Volume 11, Number 4, October 2005
Copyright � 2005 Society for Music Theory

Allan F. Moore*

The Persona-Environment Relation in Recorded Song

Comment on this article

KEYWORDS: Persona, Environment, Subject-Position, Accompaniment, Signification

ABSTRACT: This article proposes a typology of relations between the persona and its environment in recorded popular song, envisaged as the relationship between lyric/melody and accompaniment. It argues that the function of an accompaniment moves from simple pitch/meter orientation, through genre-setting and tone-setting, to support, amplification and explanation of the persona's situation, and finally to contradiction with it.

Received May 2005

[1] Some years ago, Simon Frith asked the very obvious question, "why do songs have words?"(1)(2) It seems to me that its obverse is equally demanding of attention. Not actually "why do songs have music?," for that is a little too abstract even for my taste, but the associated "why do songs have accompaniments?" Why, when singing, do people (both listeners and performers) want or need the security to be gained from having that singing accompanied, either by themselves, or by an assortment of others? What does an accompaniment add? The word "accompany" indicates being in the company of something else, with an implied hierarchy of perceptual pertinence, although not necessarily of significance. What accompanies forms a key part of the environment for what is accompanied. Philip Tagg's semiotic method reads this implied relationship (between what accompanies and what is accompanied) as the embodiment in music of the relationship between an individual and its environment.(3) He observes the normative underpinning by a melody-accompaniment dualism of all popular song, insisting that this textural structure is "what Haydn and AC/DC share in common,"(4) and uses Jan Maróthy to argue that it is as pervasive a musical feature as its visual equivalent, the figure/ground dualism of post-Renaissance European painting. So, if accompaniment equates, at first approximation, to environment, then melody, in Tagg's understanding, equates to persona. This term I actually derive from the writings of Edward T. Cone, particularly The Composer's Voice,(5) but I shall depart from him in how I observe the persona to be constituted. Indeed, I depart also from Tagg in that for the analysis of popular song, it is less the melody which is subject to accompaniment, than the result of the activity of singing--Tagg's work concerns itself only little with lyrics. Eric Clarke's adoption of a theory of subject position(6) does concern itself with lyrics, and also with accompaniment. He argues that for a song to imply a subject position, for it to encourage a listener to prefer one reading to others, it must be possible to distinguish analytically between what he terms "content" and "technique," such that the "technique" narrows the possible interpretations a listener may make of the "content." For Clarke, "content" refers particularly to the realm of the lyrics, while "technique" in principle refers to all other constitutive aspects of a song. Neither Clarke nor Tagg use the term "persona"--Clarke prefers "subject,"(7) while Tagg uses "individual." Both of these, however, refer to an equivalent identity. I prefer the term "persona" for a number of reasons. Firstly, it reminds us that this identity is fictional (and, frequently, it is passive), a characteristic which is not brought out by the competing terms. Secondly, it is on occasion multiple (particularly when we do not hear only a single voice). Beyond this, it is perhaps just a matter of taste.

[2] In defining the potential types of relationship obtaining between persona and environment in this article, I adopt a position part-way between those of Tagg and Clarke. Both lyric, its manner of articulation, and its shaping melody can conspire to create the persona, which is inhabited by the individual (or sometimes individuals) who sing to us. The environment within which (or against which) that persona operates is represented by the music which accompanies her/him, and which therefore includes three distinct elements:

Because of its manifestation in sound, we might properly identify this as the personic environment. And, to complicate matters further, because as individuals we are always part of the environment against which we view others, on occasion the melody can, in theory at least, be argued to operate as if it were part of the environment rather than the persona. At root, then, this article proposes a typology for the relationships enacted in song between a persona and its environment, a typology of what an accompaniment may add to a melodic line, which it will illustrate through numerous, varied, examples to demonstrate not only the ubiquity of the relational positions I identify, but also the way that each one is nuanced through its presence in an actual track.(8)

[3] The impact an environment can have on the persona can range from the significant to the trivial, as accompanimental textures, harmonies and forms serve both subtle and blatant functions. Let me dispose of some of the latter straight away. The need to orient oneself in terms of precise meter and stable pitch is endemic to anglophone popular musics and, probably, to most European popular music. I am not convinced that the ability to retain meter and pitch is normative even amongst highly respected interpreters. Producer Bernard Krause wrote of singer Patrice Holloway: "So perfect was her pitch [on an unaccompanied track] that Paul [Beaver] was able to lay a piano track ... some weeks later without altering the speed of the tape to change the pitch."(9) There would have been no need to make such a point were this a more widely exercised skill. It therefore seems to me that we can cite the provision of a stable metrical and harmonic backdrop as simultaneously the most necessary, most basic, and least interesting, purpose of an accompaniment. Whatever else it does, it is almost certain to function in this way. Some accompaniments do no more.

