The Impact of Timbre on Perceptions of Genre in Recorded Popular Music - Stefanie Bilidas & Grace Gollmar
Episode 114th April 2024 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:49:08

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In this week's episode, Stefanie Bilidas and Grace Gollmar discuss the role of timbre in the listener's perception of genre, focusing on cover songs and Massive Attack's discography as two case studies.

This episode was produced by Jose Garza along with Team Lead Thomas Yee.

SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season03/

Transcripts

SMT:

[Intro Theme Zhangcheng Lu, “BGM Scales,” followed by producer intro.]

Welcome to SMT-Pod, the premier audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this week's episode, Stefanie Bilidas and Grace Gollmar discuss the role of timbre in the listener's perception of genre, focusing on cover songs and Massive Attack's discography as two case studies.

Stefanie:

Let’s start with some word associations - what’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say certain words? Audience at home, you are welcome to play along. How about: rock music?

Grace:

Rock to me means electric guitars, amps, power chords, drum sets, verses and choruses…

Stefanie:

I agree; I also think of some groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Rock tends to be presented in a masculine manner, whether that is actually the case. Next word: crossover.

Grace:

Hmm. This is a tough one. I think of musical crossover in terms of style or genre, like if you put out an album that sounds like it’s in a whole different genre from the music you used to make. I think you could also consider crossing over as a marketing thing - moving from one market to another or one listener group to another. Maybe you used to write nothing but Gregorian chant, but suddenly you have a breakthrough pop hit that goes viral on TikTok - things like that.

Stefanie:

Do you think of crossover as a good thing? Or is it a negative term to you?

Grace:

So to me, crossover is not bad as a term, just pointing out this shift in perceived style, but I know that fans can see crossover as a betrayal of the original style that made the artist popular. Especially if they see it as a form of selling out, or crossing over to an audience that doesn’t know the “real them.”

Stefanie:

So with that in mind, how would you view Miley Cyrus as an artist? Does crossover apply to her?

Grace:

Yeah, I think it could. When I was growing up in the early 2000s, I knew her as a Disney channel star doing tween-oriented pop music, but then when she came out with “Wrecking Ball” later on I felt that she had entered a new market, with her music being labeled “mature” in a way it wasn’t before. On the other hand I still think of her as a “mainstream pop” artist, so I’m not sure if there has been a big sense of her switching genres altogether– at least not to my knowledge. But maybe somebody who knows more of her music would think differently.

Stefanie:

Well that concludes our word association game for now - thank you all for playing. It was not a pointless game, I promise. Rather, this exercise was to demonstrate some themes of our podcast episode. The first is that listeners bring prior knowledge and experience to a piece of music. The second is that artists, and songs by those artists, are expected to fit into listeners’ perceptions of the genres they already associate with the artist. There is tension when musical output does not align with this notion of genre, especially if there is some crossover happening either in terms of musical content or marketing category.

Grace:

When we hear names of artists or names of songs, we come to expect certain timbral and generic cues. However, these expectations are going to be based on our personal experience with prior music (by that artist, or by other artists we associate with them), and they might be different from the expectations our friends or other fans bring to the table. Furthermore, they can be challenged by the music that follows.

Stefanie:

Our podcast centers around what to do when these expectations don’t match - when the sounds you expect from previous experiences or by information that you know about the artist do not actually align with the sounds heard in the music. We will discuss how listeners can go about resolving this tension by changing their perceptions around generic expectations.

Grace:

Today we will talk through two case studies - one around changing perspectives during the listening process, specifically with cover songs. Another involves changes to an artist’s discography over time. In each case, the sound of the music – timbre – prompts listeners to reassess their understanding of the artist’s genre.

Stefanie:

Actually a literary scholar named John Frow discusses this situation. Looking at written texts, he notes how internal cues of a text may change, leading a reader to change their perception of the text’s genre over time. For him, the reading process involves “progressive refinement and the adaptation of the sense we make of those cues,” and we can adapt that to the listening process - differences in musical cues can alter one’s perception of genre.

Grace:

If there are internal cues, are there also external cues?

Stefanie:

Yes, actually! So if you think of musical internal cues as things like instrumentation, tempo, and motives, external cues would be things like performance venues, published biographies of a band, and album covers.

Stefanie:

As an example, let’s consider the album cover for the 2018 country tribute album Restoration: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. With scratched hardwood flooring, the overlay of an American flag, and pictures of a broken guitar, keyboard, and fiddle, this album’s paratextual framing could suggest an evocation of the past and implies that the work is a return to the country of previous decades. Scholar Geoff Mann notes that this type of framing is conventional to country music discourse, where the past is juxtaposed as “the good ole days” in relation to the present.

