Saturday, September 1, 2012

So You Want to Read (and Write) about Music

Welcome to my blog, Signifying Sound and Fury. It’s a blog about music (its history, what’s compelling about it, its construction, genres) and writing about music (why it’s hard, common pitfalls, useful vocabulary).

The blog title comes from Act V, scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, from one of Macbeth’s soliloquies:

“Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard from no more: it is a tale told by and idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

This is Macbeth’s rather pessimistic view of life as it nears its end; Shakespeare would want us to believe the opposite, that life has meaning despite its brevity. The inclusion of “sound and fury” in a tale “told by an idiot” is Shakespeare’s jab at some forms of popular entertainment in his day, mirrored in our day in the summer blockbuster movie—entertainment that tries to make up for lack of content with effects, both special and emotionally manipulative. Yet behind Shakespeare’s critique, there is an assumption that sound can be significant, or in other words, sound can convey meaning. Music can manipulate emotions, yes, but it can also convey information, hide messages in code, symbolize culture, and bring people together. Hence, the purpose of this blog is part of a larger quest to pick apart the meaning of music, “signifying,” or trying to make sense of, the abstractness of what we hear.

The Importance of Music in Our Lives and Why We Should Think about That

Although the music industry is changing and adapting, its current downward revenue trend does not mirror music being less important in our lives. Just the opposite—music is becoming more and more an integral part of our lives. It’s there where we travel, work, and shop. And frequently, with our personal players, we take it everywhere else, too. Even when we don’t carry our music-playing gadgets, our brains decide to replay music anyway. Even today, music groups seem to spring forth spontaneously, even against the odds of receiving monetary compensation. Students still flock to music schools and university music programs, in spite of the glaring numbers telling them there probably won’t be a music job for them at the pipeline’s end.

With all this music surrounding us and forming a part of our lives, it makes sense that we should think critically about it sometimes; for example: Why is music there? Why is it compelling? How is it put together? Where does the music we listen to come from? Why do we divide it into genres, and how? Why do we prefer some types of music to others? Why does race or nationality seem to play such a prominent part in music taste? These are only a fraction of the questions that music scholars care about and that I will address in this blog.

Talking about Something Abstract is Hard Without Area-specific Vocab

In order to talk about music, however, it’s really helpful to know music-specific vocabulary. It’s relatively easy to pick apart and describe writing, because you can accomplish the critique with the same medium—words. Art is more difficult, but at least it stays put long enough for you to think about it. Music (and dance, too) is so ephemeral that even what we call the same art object changes every time it happens, and the only tool you have to examine the big picture is your memory, which usually only feeds the object back to you in bits and pieces.

In this blog, I will share vocabulary that musicians use to talk about music, mostly to make my job easier. I also will talk about the way we commonly write and talk about music, including advantages of some approaches and problems of others.

What Else I Will Do

Although I don’t want this do be a music review blog (which is what 90% of music-themed blogs are), I also plan to occasionally share my own music reviews of new and old music, focusing not only on quality (good, bad, or in between, in my personal opinion), but also on what the music might be communicating or trying to communicate. I may also include bits of my own more scholarly work from time to time.

All music will be considered, but I’ll lean mostly my specialties: popular, art, and traditional. I guess that’s most of it. So much for specialties.

If you have music-related questions for me, or if something of a musical nature bothers you, or there’s a musical issue you would like to hear more about, let me know!

How to Let Me Know   


  1. I understand that the "current downward revenue trend" depends on whose revenue you count. Record labels? Down. Broader music industry including "radio advertising, recorded music sales, musical instrument sales, live performance," etc.? Up.

  2. Interesting article and supports my point of the importance of music increasing in our lives. While I believe the point of the article, that the industry lacks standard measurements and that it's morphing with the times, the statistics given still don't necessarily point toward a higher overall gain in revenue. For example, Lee puts digital music sales into the growing category, but I don't believe they have grown as much as the labels' revenue has shrunk. Lee also points out that live music revenue has increased; true, but their revenue increase is mostly due to the formation of the Live Nation and Ticketmaster monopoly (see below), speaking of large, bureaucratic companies. This has artificially pushed ticket prices up, but that doesn't mean the artists see that revenue. The album statistic is also questionable, as we have no idea how an "album" is defined. Maybe the increase in albums means that they are all shorter now, or that there's a lot more junk albums that no one listens to. Even the spending on entertainment statistic, while probably telling, is questionable: how do we know people are spending more on music, and not something else like video?

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