[4] A related reason is hardly more interesting. Accompaniments frequently set the genre of a song, laying out the normative environmental conditions, together with all the expectation-related baggage that a theory of genre carries.(10) Thus an adult-oriented rock song, a country song, a punk song, an R'n'B song, are in large part defined by the instrumentation and sound-sources used to accompany the singer and, in some cases, the style of performance associated with those instruments individually or collectively. I am highlighting here a crucial distinction between accompaniments which signify only at the level of style, and those which signify at the more particularized level of the individual song. Examples of the former are legion--I shall refer to Patsy Cline's "I'm blue again" for its clarity.(11) The song is in 32-bar form, in 12/8. In the first half of the verse, the kit and piano have a regular triplet pattern, which is broken for bars 17-24. [See Example 1]. There seems to be no particularized expressive content in either this basic groove, or in the change of articulation at that point. It simply marks a formal break, the shift to the middle 8 section. In saying it has no expressive role, I mean simply that these elements could perfectly well be transferred to another song performed by Patsy Cline within the same style--and indeed they are.(12) So, in this example, the role of the accompanimental environment is simply to situate this song in terms of chronology and genre as an example of immediately post-rock'n'roll country music. Indeed, this also seems to be how accompaniments function for the vast majority of solo folk revival singers. The way Martin Carthy attacks the Breton pipe tune "Ar Ch'akouz," which he uses to carry lyrics based on the seventeenth-century song "The dominion of the sword,"(13) and the accompaniment he gives it, makes musical sense, and expresses his strength of feeling at the issues the lyrics address, but contributes not a whit to an interpretation of the song. Indeed, beside the vehemence in his voice, the guitar's role is relegated to one of setting meter and pitch, identifying genre, and providing an image of immovability, in the multiple drone.

Example 1. Patsy Cline, "I'm blue again"


[5] Accompanimental textures can also set the attitudinal tone of a song, laying out a particular manner of approach to which the singer then conforms, as in Bob Dylan's "Just like a woman."(14) The accompanying band has a certain rhythmic looseness, most identifiable in very subtle delays of the guitar behind the kit. This comes across most typically as relaxed, but it might be read as hedonistic, as hippy, or even as sloppy, depending on the listener. Whichever, it could be argued to act as a neat metaphor for the falling to pieces of the "little girl" who, with all her insecurities, hides behind the song's title. If the reliance on generic convention in "I'm blue again" leads any genre-competent listener to expect to hear nothing new in the song, the (relatively) unusual "loose" introduction to "Just like a woman" will probably create in a genre-competent listener an expectation of an idiosyncratic lyric content, and one of a potentially personal nature.

[6] In other examples of such tone-setting, the accompaniment can function inter-stylistically, to signal that a song will depart somewhat from the style normally associated with a particular band.(15) The prominent Hammond organ at the beginning of Led Zeppelin's "Thank you,"(16) for example, tells us we are in for an early rock ballad rather than a track in blues-rock, or proto-heavy-metal idiom, a promise redeemed by the earnestness of Robert Plant's expressions of constancy. In Roy Harper's "When an old cricketer leaves the crease,"(17) the function of the accompanimental silver band is rather more specific: it encourages a culturally-competent listener to hear the song as nostalgic, in its evocation of a no longer communal, rural English, late summer twilight, echoing the familiar conceit equating the passage of a year to the course of a life.(18)

[7] So, the function of tone-setting acts to prepare the listener for how to respond to the style, probably from the outset of a song. As far as this function is concerned, the accompaniment will not necessarily intervene thereafter in the expressive meaning of the song. Recall that this is what the majority of accompaniments simply do.(19) And it is here, we may suppose, that a large number of listeners switch off. It seems to me that all will be, on some level, aware of these lower levels of functionality of accompaniments. However, to note the functions which follow, active listening is probably required. Other than this simple distinction, I am not suggesting that the functions I outline are hierarchically related in terms of "importance"--what is important for a listener is for that listener to determine. However, a degree of active listening is required in order to answer the question I set at the opening of this article.(20)

[8] But as with so many expressive features, we become alert to them when faced with their subversion (indeed, my comments regarding "Thank you" could be seen as an unproblematic example of this). The track "'T smidje," by Flemish vocal trio Laïs,(21) begins with the sort of 6/8 clod-hopping accompaniment which was the bane of '70s folk rock [see Example 2a]--examples like Fairport Convention's "Lark in the morning" come to mind.(22) However, as soon as the vocals enter, with what is initially an offbeat subsidiary figure [Example 2b], doubts are raised as to the provenance of the accompaniment. I would suggest that, by the time the exquisite upper dominant pedal, in the voice, makes itself felt in the second half of the verse, over the increased rate of harmonic movement there [Example 2c], we have been lifted well out of the putative world of the introduction. The fact that the vast majority of listeners to this track will not understand the (Flemish) lyrics does not obscure the way the texture overcomes its initial hindrance. (In any case, Kadril, the band who accompany La�s on this track, acknowledge Fairport Convention unproblematically within their heritage.) In these examples, then, the accompanimental texture gives us information about how to situate a particular track against its stylistic background, but without necessarily relating to the signification of the song as represented by the lyric.

