Music Theory

Indiana University GTA Symposium Workshop
 Vocal Grain and Meaning:
Analyzing Three Performances of Bob Dylans “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
 Steven Rings, University of Chicago
 Friday, February 15, 2013

Lacasse, Serge. “The Phonographic Voice: Paralinguistic Features and Phonographic Staging in Popular Music Singing.” In Recorded Music: Performance, Culture and Technology, edited by Amanda Bayley, 225–51. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.   

Burns, Lori. “Feeling the Style: Vocal Gesture and Musical Expression in Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong.” Music Theory Online 11/3 (September 2005).    

Winkler, Peter. “Writing Ghost Notes: The Poetics and Politics of Transcription.” In Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture, edited by David Schwarz, Anahid Kassabian, and Lawrence Siegel, 169–203. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. 

Notes on the readings:

The readings for the workshop all deal in one way or another with the ways in which the singing voice might be understood to signify at the level of very local, granular detail. Two of the readings involve close transcriptions using traditional notation, while one employs spectrographic representations. Winkler also deals with what we might call the ethics of transcription. You will naturally want to track down the recordings the authors discuss; they are easy to find on YouTube and elsewhere.

These readings will provide us a methodological basis and point of departure for our own work with three performances of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Listening and Analysis

We will focus on three performances of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”: the studio recording from December 1962, a live performance from the Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971 (one of only a few performances during Dylan’s concert hiatus of 1966–1974), and a December 1975 rendition from the Rolling Thunder Revue. Clicking on the links will pull up the relevant recordings.

Please do the following:

  • Produce detailed transcriptions of the vocal part for the first four sung lines in each of these performances (that is: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? / And where have you been, my darling young one? / I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains / I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways”).

  • You should model your transcriptions on those in the Winkler and Burns articles, striving to capture slides, bends, intonational subtleties, details of expressive timing, and the like.

  • Consider: How might the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences in vocal delivery revealed by your transcriptions signify? Base your thoughts both on the readings as well as on your own reflections regarding the relationship (or perhaps dialectic) between vocal “grain” and meaning.

  • Download Sonic Visualiser ( and study spectrograms of these lines. What do you notice? What sonic details are revealed in the spectrograms that were missing from your transcriptions? Do they encourage you to modify those transcriptions at all, or do they open your ears to new details in the sung passages?

  • If you are new to the program, I recommend that you work through the “Musicologist’s Guide to Sonic Visualiser” by Nick Cook and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson to learn your way around.

  • Don’t worry too much about mastering the application at this point. I just want you to mess around with it a bit, start getting accustomed to it, and look at some images of the opening lines in “Hard Rain.”