When a Thing Sings

Die Dinge singen hör ich so gern
[I so wish to hear the singing of things]
—Rilke

First I must admit I wrote this piece backwards.  I loved the Rilke line, and then I had to look around for musical moments that might answer to it.

Here’s the challenge:  we sing, and things don’t.  Musical instruments are the magical exception to this rule, but their Dinglichkeit becomes transparent to the music we make with them and almost disappears.  Some instruments are on the borderline between sound-tools and independent things, like a woodblock or a tubular bell.  But a really thingy thing that isn’t a musical instrument can’t sustain a musical tone, because if it could, we’d be playing it.  So if a thing ever gets to sing as a thing, there will be an element of surprise; we’re getting ambushed or outwitted.

If you hear a thing as a thing in a music recording, you’re probably hearing a “sound effect”—a glass breaking, a factory whistle, a chopper overhead.  The thing is called on merely to illustrate a narrative.  It “sings” under duress as something typical that we can easily recognize.  The revving motorcycle in “Leader Of The Pack” is a canonical example for rock.

Speaking of revving, I love the Volkswagen sound that starts each album side of Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime.  It embodies the personality of the band.  But I’m not choosing it for this topic because it’s not actually in a song, and anyway, I’ve always thought of Volkswagens as people.

Everyone who’s live-recorded music has stories of serendipitous noises made by things.  Knowing the stories, one can enjoy hearing those sounds as belonging to those things.  But the sounds generally don’t present themselves that way, so we can’t say the things are singing.

All things considered, I come down to two finalists:

(1) Yes it’s cliché and yes it’s narrative illustration, but dash it all, that jet engine noise at the end of “The Letter” by The Box Tops really does lift off with a brash airplane joy that wonderfully amplifies the singer’s optimism.  It’s also a song-ending event on your car radio that strengthens the summertime cruising feeling more than any other song ending I can remember.

“The Letter” jet

(2) I’ve already written on this track from another angle and am almost ashamed to double-dip, but I do want to cite the cash register in Pink Floyd’s “Money” as one of the greatest of all thing-hooks because it really sings—or rings—and rings not just by itself but for all the commodities in our crazy capitalist world, which is to say, for absolutely everything, including your labor or mine, as a saleable thing.  It rings and it chatters, as if to supply its own neo-Marxist interpretation.

“Money” cash register

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When a Thing Sings

  1. bruce says:

    i would assert that ‘things’ are singing all the time and it’s the ‘hearing’ that is important, not the things. but that IS a lovely rilke quote-thanks for that.
    …and thanks for all the music thoughts. you’ve been amazingly diligent in this project.

  2. Steve Smith says:

    If I adjust my hearing so that, say, the rustling of oak leaves becomes a singing, am I not making-believe that the tree is ‘lifting its voice’ to summon hearers, projecting some kind of intent? Aren’t those qualities essential to the special act of singing? Or: can there be musical experience in which intent doesn’t matter at all, only what hearing captures–a musical experience in which the initiative and control are given to hearing more than to sound-making?

  3. bruce says:

    i’d say (as you already know) i’m more ‘or’ but actually even more ‘neither/ nor,’ in the sense that what qualifies as ‘a musical experience’ can be quite different than ‘a sound experience.’ when the ‘intent’ of my sound-making is misunderstood (or even better, when i make a ‘mistake’), is the experience of my unintended sound any less a hearing (or, possibly, ‘musical’) experience to a ‘listener,’ and possibly even more pleasurable?

    so, i can’t know what you are ‘making-believe’ when you hear leaves (or thunder or cash registers) or why the personification of sound is even necessary, but i’ll accept that this is part of your schemata for hearing, listening and musical thoughts and ideas about sounds. but for me: let sound be sound. i know this is a much messier proposition than you like, but it also allows percussionists (the woodblock and tubular bell players) and other musicians considerable latitude in sound/’musical’ sources.

    as you said, these examples ‘… illustrate a narrative.’ an early favorite of mine that would fall in this categorical type of ‘singing under duress’ would be the car horns in the lovin’ spoonful’s ‘summer in the city.’ i’d be interested in examples in pop music of sounds that don’t serve a purely illustrative purpose. eno may be a god place to start looking. my guess is that with sampling there are many, many more.

    thanks again for your thoughts and generous ‘benefit of the doubt’ reply, but you’re making my head hurt…

    ‘bang a gong-get it on.’

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