Example 2a. Laïs

Example 2b. La�s, from 12"

Example 2c. La�s, from 46"


[9] With this function, we begin to tread interesting ground. We begin to approach that realm where some attention to the detail of the personic environment is necessary in order to apprehend the expressive richness of the virtual performances of particular personae. Here we have the received view of the role of an accompaniment, which is to conform to the ostensible meaning of the lyrics and, in doing so, to support, or perhaps illustrate, the meaning of the song. Forms of word-painting are the most obvious devices here, but within popular music, we must be wary of seeking the sort of notationally-based word-painting techniques familiar from notated music. In a recorded genre, word-painting works by reference to the sounds heard, not to their visual representation. Iggy Pop's recent song "Whatever"(23) exemplifies this clearly. The song originates on a lacklustre album, and is ironic in its consistent recourse to the kind of adolescent disdain indicated by the title (Iggy Pop was born in 1947). The stylistically conventional overdriven guitar which forms part of the accompaniment simply drops from the texture on the words "her voice just fades away." It is not a true fade, but the parallel is strong enough--by dropping away, the texture literally illustrates the content of, actually energizes, the lyric. Indeed, the very obviousness of the device adds to the rather tongue-in-cheek subject position the song adopts. An analogous, although not ironic, situation can be found in Joe Cocker's cover of "With a little help from my friends."(24) As in the Beatles' original, the backing voices change position during the song from being simply respondents, to actively questioning the persona's need for reassurance from others. But, deviating from the original, in the second bridge (at about 3'46"), the support these "friends" offer becomes so psychologically strong that Cocker no longer needs to sing the lyrics his listeners would have known from the Beatles' version. The "help" offered by the accompanimental, female, singers here becomes palpable. The key feature of the environment in which Cocker is singing is formed by these confidantes. A similar degree of accompanimental support is offered to John Lennon's "Imagine"(25) by the production qualities particularly of Lennon's accompanying piano. Here, the sonically unfocused quality of the production of the instrument's sound supports a similar fuzziness in the singer's ideology, which has contributed to the debates about both the degree of realism, and the self-delusion, which may surround Lennon's song.(26) This quality is enhanced by the observation that the melodic line first achieves a measure of harmonically-supported closure on the word "dreamer." And we don't have to wait for the rise of rock to find such examples. Nat King Cole's performances of "When I fall in love"(27) spend most of their course promising how he will behave when that eventuality comes about. Unexceptionally, the song matches turns to the minor with recollections of sadness but, at the last, as his falling in love becomes directed ("when I fall in love ... with you"), the final "you" is marked by an unexpected chromaticism. Here, it is not the accompanimental textures, but the harmonic environment, which supports the lyric.

[10] A rather different example appears in the Yes song "Heart of the sunrise."(28) According to the lyrics printed in the sleeve, the word "sharp" is clearly marked for attention, being capitalized. Almost without exception, each appearance of the word is immediately followed by a "sharp" sound, i.e. one with a notably crisper attack than its surrounding sounds--on its second appearance (at 4'26") by a most pointed kick drum, at its third (at 5'43") by the entire band. Indeed, by enacting the lyric, this example seems closer to what I would describe as "amplifying" the meaning, rather than simply "supporting" it, suggesting that "supporting" and "amplifying" be seen as two stages on a continuum.

[11] Enactment of a lyric will often take place by means of a track's form. The lack of final closure embodied in Janis Joplin's live performance of "Ball and chain"(29) serves to prevent the listener from treating the performance as simply a performance of the song. Here, the accompanying musicians vanish (in the actual performance, they most likely left the stage) while Joplin delivers an extempore solo but, in a departure from contemporary practice, they fail to return to round off the song. This solo serves to enact the lyrics by blurring the boundary between a (fictionalized) performance and a diatribe on the nature of contemporary society. In Sonny and Cher's love song "I got you babe,"(30) the "us against the world" position which the lyrics promote is maintained musically by a monotone ^5 over I-IV-I--the sense is of maintaining the melodic pitch (and thus their stance) "in spite of" the shift to a dissonant IV. After a series of verses/choruses (none of which comes to rest on I), a final playout continues, before fading, over a I-IV-I-V-(I-IV-I-V...) pattern. This is the first time in the song that I is approached directly from a strong V, rather than from IV or an imperfect cadence. And, for the first time, the emphasis in the relationship changes, from "I got you" to "I got you." This change, formally specific, is thus enacted in the harmony. A more complex example appears in Ashford & Simpson's "Ain't no mountain high enough," as sung by Diana Ross.(31) The track opens with a wordless chorus, an entreating verse ("if you need me...") and a second chorus. We continue with what sounds like a bridge, marked by an ascending bass (a topic indicating "reaching") which leads to a climax at which point the singer gives her lover what she insists is her guarantee that she will always be there. We return to the chorus. Having a single verse, and a bridge which marks a change of relational position, is highly unusual. The transgressive nature of the form, marked by the chromatic bass, thus supports the lyrics. These examples, in moving from uncertainty to certainty, also flout the norm whereby most popular songs explore a static position. Analogously, Cilla Black's singing of the Bacharach/David classic "Alfie"(32) subverts expectations of the form of the song. In the first two verses, the singer is bemused by her lover "Alfie" (she always stresses the first syllable of the name) who holds it "wise to be cruel." At the beginning of the third verse, after a bridge which threatens to challenge the harmonic world of the opening, her enquiries become an assertion: "I believe in love." A chromatic bass then moves us into a formally new area, where she insists that "without true love we just exist, Alfie," stressing for the first time the last syllable of his name. This alteration marks a change in her emotional position--her self-discovery coincides with both a shift in harmonic language and transgression of normal formal practice--in this way harmony and form work together to mark her moment of self-awareness.

