Going with the ‘Grain’…

…A theoretical and scientific approach to defining the relationship between the audience and the singer.

The pursuit to define emotional and musical meaning through linguistic or semantic discourse is limited at best.  ‘Music, by natural bent, is that which at once receives an adjective’ (Barthes, 1977: 293) to express meaning or evaluate the execution of a performance. However, whilst the adjective functions adequately when passing critique or giving direction, it fails to define the moment of ‘Jouissance’[1] that occurs when audience and performer are locked in true emotive dialogue.

Language, by its very nature exists to convey a single clear message and therefore does not seek (except in the poetic sense) to process multiple concurrent meanings as the gestures of music do. The syntax[2] expresses relationships only among lexical terms that mirror relationships in the real world. Thus it ignores the vocal features, or indeed the para–language that accompanies speech, for example the timbre or dynamic inflection of the voice. However, in many cases the syntax is superfluous.  In the absence of language we are still able to identify with emotion (sadness, elation, anguish etc), but on an altogether more primal level. Where the channels of meaning are rooted not in language but in gesture.

However, this is not to be confused with the idiom of facial expression or physical gesticulation, these processes can also be seen as one-dimensional and so in adopting them we merely substitute one means of logic for another. ‘Are we reduced to the dilemma of either the predicable or the ineffable?’ (Barthes, 1977: 294). To explore this further, we must first postulate a level of communication beyond the initial façade of performance. I will refer to this phenomenon as the ‘geno-song’. Derived from Julia Kristeva’s notion of the ‘pheno’ and ‘geno’ text, the expression was first used by Roland Barthes in his 1977 essay, The Grain of The Voice. In linguistics, the ‘pheno-text’ serves to communicate ideas competently and through rational channels of discourse. By contrast, the ‘geno-text’ ‘tends to articulate structures that are ephemeral…and non signifying’ (Kristeva, 1984: 86) Barthes paradigm operates in much the same way. The ‘pheno-song’, is ‘marked by a preoccupation with the accepted rules of singing, the codification of certain styles [and] the prowess of technique’ (www.contempaesthetics.org)[3]. Conversely, the ‘geno-song’ refers solely to the materiality of the voice, ‘having nothing to do with communication, representation [or] expression’ (Barthes, 1977: 295).

Through this hypothesis Barthes postulates a level of commu

nication that circumvents thelinguistic sphere entirely. One that is concerned not with genre, technique or coded gesture but ‘the materiality of the body speaking in its mother tongue’ (Barthes, 1977: 295). Barthes defines this as ‘The Grain of The Voice’. Above the signifiers of the ‘pheno-text’ and beyond the subjectivity of even the artist themselves, the ‘Grain’ emanates from the body, not the soul. It does not arouse or represent feelings of emotion; it simply is the emotion of which it speaks.



In his presentation of this model, Barthes conducts a case study between Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Charles Panzera, both of whom are concert baritones from the operatic tradition. Although he is quick to commend the artistic prowess of Fischer-Dieskau’s performance, Barthes claims: ‘his art is inordinatelyexpressive(the diction is dramatic, the pauses, the checkings and releasings of breath, occur like shudders of passion) and hence never exceeds culture’ (Barthes, 1977: 295). By contrast Panzera’s voice speaks in a tongue that is beyond the emotive modes of the ‘pheno-song’, bringing forth the body, not the soul. Barthes claims it is this, which sways one to Jouissance, meaning pleasure or bliss, to retain its erotic sense.For a more current embodiment of the ‘pheno song’ we need look no further than Canadian crooner, Michael Bublé. As a modern reincarnation of the ‘Great American Style’ the prerequisite of Bublé’s art is his ability to take on the skin of another, the success of which, lies in Bublé’s skill in interpreting the language of the pheno song. As with Barthes evaluation of Fischer-Dieskau, I do not intend to cheapen Bublé’s undeniable talent or flawless technique. However, I do question the integrity of a style that exists largely upon borrowed characteristics and the meanings they convey.

