Sonic Identity, Imitation, and Critical Listening in Popular Music - Matthew Ferrandino
Episode 510th February 2022 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:44:09

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In this week's episode, Matthew Ferrandino discusses the idea of sonic identity as a cultural construct and how imitation plays a role in our critical listening skills.

This episode was produced by Megan Lyons.

SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. This episode features original compositions by Ljudevit Lausin, Nate Crowe, and Jared Thiede. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season01/.

Transcripts

SMT:

[SMT-Pod theme music playing]

SMT:

Welcome to SMT-Pod, the premiere audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this episode, Matthew Ferrandino discusses the idea of sonic identity as a cultural construct and how imitation plays a role in our critical listening skills. This is “Sonic Identity, Imitation, and Critical Listening in Popular Music.”

Matt:

As you begin to hear my voice, possibly for the first time, you’ve already begun to make several assumptions about my identity. For example, you may have gendered me as male due to the timbre and register of my speaking voice. You may have racialized my voice as white without any evidence of my ethnic background. As I continue to speak you may have placed me in North America because of my English pronunciations, and you may even have regionalized my voice as being from the East coast of the United States.

Matt:

You’ve been hearing me talk for about a minute now and it’s possible that you are comparing my voice to other people you’ve heard talk. Maybe my voice reminds you of an old friend from high school, a distant family member, someone you heard on the TV, etc. etc. But some point of referential familiarity in which you can place my voice.

Matt:

Now there may be more specific and generic assumptions you’ve made, whether consciously or not, but what’s the point of this hypothetical analysis of my voice? I argue that we make these types of conjectures any time we engage in listening, regardless of whether they are true or not. As listeners we construct what I call Sonic Identity, which is informed by encultured presumptions (such as why or why not you gendered my voice as male and racialized me as white) and by our individual experience, familiarity, and associations with certain timbres (such as the variety of possible people that my voice reminds you of).

Matt:

In this podcast I take you through three guided listening examples with the intent of getting you to not only think critically about what you’re listening to, but more importantly, to think critically about how you listen.

Music:

[Bumper music by Ljudevit Lausin]

Matt:

I began with the example of my voice because this is a podcast and you’ll be hearing me talk for a while, but also because of the breadth and depth of recent scholarship on the voice. Many of the hypothetical assumptions were inspired by Nina Sun Eidsheim’s The Race of Sound in which she considers vocal timbre through the lens of cultural values and sociophysical conditioning as a way of identifying race in African American Music.

Matt:

At the core of her argument is that we, as listeners, are not passive but very much active. When we ascribe gender, race, and other assumptions to what we hear, we engage in what Eidsheim calls the micropolitics of listening, an active and declamatory process in which we ascribe meaning to sound.

Matt:

Drawing on Eidsheim’s The Race of Sound and her earlier monograph Sensing Sound, Victoria Malawey presents a comprehensive methodology for analyzing the voice in popular music in her book A Blaze of Light in Every Word. She approaches the voice from a variety of angles, considering pitch, prosody, timbre, and phonation, and how signal processing (such as reverb, delay, or distortion) can impact our interpretation of the singing voice. Critical to this podcast is the position that sonic identity is formed by the listener, not the performer, which is prevalent in both Eidsheim’s and Malawey’s research.

Matt:

Like Malawey I limit my discussion to popular music, but I do not limit the scope of sonic identity to the voice. In order to focus the discussion of sonic identity, I explore three case studies in which the sonic identity of a particular artist is imitated either through parody or satire, and either for comedic effect or homage.

Matt:

Each imitation represents a performer’s unique reconstruction of another artist’s sonic identity. I offer these examples as a starting place in order to guide our own construction of sonic identity as listeners. There may be some examples in which you disagree with my interpretation and this is fine. The goal is to think critically about what it is we are listening to.