[12] Three further examples will demonstrate the variety of ways simple accompanimental textures are involved in such enactment. Björk's "Army of me"(33) overturns established gender stereotypes in angrily addressing a weak partner--the absence of a harmonic filler layer within the texture(34) (i.e. the sparsity of the accompanimental strands) removes an element which serves to distance the listener, making palpable the menace expressed. The Beach Boys' "God only knows"(35) leaves the answer to "what I'd be without you" unanswered in the lyric. However, the song's conclusion provides an answer, in the three-part quasi-quodlibet, which literally enacts the breaking up that the persona would otherwise endure. In a final example, the persona's environment is formed by a combination of form and accompaniment, but which seems to go beyond both--this environment for the song "John Gaudie," by English folk revivalists Whippersnapper,(36) clearly "amplifies" the signification--it makes it larger, sets it on a wider stage. The song concerns our John who breaks out of gaol to go off and write a fiddle tune, which the band then go on to play. We might assume the song to be traditional, and the subsequent tune newly invented. In fact, what happens is a reversal of this--the final tune is traditional, while the song itself is credited to fiddler Chris Leslie. This variety of examples attests to the wide presence of this function.

[13] So, we move from simply supporting the meaning of the song, to amplifying it, to providing more information than is present in the lyric. There are other ways of amplifying the song's meaning than this. One concerns lyrics of ambiguous meaning. The issue of ambiguity is problematic because, with many songs, ambiguity is only the result of unfamiliarity with idiom, and is thus dependent on the nature of listeners' competence. Traffic's "Hole in my shoe,"(37) though, provides a case which may be more universally valid. It causes trouble to anyone who simply tries to interpret the lyrics at face value--"an elephant's eye was looking at me from a bubblegum tree" for instance. The accompanimental texture, however, situates the song very clearly within the psych�delic movement, indicating that the lyrics are not to be taken at face value, that the environment is not a realist one. Thus the "100 tin soldiers" do not literally "stand at my shoulder." Indeed, the prominent psych�delic coding(38) may even imply that the texture, rather than the lyric itself, may be the prime carrier of meaning. This coding is provided primarily by instrumentation (sitar, flute, mellotron) and production techniques (slow chord bending, reverse recording, phasing). Thus we are reassured that the song's ambiguity is inherent, and is not a feature of our possible lack of competence. In this way its meaning is clarified.

[14] Meaning is also amplified when an environment provides information more deeply encoded than that of the lyrics, most particularly by its harmonic underpinning, for harmonic setting often implies very particular readings of lyrics. Simple examples are provided by Slade's "Coz I luv you" and by Jimi Hendrix' "Hey Joe."(39) Both songs concern troublesome interpersonal relationships and both are set to open-ended harmonic loops. It is the circular nature of these which illuminates the obsessive nature of both songs, something which is not fully explicit in the lyrics themselves. On "The way that it shows,"(40) Richard Thompson uses harmony to amplify the similar disintegration of a relationship, below the surface, in the obsessive repetition of the sequence Dm-Bm-Gm-E. A sensible sequence in terms of root motion becomes nonsensical (in relation to assumptions about harmonic norms in his repertoire) through its chromaticisms.

[15] A slightly more complex example is the Beach Boys' well-known hit "Good vibrations."(41) The song opens with a stepwise descent from Em, repeated, before shifting to the relative major for the chorus. The singer sings of being in receipt of "good vibrations," over a pattern which moves upward, from G, to A, to B in readiness for the second verse. The vector is clear--upward motion, and activity in the relationship by his partner, towards him. In the centre of the song, the texture slims remarkably, down to organ and shakers, over which the singer begins to recognize his culpability--he's "gotta keep those ... vibrations happening with her," i.e. become active himself. Thereafter, the "good vibrations" hook is sung over the same pattern, but now in reverse motion, from B, to A, to G. Having thus become active in the relationship, a new, smoother, coda melody is brought in, repeated from G, A, B and finally A, finishing mid-way between the outer reaches of this motion. It thus symbolizes the ensuing success of the relationship, resultant from the "emotional work" the singer has implicitly agreed to undertake.

