Pop-Musicology: Roland Barthes

April 30, 2018


French philosopher Roland Barthes, in his book Image-Music-Text, proposed a little parlour game: to talk about a piece of music without using a single adjective. This challenge goes to show the gap between music and language while at the same time verifying the mantra “music is a language”. Music is untranslatable, which is exactly what makes it so magical.



Roland Barthes was born in Normandy while the Great War was raging over Europe. As a student he showed great promise, and he soon went to obtain his diplomas in the French capital. As part and parcel of the 1960’s “Paris School”, alongside big names like Foucault and Deleuze, he is most famous for his semiotic theories, studying meaning in text.


In The Grain of the Voice, originally published in 1967, Barthes takes a closer look at the origins of (vocal) music, and the possibility for it to be considered “good”. In simple terms, what he does is compare to opera singers on the basis of “the grain”. With this word he aims at the truthfulness, a raw authenticity that adds a deeper layer of meaning to music.


The opera singers are Dietrich Fisher-Diskau and Charles Panzera. The former is an example of a “perfect” singer: hits all the right notes with a proper amount of vibrato, making him sound stale. Whereas Barthes admires Panzera’s voice for its individuality, and the way it harmonises with the music. These examples indicate that, according to Barthes, the dullness of a perfect performer stands in sharp contrast to a unique sound that in itself brings about more meaning than there is in the music alone. 


 [ Dietrich Fisher-Diskau - An Die Musik ]



 [ Charles Panzera - Der Doppelgänger (in French) ]


Although Barthes’s models were opera singers, his theory of the grain applies to other musics too. In every genre one can differentiate between the “too good” and the “pure”, although these usually rely on personal judgment and taste as well. Nevertheless, “the grain” is a handy tool to argue by when talking music and trying to avoid adjectives!


[ read the full essay (11 pages) here ]

[ Barthes, R. (1977). Image-Music-Text. (S. Heath, Trans.) London: Fontana Press ]

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