Matt:

Returning briefly to our opening consideration of my voice, I could have performed a number of modifications to change what conclusions you made about my identity. I could have spoken with a fake accent. J’aurais pu parle en francais. I could have pitch shifted my voice. Or I could have had someone else speaking for me. Because of the number of variables that can complicate our construction of sonic identity, examples that imitate are useful because they tend to exaggerate the idiosyncratic qualities of those identities, giving us a focus in the guided listenings to follow.

Matt:

Bob Dylan’s voice is the first case study and we can construct a sonic identity for him by listening solely to imitations. Meaning we don’t actually need to listen to Dylan to get an idea of what Dylan sounds like - we can simply listen to those impersonating him. In the second case study we move away from the voice and listen to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar tone and imitations of it as another form of sonic identity. From vocalist to guitarist, our final case study considers production elements as another form of sonic identity in Bruno Mars’ 24k Magic Album and its emulation of Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing Sound from the late 80s and early 90s, prevalent in groups like Guy and BLACKstreet. In this broader example we listen not only to voice and instrumentation, but also mix, signal processing, and compositional elements for similarity.

Matt:

In a nutshell, we evoke sonic identity anytime we make a statement like “X sounds like Y,” but what is behind the relative assumptions we make when we say that? Through these case studies I provide several approaches to begin to address this question and provide a model for listening critically to popular music.

Music:

[Bumper music by Ljudevit Lausin]

Matt:

In my formative stages of research for this project I pitched the idea of sonic identity to several friends and colleagues, using Bob Dylan’s voice as an example. More often than not, this resulted in an impromptu Dylan impersonation from them. Even more strikingly was that after a fairly convincing impersonation, most people followed up with the caveat “but I haven’t really listened to much Dylan.”

Matt:

This paradox: being able to impersonate someone they haven’t really listened to, prompted several questions. How has Dylan’s voice become and remained a recognizable identity in pop culture? What are the actual sonic signifiers that register this identity? And how can we analyze these signifiers in an attempt to analyze sonic identity? By using examples that imitate Dylan’s voice I aim to answer, in part, the first two questions. In order to answer the third, I draw on Victoria Malawey’s parameters for analyzing the singing voice in pop music; albeit in an abridged fashion for this podcast.

Matt:

Let’s begin by listening to a live recording of Joan Baez, covering Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” from 1983. At the beginning of this excerpt, we’ll hear Baez sing in her usual performing voice and then shift abruptly to an impersonation of Dylan. Pay particular attention to what adjustments she makes when she is performing as Dylan.

Music:

[Joan Baez]

Matt:

Most noticeable in Baez’s shift to my ear is the change in her performance of pitch. She drops vibrato and employs a constant downward glissando to the end of her phrases, where early she had sung clear discrete pitches. Similarly, she shifts the metric placement of the lyrics to anticipate the beat, resulting in a blurring of both pitch and rhythm. She also cuts phrases short, where earlier she had held out notes with vibrato.

Matt:

Her quality of singing also has a marked shift. Baez employs an additional nasal buzziness while simultaneously tensing her phonation. In other words, at the beginning of the excerpt she sounds natural and relaxed, but in her Dylan voice she sounds much more strained and assertive.

Matt:

Let’s listen to an excerpt of Australian singer-songwriter Eric Bogle’s “Do You Know Any Dylan?” In this live recording Bogle shifts to a Dylan impersonation in a very similar way to the Baez excerpt we just heard. The lyrics relate several instances in which the singing persona is asked if he sings any Dylan, which both frustrates and annoys him. Eventually he gets worn down and sings a parody of Dylan’s “Times They Are A Changin.’” Pay particular attention to the similarities between Bogle’s and Baez’s impersonations of Dylan.

Music:

[Eric Bogle]

Matt:

There are many similarities including the tensing of phonation (or rupturing of the throat), nasal buzziness, the metric placing of the lyrics, and the cutting short of phrases. However, Bogle uses a lot more discrete pitches than Baez, but does utilize a similar downward gliss on the lyrics “sink like a stone.” Bogle also stops enunciating clearly, dropping plosives, and creating an overall mumbled effect.

