“Sound Collecting as a Method for the Accurate Conveyance of Emotion in Music” by Erika M. Carlson

Posted: January 2, 2013 in Vol. 2: Fall Essays 2012

bjorkThe purpose of this paper is to demonstrate the connection of audible sound to emotional expressivity in creating music. While lyrics can also be crucial to infusing emotional meaning into songs, the focus here will be on sound.  Bjork is a world-famous, multi-styled Icelandic singer whose techniques for making music will be described to provide insight on how musicians can customize sound to convey any emotion, whether happiness, sadness or sheer hatred, with a high measure of precision.

In 1973, a musicologist named Jean-Jacquez Nattiez wrote “Linguistics: A New Approach for Musical Analysis”.  In his article, Nattiez proposed that the exact same linguistic methods used to analyze language could be used to analyze music (Brady 2).  Nattiez’s idea follows the work of the Swiss Linguist, Sir Ferdinand de Saussure.  According to Saussure, “Linguistics serves as a model for the whole of semiology, even though languages represent only one type of semiological system” (Nattiez 24).  The application of semiotic theory to musical analysis is known as music semiology.

Saussure proposed the theory of semiotics to study language as signs.  Signs are made up of two parts: ‘the signifier’ and ‘the signified’.  In language, words are ‘signifiers’ and the things they represent are ‘the signified’ (Wikipedia, 2011).  In applying Saussure’s Semiotic theory to sound and emotion in music, the sound is ‘the signifier’ and the emotion that the sound conveys is ‘the signified’.

The application of Saussure’s theory to sound and emotion in music suggests concordance between the two; that is, sounds with specific qualities can predictably convey particular emotions.  Such is the primary belief that underlies The Doctrine of the Affections, a theory from the Baroque Era of classical music which postulates that specific sounds denote specific emotions.  According to EdHafer, for example, major keys transmit and evoke positive feelings like happiness.  In contrast, keys in the minors tend more toward possessing negative, dark emotional attributes (EdHafer).

Contrary to the notions that sound and emotion are meaningfully connected, Saussure emphasized that the “connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (Wikipedia, 2011) From a Linguistic standpoint, this notion seems accurate; words have no relation to the things they represent.   Things with the common aesthetic of blueness, for example, are represented by words that have nothing structurally in common with the things they represent, as in ‘ocean’ and ‘sky’.  To reliably predict that the words ‘ocean’ and ‘sky’ both represent blue things based solely upon the sound and structure of the words themselves is impossible.  But, Saussure apparently overlooked his own proposition of the relevance of semiotics to other disciplines such as music, where there are meaningful connections between sound (‘the signifier’) and emotion (‘the signified’).  A teacher and contemporary of Nattiez, George Mounin, called attention to the importance of comparing “the structures of human language” to the variation of disciplines under semiotic analysis (Brady 1).  By way of making such comparisons, it may be possible to show that conclusions drawn from semiotic analysis can vary, depending on whether the analysis is being applied to language, music or other subject matters.

Nattiez wrote “semiology doesn’t exist” and that “…nobody seems to have put forward a sufficiently coherent paradigm for analysis, or a corpus of universally accepted methods, which would enable one to talk of a single semiological science” (Nattiez 21).  The transforming of musical semiology into a hard science from broadly ranging ideas that seem scattered and intuitively based suggests a frustrating problem with describing semiotics in music.

The concept of semiotic theory and The Doctrine of the Affections do not always concur with music being created within the context of modernity and its vast spectrum of musical genres.  I will use Vampire Weekend’s M79 to serve as an example of this incongruity.  Beneath its elated sound made up of major keys, an upbeat rhythm, danceable violins and joyful call-outs are colorfully descriptive lyrics bitterly describing the circumstances of an untimely breakup (Vampire Weekend 2008).  This is just one example of the very common practice of creating irony between sound and lyric in successful music today.

