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When we listen to Aretha Franklin, why do words fail?

Aretha Franklin, in 1961.locus/file/Getty

From the beginning, Aretha Franklin has made acute the gap between musical experience and attempts to describe it. On her 1956 version of Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (from her first recordings, made live at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, her father’s pulpit), when the 14-year-old Franklin goes into a long, soaring hum — a Baptist moan — someone in the congregation interjects: “Listen to her.” As the moan crests, he can only repeat the phrase, with increasing insistence.

It is thus appropriate that, 60 years after those first recordings, Franklin has become a locus for musical phenomenology. In the March 2016 issue of “Music Theory Online,” Kate Heidemann, a professor at Colby College, uses the Queen of Soul as a test case for the possibility of more precisely locating just what left that parishioner grasping for words. “A System for Describing Vocal Timbre in Popular Song” makes the problem plain: The qualities of the singing voice are crucial to the experience of a great deal of music, but descriptions of such qualities are, to say the least, inexact.


Heidemann’s approach builds on the fact that our response to music is not just mental, but also empathetically physical. Our familiarity with using our own voices lets us channel the experience of singing: We hear a performance, and re-create what we imagine to be the singer’s physical sensations in our own body. Charting common descriptive terms — bright, breathy, growly, nasal — against the physiology of the related sounds, Heidemann attempts to bring order to the thicket of imagery.

Heidemann’s research — extending work by scholars including Arnie Cox, Nina Eidsheim, and S. Alexander Reed — continues to bridge one of musicology’s more troubling gaps. In a 1994 paper, Suzanne Cusick keenly diagnosed it as a mind-body problem: Musical analysis had been, up until that point, largely limited to notated elements of pitch and rhythm, sidestepping the expressivity encoded in the physicality of performance. (Cusick fascinatingly cites a piano trio by the 19th-century composer Fanny Hensel, finding in the thematically light but unrelentingly physical piano part the frustrated sensations of “a woman seeking entry into masculine discourse.”)


Analyzing isolated passages of Franklin’s singing, Heidemann starts to pinpoint what listening is and always has been: an emotional reaction not just to the notes, but also to their human, physical realization. “Through my embodied experience of the timbre of her voice,” Heidemann writes, “I have the opportunity to try on a mode of self-expression that is powerful and hugely present.”

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.