The Studium and the Punctum in Music

This might not be a groundbreaking concept – indeed Richard Elliott (unbeknownst to me when writing this) has written a number of examples of stadium and punctum in Fado music at his blog – but one of the most prominent ‘discoveries’ I have made from the few ‘a song: ten times’ listenings that I have done (other than that I have an ability to listen to a piece of pop music an inordinate amount of times) is the applicability of Roland Barthes photography terms to popular music.

In ‘Camera Lucida’, Barthes advances the presence of the studium and punctum as existing in the photograph as two elements that work together to ‘make’ the photograph. The studium is the context, the socio-cultural context; essentially the basic understanding of what is going on in the picture. The punctum is the often minute detail within the context that stands out, captures the attention, speaks to the viewer personally and lodges in the memory. When considering popular music’s chief components – the riff and the hook – one can see a comparable elements.

For the studium in music, I think of Phil Tagg’s ‘inter-objective comparative material’; that is the internal list of previously experienced sound and music that we associate the new with, contextualising, comparing and contrasting it within the ‘already known’. Thus, we hear a guitar playing distorted power chords, and we instantly conjure up previously heard chords, and the contexts and associations we have of it, building (and adding to) the map of musical interpretation.

For the punctum, I perhaps want to move away from the more obvious notion of a ‘hook’ to examine what I have found to be the genuinely addictive elements of songs. For me, they are often small details, often overlooked or unnoticed until closely analysed (i.e. listened to over and over again!). It could be a word, the phrasing of a word, one little warble in a note, a backing vocal low in the mix, a rasp of muted guitar strings. It is these little moments – occasionally even little mistakes – that lend a ‘personal’ weight to pop music, giving it a sting of relatability, arresting attention and allowing the song to be  claimed as ‘mine’ by the listener.

I am tempted to bring in another of Barthes’ theories; that of ‘the grain of the voice’. For it is in this grain – the often indefinable characteristic of the individual voice (and I think in musical terms, instruments and their players may have a unique grain to their voices as well; therefore I may talk about the ‘grain’ of the flugelhorn, or maybe the grain of Davey Graham’s guitar playing) – expressed and present in these momentary flashes that gives songs their punctum. I want to present a case study; ‘When You’re Next to Me’ by Mitch & Mickey, from the film ‘A Mighty Wind’. I would normally have included into this song the ten time listening group, but I am currently engaged in a non-stop listening obsession with this song, and it feels like it would ruin it – put it to bed early – to deliberately over-listen to it now. Instead I will address the studium (more prominent as it is a deliberate pastiche of a style, genre, and epoch of music making), then pull out a couple of examples of the punctum, in this song that really grab my attention.

I should preface this by saying that I absolutely love Catherine O’Hara, and have done since I was about six years old and first saw ‘Home Alone’.

The studium of this song is set within the first half of the first verse. Acoustic guitars, a folk style, a three chord love song. For me it is spiced up a little by the autoharp (and its player!), but it still definitely fits within that early-sixties folk revival paradigm. So Bob Dylan, Peggy Seeger, the Newport Folk Festival, etc are all brought to mind in the IOCM map of contextualisation. Though this song is a contemporary composition (and written almost (though not quite, certainly not to the same extent as the other songs in ‘A Mighty Wind’) as a joke) it is deliberately written as though it were from the 60s. the video to the song further sets this studium; the self-conscious, ageing performers, the microphones, the distant backing guitar and double bass; all speak to the well-formed image of American folk music, all set this song easily within that field, all constitute the studium for this song.

In the second half of the first verse comes the first punctum. The change in melody on the line “only good things do I see”, particularly the note held on the word ‘good’ (I don’t have a guitar with me as I write, so I can’t work it out!), really serve to awake part of me from the assurance of a simple melody over three chords. Even though I know it’s coming – even though I expect it, anticipate it, long for it each time it comes, I am given a little jolt of pleasure. A similar thing happens in the second half of the second verse, when Catherine O’Hara mirrors this melodic change (on the line “through a star-lit night”). Even though this part may be more expected, due to the punctum of the first verse, in the very way that it references back to that first instance (though in a new and interesting way) reinforces the effect of that punctum. The two are united and the punctum consolidated in the third verse as the two melodic flourishes are brought together in the killer moment for me, on the line “every dove lands at your feet”. It is a golden moment, perfectly set up, and totally glorious in its delivery.

One other example comes in the chorus with the addition of two chords – an expected relative minor chord (A minor – or B minor really, as there is a capo on the second fret) followed by an unexpected Ab (Bb) which jolts the listener out of the constructed studium of ‘three chord folk song’, before a triumphant returning it with the harmonies of “with glorious light”.

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