In Bjork’s music, the old idea that musical sounds accurately represent emotions prevails.  Bjork is hyperconscious of the emotional effects that different sounds can produce.  Because of this, she is ever vigilant about devising appropriate concoctions of sounds for the production of each individual song.  During a conversation with Interview Magazine, Bjork revealed that she intentionally exaggerates the emotional level and purity of her songs.  She likened the character of each song to tarot cards: “Each card is very exaggerated in what it stands for, but no one is just one card” and in defense of the theatrical, said it’s a natural human tendency to be attracted to exaggerated things (Amzalag & Augustyniak 4).  In passionate pursuit of making music with concentrated emotion, there is a method to her madness.  In an interview with Charlie Rose, she has said, “Part of me is very academic, so there will be sound collecting…”, to which she claims she spends a significant amount of time doing; “Sound is the most all-embracing, forgiving and understanding thing there is.”  (k2head).  In line with Bjork’s ideas, I will refer to the process of collecting, cataloguing and implementing particular sounds into music as ‘sound collecting’.  Instruments used to produce sound include anything that has the capability of producing audible sound.  Sound collecting, therefore, can be very time consuming, but the number of sounds and sound combinations possible is limitless.

The following are several illustrations of Bjork’s sound collecting.  For the song Joga, Bjork went to volcanic areas in Iceland and collected bubbly volcanic sounds with a tape recorder (willgreen).  Many of the sounds for the album Vespertine were collected in her house using ordinary household items as instruments (Dibben 3).  Triumph of a Heart relies primarily on a brass section and a multitude of layered, repetitive noise patterns vocalized by people for its instrumentation (Khickman 1981).

In the 2000 movie Dancer in the Dark, Bjork plays a poor immigrant factory worker who loves musicals.  Every day that she works at the factory, she tunes into the rhythmic sounds of the factory machines and uses them as templates for creating songs in her head while fantasizing about staring in musicals (Von Trier).  Bjork’s personal style of creating music from objects that are not usually considered musical instruments translated perfectly into the movie.

Bjork is from Iceland, a country often veiled in mystery.  She has a reputation for having an eccentric style of dress, music and personality.  From an outsider’s perspective, her name even sounds odd.  Musicologist Nicola Dibben observes, “…her Icelandic nationality… is used both as an explanation of what are seen as her eccentricities, and as an explanation for, and metaphor for the extremes of her music (the fire and ice of her home country)” (Dibben 2).  Curiosity about her country, culture and lifestyle has been made apparent by the frequency at which questions revolving around Iceland and her eccentric style appear in interviews.  She was jokingly asked in one interview by homegirrl with Jonathan Ross if Iceland is where Eskimos are from.  Bjork wittingly replied that Eskimos are not from Iceland and that she had “been asked, done some research and double-checked many times” (homegirrl).  The silly nature of both the interviewer’s question and of Bjork’s reply suggests their awareness of the preconceived notions that Americans have of her culture.  Although superficial assumptions like this can be harmless, they can also have negative effects.

It is possible that people, recognizing the uniqueness of Bjork’s origin and personality, see only that, and subsequently fail to recognize her talent and potential.  Edward Said called this tendency to form and perpetuate assumptions about people who are different from us ‘Orientalism’.  He described Orientalism as “a lens” through which we see distant strangers and quickly make assumptions about their identity.  In essence, it is a way of stereotyping (assultivebear).  Because of Bjork’s objectively unique upbringing and personality, she is relatively vulnerable to the Orientalism of people who are unfamiliar with Iceland and Icelanders.  Due to Orientalism, the value of Bjork’s musical ideas has probably been overlooked by an immeasurable number of people.

Looking beyond Bjork’s origin and eccentricities, there is a talented musician with documented experience and education.  She attended classical music school from age five to fifteen.  She released her first album at age eleven.  She played with bands including The Sugarcubes before going solo.  Elton John has ssaid, “Whenever I listen to [Bjork] sing, I always learn something…” (willgreen)  She is greatly admired by other accomplished musicians.

Because Bjork has a keen sense for pairing emotion with its sound equivalent, the resulting songs are difficult to categorize into genres.  The scope of her musical career encompasses parallels in sound with virtually every genre.   Her focus is on selecting sounds that befit particular emotions; there is almost no regard to genre.  Her adherence to emotion rather than fitting into a genre has resulted in not only sound collecting, but a remarkable array of band set-ups.

