Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Radiohead's "Pyramid Song": Ambiguity, Rhythm, and Participation

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Radiohead's "Pyramid Song": Ambiguity, Rhythm, and Participation

Article excerpt

[1] I first heard Radiohead perform live on August 19, 2008 at the University of British Columbia's Thunderbird Arena. I hadn't purchased a ticket; unfamiliar with their music at the time (minus the ubiquitous "Creep" due to heavy radio play) but encouraged to attend by numerous friends, students, and professional colleagues, I wandered out into the rain from my university apartment only three blocks away and stood, umbrella in hand, for the full duration of the show just outside of the northern wing of the arena. I was in good company-a large group of students, families with children, and tourists had similarly amassed for the free musical strains-and in spite of the bad weather and bass-heavy sound making its way over the stands, I was intrigued enough to purchase their entire oeuvre on CD and begin to work through their songs, one at a time.(1)

[2] I made the decision early on to tackle their albums in chronological order, listening to each one a minimum of three times (and at different times of the day), without any reference to guides or record reviews, before moving on to the next. And so it took me a while to make it to their fifth full-length studio release, Amnesiac (2001). I had already noticed up to that point that Radiohead was fond of metrical shifts and other interesting rhythmic constructions, but when I came to the second track on the CD, titled "Pyramid Song," I was completely baffled as to what the song's underlying meter could be. With an opening that featured just a series of sustained piano chords with no drum beat or discernable regular pulse, it would take repeated listenings to begin to come up with my own rhythmic understanding.

[3] Feeling energized by such activity, and full of curiosity as to how others might interpret the meter, I went to the web to search out potential fellow lovers of rhythmic ambiguity, albeit with only modest expectations for what I would find. What I stumbled upon was simply astonishing: a large and rich body of material directly addressing rhythm in "Pyramid Song" that spanned dozens of web sites and hundreds of individual entries over roughly a five-year period. As an ethnomusicologist and reader of the cultural studies and sociology literature, it didn't surprise me to find a fan base that was actively engaged in listening and constructing musical-social meaning-including online criticism and the sharing of playlists, photographs, and videos-rather than a body of passive consumers (Crafts et al. 1993; DeNora 2000; Hubbs 2008; Kot 2009). What I wasn't quite prepared for, however, was the role that creative listening with attention paid specifically to metrical complexity played in the formation of such meaning, even among listeners with little formal music training.

[4] The central task of this article will be to demonstrate how the confluence of ambiguity and rhythm in a pop/rock song creates a powerful force for audience participation. As is shown in the opening epigraph, music is predicated on ambiguity in its lack of one-to-one correspondence to language, emotions, and tangible objects of human experience. Numerous writers have shown how ambiguity-understood in its full sense of encompassing uncertainty/opacity, two or more possible meanings and/or interpretations, and the blurring of boundaries-feeds our imaginative and interpretive engagement (Bernstein 1976; Copland 1980, 7; Thomson 1983; Cook 1990, 14; Cross and Morley 2009, 69).(2) Pop/rock music more specifically has often played upon vagueness and/or multiple possibilities to great critical and commercial success; it is easy to recall examples of such ambiguity with regard to race and vocal timbre (Elvis, Chuck Berry), gender (Michael Jackson, Boy George, Prince, kd lang), and even species (David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, Lady Gaga/various human-alien hybrids). In all cases, such lack of concrete references-visual, lyrical, musical-allows a fertile space for active listeners to personalize the experience in ways that are deeply and complexly emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. …

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