Matt:

Both of the examples we’ve listened to have been imitiations of Dylan’s voice and covers of his songs. Our next example is an original song, “Blues hablado sobre el mayor fan de Bob Dylan del mundo” by Inigo Coppel. As we listen to Coppel performing for BI FM Live! radio in Spain, you’ll notice several similarities that we’ve already discussed, but pay attention to the blending of speech and singing in this particular performance.

Music:

[Inigo Coppel]

Matt:

The speech-like, or recitation, component of Coppel’s performance results in similar pitch and metric placement features we noted in Baez’s and Bogle’s imitations, and we can consider it another facet in Bob Dylan’s sonic identity.

Matt:

Our final example is Paul Simon’s “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” which is a much subtler satire of Dylan’s voice. However, there are several other signifiers in this 1966 recording that are worth pointing out. First is the prominence of the Hammond organ, which, to my ear, establishes a connection to Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” released a year earlier.

Matt:

Second is the listing of contemporary pop icons and people in the lyrics of the verses (which we won’t hear in the excerpt), these are reminiscent of Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” and “Tombstone Blues.” Third is the use of harmonica interjections in between singing, which we also heard in the Coppel track. Finally is the use of the fuzz guitar riff, which I interpret as a reference to Dylan’s infamous “going electric” at the Newport Folk festival a year before this recording in 1965.

Matt:

While none of these elements individually suggest Dylan, when they are combined underneath Paul Simon’s uncharacteristic singing style suggest a satire of Dylan’s sonic identity beyond just his voice. I encourage you to explore these connections on your own, but in the excerpt we’ll listen to, focus on Simon’s performance: the blending of speech and singing and the general downward inflection in his phrases.

Music:

[Paul Simon]

Matt:

The final lyric we heard, “but it’s alright ma, everybody must get stoned,” is a hybrid of Dylan’s song “It’s alright Ma I’m only bleeding,” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35,” which features the end refrain “everybody must get stoned.”

Matt:

With these four examples we can put together a network of meaning that describes Bob Dylan’s sonic identity. In terms of performance, we can say that there is a blending of speech and singing, a general downward inflection, use of glissando, and liberty with metric placement. In terms of timbre, there is a nasal buzziness and tense phonation, resulting in a strained or rough quality of vocal production.

Matt:

We’ve listened to only a small sample of Dylan imitations and nothing by Dylan himself. So my homework for you is to go and listen to Dylan performing! Do the elements of his sonic identity we’ve constructed from imitations hold up for the real thing? What elements change or stay the same over Dylan’s 60+ year career?

Matt:

Are there other artists, performances, songs, or recordings you can think of that evoke Dylan’s sonic identity? Possibly in a more subtle or more exaggerated way than in the examples we listened to. Are there other elements that we haven’t discussed that makes something sound like Dylan to you? The voice isn’t the only site to investigate sonic identity, as we’ll hear in our second case study of Jimi Hendrix.

Music:

[Bumper music by Nate Crowe]

Matt:

Like the voice, the guitar has a wide range of individual characteristics that effect the end result sound we hear. Is the guitar acoustic or electric or some hybrid of the two? What tonewood or other material is used in its construction? What material are the strings made of? Is it played with a plectrum or fingers? And so on - this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Matt:

Because we’re talking about Jimi Hendrix, we’ll be listening to excerpts that use electric guitar, so it is useful to consider the signal path of the sound from start to finish. At the start of the chain we have the player themselves, who have their own idiosyncratic playing style and technique.

Matt:

Next is the instrument itself, which, like the player has its own unique timbral characteristics depending on its construction. Additionally, the electric guitar has electromagnetic pickups, which convert the mechanical vibration of the string into a voltage signal. This signal may go through a series of on-board effects, most commonly a volume control and some form of equalization or tone control.

