Hear the beat come down?
Stan Hawkins, Metre, Beat and House music as Rhetoric

by Bob Davis (2004)

This paper is a discussion of Stan Hawkins' chapter, 'Feel the Beat Come Down' found in Moore's book, 'Analyzing Popular Music'. The first part of the paper begins by outlining Hawkins' main ideas in looking particularly at his ideas of metre. The second part of this essay looks at alternative strategies for analyzing the subject of Hawkins' analysis, 'French Kiss'.

Context of the article

‘Feel the beat come Down: House music as rhetoric’ by Stan Hawkins appears as a chapter in Allan Moore’s recent book, Analyzing Popular Music (2003, Cambridge University Press). [1] The main idea of the book is to present a range of writing on the musical object rather than on the theoretical ideas prevalent in the literature of popular music studies. In this way, Moore continues to contribute to the important debate about how popular music should be studied. Moore’s view is that that popular music is best approached through musical analysis and Analyzing Popular Music examines a wide variety of musical genres through an equally wide variety of approaches.


The contents of the book are as follows:

1. Introduction Allan F. Moore; 2. Popular music analysis: ten apothegms and four instances (Rob Walser); 3. From lyric to anti-lyric: analysing the words in pop songs (Dai Griffiths); 4. The sound is out there: score, sound design and exoticism in The X-Files (Robynn J. Stilwell); 5. Feel the beat come down: House music as rhetoric (Stan Hawkins); 6. The determining role of performance in the articulation of meaning: the case of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ (Rob Bowman); 7. Marxist Music analysis without Adorno: popular music and urban geography (Adam Krims); 8. Jethro Tull and the case for modernism in mass culture (Allan F. Moore); 9. Coming of age: pangs of history in late 1970s rock (John Covach); 10. Is anybody listening? (Chris Kennett); 11. Talk and text: popular music and ethnomusicology (Martin Stokes).

This paper is an examination of one particular chapter in Analyzing Popular Music: Stan Hawkins’ analysis of the 1989 hit,  French Kiss by Lil’ Louis. [2]  'Feel the Beat Come Down’ is of interest because it focuses on the genre of House music, an area which has received little attention from musicologists. In the first part of the article, I outline the main ideas of Hawkins’ discussion. In the second part, I discuss a number of aspects which emerge from his analysis, particularly his use of sonograms, his ideas around the metre and the beat and finally, his ideas about groove, dance and the context of the music.

Unusually for the time, French Kiss was commercially released in 1989 and reached number 3 in the UK charts. This achievement was despite a ban by the BBC which considered its sexually suggestive vocal content unsuitable for the time. According to Bidder (1999), [3] French Kiss represented a major landmark in house music as it was ‘the first 12” single to vary the speed of its bpm, immediately expanding the parameters of creativity within the confines of a 4/4 rhythm’ (Bidder, 1999:206).

Hawkins’ approach                

Analyzing Popular Music is not only useful as a source of information on a variety of popular genres, but is also a contextual document which offers an opportunity to reflect on a variety of different approaches to musicological analysis. In ‘Feel the Beat Come Down’, it is clear that Hawkins needs to outline his particular methodological and ideological approach with some care in order to provide a clear framework for his analysis. In the context of the book as a whole, the range approaches suggests a disjointed and fragmented approach to the task of musical analysis. Kenneth Gloag (2004), suggests that the ‘absence of a common currency and vocabulary suggests that popular music becomes intensely style and genre specific… the music, bound by the specificity of its own identity, remains resistant to the power of theoretical generalization’ (Gloag, 2004: 389). [4] While it would be possible to argue that diversity is strength, we might also consider that rather than developing from a sound ideological position, the lack of a common analytical framework may be the result of a fragmentary and disjointed approach that popular music scholars have had to analytical discourse.

‘Feel the Beat Come Down’ is largely musicological in its approach. Hawkins' premise is that if we understand the piece to be organised musically, we should be able to utilise musicological techniques to make sense of its effect in that culture. The main aim of Hawkins’ analysis is to find ways of evaluating French Kiss by  ‘identifying some of the organizing structures and processes that are relevant to understanding its aesthetic’. The approach essentially involves examining the style of the piece by investigating those compositional features that Hawkins believes ‘systemize it’. Hawkins employs a range of reductive techniques which, he suggests, will:

expose the details of structure and processing through which various parameters of rhythmic construction are presented as a basis for framing questions relating to musical composition and its communicative scope for expression. [5]   

In addition to the organisational structures which are central to the analytical investigation, Hawkins explains that there must also be consideration of the technological processes involved in mixing and editing. Production skills are a central feature of much popular music and the use of delays, panning, as well as synthesis techniques are an important feature of French Kiss. The final area for consideration is the relationship between creation and reception of these sounds in the complex socio-cultural environment of the House. To achieve this end, Hawkins focuses on the relationship that exists between the creative DJ, the emerging groove,  and the symbolism of dance.

Structural considerations.

Once the preliminary musicological considerations have been dealt with, Hawkins divides the rest of his article into the following sections:

  • French Kiss: on the wave of the Chicago phenomenon
  • Editing and mechanizing the beat
  • Stripping it down! Beats, hypermetric units, CGPs, and processes in ‘French Kiss’
  • Jacking, desire and house aesthetics
  • Conclusion: deep means of expressing ideas or a just ‘cheesy’ cliché?

The main part of Hawkins' discussion is contained in ‘Stripping it down!’ where the musical elements identified through his analytical technique are discussed in some detail. Prior to this analytical discussion, there is some preliminary contextualization of the Chicago house scene as a descendant of disco. Drawing on a variety of research by Thornton, (1995); Kempster, (1996); Rietveld, (1997, 1998); and Reynolds, (1998), French Kiss is contextualised as a ‘sex track’ phenomenon which ‘encapsulated the sexual explicitness of Chicago house music in the late eighties’ (Hawkins, 2003: 84).