[16] I wrote at the outset that harmonic setting can be vital in its representation of the environment. How, though, to read this? The cornerstone of my understanding equates achievement of I with closure in some sense, and failure to achieve it with lack of closure, modified as necessary by metrical placing. The other key characteristic is the observation that as a mode increases the number of minor intervals above the tonic (as we move from Lydian through to Locrian), the greater the degree of negative emotional quality invested in the environment. This hermeneutic construct is yet to be empirically tested. Deep Purple's "Child in Time"(42) is one of a body of songs reliant for its effect on the Aeolian cadence. This is the cadential pattern moving VI-VII-i (i.e. F-G-Am in a Aeolian). This cadence(43) in rock is, more often than not, associated with achievement in the face of high odds, what I call its "nonetheless" quality. This is the realm of its signification. The underlying pattern to "Child in Time" is formed of i-VII-i; VI-VII; VII-i. The impending, and ultimately realized, disaster apparent in the lyrics is matched by this constant reiteration, demonstrating an undesired actualization of the inevitable outcome. This sense of the inevitability of an unwanted outcome is crucial to understanding the Coverdale Page track "Take me for a little while."(44) The verse begins by decorating harmonies of E, moves to a pattern dominated by Am, but then sinks back. A short pre-chorus reiterates the importance of Am, such that the chorus takes up the sequence Am-F-G-G. Failure to resolve to chord I, in this example to resolve to Am at the end of the Am-F-G-G pattern, implies the subversion of an inevitable outcome. Now the subject matter of the song's lyric concerns the inevitability of failure--at the crucial moment, the singer tells his lover to take him just "for a little while." Their relationship cannot remain stable, because he's "growing older." The harmony, in other words, indicates that "taking him for a little while" is an attempt to subvert the inevitable, i.e. the inevitability of failure, a failure--his demise--which will come about once the final chord I is reached and closure is achieved. For this reason, the track fades without that happening. The Darkness track "Holding my own"(45) uses the same pattern to energize an avoidance of the inevitable. It is less marked: the parallel Am-G-F-G chord sequence accompanies the song's title, asserting that the persona is "holding his own" in the face of enormous odds; because it is less marked, the sequence functions harmonically as Ionian vi-V-IV-V rather than Aeolian i-VII-VI-VII. The realm of its signification is nonetheless the same.

[17] We can move further, I'm convinced, from support, through amplification, to explanation: the harmonic underpinning to the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction"(46) explains the state Mick Jagger describes. This is a constant state, one of being unable to achieve satisfaction, to achieve closure. Musically, closure is unattainable here because the constant repeated sequence of the open-ended verse is simply a Mixolydian I-IV- the I is so familiar that the closure otherwise attendant on achieving it, is impossible here. The melody, too, is insistent upon its reiterated tonics. No wonder he can't get no satisfaction--he has nowhere else to go. From a very different genre, Vanessa Carlton's "Ordinary Day"(47) uses harmony and texture to explain the lyric. The song concerns an encounter with first love, energized from the outset by Carlton's breathy delivery and an insecure bass which consistently sounds the tonic third rather than the root, providing a picture of (pleasant) insecurity or anticipation. [See Example 3a] After two verses, at 1'46", the imaginary "ordinary boy" is providing security (she's "in the palm of your hand") as the tonic achieves its root [Example 3b]. To mark this coming together, at 2'1", the two independent parts move in both rhythmic and partial melodic unison [Example 3c]. Subsequently she comes out of what was "just a dream" and we move back to separation and insecurity marked by absence of the harmonic root. However, as she recalls the experience out of the dream world, at 3'20", she recovers her security. The song thus provides a model of a girl overcoming insecurity through learning to trust a "significant other," dramatized by the difference between "dream" and "reality" and the transfer of something understood while in the "dream" state into reality. This model cannot be inferred form the lyrics alone, but requires close attention to both the texture and harmonies of her accompaniment.

Example 3a. Vanessa Carlton, "Ordinary Day"

Example 3b. Vanessa Carlton, "Ordinary Day" from 1'46"

Example 3c. Vanessa Carlton, "Ordinary Day" from 2'1"


[18] In suggesting that an environment may explain the actions of a persona, I return briefly to Clarke's work on subject position. Translating into the terms I am using in this article, he suggests that certain songs, through the detail of their environments, limit the potential range of listener responses to the issues presented by the persona. Provided we go no further than "limit," and not as far as "prescribe," I find this a pretty persuasive argument. He notably focuses on P.J.Harvey and John Parish's "Taut,"(48) a song which, he argues, "draws the listener in to a close identification with the singer and protagonist, a rather direct confrontation with that potent mixture of infatuation and terrified submission that can turn people into victims."(49) He demonstrates this most particularly through close attention to the song's introduction, its combination of particular sounds, their predictability and their connotations, and the way these set up the lyric. In other words, the introduction indicates how we might experience the lyric, once it arrives. However, that said, I would argue that a subject position can become possible even without explicit understanding of the "content," the lyric. Take the Tri Yann song "Je m'en vas,"(50) "I set off." The melody to this track is borrowed from the old folk song "The leaving of Liverpool." In the hands of revivalist groups like the Dubliners or the Spinners, this is a very ordinary song.(51) And Tri Yann's version starts very much in that vein, as if performed by an unsophisticated musician. We are encouraged to hear it as an inconsequential, anachronistic, amateur performance. But the textural growth which maps the track's narrative, the staged addition of tight rhythm section, overdriven guitar and prominent pipes, totally changes it for a Celticist audience, at least. This developing texture implies a sense of determination wholly missing from older performances, although both the original song, and Tri Yann's, are about leaving on a long journey. Thus Tri Yann envelop us in the journey.