Matt:

Once the signal leaves the guitar it may or may not go through one or more effects pedals that process the voltage signal, effecting the overall timbre of the sound. The next, and possibly final, stage is the amplifier that consists of a preamp stage and a power amp stage, with the possibility of extra effects in between the two. In the preamp stage the signal is further processed with additional gain or equalization. The power amp then boosts the signal's apparent volume and sends it to a speaker.

Matt:

Because we are dealing with recorded tracks, the sound is then picked up by one or more microphones and transferred to some recording medium. Some amplifiers have a direct out, which bypasses the need for a speaker or microphone, and can send the sound directly to the recording medium.

Matt:

As you can imagine, there is a near infinite number of variables in the sound of an electric guitar from guitarist to listener, all of which play a defining role in a guitarist’s sonic identity. To further problematize things, a guitarist may easily change their sound with a flip of a switch, the turn of a knob, or by picking up a different guitar! We can simplify this by considering the timbral and performative elements, as we did with Bob Dylan.

Matt:

We will focus on a single song by Hendrix as a starting point for constructing one facet of his sonic identity as a guitarist. But where to start? Let’s listen to a brief except from an interview with Roger Mayer. Mayer is an electrical engineer who became Hendrix’s right-hand man in studio and on tour, helping Hendrix realize the sounds he was looking for in his pedals, amplifiers, and guitars. The interview is from 2014 for Get Ready to Rock!, and we’ll hear the interviewer Pete Feenstra at the start of this clip, referring to Hendrix.

Interview:

"And he was coming out with all these amazing sounds, most of which (or a significant portion of which) [overlapping voices] but I think you said to me before he had a vision way beyond anybody else at the time. And when it came to recording, there's a lot more stuff that people haven't even heard of." "Oh absolutely, yea. We didn't have a problem because after I first met him, you know, 2 or three weeks later we went back to the studios and that's the first time we were in the studio together, and he used the Octavia that I designed" "That was your first pedal board?" "Well it was one of the pedals. Anyway, that's the one that was used on Purple Haze. That's the one that gives it its distinctive high frequency really psychedelic thing"

Matt:

Since Mayer points to “Purple Haze” as an example of Hendrix’s sound, let’s listen to it. We’ll hear first the opening of the track and guitar riff, which as Mayer suggests in other interviews, was most likely recorded through a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face pedal. We’ll then hear the overdubbed solo, recorded using Mayer’s Prototype Octavia pedal.

Music:

[Hendrix, “Purple Haze”]

Matt:

There is a marked difference in Hendrix’s guitar tone when the solo enters, and we may be tempted to associate the timbre of his solo with Mayer’s Octavia pedal. However, this is problematic for a number of reasons.

Matt:

Firstly the pedal used for this solo is a prototype of Mayer’s design, in fact Mayer still continues to tweak and modify the schematic. Second, as our initial trace of the guitar signal path illustrated, the pedal is only one component in a larger network of sonic manipulation. And finally, the Octavia itself is capable of a wide range of sonic possibilities as I’ll demonstrate.

Matt:

I’ll play the “Purple Haze” main guitar riff on a clone of the Octavia that I made from Mayer’s schematic. Before I demonstrate some of the different timbres, let’s get an explanation of what the Octavia pedal is actually doing from Mayer himself.

Roger:

"A brief explanation of the Octavia will be that it is a mirror imaging device. Which would be like holding a candle up in between two mirrors and you get an infinite succession of images that repeat into infinity. This box does that electronically. It also has been carefully designed, as it is really important in electronics, to only produce natural, even sounding harmonics. So it sounds alien but natural."

Matt:

The pedal itself has two controls, one for the amount of boost applied to the upper frequencies, and the other is a master volume. For this short demonstration I will only change the boost control on the Octavia pedal, and I will switch in and out one of three gain stages on my amplifier’s preamp, and the tone stack, or equalization, on the preamp also switched in and out. First let’s hear the boost at mid level, with the gain stage off and the tone stack on.