Grace:

What’s interesting about this to me is that instruments are being used as sort of a shorthand for it being a country tribute album. That acoustic guitar and fiddle immediately read “country” to me as opposed to rock– I feel like I’m already conjuring up the sound of those just from looking at the album cover.

Stefanie:

So Grace you make an interesting point that you are thinking of the sounds of the music based on the visual imagery. For those listening in, in music studies, we call the “sounds” of the music timbre and there is some scholarship on the importance of timbre in popular music. For example, Albin Zak discusses how the recording takes on a sense of “autonomy” as the text and Paul Theberge describes how timbral hooks have become a marker of sonic identity for these recordings.

Grace:

Exactly. I also read a study where scholars Robert O. Gjerdingen and David Perrott observed that the listeners in their sample could almost immediately determine a sense of a master recording’s genre based on timbral cues alone—that is, at around the quarter-second mark of an excerpt, before other musical properties like a harmonic progression or a groove could be established. The study intentionally used excerpts the researchers felt were “characteristic of both the song and its genre,” often from a hook or refrain that occurred at multiple points over the song’s duration—not just at the beginning. What’s interesting here is that the listeners expressed very high confidence in their ability to sort sounds into genres, even though there was some variation among listeners as to which specific tracks conveyed which specific genres.

Stefanie:

So do be advised - the song title has a curse word - this album features a cover by Miley Cyrus of the Elton John song “The Bitch is Back.” What kind of timbres would you expect from that track, based on your prior knowledge about the album cover and Miley Cyrus?

Grace:

I’m going to guess from the album cover here that acoustic string instruments are going to be an important part of the instrumentation, and I might also expect some vocal twang if there are vocals. But right now I’m experiencing some tension between those signifiers I talked about with Miley Cyrus before, having watched her on Disney channel performing a sort of unmarked pop-rock, and the instrumentation and vocal style I might expect on this album. I’m curious to see what’s going to happen next - I’m not sure how she’s going to pull that off.

Stefanie:

Yeah, as you mentioned, you expect vocal twang for a country song, but that you haven’t heard Miley Cyrus use twang so there is a discrepancy between what you expect from the genre and what you expect from the artist in terms of vocal timbral cues. We put a lot of emphasis on the voice as a source marker of authenticity. In cover songs, artists have to go out of their way to make their versions seem authentic and vocal timbre is a good way to indicate a change from the original version. Scholar Victoria Malawey describes how singers are expected to convey personality, even if the vocal persona is a staged version of that personality. Another musicologist, Nina Eidsheim, cautions audiences on ascribing meaning to a voice, noting how one can imitate vocal techniques, but not have the personal life experiences of the original singer. That creates some tension with the notion of the voice as autobiographical.

Grace:

So, audiences attribute meaning to the voice even if they have no way of proving this authenticity, and if they aren’t supposedly being authentic, that can cause listeners to reinterpret their perception of the artist and the artist’s genre.

Stefanie:

People ascribe more meaning to the voice because it is implied that it carries personality, but instrumental timbres can also impact the perception of an artist as authentic. Let’s look at Miley Cyrus’s cover on Restoration - The Bitch is Back. Based on your expectations of Miley Cyrus as an artist and the paratextual framing Grace and I talked about earlier, what do you think of the opening here?

Music:

[Miley Cyrus intro, 0:00-0:15]

Stefanie:

Grace, what did you think?

Grace:

Whoa, I wasn’t expecting to hear cows!

Stefanie:

Yeah! That’s partly why this example is so interesting from an analytical standpoint. The use of the fiddle, played with double-stopped sixteenth notes, tambourine shakes, and electric guitar with picked strumming situate the track within country music. But those moos are really over the top!

Grace:

They almost feel like a parody of country music to me.

Stefanie:

Grace and the audience, I purposely played the cover first, because I think realistically this cover is being listened to by people with all sorts of levels of familiarity with the original including some listeners who may not have ever heard the original version by Elton John. Even so, they still have to make decisions about how they want to categorize this cover from a genre standpoint. But for others, they might be really familiar with the original and therefore are making active connections with the original. So let's listen to Elton John’s intro.

Music:

[Elton John introduction 0:00-0:17]

Stefanie:

Grace - what did you notice?

Grace:

There’s a lot more brass involved here, and it broadly speaking sounds more “electric” to me, particularly with the guitars. I would be way more inclined to put this in a rock context personally.