Bjork chooses band set-ups that are unconventional and change constantly, depending on the emotionality of the song.   One example of a conventional band set-up comprises vocals, electric guitars, electric bass and drums.  In a permanent structure like this, the range of emotional expression and capacity to be unique is stifled in comparison to a structure of instrumentation that is open and flexible like Bjork’s.  For an MTV performance of Violently Happy, she chose a complex mix of water glasses, keyboards, steel drums, a drum set, stand-up bass and an unusual, unidentified percussion instrument as instrumentation (Ikeola).  To convey an entirely different emotion for Human Behavior in the same performance, she opted for simplicity; only the keyboards and her own vocals remained (CapitanJet).

Bjork possesses two qualities that afford her such flexibility in instrumentation: artistic control and the willingness to do whatever is necessary to achieve the idealistic visions she has for her music.  She says her “full artistic control” enables her to write whatever she wants and work with whomever she wants without time constraints (wildfun).  It seems that, because of her vision and perfectionism, Bjork has earned the trust of the people she works with.

While both words and music could be said to be mere estimations of truth, music has the capacity to express emotion that language doesn’t have any words to describe.  Words seem only capable of accurately representing specific points (e.g., happiness, sadness, sheer hatred) along the entire spectrum of emotion.  Words miss intricate emotions that fall on points in-between the points that have word equivalents. Expressions of these wordless emotions can be conveyed through music.

Despite music’s capability of describing emotions that language cannot, few musicians are as seriously in pursuit of this capability as Bjork.  Bjork is gifted in the realm of collecting sound and unrestrained in application of sound in order to achieve the highest degree of accuracy in the conveyance of emotion in her music.

Works Cited

Amzalag, M. & Augustyniak M.  “Bjork.”   Interviewmagazine.  Interview Magazine, n.d. Web.  3 May 2011.

assultivebear.  “On Orientalism – Edward Said.”   YouTube, 12 June 2007.  Web.  1 May 2011.

CapitanJet.  “Bjork  BJORK live HUMAN BEHAVIOR.”   YouTube, 22 Feb. 2008.  Web.  4 May 2011.

Dancer in the Dark.  Dir. Lars Von Trier.  Perf. Bjork.  Cinema Club, 2000.  Film.

Dibben, N.  Subjectivity and the Construction of Emotion in the Music of Björk.  Music Analysis, 25, 1-2 (2006): 171-197.

EdHafer.  “Whitney #3 (Doctrine of the Affections).”  YouTube, 14 April 2011.  Web.  29 April 2011.

FrauNine.  “Björk Interview On The Clive Anderson Show 1998.”  YouTube, 6 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 May 2011.

Goodwin, B.   “Linguistics As An Approach For Musical Analysis.”  ouragora.  ouragora, 2004.  Web.  29 April 2011.

homegirrl.  “Björk – Interview Live On The Jonathan Ross Show, At BBC Studios.” YouTube, 27 Oct.    2007.  Web.  1 May 2011.

Ikeola.  “Bjork (MTV Unplugged) ‘Violently Happy’.”  YouTube, 18 June 2009.  Web.  4 May 2011.

k2head.  “Bjork – “Charlie Rose Interview.”   YouTube, 3 Feb, 2007.  Web.  2 May 2011.

Khickman 1981.  “Bjork – Making of Triumph of the Heart.”  YouTube, 30 May 2007.  Web. 4 May 2011.

NeonHunter.  “Bjork on Johnny Vaughan Show.”   YouTube, 26 April 2006.  Web.  1 May 2011.

Nattiez, J. & Ellis, K.  “Reflections on the Development of Semiology in Music.”  Music Analysis, 8, 1-2 (1989): 21-75.  Print.

“Semiotics.”  Wikipedia.  2011.  Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.  30 April 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics.

Vampire Weekend.  “M79”.  Vampire Weekend.  XL Recordings, 2008.  CD.

wildfun.  “Björk — Harald Schmidt Show Interview.”  YouTube, 25 July 2006.  Web.  3 May 2011.

willgreen.  “Inside Bjork Part I-VI.”  YouTube, 19 June 2009.  Web.  3 May 2011.

Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 200: Composition II


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