Music:

[Matt demonstrating]

Matt:

Now adding the gain stage in will increase the noisiness and amount of crunch or distortion.

Music:

[Matt demonstrating]

Matt:

Let’s take the gain stage out this time and max the boost. There will be a lot of foreground noise but listen for higher octave partials that are being boosted by the pedal. It will sound as if I’m playing in octaves, thus the name Octavia.

Music:

[Matt demonstrating]

Matt:

If I move the boost back to the mid-way point and turn the tone stack off, we don’t get as much of the octave sound, and without the tone stack the tone is a bit more mid-heavy.

Music:

[Matt demonstrating]

Matt:

The purpose of this demonstration is two-fold, it shows that even with a limited amount of variables we can get a wide array of tones, and it gives us a chance to focus on the guitar’s timbre outside of the recorded track.

Matt:

Let’s return to Hendrix’s solo in “Purple Haze.” As we listen for the second time, pay particular attention to the timbre of the guitar solo. Can you hear the octaves above the fundamental being boosted? Also note that Hendrix gets much less distortion than in my demonstration, most likely due to my guitar being cranked up to full volume.

Music:

[Hendrix, “Purple Haze”]

Matt:

The timbre of the solo is very clear with a well-defined attack and a certain amount of resonance. The combination of fuzz and octave boost further contributes to what Mayer describes as a sound of “psychedelia.” To consider some of the performative aspects of Hendrix’s sonic identity in “Purple Haze,” let’s listen to a cover of the song.

Music:

[Winslow, “Purple Haze”]

Matt:

In this version the opening guitar riff is similar to what we heard in Hendrix’s solo, albeit with a lot more distortion and noise. We hear similar bends and slides embellishments of the riff idea, occasional shifts in octave that mimic the Octavia effect and borderline on feedback from an amplifier, and there is a degree of micro-timing around the beat, attacks sometimes anticipate or are behind the beat.

Matt:

But to my ear there is something about the attack that doesn’t quite register as a guitar. In the Hendrix version both the riff and the solo had clear, clean, and articulate attacks, but in this version the attack is much more obscured. This is because it is not a guitar that we heard at all, but Michael Winslow imitating both Hendrix’s guitar and singing with his voice.

Matt:

Winslow adds a lot of sound effect artifacts in his performance as well, much like Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969. Hendrix uses distortion, amp feedback, a variety of non-traditional techniques of playing the guitar, and the tremolo bar on his guitar in order to imitate rockets and explosions, all as abrupt interruptions of the melody.

Matt:

I ended our last case study with a homework assignment and I’ll end this one with an impromptu test. We will listen to two live excerpts of the solo in “Purple Haze,” one of which is by Hendrix and the other is by Eric Gales. From what we’ve listened to and discussed in Hendrix’s recorded version and Winslow’s imitation, we should have enough of a picture of Hendrix’s sonic identity to distinguish the two excerpts.

Matt:

I should stress here though that sonic identity is not a fixed construct. It is a living idea that is constantly being revised as we listen critically and make new and different associations. So while we spent a while discussing the Octavia pedal, we won’t hear it in either performance. In fact, each performance uses a different setup entirely than that used on Hendrix’s overdubbed solo in “Purple Haze.”

Matt:

But as we listen to these live performances, make use of the same method of critical listening to the guitarist’s tone and performance style that we used before. Here is number 1.

Music:

[1. “Purple Haze”]

Matt:

And here is number 2

Music:

[2. “Purple Haze”]

Matt:

These two performances are drastically different. The first is a very rapid scalar performance with a light distortion and fairly bright cutting tone, not too bottom- or mid-heavy. In the second we heard much fewer discrete pitches, a lot of bending and sliding, much more noisy distortion on the attack, the tone was much more mid-heavy than the first, and there was a lot more freedom with metric placement.

Matt:

Thinking critically about the two performances in this fashion reveals that the second performance has a lot more in common with elements we noted in the studio version and Winslow’s imitation of “Purple Haze” and the second performance is indeed Hendrix performing live in Berkley in 1970.

