Usually, when we talk and have conversations about music, the most usual topics refer to the differences between the various genres, or to the different styles of that singer or musician. “These activities relate to the meanings that particular music has for us.” (Tim Wall, Studying popular music culture, 2003). But what is music meaning? The first time I heard this question I was completely stuck…the reason? Well..it’s easy to say: music is completely intimate, personal, unique, abstract, so connected to our deeper feelings that it’s really hard to define its meaning. Music means what it means to us. No doubt about it.
However, try to ask yourself this question: How does music means these things to us? This question forces us to ask several more questions and, for instance:
What is music for?
What is its origin and function?
Where do we encounter music?
What FORM does music take?
At this point we can distinguish between two categories of elements that can be helpful for this kind of analysis: Text and Metatext.
Textual elements basically include sound and lyrics (if there are). In this way we identify the distinctive sound and style of one recording against another. Sound, in turn, can be summarize by instrumentation, vocal style and recording techniques.
With the metatext we have to underline and understand all those factors which are outside the record itself. Generally, belong to this category the context and the cultural background where music was produced, how the medias relate to it and the music genre.
To help you understand better what all these elements mean and how they can be used to define music meaning, I’ll present a case study.
Led Zeppelin- The Battle of Evermore
With the following analysis I’ll investigate the meaning of one of my favorite songs ever: The Battle of Evermore from the Led Zeppelin fourth album. For most listeners, Led Zeppelin are generally associated with songs that fall into their classic rock repertoire. However, those who do not belong to the Led Zeppelin fan base are rarely aware of the fact that the band has a really important repertoire of songs that are rooted in folk music: The Battle of Evermore is one of these. It is a song played entirely on acoustic guitar and mandolin and is the only Led Zeppelin’s song where Robert Plant is not the only to sing, there is in fact a duet with Sandy Denny, the English singer from Fairport Convention. The track, because of its acoustic nature, puts a special emphasis on both the voices in order to draw attention on what is narrated in the lyrics. It is in fact a tale musically built up to let the two voices communicate in their maximum expressiveness and virtuosity made of vocals that alternate and intertwine using harmonies even dissonant, weaving the plot of the story itself. The lyrics, written by Plant, are totally referencing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings book series. Indeed, Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy had found an enthusiastic readership among the hippie generation, who were awed by the writer’s dense epic about ancient realms, hobbit-folk, and wise bearded mystics. And in spite of his strutting, Led Zeppelin vocalist was nothing if not a total Black Country hippie. Not only did Plant devour Tolkien’s tomes enthusiastically, but was also a history buff, delving into books about Celtic mythology and Middle Ages military history. On The battle of Evermore Plant eschews verses about classic hard rock themes (mainly sex, love and drugs) in favor of fantasy, a topic that would soon become an overabundant heavy metal trope due in no small part to Led Zeppelin’s popularization of the subject matter. In the song, Plant is essentially describing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King, name-checking Tolkien characters Aragorn (The prince of peace), Eowyn (The queen of light), and the villainous Sauron (The dark lord) and his fearsome Ringwraiths (whoride in black). This isn’t exactly Middle-Earth, though, as Plant also mentions the angels of Avalon, a distinct reference to Arthurian lore. Plant’s not really trying to painstakingly relate one particular event from lore; instead, Plant is smooshing his inspirations together to craft a mythic battle: the eternal struggle between good and evil and the need for all to work and cooperate to save the lights and live in harmony with the nature.
The song consists of very short, cryptic verses full of symbolism, based fundamentally on a call and response between the two voices and broken by a chorus, which relaxes the rhythm, ending with a third part where emerges the instrumentality of mandolin and guitar that form the basis of the Plant’s feverish rock voice, that weaves harmonies with the clearer Denny’s one, functioning in Plant’s words as the town crier urging people to throw down their weapons. With no doubt the song is built on a blues pattern, which is confirmed by the analysis of musical scores, where you can see how the 12-bar verses are alternated with a chorus which is diluted in 8 bars, making a variation on the standard blues pattern which is usually made of 6 bars. The listening feeling is a constant, frantically and relentlessly work kept alive by the throbbing mandolin, that transforms into sound what is narrated by the text: the continuous evolution of the battle.On the track there are no percussions, so the rhythm is marked first by the mandolin, which overlooks the guitar sound level for both its high frequency range, and because the mix left to the guitar the role of filling the song with medium-low frequencies. Another role of the guitar, clearly audible in the beginning and end of the song, is to create a counterpoint to the mandolin with both single notes and “sharp” chords placed in well-defined moments of the bar. At the same time the rhythm is picked up again by the voice of Plant, which during the verses more than singing seems to speak. Both voices have a particularly broad range, which is exploited almost to the maximum by Plant and more content from Denny.
Although the blues has always been cited as the main source of inspiration for the band, very often the impact that the British folk scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s had on the group has been underestimated. The third Led Zeppelin album, for instance, is remembered as the acoustic album of the band, and confirms this trend in their music path even if it was a commercial flop compared to other studio works. But what the band wanted to express was the right mix between folk and rock, which found its best expression in their most successful song: Stairway to Heaven.
As reagards recording techniques, the song is an example of what Jimmy Page called the ambient sound , based on placing different mics in a room to capture the live sound of a song and reproducing it on a record. In particular, this song and almost the whole fourth album was recorded at, Headley Grange, a remote Victorian house in East Hampshire which had large inside spaces useful to recreate natural echoes and reverbs that can be clearly heard in The battle of Evermore.
Let Jimmy tell you about this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xfy9W9my_w
Thanks, feel free to comment and ask anything!