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Toward an Ontology of Pop music

Acres, SG 2014 , 'Toward an Ontology of Pop music', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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To arrive at an ontology of pop music this project considers what is constant as regards
the concern of works, not merely sound or composition. This being the case, individual works
are apprehended prior to their being absorbed into a socio-cultural/historical context, such
that the in-itself of the work is the domain of this project, which by way of the works being
autographic, speaks to a singularness and deliberateness in their construction. This aspect of
autography is reflected in the method used to analyse such works, and in doing so leaves to
history and sociology the historical and sociological, which is a departure from conventional
modes of analysis.
The originality of this project lies firstly in its aim and secondly in the method used to
achieve that aim. It seems that a disproportionate amount of popular music analysis—by
ignoring for example Backstreet Boys or Boy George—suggests implicitly that pop music is
either unpopular, or unworthy of an academic exploration. It is this paradoxical oversight, or
unwillingness to engage with pop music—perhaps by way of a high/low split within popular
music studies itself—that renders this study of pop music original.
Central to this project is the observation that since any analysis of sound is in the first
instance an analysis of what can be remembered, the method employed must seek to address
this issue. As such, the formulation of a detailed internal map of a work on the part of the
analyst is required. This process and its inherent limitations are explicated herein. This entails
that a distinction be made between what we can hear—which itself is determined by playback technology, circumstance, and direction of attention—and the information that that sound is
derived from, such that each work comes to be known through the conveyance of information
committed to some medium. It is to this specific arrangement of information by way of its
being made audible that the analysis is directed.
That pop music sounds different at different points in history leads to the observation
that there can be pop music in any number of ways. To extrapolate: pop songs are pop songs
to varying degrees, such that a particular pop song could be said to be symptomatic of pop
music proper, so that a pop song is considered to be a token in light of the type, pop music.
The distinction is crucial. This study provides an analysis of how pop music arrives at its
shifting sonic palate; how this palate is manifested in a way different to that of its source, and
why this is so; and how this adoption and reconfiguration pertains to pop music’s
fundamental nature in light of a planned obsolescence.
Key notions for this project are: Stockhausen’s conception of the Moment, framed here
in such a way as to become an analytical tool; ideas about a ‘sonic surface’ and its link with
the identity of the pop song; the connection between the condition of the jingle and pop
music; the importance of the single—from the 7” to the digital download—and a concomitant
concern with the present that speaks to the notion of a planned obsolescence.
Considering that the findings of this project pertain the fundamental nature of pop
music, they are able to be fed back into more traditional methods of popular music analysis,
given that what is fundamental to pop music should be constant under any method of analysis. Additionally, any study that takes music as its subject is an inherently musicological
one, even though this study treats pop music sonico-structurally: without recourse to musical
scores, lyrics analysis, or sonograms. The works under consideration are treated as merely
sound over some duration, since to consider them otherwise is to provide scope to overlook
their temporal nature. It will be clear to the reader, then, that this project does not seek to
expand outwardly from the existing pop music discourse, rather it seeks to extend inwardly to
the minutiae of sound’s being organised in specific ways. Frith’s sociology, Gracyk’s
aesthetics and Middleton’s reading of musicology mark the outermost limits of the territory
covered, and it is with these as delimiters that a conceptual triangulation is able to occur at
finer and finer resolutions. Paramount is the notion that any observation, be it drawn from an
abstract arithmetic or from some interstitial magnification, is in the first place able to be
So it is by a gradual process of exclusion—by in part reversing those claims made to
support rock music as against pop music—simultaneous with the explication of the method
herein, that we come to fully understand the concerns exhibited by particular works that align
with what it mean for a song to be a pop song. For this, certainly, is beyond sound and the
organisation thereof.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Acres, SG
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