Matt:

With this case study we’ve only barely scratched the surface of constructing Hendrix’s sonic identity. But we’ve explored several strategies for comparing and thinking about guitar timbre and performative elements that could be applied to any instrumental or vocal performance.

Music:

[Bumper music by Jacob Thiede]

Matt:

In our last case study we will consider the production of a track as a form of sonic identity. In the last decade collaborations between producers and artists have become more or less the norm, with both being credited to a track, rather than the producer being credited in small print on the back of an LP, CD, or not in clear view on streaming sites.

Matt:

For example, producers such as David Guetta, Marshmello, and Grimes collaborating with artists like Sia, Juice WRLD, and Doja Cat. As each of these contributors have their own sonic identity, such collaborations are rich sites for investigation, but such an investigation is beyond the scope of this podcast. The notion of sonic identity for a particular producer and/or recording studio isn’t particularly new. We might think of Barry Gordy’s Motown Sound in the 60s, or alternatively Phil Spector’s wall of sound. Quincy Jones’s work on much of Michael Jackson’s solo albums. Or Dr. Dre’s production of N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, and Eminem in the 90s.

Matt:

My approach to analyzing production and recording studio technique is informed by the writings of Albin Zak, Simon Zagorski-Thomas, and William Moylon. Each scholar offers their own insight into the craft of studio production and methods for understanding, unpacking, and analyzing a recorded text. As the subject of our final study, we will compare the studio version of Bruno Mars’s “Finesse” off the album 24k Magic from 2016, with tracks produced by Teddy Riley from 1987–1995. Riley is often associated with the genre of New Jack Swing, but since genre is notoriously difficult to define, let’s hear what Riley has to say about his own sound in an interview with the Breakfast Club at New York City’s Power 105.1 FM:

Interview:

"...and I play different instruments but I stuck with keyboards, why? Because with keyboards you can actually make anything." "How did you create the sound? Because you have a different sound than what was in the industry at that time. How did you create that sound a whole genre, the New Jack Swing?" "Well I used to have dreams and in my dreams were how could - I wanted to see Michael Jackson and Prince together. I wanted to see James Brown and Al Green make a record. Just. I wanted to mix it up it's like the same old thing. And I said you know what since I can't do it that way... and I wanted to mix everything up and being that I couldn't get what I want I did it in the music. So I put gospel with blues with fusion with EDM and mix it all up like gumbo. And I didn't know what - I didn't have a name for it I just did it. You don't really have a name until it becomes famous right." "And then people name it for you" "Yeah the music has to become the star"

Matt:

As we can hear from Riley’s description, his sound is a blending of a lot of earlier styles and genres. But one unifying feature is his use of keyboard and synthesizer for creating most, if not all, of the backing track material.

Matt:

While we listen specifically to elements in Mars’s “Finesse,” (which was produced by Shampoo Press & Curl, a collaborative production team of Mars, Phillip Lawrence, and Christopher Brody Brown), and compare them to elements in some of Teddy Riley’s produced tracks, I encourage you to also consider similarities to early artists that Riley mentions such as James Brown and Michael Jackson.

Matt:

Our process for constructing a sonic identity for Teddy Riley is slightly different from the previous two case studies. Using Mar’s track as the imitation, we will alternate back and forth between excerpts from “Finesse” and Riley’s catalog, focusing on specific aspects of similarity in both productions. Let’s begin by listening to the opening of “Finesse,” paying particular attention to the synthesized kick and snare drum.

Music:

[Mars “Finesse”]

Matt:

The opening gives an excellent opportunity for us to hear the drums in isolation. There’s no resonance on either drum sound and there’s no change in dynamics between subsequent hits. When the vocals enter, there is a small amount of reverb added to give the drums a sense of space. Let’s compare this to the synth drums in Bobby Brown’s “Two Can Play at That Game.”

