Tagg and Pop Music Analysis

I was recently pointed to Philip Tagg’s article “Analysing Popular Music” at the Media and Music Studies website.  It’s scholarly and long if you’re not a giant music geek, but there were a couple crafty insights I thought worth sharing.

Tagg notes that the serious study of popular music is not inherently incongruous; the ubiquity of pop in industrialized cultures makes it a very important subject.

“One does not need to be a don to understand that there are objective developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century music history which demand that changes be made, not leas in academic circles.

These developments can be summarised as follows: (1) a vast increase in the share music takes in the money and time budgets of citizens in the industrialised world; (2) shifts in class structure leading to the advent of socioculturally definable groups, such as young people in student or unemployment limbo between childhood and adulthood, and their need for collective identity; (3) technological advances leading to the development of recording techniques capable (for the first time in history) of accurately storing and allowing for mass distribution of non-written musics; (3) transistorisation, microelectronics and all that such advances mean to the mass dissemination of music; (5) the development of new musical functions in the audiovisual media (for example, films, TV, video, advertising); (6) the `non-communication’ crisis in modern Western art music and the stagnation of official art music in historical moulds; (7) the development of a loud, permanent, mechanical lo-fi soundscape (Schafer 1974, 1977) and its `reflection’ (Riethmüller 1976) in electrified music with regular pulse (Bradley 1980); (8) the general acceptance of certain Euro- and Afro-American genres as constituting a lingua franca of musical expression in a large number of contexts within industrialised society; (9) the gradual, historically inevitable replacement of intellectuals schooled solely in the art music tradition by others exposed to the same tradition but at the same time brought up on Presley, the Beatles and the Stones.

To those of us who during the fifties and sixties played both Scarlatti and soul, did palaeography and Palestrina crosswords as well as working in steelworks, and who walked across quads on our way to the `Palais’ or the pop club, the serious study of popular music is not a matter of intellectuals turning hip or of mods and rockers going academic. It is a question of (a) getting together two equally important parts of experience, the intellectual and emotional, inside our own heads and (b) being able as music teachers to face pupils whose musical outlook has been crippled by those who present `serious music’ as if it could never be `fun’ and `fun music’ as though it could never have any serious implications.

Thus the need for the serious study of popular music is obvious…

The other snappy thing Tagg does is describe all music as part of a triangle, with its poles representing Folk music, Art music, and Popular music.  There’s a chart (which I can’t reproduce graphically here) marking out some basic properties of each type.

Folk music is primarily produced by amateurs, stored and distributed by oral transmission, occurs in nomadic/agrarian societies, is not accompanied by written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is usually anonymous.  Art music is produced by professionals, stored and distributed by written musical notation, occurs in industrialized societies, is supported by a written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is non-anonymous.  Popular music is produced by pros (though this is changing), stored and distributed by recordings, occurs in industrial societies, does not have a written theory or aesthetics, and authorship is generally known.

Tagg then argues that because of its different characteristics, popular music cannot be analyzed by the traditional tools of musicology; he outlines a holistic approach he thinks might work and gives an example of its application (Abba’s “Fernando”).  Because pop is inherently wrapped up in economics and selling a product, the usual aesthetic criteria are further diminished in applicability.  Pop has different goals than art music, or folk music.

The triangle diagram helped me see my own music squarely (!) in the pop camp; no matter how artsy I might get, I’m not making art music.  Consequently, I feel a little more free to pursue great pop, knowing that’s what I’m after.

You’ll hear it when Five Star Crush gets out of West End next week.  -h

One thought on “Tagg and Pop Music Analysis”

  1. Just occured to me… at MFR, we have done away with the economic component of pop. !!!

    What does that imply?! We’re still seeking some level of POPularity, but there is no product. Just… art?

    Maybe you would analyze our music using the same approach as to commercial pop. So is our rejection of commerce a form of deconstruction? Are we aimed purely at the art/meaning side of popular music, using its unwritten aesthetic as a tool with which to craft a kind of art-object?

    Are we frustrated hobbyists?

    Tragic wannabes?

    Overthinking this?

    The intuition that we’re doing something beyond commercial popular music hangs on to me… -h

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