fact that it provides an extremely useful model for analysis, and one that does not rely on a depth of musicological understanding. Much of this forceful and multi-level book is built on the themes found in discourse analysis and multimodal semiotics. Machin tackles much-discussed areas such as authenticity, mind-and-body split, how we talk about music, subcultural links to music and even creativity versus music corporations.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is one devoted to album iconography, in which he applies his analysis to album covers by bands as diverse as Iron Maiden, Gravediggaz and The Clash. He proposes the ways in which meanings are given through an inventory of modality scales, or the ways in which we read truth into visual representation.

The text really comes to life, however, when Machin applies himself to semiotic analysis of sound and sound qualities, drawing on sounds (pitch, melody and phrasing) that have particular connotations. The use of minor notes in Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine evokes sadness, while songs that use melody that moves between a small number of notes (here he cites the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK) create a sense of brooding or being trapped.

Machin's approach makes it possible to find the hidden meanings that link even the most hard-to-define genre forms, for example Britpop, which appears to be far more about representation than any particular unifying sound. Using the works of Pulp, Oasis and Blur (who musically have very little similarity beyond the standardised pop-rock song structure), he makes a very strong argument for the various extra-textual ways that Britpop can indeed be viewed as a genre.

Ultimately, this essential text allows us to view the "genre-bending" movements of some popular musicians as being less challenging than those artists would have us believe. So, Bowie's adventures can always be read as rock music and Goldie's "classical" music really is a variety of drum and bass.

Who is it for? Ideal for undergraduate students studying music as a medium and for all media students with an interest in analysing music. Music students using musicology as an analytical focus may also find it useful as Machin suggests effective models for the analysis of musical text, context and extra-text.

Presentation: The combination of lyrical analysis, semiotic models of analysis and the study of musical meanings is very useful.

Would you recommend it? I would strongly recommend this book for any music and media students, and for anyone with an interest in developing a deeper understanding of popular music.

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