Bruce Springsteen

By contrast, let us now examine the work of Bruce Springsteen. In an evaluation that is concurrent with both his live and studio work, one struggles to find any semblance of vocal vanity or self-importance in Springsteen’s performance. Instead we hear the voice ‘warts and all’, complete with faults and vulnerability and I would argue it is in these imperfections that the voice finds its authenticity. Where Bublé can only ever seek to live vicariously through his idols, Springsteen’s performance is unmediated in its expression. In the absence of vanity we hear the true and corporal origin of expression, ‘The Grain of The Voice’.

…The raspy, constricted sound of the “macho –male”…is quite literally, “all mouth”: the sound is forced through the mouth to the exclusion of the lungs and sinus passages. It can be argued that it signals a shutting down of the body, a repression and containment of emotions symptomatic of this gender perception, which, when heard occasions a similar, vicarious response in listeners.

Shepherd, 169: 1999

In this instance we begin to define the true language of the voice and characterize the ineffable moment where music is ‘felt [and experienced] as well as being recognized in a more cerebral fashion’ (Shepherd, 169: 1999). As a musician it is these moments that I crave to be a part of and seek to realize in my own performance, but how does one achieve that which is, by very definition, indescribable? Perhaps in some ways, a kindred thinker to Barthes, author John Shepherd offers a more rational perspective on this dilemma.

Our bodies are inevitably implicated in the movements necessary for the playing of instruments and even more so in the actions necessary for vocalizing…since these movements and actions are as much subject to processes of social and cultural constitution, as are any other aspects of awareness and subjectivity, they are experienced sympathetically, empathetically, and vicariously when music is heard.

Shepherd, 169: 1999

Therefore, we can postulate that the path to achieving ‘Jouisssance’ in our own performances lies not in myth or indefinable qualities, but in our ability to embody the emotion of the song and transmit it to our audience on an organic and primal level.

Firstly, let us examine this from the singer’s perspective. Studies in mammals show ‘that voice can only be evoked from groups of neurons in a brain structure called the periaqueductal gray [PAG], which is part of the emotional motor system’ (Bandler et al., 1996; Davis et al., 1996). Unlike the far more complex nuances of language (which must be learnt), these sounds are instinctive and fundamental to our survival. Human babies cannot speak, ‘yet their vocal mechanism is well developed and active in the womb…ready for making sounds immediately after birth’ (Chapman, 2006: 02). As Infants, it is these sounds (crying, babbling, cooing etc) that allow us to alert our carers to our needs, thus ensuring our survival. As adults we adopt primal sound in processes such as crying, wailing, yelling and genuine laughter.

The application of primal sound in singing was popularized by vocal coach and singer Janice Chapman. In her book on vocal pedagogy, Chapman approaches the emotive motor system ‘not as a neuroscientist would, but to describe the way emotional triggers can stimulate the commands to the brain to produce a holistic sound’ (Chapman, 2006: 17). When primal sound is accessed and the neurons of the periaqueductal gray are stimulated they ignite a multitude of involuntary responses in the body, most common of these being perspiration, piloerection (goose bumps) and raising of the heart rate. However, the periaqueductal gray also engenders a response in the muscles of the respiratory and laryngeal systems, allowing for the unconscious intake of breath, stabilizing of postural muscles and efficient positioning of the larynx. In short primal sound allows us access to the most effective use of our voices. Chapman illustrates this system by examining the properties of the ‘Yell’.

Looking again at my yelp of pain, which is a primal sound, this would involve an unconscious diaphragmatic recoil breath, followed by enervation of the abdominal muscles to produce the air pressure to yell or scream. The vocalization of the yell also occurs without conscious thought, with vocal fold closure and resonatory adjustments made automatically.