[19] However, it is not only the listener who can be disposed to take up a particular reading of a song. In some instances, the persona represented by the singer can be predisposed to take up a particular reading, with that predisposition being apparent to the listener. In this sort of case, the environment is partially described, as I have suggested already for Joe Cocker's "With a little help from my friends," as the singer's confidante. It effectively provides advice to the persona inhabited by the singer, about how to act in response to the situation which is the subject of the song. A comparison of two tracks will demonstrate how subtle the effect of the accompaniment can be. Indeed, one obvious area of development for the theory I outline here would be a comparison of the range of different types of alternative versions (pastiches, copies, covers, unplugged performances etc.) which exist, observing the changing interplay between persona and environment.

[20] In her performance of the soul classic "Stay with me (baby)," Lorraine Ellison seems almost unconcerned for herself. She is simply pleading for the continuance of a relationship. She needs to deliver the lyrics with such force, though, that we might be moved to ask whether such a continuation is in her own best interests. She points out in the song that she has always been around for "him," she has proved her devotion, which she now desperately implores him to reciprocate. The key moment occurs in the chorus, with the way the accompaniment operates. The 12/8 feel, with pronounced upbeat, seems to push the song forward rather roughly. The rallentando of the previous bar is very localized, and the chorus picks up with quite a lilt. The difference between this feel, and that of the comparable portion of Bette Midler's later, live performance, is striking.(52) Midler is performing even further over the top than did Ellison. The accompaniment then drags Midler's "cries," giving her space to fully indulge herself. In the chorus, in opposition to Ellison's version, the accompaniment (most particularly the bass and kit) provides constant movement throughout the second half of the bar, a feel which is much closer to 6/8 that 12/8. This seems to support her plea for the continuation of a static situation [compare Examples 4a and 4b]. In Bette Midler's performance, then, the music is not pushed forward. It seems to me that for Lorraine Ellison, the accompanimental environment, which is acting as her confidante, is saying "move to the future," which will be a better situation for her, since staying with "him" will result in a difficult relationship. For Bette Midler, again acting as her confidante, the accompaniment, in indulging her, is saying "stay with it," "stay with him," "stay with the situation," oblivious to the difficulties which a good confidante should foresee.

Example 4a. Lorraine Ellison

Example 4b. Bette Midler


[21] What happens here, then, is that the environment provides us with information which is over and above what we get not only from the lyrics, but from the singer too. Indeed, it implies different readings of different performances, confirmation that the signification of a song cannot lie in the song, but must lie in the way the performance is received. Moreover, it is information which the singer is probably only party to if she is sufficiently aware (we can only guess whether the "Lorraine Ellison" persona will actually heed the accompaniment's advice). An analogy I have in mind here is that of the everyday understanding of "body language." When watching others speak, we can tell how committed they are to what they are saying, we can tell whether to risk trusting in them, by how they express themselves, how they accompany their words with posture and gesture. Simon Frith has argued that even without visual clues, we can discern whether to trust singers by listening to the non-singing sounds they make: "Pop songs celebrate not the articulate but the inarticulate, and the evaluation of pop singers depends not on words but on sounds--on the noises around the words. In daily life, the most directly intense statements of feeling involve just such noises: people gasp, moan, laugh, cry ... people distrust the silver-tongued, the seducers, politicians, salesmen, who've got the gift of the gab. Inarticulateness, not poetry, is the popular songwriter's conventional sign of sincerity."(53) I would argue that this discernment stretches not just to the inarticulate sound singers make, but to the non-articulating sounds which go to make up a performance, i.e. the sounds of accompanying instruments. A very different example of the same process, of the "reality" of a situation being available to the perception of an audience but not to the persona, is given by the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA."(54) This is an example of a different order, since the song is based, both harmonically and melodically, on Chuck Berry's "Sweet little sixteen."(55) There is little doubt that, when writing the Beach Boys' song, Brian Wilson was aware of the similarity (the song is nowadays credited to "C.Berry/B.Wilson") but the change of location, and the brash innocence in which it is sung, imply that the Beach Boys personae are unaware of a link contemporary listeners inevitably made.