Stefanie:

So there seem to be some timbral differences between the openings of the original version and the cover. Specifically, the cover’s centering of the fiddle as an acoustic instrument and lack of brass could open up the possibility of hearing the remainder of the track in the country genre. Let’s listen to the chorus of Miley Cyrus’s cover now to see if those expectations are confirmed for us.

Music:

[Miley Cyrus chorus, 0:54-1:11]

Stefanie:

Grace, what did you think of the chorus?

Grace:

I noticed a much fuller use of the texture, with all those sustained chords in the background. That alone seems pretty standard for choruses - you would expect more instruments in the ensemble to emphasize and energize the text - but what’s striking to me here is that I think we have some horns in the ensemble. That reminds me a lot more of the Elton John recording in terms of the brass prominence.

Stefanie:

Yeah let’s listen to Elton John’s original for comparison.

Music:

[Elton John chorus, 0:57-1:11]

Grace:

It sounds really similar. Maybe since we had that really over-the-top country sound in the intro of Miley Cyrus’s cover, we don’t need all of that to continue the whole time to read it like a country song overall. But on a moment-to-moment basis, like if I just caught that snippet of Cyrus’s version playing, I might not read it as country at all; I might call it a rock song instead, much like the original we just heard.

Stefanie:

Yeah, or some people might even say soul because of the strong brass presence throughout the chorus. Others might say that the brass is not an important timbral cue to them because it matches the original and perceive the country signifiers to be more significant timbres in the mix.

Stefanie:

On the difference between soul and country, music theorist Jocelyn Neal notes that recent country music from the 2010s had “adopted musical signifiers of the blues, of black performance traditions…and used them to transform country performances into soul performances that were ironically presented convincingly to their audience as country, not just any country, but hard country invested in tradition.” Therefore, listeners using this understanding of country music may not associate the timbres as other than country signifying the erasure of soul from the country music discourse.

Grace:

So with all that said, do those fiddles and moos ever come back?

Stefanie:

Yeah they do– at the break fills and starts of verses.

Grace:

OK, in that case, maybe this really is trying for a “country sound” the whole time. Or country verses with soul choruses. I don’t consider myself a really expert listener in either of those two genres, so I didn’t really get the soul associations at all. But some other listeners might.

Stefanie:

Exactly, listeners bring different competencies around genres. Based on their prior experiences, music they listen to and/or perform, there is a possibility that listeners may shift their generic perceptions throughout a song, but also they might not. Listening pathways that I am alluding to here are flexible. Now I’m going to shift us forward in the song.

Music:

[Miley Cyrus solo, 2:05-2:20]

Stefanie:

If you have knowledge of the original, suspicions might be raised. You might be thinking to yourself, “wait a minute– the original didn’t have a banjo solo!” and to that, I would say - you’re correct. Instead, the original had a saxophone solo.

Music:

[Elton John solo, 4:08-4:21]

Stefanie:

There is also accompanying brass and vocals that make this sound more collaborative than just a saxophone solo. The switch in instrumentation for Cyrus’s cover may lead listeners with knowledge of the original to prioritize the banjo as a sonic cue of the country music genre rather than soul.

Grace:

That is definitely the case for me. In particular I’m noticing the playing techniques of the banjo here– it’s not just strummed like a guitar; it’s plucked too.

Stefanie:

Good observation Grace! Actually, Joti Rockwell notes how these techniques are common markers of virtuosity for bluegrass banjo. Therefore, some listeners may hear the inclusion of banjo to be a timbral cue of bluegrass rather than country. The banjo is plucked using fingers instead of strumming and hitting the strings to stop their vibration. Furthermore, the banjo player is sliding around on the fingerboard without picking at the same time, producing both hammer-ons and pull-offs, so that there are two notes heard for one attack.

Grace:

Interesting!

Stefanie:

So far, we have been talking about musical listening like reading, where listeners shift their generic perceptions of a song based on different timbral cues that come up and their perception that these cues are important to the genre they are perceiving. At the end of the listening process, listeners may holistically contextualize songs into a collection of genres, or even one genre, based on the aggregate of timbral cues.

Grace:

For me, with this song, I hear a stronger affiliation with country conventions than with other genres. That’s an assessment I’m making based on timbre mostly, but also that album cover primed me to hear the sounds in a certain way too.

Stefanie:

Yeah– you aren’t alone actually. Music journalists reviewing this cover said similar things. For example, Hannah Compton from Building Our Own Nashville states that “the use of country instruments really shows a different side to this song” before going on to state how Miley Cyrus is better known for her pop tracks. From Variety Magazine, Chris Willman compares Miley Cyrus to Shania Twain, a more prominent artist for the country music genre. He writes that “handing the tune’s guitar riff over to a fiddler has the fun effect of making it sound like a tribute to early Shania.”