2006: 18

But what of the more subtle vocal qualities? As fascinating as Chapman’s illustration is, only a minority of singers will find the yell, or ‘belt’ (as defined by Estill)[4] to be relevant in their day-to-day work. Personally, I access the ‘belt’ the least of all vocal qualities, calling upon it only when all else fails to express the magnitude of the emotion. As a singer-songwriter, the central stimulus of my work is often love or relationships and in the context of my art I find this signifies better with a more inward and introspective tonal quality, such as the ‘sob’ or ‘cry’  (once again borrowing from Estill).

As with the ‘belt’, the origins of ‘cry’ quality are rooted in primal sound. Therefore, when it is accessed during singing it engenders an immediate and holistic response from the muscles of the emotive motor system (EMS). In the laryngeal region[5], the thyroid cartilage is tilted forward and the vocal folds are thin, resulting in a narrowing of the overall sound. The muscles of the respiratory system maintain a moderate subglottic pressure, whilst the diaphragm allows for the unconscious intake of breath.  Simultaneously, the intercostals, abdominal and lateral muscles are recruited in anchoring the body, enabling for efficient and secure vocalization. The resulting ‘sound is quiet, clear and somewhat rounded in quality, it will usually have vibrato’ (Kayes, 2004: 154). It is this lilting quality that serves to make this voicing prolific in the art of pop and country ballad singing. Notable examples include ‘You’ll Think of Me’ (2002) by Keith Urban and ‘Skin’ by Rascal Flatts (2004).

The understanding of primal sounds, and the physiological mechanisms therein, go someway in helping us to redefine Barthes notion of the ‘Grain of The Voice’. However, we have yet to consider what is perhaps the principal impediment in our path to achieving ‘Jouissance’. Unlike other species, ‘humans are unique in that they can voluntarily inhibit emotional expression (Davies & Chapman, 1998: 10). It is this facility that enables the evaluation of music on a more cerebral platform, consequently leading to the development of singing as an ‘art form’. By contrast, ‘in other primates, such as the chimpanzee, [the] voice is always emotional…and cannot be inhibited, even if this is to the detriment of the individual, such as when a cry might alert others to its location’ (Davies & Chapman, 1998: 10).

The ability to over-ride our natural urges is nurtured in the socialization process from an early age. Whereas I cannot deny its value as a societal tool, I do feel it leads to an awkward dichotomy when approached through singing. Years of repression often leave us unable to signify with the primal aspects of our voice, meaning that, rather ironically, that which is most natural to us feels awkward and alien. In a noted discussion between speech pathologist Dr. Pamela Davies, and celebrated voice tutor Janice Chapman, Davies explores our power to inhibit in the context of performance.

…When Madam Butterfly sings the scene, just prior to her suicide as she says goodbye to her baby son, if she really felt the emotions at that time, she would be unable to sing. During rehearsals the depth of this emotion may be fully explored and she may indeed sob and choke with grief. However, in the performance her job is to convey this to the audience to make them sob and choke and her free voice is the tool she uses to do this.

1998: 10

However, given the tenor of this essay, I am led to question Davies’s way of thinking. In the preceding discussion we have illustrated how the true and authentic expression of emotion is derived from the instinctive processes of the body. Therefore, in actively rejecting these processes we deny ourselves access to the ‘Grain’. Although the endeavor to synthesize the components of emotion may be successful in part, this expression will always lack the supremacy of primal sound.  My rationale for this argument lies once again in the biological processes of the human body.  This leads us to consider perhaps the most important factor in our discussion. I refer here to our audience. In the aforementioned quotation, Shepherd suggests that the physicality of music can be experienced sympathetically, empathetically, and vicariously in others (Shepherd, 1999:169). Therefore, my evaluation will be conducted along these terms.

