Alessandro Bratus

Kaleidoscoping the Simple. The Formal Definition of Popular Song between Analysis and Representation

Formal definition of songs in popular music is often thought of as a simple operation of detecting the juxtaposition of sections such as verse, chorus, bridge, special and so on. However, this only tells us something we already know from listening, i.e. that a popular song as a compositional genre implies different levels of syntactic repetition from the macro- or micro-formal point of view (Middleton, Moore, Everett). In the first part of my paper I propose a different theoretical look at the problem of form, showing how it can be fruitfully approached if considered as a system of four underlying principles in a dynamic equilibrium: repetition, superimposition, modularity and stratification.
In the second part of the paper a quick survey on specific case studies shows these different forces at work, in order to develop a constant interplay between the expectations of the listeners and the necessity to gain their attention for the entire length of the song. I will then discuss how each of these different formal vectors can be better represented without staff notation, which could sometimes even be misleading in representing musical structures whose performance and composition are more than often not based on writing. Furthermore, the relationships between the different formal principles can be best understood through different sorts of graphic representational strategies, gaining different perspectives on the same object. The multiplication of viable vantage points presents a twofold analytical relevance: it opens the interpretation of the structural traits of cultural objects as part of a complex semiotic system, at the same time helping in the reconstruction of a network of meanings which represents their own unique feature.