Stefanie:

Listening pathways are fluid and subject to interpretation based on a listener’s decision on what counts as the important instrumentation and timbres. Returning to Frow’s considerations of genre, genre is multifaceted– it consists of listeners’ perceptions of both internal and external cues. As listeners move through a song, a sense of genre may change based on new information.

Stefanie:

In the second portion of the podcast, Grace will guide us through a schema from Massive Attack’s discography that contains blended timbral cues from both trip-hop and rock music. She explores how listeners perceived the band in terms of genre when they incorporated timbres from metal and rock.

Grace:

Thanks so much, Stefanie. So, from talking about cover songs, we know that we’re consciously or unconsciously doing this quick association between new timbres and genre frames at different points in the listening process, and that that impacts how we judge the overall genre positioning of the song.

Grace:

In this next part of the episode, I want to discuss a different facet of this same issue. Not only are we judging what genre or genres a song seems to be participating in over its run time, but the more repertoire we hear from one particular artist’s discography, the more information we might synthesize together about that artist’s genre positioning over time. Audiences extrapolate cues from the individual text (which can be at the level of a single recording, or an album) to a discography, to make claims about the type of artist someone is at each point in their career.

Stefanie:

In his book Living Genres in Late Modernity: American Music of the Long 1970s, musicologist Charles Kronengold talks about these multiple different frames of musical time and expectation that listeners can perceive simultaneously: the seconds elapsed in a recording, the space between downbeats and sectional boundaries in a song, and so on, extending all the way out to a recording’s place in a discography or historical time. We listen for genre cues at all these different levels.

Grace:

So this is a complex and subjective process, potentially taking place over years of listening or fan affiliation, but it can still start at the level of very small cues, and very small changes in instrumentation or timbre. In theories of cognition, schemas are packets of information - when it comes to music theory, a schema is a packet of sound information that can synthesize stuff like pitch, rhythm, timbre, and so on into one coherent musical moment.

Stefanie:

Schema theory’s foundations lie in the scale schemata of the Italian Partimenti tradition, as noted by Robert Gjerdingen. Certain scale degrees in a bass voice were paired with soprano scale degrees. But schema theory has expanded the literature to include popular music subgenres. For example, you may have listened to the Season 1 SMT-Pod episode in which Matt Chiu and Tyler Howie discuss schemata in emo music.

Grace:

That was a great episode! They talked about how the “twinkle schema” shows up in midwestern emo over time, starting with that really iconic example from American Football and kind of dying out with some of the 2000s wave of emo.

Music:

[“Twinkle Schema” excerpt, 16:12-16:29 and then cut to 18:28-50]

Stefanie:

You may have also read David Easley’s work on riff schemes in American hardcore punk. Easley highlights how these riffs were both easy to play and featured multiple repetitions that captured the ethos of punk as a countercultural movement.

Grace:

Recently I saw a great presentation at the Society for Music Theory’s annual conference by Nate Mitchell on schemata of cueing and instrumental gestures in bluegrass music. Taking the multiple cueing gestures as schemas, he notes how fast recognition of these cues can denote competency in improvised jam sessions.

Stefanie:

We could also consider Eron’s work on the “hotness” signification of flat 2 in recent pop music– a short cue that carries meaning of sex, attractiveness, and exoticization over a body of repertoire. So, given all this current scholarship on schemata, how does a cue that small relate to bigger patterns of musical genre?

Grace:

I’m glad you asked. So, one branch of music theory that’s related to schema theory is called topic theory. A schema is found within the “home” genre - a schema is used as a shorthand to communicate to others within a musical style that listeners and performers are all assumed to be familiar with, meaning that picking up on a schema is a way of showing that you’re competent in that style as a performer or listener (like the Italian orphans).

Stefanie:

We can compare this to topic theory - another branch of theories of musical meaning. A topic happens when an artist takes a chunk of music with some kind of semiotic significance and puts it outside of its usual context. So it reads more like an external reference. William Echard, a scholar of topics in popular music, notes that “in order for a sign to function as a topic, it must be removed from its original stylistic frame,” and it also has to rely on indexicality – meaning it points toward the old musical context to highlight a contrast with the new one.

Grace:

In the example I’m about to discuss, one could read the sonic cues that Massive Attack uses like a topic, since they’re viewed by some as being imported from the contrasting genre of rock. However, as we’ll see, this became such a recognizable cue in their overall “sound” as read by in-group listeners that it became more like a schema - something internal to the genre and/or the artist trajectory as opposed to an external reference. When we include a schema in music, we can refer back to the connotations of that musical chunk as a shorthand to communicate to others in our musical style, and I think that that’s what happened here as listeners drew connections between the schema, the artist, and the genre in which they were seen to belong.