[22] Philip Tagg, in his lengthy deconstruction of the Abba hit "Fernando,"(56) argues that certain features of that song--melodic intervals, instrumental setting--warn us not to trust the singer's expression of commitment to the "revolutionary cause," nostalgic reflection on which is the subject of the song. In such a case, where the persona and the environment are at odds, we are urged to trust the latter, in the same way that we would trust body language over direct speech. This example is by no means alone. Andy Stewart's self-penned "Donald, where's your troosers?"(57) is normally taken as a piece of nostalgic whimsy. The song sets up three positions, those of the Scottish yokel (who always wears a kilt), of polite (Edinburgh?) society, and (more hidden) of the (BBC) establishment of which Stewart was himself a part. Polite society is lampooned, and the yokel seems to come off best. However, the expressed distaste of rock'n'roll (the recording of the song itself contains a delightful pastiche of Elvis Presley singing it) is voiced on the part of the establishment. The song is harmonically accompanied by a "double tonic" (i.e. Aeolian i-VII) pattern, which sounds authentically "Scottish." However, the end of each verse replaces the "expected" VII-i cadence with the V-i of the concert hall--a subtle, but nonetheless forceful, trouncing of the Scottish vernacular with that of high culture. The harmonic environment, then, if we can hear it, tells us not to take the lyrics at face value. In the Boomtown Rats' "I never loved Eva Braun,"(58) the protagonist is more obviously culpable. He (who can only be identified as Adolf Hitler) brazenly declares that he wasn't responsible for the results of his actions, but the breakdown and nonchalant whistling (of the sort you might have indulged in as a kid, hands behind your back, head in the air as your misdemeanor is discovered--Who? Me?)(59) which precede the final chorus (at c.3'15") give the lie to that. And there are other types of example too. The position set up by the Sex Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun"(60) is also not to be believed. Here is a song which purports to anarchism, a line totally belied by its formulaic rhythmic, harmonic, and articulative approach.(61) A final example is rather bizarre but, I think, particularly informative. I refer to a re-recording by '60s balladeers the Bachelors of the Hollies' 1969 hit "He ain't heavy."(62) This is a song which wears it's heart on its sleeve, inspired by a line from the 1938 film Boys Town, symbolizing comradeship among vagrant boys, and supposedly based on reality. It is a difficult song to bring off, requiring grandeur without pomposity, compassion without sentimentality. This Bachelors' recent version aims for a big ending, presumably demonstrating the care the singer promises, and his disdain for the cost entailed. In order to bring it off, however, the drummer hopelessly miscalculates his cadential flurry in a rhetorical display empty of content. There may be a risk of overstating the case out of context, so a comparison is in order. In Grandaddy's "Hewlett's Daughter," we can hear the same sort of over-blown, contextually inappropriate drum intervention. However, because this occurs at the end of the bridge between verses, "out of the blue," rather than at the end of the song, its inappropriateness seems intentional. It seems to be in the service of the anger that is just below the surface of the singer's declaration that he "should have been your son."(63) There is no equivalent inappropriateness of position within the form of the song in the Bachelors' case.

[23] So, we can declare that the environment sometimes suggests to the listener to occupy a subject position which disbelieves the persona, reminding us that all may not be as it seems. This I relate to one part of a schema put forward recently by Nicholas Cook, who identifies what he calls modes of media pairing(64)--the relationships obtaining between separate media in an artwork. His theoretical model is provided by the Lakoff and Johnson discussion of metaphors and, since metaphor is manifested within a single medium, i.e. within the utterance, it seems reasonable to use his terminology for a single medium (if we insist that persona and environment, notwithstanding the recourse of the former to words, actually constitute a single medium). Cook argues that two concurrent media can inhabit one of three relationships: conformity, complementation, and contest. In the recent examples, above, the views given by the two textural strands (persona/melody and environment/accompaniment) contest each other, and in such cases I think we are always more likely to trust the latter. Perhaps because the accompaniment is wordless and therefore not possibly subject to Frith's "silver tongue," the analogy with "body language" seems to me quite fruitful.

[24] Hitherto, my attention has been focused on the way that the environment may modify our conception of the persona. The environment has always been secondary. What, though, if the two appear more equal? After all, we are all perceived by others as actors within an environment, as well as perceiving ourselves as acting upon it. The second of Cook's terms describes the situation where the two elements are in an equal, complementary, relationship. The verb to "accompany" implies an hierarchical relationship; it suggests that what is accompanied has a greater role in the identification of what is going on, in the sense of giving identity to it. In complementation, though, this hierarchical relationship comes into question, potentially resulting in an ecologically more sound relationship. The hierarchy may survive, if only because of the distinction between lyric and not-lyric, but it may be somewhat tenuous. In the verse of Jethro Tull's "Fylingdale flyer,"(65) the rhythmic profile of the accompaniment is unitary, and constantly rubs against that of the parallel multi-tracked voice. The relationship here is complementary, akin to that of a couple ballroom dancing, where one (the melody) leads, but leads only because of the presence of the lyrics [Example 5].

Example 5. Jethro Tull, "Flyingdale flyer" from 29"


