Introducing Musical Meaning through Popular Music

September 20, 2018


When analyzing challenging texted art music, all too often the act of labeling a concept (for example, “common-tone modulation”) can mislead students into thinking that the label is the end of the story. Several factors, such as difficulty in identifying concepts that are new to them, possibly foreign text, and esoteric poetry, contribute to students’ reluctance to form interpretations of meaning. Discussing musical meaning first with music that is more familiar, such as popular music, will help them appreciate deeper meanings in texted art music.

This paper considers the generation of meaning from two sources: voice-leading factors and the key scheme. The songs chosen represent topics—non-resolution of tendency tones, the reciprocal process, meaning in the key scheme, and common-tone mediant modulations—typically taught near the end of an undergraduate music theory sequence. The non-resolution of tendency tones plays a large role in the creation of musical meaning. The Beatles’s “Please Please Me” exploits the avoidance of leading tone to tonic voice leading to produce different meanings. Blondie’s “Dreaming” introduces the reciprocal process. The Rays’s “Silhouettes” presents a pop-song modulation, while Ray Charles’s “That Lucky Old Sun” contains a common-tone modulation; both modulations are closely associated with the lyrics. Examples from art music, especially Schubert’s Sehnsucht, D. 310, are considered as well. Once the students apply the concept of musical meaning to more stylistically familiar music, they become more receptive to the analysis of meaning in the perhaps less familiar art music repertoire.

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