Music:

[Brown, “Two Can Play at That Game”]

Matt:

In this track there’s an additional hi-hat line, panned to the right, and a rimshot hit that alternates with the snare. The snare hit has a little bit more decay or tail-end smear than the tight snare sound we heard in “Finesse,” but the snare and the kick are similarly panned center with a light amount of reverb. We’ll hear synth drums in all of the Riley-produced tracks, so there will be further opportunities for comparing and contrasting with ‘Finesse.”

Matt:

Next, let’s focus on the lead vocals and background harmonies in “Finesse.” Pay particular attention to the slight amount of distortion on Mars’s lead vocals in the center of the mix, and the blending of the harmonies panned both left and right.

Music:

[Mars “Finesse”]

Matt:

We hear a similar texture in the verse of Guy’s “Groove Me,’ with Teddy Riley’s lead vocals being slightly distorted and treble-y. There’s also a similar effect on the harmonies, giving them almost a digital or vocoder-like timbre.

Matt:

You’ll also notice that the vocals in this track from 1988 are overall a lot quieter and sit more in the middle of the mix rather than riding on top in the Mars track. This is due to the relatively larger use of compression in Mars’s album from 2016 compared to Guy’s eponymous album released 28 years earlier.

Matt:

[Guy, "Groove Me”]

Matt:

As both Riley and Mars use synthesizers it might be tempting to compare makes and manufacturers of keyboards used on both recordings. But as we heard with the Octavia in our discussion of Hendrix, there are a lot more variables at play than just the gear. Especially because Riley, like Roger Mayer, was fond of tweaking factory presets to sculpt the sound he was looking for.

Matt:

So instead let’s focus on the sound itself rather than the source. Listen particularly to the use of synthesized orchestral hits in the pre-chorus of ‘Finesse.”

Music:

[Mars, “Finesse”]

Matt:

Now, compare that to a similar orchestral hit sound in Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her.”

Music:

[Keith Sweat “I Want Her”]

Matt:

In terms of timbre, the orchestral hits in Sweat’s track have a lot more sustain, whereas in the Mars track it was much shorter and crisper. This is similar to the difference in snare timbre we heard in the Bobby Brown example as well when comparing it to “Finesse. ”

Matt:

As we heard in Riley’s description of his sound, there’s often a blending of different genres in the tracks he writes and produces. Most common at the end of the 80s was borrowing aspects from rap and hip-hop. This could be realized by using sampling and various turntable techniques as we can hear at the end of Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison.”

Music:

[Bell Biv DeVoe, “Poison”]

Matt:

Or more commonly by including a rapped verse, bridge, or drum break. Now the blending of rap and singing may not seem particularly innovative, but keep in mind that rap at the end of the 80s was still relatively new as a recorded art form. And this blending becomes one aspect of Riley’s sonic identity.

Matt:

Let’s listen to BLACKstreet’s “No Diggity” from 1995, featuring Dr. Dre as a guest rapper and co-producer and Queen Pen as a guest rapper. We’ll hear Riley sing the end of the chorus and transition into Queen Pen’s rapped verse.

Music:

[BLACKstreet “No Diggity”]

Matt:

We get a similar shift from singing to rapping towards the end of “Finesse.”

Music:

[Mars, “Finesse”]

Matt:

As in our previous case studies, the production elements we’ve focused on do not individually define Teddy Riley’s sound or Bruno Mars’s emulation of it. These elements work together to construct a network of meaning that we can associate with a person’s sonic identity.

Matt:

I began this podcast with a number of assumptions you could have made about me as you heard my voice. By now you’re familiar with my voice and you may or may not have changed some of your assumptions or any associations you have with it. But it is my hope that after going through these case studies you have a greater appreciation of thinking and listening critically, and have a working model that you can build off of.