[25] I come now to two final instances where, again, the simple identification of accompaniment is problematized. In the Jethro Tull example, although there are two identifiable strands, the relationship between them is complementary. Within this broad repertoire of song, can we always posit two strands, can we always distinguish between a persona and its environment (the latter identified as accompanimental)? I think so, but sometimes the voice is far less prominent than we might normally expect. This can happen in terms of production values, as in much of the Rolling Stones' early material, where what is presented to us is not so much an accompanied lead singer, but almost a communal effort, one facet of which happens to be vocal.(66) Even here, though, I think the voice perceptually dominates simply because of the presence of the verbal strand. A very good test of this position is provided by the very end of King Crimson's "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One"(67) in which instrumental interplay covers what appears to be a heated argument. This is in the distance, and the words cannot be made out, and yet by the fact that they are words, they call for our attention. A more common case occurs where a vocal line gets taken over by part of the accompaniment. This is common in examples of "call and response" textures as they develop from African-American genres.(68) It also happens in mainstream rock and pop, as in Wishbone Ash's "Throw down the sword,"(69) where a bifurcated melody leads into a two-part guitar line. Indeed, perhaps this is potentially what always happens when a solo enters: if we read this solo as a continuation of the vocal melody, at the point of interchange, the expression can be seen as becoming more eloquent, as it moves beyond words. The Carpenters' "Goodbye to love"(70) exemplifies this more overtly, as the guitar solo actually picks up Karen Carpenter's phrasing and literally takes her expression up to new heights [See Example 6]. Notwithstanding the fact that Carpenters fans disliked the intrusion of the guitar as stylistically foreign,(71) this reading is certainly available to non-fans. There seems to me a clear difference between this sort of case, where a melody line moves to an instrument for a solo, and the sharing of material between two forces, simply because in this former case, the melody is firmly identified with the persona before the instrument ever gets near it.

Example 6. Carpenters, "Goodbye to Love"


[26] Finally, an obvious question which I have left till last. Is it right to call all the non-melodic parts of a texture "accompaniment"? In other words, is Tagg's assumption of a melody/accompaniment dualism sufficient? This is actually too large a (new) question for me to more than broach here, but some coverage is necessary. As an assumption, it appears a reasonable one, but there is certainly one significant repertoire where it falls down. This repertoire is formed by instances where, along with a band, the persona of the singer self-accompanies him- or herself on a guitar (self-accompaniment on a keyboard is a different issue, I believe). On Lindisfarne's "Good to be here,"(72) we simply hear singer Alan Hull, an acoustic guitar (which Hull plays), and an orchestra. The orchestra forms an accompanimental environment which really only supports the persona from the outset, reacting expressively at the "right" points. The guitar is sounded in conjunction with the orchestra, such that its role seems to be accompanimental. However, at the moment at which the singer becomes no longer separated from what he's describing, the moment when he wakes from what we come to realize is a dream of a ghostly nature, when he comes to describe his wife addressing him in bed, the guitar drops from the texture. It is away only momentarily, but its absence clearly marks that moment of change. If only at this point, the guitar function is clearly separate from that of the remainder of the accompaniment, which does not mark this moment. This usage develops from the singer/songwriter genre, and was taken up by heavy rock in the late 1960s/early 1970s where the guitar, when pitted against the rest of the accompaniment, represents the individual battling against some sort of societal norm, or a body of undifferentiated "others."(73) As this example demonstrates, in this repertoire, the guitar might more usefully be read as part of the persona.

[27] So, it seems to me that the function of accompaniments is far from unitary, as their textures, harmonies and forms create environments within which a persona acts. I have isolated seven stages on a continuum, from simple pitch/meter orientation, through genre-setting and tone-setting, to support, amplification and explanation of the persona's situation, and finally to contradiction, by analogy with body language. Along this continuum, the accompaniment represents an environment which is at first simply inert, in later stages is quiescent, becomes active, and finally oppositional. I have then identified three problematic issues in the simple assumption of a melody/accompaniment dualism: that of complementation; that of the wordless melody; and the non-unitary nature of some accompaniments. And I do not pretend that this list is exhaustive, or even that these are the only points to mark on the continuum. What I hope I have demonstrated, however, is that not only is a reduction of the operative sphere of meaning of a song to that of its lyrics inadequate, but that the same goes for a reduction of such a sphere to that of its lyrics and how they are sung. Even without consideration of production manipulation, concentration on that very rich amalgam which constitutes the track's personic environment is absolutely crucial if we are to fully experience the expressive richness of popular song.

Comment on this article

Allan F. Moore
University of Surrey
Department of Music and Sound Recording

Copyright Statement

Copyright � 2005 by the Society for Music Theory. All rights reserved.

[1] Copyrights for individual items published in Music Theory Online (MTO) are held by their authors. Items appearing in MTO may be saved and stored in electronic or paper form, and may be shared among individuals for purposes of scholarly research or discussion, but may not be republished in any form, electronic or print, without prior, written permission from the author(s), and advance notification of the editors of MTO.

[2] Any redistributed form of items published in MTO must include the following information in a form appropriate to the medium in which the items are to appear:

This item appeared in Music Theory Online in [VOLUME #, ISSUE #] on [DAY/MONTH/YEAR]. It was authored by [FULL NAME, EMAIL ADDRESS], with whose written permission it is reprinted here.

[3] Libraries may archive issues of MTO in electronic or paper form for public access so long as each issue is stored in its entirety, and no access fee is charged. Exceptions to these requirements must be approved in writing by the editors of MTO, who will act in accordance with the decisions of the Society for Music Theory.

This document and all portions thereof are protected by U.S. and international copyright laws. Material contained herein may be copied and/or distributed for research purposes only.

Prepared by
Brent Yorgason, Managing Editor
Updated 13 October 2005