Stefanie:

So today you’re discussing how schemata work in the genre of trip-hop. Can you tell me more about that genre of music?

Grace:

Sure, I’d be happy to. So, this is a musical genre that grew popular primarily in Bristol, UK, in the 90s. It fuses some elements of standard 80s and 90s British hip-hop, like slowed-down bass-heavy breakbeat samples, with timbral components of electronic music, jazz, and dub.

Stefanie:

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard this genre before. Could you play some examples of this genre?

Grace:

Sure - here’s a sampling of some artists that I put together – here you will hear Portishead followed by Sneaker Pimps followed by Massive Attack.

Music:

[Mashup cue of Portishead “Strangers” [1:14-1:20], Sneaker Pimps “6 Underground” [0:00-0:08], and Massive Attack “Karmacoma” [1:14-1:20]]

Grace:

So typically, high vocals in a jazz or R&B singing style are combined with low rap vocals over a slow, shuffling electronic beat. If you’d like, you can see the linked Spotify playlist on SMT-Pod’s website with a bigger survey of the genre.

Stefanie:

These artists’ musical style also sometimes goes by the name of “chillout,” since it tries to create a surround-sound, immersive, and trance-like listening experience. Elements such as panning and sample manipulation are key components of how this genre is produced.

Grace:

My genre snippet there ended with “Karmacoma” by Massive Attack, which will be the group I focus on in this study. They consist of rapper/DJs Grant “Daddy G” Marshall, Robert Del Naja or 3D, and Andrew Vowles or Mushroom.

Stefanie:

The group originated in 1991 as a subset of the Wild Bunch collective of DJs, and their work is known for featuring a rotating cast of guest vocalists, including Tracey Thorn, Horace Andy, Tricky, and Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins.

Grace:

In an interview in 1998 with journalist Anil Prasad of Innerviews Magazine, Andrew Vowles discussed how he felt that Massive Attack’s sound in Mezzanine, their third album, had shifted from their earlier albums. If he had had more creative control, “it would have been more soul-orientated—more like Blue Lines”-- here he’s referring to their first album from 1991. “It would have been much more of a black-sounding album with hip-hop influences too. It came out kinda rocky. That was from 'D” – Del Naja– “who is quite rock and punk-oriented.” Del Naja himself also observed a cross-genre appeal for the band, particularly among rock fans outside the hip-hop listener base who were otherwise, in his words, “too scared to touch it.”

Stefanie:

I can sense some tension here.

Grace:

Yes. That interview happened right after the release of Mezzanine, which became their most popular album– and it was also right before Andrew Vowles left the group over these creative conflicts.

Stefanie:

That is really striking! It sounds like Del Naja was pushing into sounds that weren’t really expected by Vowles or by insider fans of the group’s previous output. I see how this can be considered a cross-over of sorts going from a niche audience to a larger one.

Grace:

Exactly. So this will serve as a starting point for my analysis through the lens of schema theory, which as you’ll remember is about recognition of cues within a musical genre. As we’ll see, members of that niche audience– self-identified trip-hop fans– also heard an uptick in a particular “rocky” musical cue in individual tracks– a timbral and textural schema, which I’ll unpack in a bit. The increased use of this schema on the album Mezzanine helps explain why people felt that they were becoming “rockier” in timbre during this period.

Grace:

To introduce this schema, I’m going to play a couple of brief clips from the track “Dissolved Girl” off of Mezzanine. I felt this to be a really representative track, or schema “prototype.” For context, “Dissolved Girl” features guest vocalist Sarah Jay Hawley, who repeats fragments of the text throughout the song and sings slowly in relation to the surface rhythm. She has a raspy tone quality on longer vowels, and uses a temporary vocal fry on the opening syllables of the words “something,” “savior,” and “fake it.” As Kate Heidemann observes, this brief elective use of vocal fry can place emphasis on text while “avoiding excessive strain.” The breathy mode of phonation suggests relaxed vocal folds, and so it works along with the slow, fragmented delivery to create a sense of disconnection in the vocal persona. These are pretty genre-normative cues for chillout vocalists. Let’s listen:

Music:

[“Dissolved Girl” introduction, 2:10-2:24.]

Grace:

You can also hear the genre-typical Rhodes key board, the slow halftime beat, and that prominent bass riff. But let’s listen to what happens at the halfway point of the song:

Music:

[“Dissolved Girl,” 2:25-2:32.]