Matt:

What we learn from these three case studies is that music is inherently intertextual. Because my focus was imitation, this point may be a bit exaggerated, but consider the similarities in Teddy Riley’s production style in the five tracks we listened to by different artists. John Covach has used the term “stylistic competency” to refer to an audience’s ability to recognize audio-visual signifiers associated with a particular genre, movement, or period. However, the semiotics of stylistic competency relies on a shared cultural construction of style or genre–an area explored in detail by David Brackett.

Matt:

With sonic identity I am proposing a more individualistic semiotic model. One that is based more on our own unique musical experiences than on shared cultural ideas. Nevertheless it is hard to separate the two, especially in a guided listening by me of performers who are imitating other artists; which puts you, the listener of the podcast, two or three times removed from the original. But my goal here was to exaggerate music’s intertextuality through examples of imitation, and provide a model for constructing sonic identity through comparison.

Matt:

Both Victoria Malawey and Nina Sun Eidsheim present case studies that compare one or more tracks, much like we did with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Teddy Riley. Comparative analysis is a particularly useful tool in analyzing popular music. Lori Burns’s work on genealogy of particular tracks and artists uses similar approaches in order to highlight intertextual references in terms of music, lyrics, image, culture, and persona.

Matt:

Sonic identity has a particular resonance with persona. Let’s consider Robert Zimmerman’s artistic persona of Bob Dylan. In terms of public image, Dylan originally presented himself as the next Woodie Guthrie, emulating his singing and songwriting style; was elevated to a deity-like status by the 60s folk community until his infamous use of the electric guitar in ’65; and is prolific songwriter and poet laureate. Dylan’s visual appearance has remained more or less the same: sporting unruly curly hair, dressing casually, with a guitar in hand and harmonica around his neck.

Matt:

This snapshot of Dylan’s artistic persona represents the visual and cultural components of his identity, while our construction of his sonic identity represents a facet of his aural identity. The other facets of his aural identity would include more traditional musical and lyrical analytic observations. What we gain by establishing sonic identity is a more nuanced understanding of an artist’s persona, which is an intrinsic element of popular music.

Matt:

Although our focus was on popular music in this podcast, the basic strategies have a much broader application. We’ve heard how we can form a sonic identity for a speaking voice. We can apply similar listening strategies to a new composition by Gabriela Lena Frank or a new recording of Bach preludes. To music that is outside of our cultural purview or to music we know well and listen to repeatedly.

Matt:

The concept of sonic identity may be a useful tool for comparing and contrasting different voices and performances, but it is more functional as a way of revealing how we listen and how we are constantly active listeners. So the next time you say X sounds like Y, think carefully about the assumptions and associations you are making about the sonic identity of both variables. It’s an exercise that is both challenging and rewarding. I thank you for listening.

Matt:

I would like to thank Jennifer Beavers and Megan Lyons, not only for pioneering this podcast journal, but also for their support and advice on edits, and especially securing permissions for this episode. My thanks to John Covach for his revisions and suggestions for improvements to my original script, and for pointing me towards several examples and scholars I hadn't considered before. I am extremely grateful to Roger Mayer and Christine at Get Ready to Rock for their prompt response for my request for permissions for using Roger Mayer's interviews. I would like to thank Sherri Tucker for introducing me to much of the scholarship that spring-boarded my current research.

Matt:

For early and ongoing discussions about the case studies presented here, and for their comments on early drafts of the script, I would like to thank Jacinta Meyers for her insight on Bob Dylan, David Ferrandino for discussions on both Dylan and Hendrix, and for troubleshooting my Octavia pedal clone. Frank Nawrot for playing a lot of new jack swing when we shared an office, and for his perception of Teddy Riley's production style. And finally, Brent Ferguson, who shared thoughts, suggestions, comments, and opinions over countless coffees, from the inception of this project up to its complete form.

SMT:

Visit our website smt-pod.org for supplemental materials related to this episode. And join in on the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments @SMT_Pod. SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. This episode features original compositions by Ljudevit Lausin, Nate Crowe, and Jacob Thiede. Thanks for listening!

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