Beginning with the notions of sympathy and empathy, we turn our attention, once again, to the study of primal sound. Primal sound is fundamentally a communicative gesture, built upon a universally accepted language of expression, which is ‘hard wired’ in human nature. ‘A primal sound will have survived evolution only if it led to appropriate responses and behaviors in other members of that species. For example, a mother cat has to respond to the cry of an isolated kitten’ (Davies & Chapman, 1998: 09). A similar reaction is visible through music; by the way we are given ‘goose bumbs’ or brought to tears when a performance moves us emotionally.

Once again, the periaqueductal gray is situated at the nucleus of this reaction. When primal sound is recognized, the cells of the PAG are excited, prompting a holistic response throughout the networks of the body. Dependent on the emotion this may lead to the release of testosterone or ‘feel good’ endorphins, inciting feelings of anger or pleasure in the listener. In the case of ‘cry’ quality, as mentioned earlier, the listener may experience increased levels of Oxytocin released into the blood stream, ‘a complex chemical with significance for social bonding’ (www.martinandshan.net). This in turn, will encourage feelings of empathy and trust, making the performance feel more authentic and urging the listener to comfort or reassure the singer. It is this same hormonal reaction that engenders the feeling of ‘togetherness’ in religious ceremonies and gives us the power to incite mob mentality through protest song.

Subsequently, our discussion leads us to explore the last of Shepherd’s postulations, the notion that music can be experienced vicariously. In defining this, our attentions turn to the study of neurology and the human mirror neuron system (MNS). The origins of this research lie in the work of Giacomo Rizzolati, and his experimentation on a group of macaque monkeys, at the University of Palma (Italy), in the early 1990’s. In a rather serendipitous discovery, Rizzolati and his team ‘were amazed to discover that the very neurons which fired when the animals actually performed during reaching and grasping tasks (“motor neurons”) also lit up when the animals simply observed others doing so’ (Helding, 2010: 585). Rizzolati defined these phenomena as ‘mirror neurons’, a term that is now widely acknowledged in the field of human sciences.

Given this research, it can be argued that the very neurons that are stimulated in the production of primal sound become active in the listener upon their exposure to that sound. Therefore, they not only react to our performances, they live them with us, experiencing each and every emotion first hand. In an article for the NATS Journal of singing in 2010, singer and educator Lynn Helding discussed her experiences on this topic.

How many of us have sat in the audience and “sung along in the mind” while the performer on stage executes a well-known cadenza? Or winched excruciatingly as the singer fluffs the high note? I myself have often felt as physically drained as my students at the completion of their degree recital, having lived through every single nuance of every single note of their three-language, sixty minute performance.

2010: 585

Nevertheless, there are still more factors left to consider. In a study carried out by cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Glaser at the University College of London, it was discovered that a pre-acquisition or skill with a chosen field, lead to a much more engaged mirror neuron response when observing that field in performance. This was illustrated in an experiment concerning the neuronal activity of a group of trained and untrained dancers. Whilst observing a skilled dancer, the results showed a significantly decreased level of motor neuronal activity in the so-called naïve or untrained group in comparison to their professional counterparts. However, can the same be said for singing? In some ways I would argue yes. As a professional singer, I have undergone some form of musical tuition for the majority of my career. Thus as a spectator, I often find myself compelled to physicalize the inferred technique of the song as if I were performing myself.

However, in my view this constitutes a failure on the performer’s part. If my mind and body are preoccupied with the modes of the ‘pheno-song’, I am unable to signify with the ‘Grain’, and consequently become emotionally disengaged from the performance. I recognize the rich vibrato of the voice, the dramatic use of phrasing and the measured intakes of breath, yet nothing sways me to ‘Jouissance’. It is here that we find the causal link that connects our two fields of study. Unlike the dancers in Glaser’s experiment, the true and organic expression of music through voice relies not upon acquired skill, but on the instinctive universal language of primal sound. Therefore, one’s knowledge or understanding of vocal technique is immaterial; the ‘Grain’ speaks to us all equally, without prejudice or preconception.