Grace:

Stefanie, what are you hearing here? What genre associations do you have now?

Stefanie:

My ears went straight to the 1-b2 riff, as a self-identified metal listener. That riff is very common in Metal music so it definitely creates a more rock/or metal-oriented sound than the beginning. This doesn’t really align with my expectations of the opening vocals - that breathiness. I would be expecting some harsher vocal techniques, or even screaming, earlier on.

Grace:

Those are great observations. Now here’s a few seconds later:

Music:

[“Dissolved Girl,” 2:38-2:54.]

Stefanie:

Wow, given the riff plus the entrance of distorted guitar, I am definitely hearing rock here.

Grace:

What stands out the most to me is a change in percussion, from that slower drum machine loop with the mellow filter on the snares to a fast record scratch to a pretty cymbal-heavy acoustic drum set that sounds quite “live.” And, from a panning perspective, we go from a more centered drum positioning in the intro to an around-the-head effect on the record scratch to a very wide pan on the acoustic drum set that takes up a lot of auditory space. When I first heard this track it was through headphones, and that made panning a big part of the listening experience.

Stefanie:

Yeah, totally. Interesting how we can both notice different timbres that suggest a shifting of generic signifiers toward a blend with rock within the trip-hop context.

Grace:

Definitely. So remember, a schema is a packet of information that we’re synthesizing in real-time, and this single striking “moment” we’ve just been unpacking is made up of a bunch of timbral shifts happening at once. We’ve got the acoustic drum set, the distorted guitar, that noise coming from the record scratch. And, from a pitch perspective, as Stefanie just mentioned, we have the introduction of the flat 2 scale degree…

Music:

[G flat played on MIDI electric bass.]

Grace:

…in the bass. This…

Music:

[Bass riff from Massive Attack “Dissolved Girl” [0:14-0:21], played on MIDI electric bass.]

Grace:

…has turned into this.

Music:

[Bass riff from Massive Attack “Dissolved Girl” [2:25-2:28], played on MIDI electric bass.]

Stefanie:

Let’s listen to that whole schema unfold now, listening to how the rock timbres are incorporated into the trip-hop ones during that segment of the song.

Music:

[“Dissolved Girl,” selections from 2:10-3:30 showing timbral envelope.]

Grace:

Fans of Massive Attack have picked up on this moment too, with some commenters in the trip-hop subreddit and official YouTube video comments calling it a “guitar solo,” a notable “bass line,” and an “explosion.”

Grace:

This schema lets Massive Attack remain recognizably “in” the trip-hop genre in terms of vocal timbre but it also foregrounds a more mainstream 90s “rock” or “punk” sound in the instrumental like Vowles said. I call it a textural schema as well as a timbral one, since you likely need the juxtaposition of these different genre-affiliated elements in the musical texture in order to process it as similar to the “Dissolved Girl” prototype in the context of other songs.

Stefanie:

Grace, I hear the synthesis of the two genres in this cue and I do think this is a clear example, what we would call an exemplar in schema theory terminology. Are there other tracks where you can hear this schema?

Grace:

Yeah, absolutely. That’s what makes it a schema – the more you hear of it within a genre, discography, or other body of work, the more recognizable it is as its own “thing.” One track that works similarly is called “Angel.”

Grace:

“Angel” treats its flat 2 a little differently, putting it in the opening vocal line to foreshadow a later shift into rock instrumentation with those acoustic drums, the electric guitar, and the full panning. That said, both of these tracks limit the rock instrumentation to a select segment of the track before returning to some more normative trip-hop timbres, foregrounding the vocals and electronic drums. Because of that sectioned-off usage of timbral cues, I call the schematic norm an “envelope.” Let’s listen to a spliced version of this track, showing the different stages of that envelope.

Music:

[“Angel,” selections from 2:07-3:05 showing timbral envelope]

Stefanie:

By the end, the original timbral and textural cues return, definitely making this feel as though it is distinct and intentional.

Grace:

Yeah. Let’s check out one more example of this schema in “Group Four,” another track on the album Mezzanine.

Stefanie:

There have been three Mezzanine tracks so far!

Grace:

Yeah, like I mentioned this is where they really use a lot of this technique. This track similarly features some breathy vocals from Liz Fraser, whom some of you may know as the vocalist from the Cocteau Twins, and Robert del Naja employing what he calls his “eight-octave whisper.” At around the 4:50 minute mark, it also undergoes a timbral shift. We go from a keyboard-dominant texture with softer drums and genre-typical Rhodes piano…

Music:

[“Group Four,” 1:46-1:55.]

