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Analyzing What Exactly? The Quirky Ontology of Listening as Text

A university conference on record production? What on earth will they find to talk about?


Abstract of a paper presented at The Art of Record Production Conference 2005 at the University of Westminster...

Most semiotically-influenced methodologies of pop music analysis favor the recording as the central 'text' for analysis or close-reading. Moore's concept of 'affordance' and Tagg's 'hermeneutic-semiological method', for example, espouse successfully the benefits of close-reading the sound-content of a recording, and of exhausting the range of meanings the listener can create from it. However, this approach rests upon certain assumptions about the listening experience which obtain increasingly infrequently in today's mass-mediated, ubiquitous musical landscape. In particular, the analyst has a privileged position as listener: s/he has ample time in which to cognize repeatedly a favorite recording through headphones at home, without distractions, and with full control over volume. This sort of analysis, though, is unlikely to bear any similarity to that of a partially deaf listener forced to endure snatches of the same recording in a supermarket, say, nor to that of someone for whom the song connotes irredeemable sadness.

Indeed, recent empirical studies on the unpredictable mundanely (sic - 'mundanity'?) of everyday musical listening, by de Nora and Crafts, among others, celebrate the personalized nature of musical meaning, dependent upon factors of personal demography, local situation, temporary emotional state, and so on. Because of these variables, there is a need for music analysis to borrow from ethnomusicology, and to focus upon the individual listener's use of music, rather than on the seemingly objective musical recording itself, as the main object of analysis in a world of bipods, misheard lyrics and barely noticed background music. My 'cultural-acoustic' model for the analysis of music as actually cognized, rather than as cognizable, outlines one such possible ontology combining psychology and acoustics, close-reading and cultural theory. Three example analyses will be examined in order to test the model, and to suggest possible 'real-world' ramifications of such research to the music and advertising industries.

Chris Kennett
University of Westminster


By David Mellor Saturday September 17, 2005
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