In this moment we discard both the syntax and the ‘pheno-song’, revealing the majesty of the processes behind them. Whether one’s involvement is as a performer, composer, listener or perhaps even as a stagehand or steward, all are implicated in the instinctive biological progression. By engaging in this process we subconsciously enter into relationships with those around us linking in the vast cybernetic system, defined by anthropologist Greg Bateson as ‘The Pattern that Connects’. Moreover, by this definition music ceases to be a fixed entity and instead becomes an action, thus the noun ‘music’ now becomes the verb, ‘to music’ meaning we are no longer bound by the constraints of  ‘adjectival criticism (or predicative interpretation)’ (Barthes, 1977:294).

To clarify the purpose of this essay is not to devalue the countless hours of rehearsal that many singers undergo in the perfection of their art. Nor is it to deny the splendor of a perfectly sung aria. Instead, I simply wish to challenge our aesthetic preconceptions of beauty. Just because something is unattractive does that mean, by definition that is it incapable of being beautiful? Or just because something is raw and unmediated, does that mean it lacks the eloquence to speak directly to our soul? I would argue not. From a technical standpoint the work of Springsteen, Waits or Dylan is debatable yet in the presence of their ‘Grain’, our usual modes of musical critique melt into insignificance. As singers, the pursuit to signify with our own ‘Grain’ will mean casting off vanity and a distancing from our preconceived notions of performance. However, I would argue that the rewards by far outweigh the trials of the journey.


Barthes, Roland (1977): Images, Music, Text. New York: Hill & Wang

Kristeva, Jullia (1984): Revolution in Poetic Language. New York / Sussex: Columbia University Press

Shepherd, John: Text. In Horner, Bruce & Swiss, Thomas (1999): Key Terms in Popular Music & Culture. USA / UK /Australia: Blackwell Publications

Bandler, R, Keay, K, Vaughan, C & Shipley, M (1996): Columnar organization of PAG neurons regulating emotional and vocal expression. In N Fletcher and P Davis, (ed.) Controlling Complexity and Chaos, San Diego: Singular Publishing Corporation

Davis, P, Zhang, SP & Bandler, R (1996): Midbrain and medullary regulation of vocalization. In N Fletcher and P Davis, (ed.) Controlling Complexity and Chaos, San Diego: Singular Publishing Corporation.

Chapman, Janice L (2006): Singing and Teaching Singing, A Holistic Approach to the Classical Voice. San Diego / Oxford / Brisbane: Plural Publishing

Kayes, Gillian (2004): Singing and the Actor. London: A & C Black Publishers Limited.

Davies, P.J., & Chapman, J. (1998). Primal Singing in Australian Voice, 4, 9 -11

Helding, Lynn (2010): The Mind’s Mirrors in NATS Journal of Singing, 66 (5), 585 -589

Szekely, Michael David (2006): Gesture, Pulsion, Grain: Barthes’ Musical Semiology

Available from: http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=409#FN28link

Date Last Accessed: 11/01/2011

Graebe, Shan (2007): Some Reasons Why Music is Emotionally Powerful.

Available from: http://www.martinandshan.net/userimages/Emotional_power.pdf

Date Last Accessed: 11/01/2011

[1] ‘From the French word for ‘enjoyment’ (often used in a sexual sense)’. Oxford Literary Dictionary.

[2] To clarify, in this instance I refer to’ text based’ syntax such as English, as oppose to a sonic syntax that is built upon a language of organized sounds.

[3] Please refer to the bibliography for full web addresses.

[4] ‘Jo Estill was a singer and teacher who in mid life became interested in voice science…she identified six differentiated voice qualities: speech, falsetto, cry/sob, twang, opera and belt’ (Kayes, 2004: 154).

[5] Please refer to the appendices for an anatomical diagram of the laryngeal region.

This entry was published on April 3, 2012 at 2:30 pm. It’s filed under Academic, Cultural Therory, Music, Voice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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