Grace:

…toward acoustic drum set, a prominent electric bass guitar riff with b2, and less vocal-forward mixing– Liz Fraser’s sung text is run through a lot of reverb at this point so it’s barely distinguishable.

Music:

[“Group Four,” selections from 5:49-6:09.]

Grace:

The main difference from the “Dissolved Girl” prototype is that the new “rocky” texture continues from the 6-minute mark all the way to the end of the track.

Stefanie:

This seems similar to the prototypical examples, but now I am not getting this sense of returning to the original.

Grace:

Exactly. In schema theory, it’s important to recognize that not every instance of a schema is going to sound exactly the same, and the term “variant” is used to refer to a closely related, but less “iconic” version of the schema. So I call this a “takeover” variant of the schema since that initial combination of timbres you might associate with the trip-hop genre, the Rhodes and the breathy vocals and the electronic drum samples, never comes back.

Stefanie:

Schema theory involves the rise and decline of a schema’s usage and the changes that occur in it over time. Did you find more variants in Massive Attack’s discography including on other albums besides Mezzanine?

Grace:

I did! Part of schema theory includes analysis of a corpus, in this case, Massive Attack’s whole discography. So, another variant that you can see mainly at the outer limits of their discography - very early and very late work - is something I call “direct juxtaposition,” in which the generic tension between trip-hop signifiers and rock signifiers is sustained through different textural layers throughout the whole track.

Grace:

For example, in the track “Daydreaming” from the album Blue Lines, released in 1991, you may hear breathy, reverberant high vocals by Shara Nelson and the use of a prominent sample from multi-instrumentalist Wally Badarou in the background. Here is that sample followed by its use in “Daydreaming.”

Music:

[Wally Badarou “Mambo,” 0:05-0:14.]

Music:

[“Daydreaming,” 3:48-4:00.]

Grace:

That approach to vocal timbre and looping may be expected for the trip-hop genre. However, these elements are paired with a bass-heavy acoustic drum set with snare backbeat, and an electric bass guitar riff, both of which may carry rock connotations with their timbre for some listeners. There’s a full list of tracks featuring some version of what I call the “Dissolved Girl” schema available on the SMT-Pod website in our supplemental materials, if you’d like to check them out.

Stefanie:

After hearing all these tracks, I think that the prototypical examples highlight the blend between rock and trip-hop timbral cues, but that the variants bring out the juxtaposition of those cues. As a person who listens to more rock music than trip-hop, I find the inclusion of rock timbres comforting and a way to ease myself into the trip-hop genre. I can see how fans of trip-hop felt that the rock elements did not fit into their assessment of the trip-hop genre originally.

Grace:

Yeah, your observations sound similar to what Del Naja and Vowles said about their sonic shift. This schema helps explain what’s happening in terms of that shift and it also tracks with the crossover success of Mezzanine as an album, particularly among metal- or rock-identified listeners like yourself. When I looked at comments from fans on YouTube and Reddit, I found that many listeners grouped together the tracks “Group Four,” “Dissolved Girl,” “Mezzanine,” and “Angel” from the album Mezzanine, plus “Antistar” from 100th Window, as showcasing a crossover with rock or metal. These commenters used language such as “heavy trip-hop” or “trip-hop-rock.” Some self-described metalheads, non-fans of trip-hop, also cited these tracks as an entry point into the Massive Attack discography.

Stefanie:

So, it sounds like schemas are a way of hearing how artists cultivate a particular style over time. They’re still participating in a bigger genre with other artists in it, but this is something that listeners might think of as distinctive to the artist too.

Grace:

As I’ve noted here, the distinctiveness came from the inclusion of rock timbres– timbres that otherwise didn’t “fit in” with the genre’s hip-hop roots. A first-time listener might not know how to resolve these tensions. However, informed long-term listeners of Massive Attack grew to expect this kind of sound from them, especially as it became more prominent in their music as on their third album. And actually, Massive Attack’s popularity led to this being perceived as what trip-hop is now, given the benefit of hindsight.

Stefanie:

You talked a lot about the growing popularity or mainstreaming of Massive Attack - what helped this happen?

Grace:

For one thing, The Matrix from 1999 is where some audiences outside the UK may have become familiar with “Dissolved Girl,” since the Wachowski sisters used it during a pretty prominent moment in that soundtrack. A little later, the same happened with the show House, M.D. using the track “Teardrop” as its theme song. Both of those songs were from the Mezzanine album.

Stefanie:

That’s so interesting! I am sure this brought more acclaim to Massive Attack’s output. What about visual or other paratextual framing? We discussed album covers before, so I’m curious to know what information like that would have framed their listening experiences when they encountered the album outside those media contexts.

Grace:

Album art is definitely a factor here too. If we compare Mezzanine to its predecessors Blue Lines and Protection, there are a few key differences. The artwork for both of those previous albums features a partially obscured flammable warning sign on a cardboard box, and “Massive Attack” written across in lowercase, italicized text. Mezzanine, meanwhile, features a giant, hard-shelled black beetle on a stark white background, and the name of the album and artist are in all caps. So these aesthetic choices may help reinforce fans’ language of “hardness” in relation to the musical aesthetic suggested by use of this schema. The schema becomes an auditory “snapshot” of this aesthetic, suggested by texture and timbre. The link to album visuals is likely especially strong for late 90s and early 2000s listeners, whose music consumption would be based around albums as opposed to streaming individual tracks or playlists at the time this music came out.

Stefanie:

I can’t speak to buying albums during this time, since I was not allowed to buy my first album until the mid-2000s, but scholar Mikkel Vad has discussed the power that album covers can harness. The album cover has a particular privilege in governing how listeners approach and receive an album. I think in both of our cases, there was congruence between the album art and timbres heard in some of the tracks from those albums, but Vad notes there is a potential for incongruence between sound, music and the album art.

Stefanie:

Both of our cases today touched on “crossover” as a concept. Often, crossover involves an artist or band who is perceived as lying outside of the genre they are crossing into. The group is met with skepticism, since audiences perceive them as not belonging to the genre. Therefore, artists will use timbral and other generic signifiers of the new genre to convince audiences that they belong.

Grace:

“Crossover” historically is not a neutral term, though. David Brackett points out that the term “crossover” in music marketing initially signified going from a niche genre that was racially marked to the genre of “mainstream pop music,” which was affiliated with white and middle-class consumer populations whose identity was considered “unmarked” or “default” from a marketing perspective. In his discussion of fusion artists in the 1970s, Kevin Fellezs adds that rock in particular has historically been racialized as a white and therefore supposedly “unmarked” musical idiom, leaving artists identified as “rock musicians” freer to appropriate other musical traditions than the reverse. We see an interesting example in the case of Massive Attack where Andrew Vowles linked the “rocky” sound of post-Mezzanine albums with a departure from their previous “black” sound, but the direction of crossover was still seen as trip-hop “adding” rock influences rather than the other way around.

Stefanie:

Crossover discussions rely on the idea that generic categorizations are fluid and subject to change, not static entities. The subjectivity of the listening process means that timbre and genre are not going to be perceived the same way by all audiences. Listeners bring their prior experiences to each new piece of music they hear. Often, these expectations are formed around genre. Placing varying levels of importance on both musical and extramusical parameters, listeners assess a track, artist, or band’s sense of “belonging” to that genre.

Grace:

Furthermore, when a lot of these timbral cues stack up at a particular point in an artist’s career, listeners may associate artists with a particular genre at that point in time. So, long-term listeners may interpret the rise and fall of timbral schemata over time within an artist’s corpus as indicative of that artist being in conversation with different genres over time, or perhaps “crossing over.”

Stefanie:

Our podcast today explored the negotiations that people make when they perceive disjunction between these two aspects of genre, both locally when listening to one track and over the course of an artist’s discography. In the case of “The Bitch is Back,” instrumentation does not remain constant and instead shifts throughout the track. Listeners could change their perception of genre due to the change in instrumental cues through the listening process, just like reading.

Grace:

Then, looking at Massive Attack, whose output forms a large part of what’s recognized under a particular genre label, trip-hop, we can see how increased use of a timbral schema led listeners and band members to condense a whole period of their output into a genre affiliation like “rocky.” So, people make decisions about genre on the track level, the album level, and the artist or discography level, and timbre has a lot to do with how they make those decisions.

Stefanie:

Thank you for listening! We are thankful to the following people for their support of this project. Thank you to the SMT-Pod Editorial team – Jenny Beavers and Megan Lyons for their lead and Thomas Yee, our podcast coordinator. To Eron, our peer reviewer, for their influential feedback on an earlier draft of this episode.

Grace:

Thanks to our faculty at UT Austin, particularly Drs. Eric Drott and Marianne Wheeldon, for their guidance through the stages of this podcast. And to our friends and family, for their discussions and moral support along the way.

SMT:

[Outro Theme: David Voss, “hnna”]

Visit our website smt-pod.org for show notes and supplemental materials related to this episode and to learn how to submit an episode proposal. 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. Thanks for listening!

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