Having set his particular context for the music, Hawkins develops an idea that the aesthetic of house is to be found in the ‘creative application of music technology’. [6] In spite of the machine based technology used to generate the sounds of French Kiss, Hawkins argues that there remains a strong sense of ‘feel’ in the music. Drawing on interview material with Louis and academic work by Keil and Feld (1994), Hawkins emphasises that an important role of the DJ is to generate a particular feel through the ‘process of continual improvisation’. The development of House music, in common with a number of contemporary dance styles of the eighties, centred on  the application of innovative music technology. The use of this technology is often critisised because of the apparent adherence to the mechanised beat. Hawkins clearly indicates that the opposite is true and that the creative process involved in producing  French Kiss,  ensures that ‘feel’ is central to the aesthetic of House.

Having established the historical, technological and aesthetic context of French Kiss, Hawkins begins a detailed discussion of the music in the section entitled, ‘Stripping it down! Beats, Hypermetric Units, CGPs and Processes in French Kiss’. The rhythmic processes found in French Kiss and the metric structures used become a focal point for Hawkins’ analysis. Beat is discussed as a unit of temporal measurement that can both release and regulate energy and Hawkins concludes that the looping of grooves into polyrhythmic patterns is a part of the appeal of the music. Part of this discussion involves a carefully considered defence against those who suggest that (mechanised) repetition of the beat in this genre indicates an absence of musical value:

As my analysis emphasizes, any consideration of the beat needs to take into account its qualitative implications as well. Thus, the extension of the beat towards other structural levels of understanding, in terms of effect, is necessary in determining the overall rhythmic character of a track. (Hawkins, 2003:87).

Hawkins analytical approach is predominantly structural. In his outline of the track, he divides the piece into three main sections or phases, A, B, and C together with an introduction and a coda.


Within this overall structure, Hawkins identifies ‘approximately seventy units of repetition’ [7] of what he terms hypermetric units. Hypermetric units are essentially 4 bar phrases (16 quarter beats) which are organized into larger groups called Cellular Groove Patterns (CGPs). The CGPs (eleven in all) are outlined in tabular form. 

Table 1. (5.2 in Hawkins) determining CGPs.

Time Duration (min:seconds)

Hypermetric Units

Groove CGP


Dominant Musical Features




Strings/space sound




Phase A


1.0 –1.30




1.31- 2.02




Brass stabs (panned and filtered)





Reverb hand claps on 2 and 4





Four-pitch melodic synth motif





Modulation down a maj. second/sustained string note





Slowing down of tempo/entry of female vocal moans and grunts




Phase B

No drums sounds/vocal utterances accompanied by slowed down brass motif





Entry of groove gradually speeding up





No kit, filtered brass sounds and vocal utterances




Phase C

Return of main beat/increase in tempo/vocal moans/pitch modulation in brass motif





Snare drum rolls mixed in





Full arrangement of all parts/long string note





No rhythm/string note exposed/entry of ring modulated phasing effects in fade out


This method of investigating the music is designed to provide evidence of the track’s symmetrical and asymmetrical structural properties. The musical logic of the piece is, in this way, governed by the beats, CGPs and the hypermetric units. Grooves and riffs in this analysis have been ‘categorized according to the musical data that determines their transformations’. Hawkins suggests that ‘while we might easily perceive one main groove running throughout the track, there are also grooves within grooves; it is this aspect of musical organization that ultimately provides the alternating levels of intensity that define the track’s syntax’. [8]

Two important discussions support this structural analysis. The first describes what Hawkins has described as ‘hypermetric units’ and the second is around the perception of metre. Hypermetric units, approximately 4 bar phrases of 16 beats, can be broken down into single beats or into bars. The beat is therefore understood as part of a hierarchy of rhythm experienced in several ways at the same time. It is this part of the internal organisation which generate ‘grooves within grooves’ and the ‘alternating levels of intensity that define the track’s syntax’.

Mapped against the regularity of the beat, the cross-rhythmic metric tension between the steady kick drum pulse and [the] melodic cliché ultimately spells out house music’s aesthetic (Hawkins, 2003: 92-3).

To investigate this aesthetic, Hawkins introduces the concept of “Cellular Groove Patterns” to provide a basis for examining the structural framework of the piece. 

Cellular Groove Patterns

CGPs create a certain ‘sense of expectancy’ emerging through the ‘anticipation of changing effects in the CGPs’ progression’. Hawkins suggests that the CGPs are capable of a number of transformations through 4 main compositional processes including:

  • Entries of musical ideas
  • Effects processing
  • Tempo regulation
  • Textural manipulation

In trying to understand how these groove patterns might work, Hawkins utilizes a sonogram image to analyse the ‘distribution of energy’ at a micro-structural level. [9] He concludes that energy is concentrated in specific frequency layers with the most concentrated energy found below 1000 Hz in the bass drum and keyboard riff. The second concentration is between 1400 and 5000 Hz with the hi-hat intensity filling most of the audible spectrum between 6000 and 17000 Hz. In addition, the sonogram indicates clear ‘gaps in the sonic texture’. This type of analysis may, Hawkins suggests,  hold the ‘clue to the chemistry of the groove’. 

On a larger scale, the alterations of tempo, from the virtual standstill to the ‘outburst of blissful charge’ in the final part, demonstrates the gradual manipulation of tempo and the aesthetic of variation which Hawkins’ feels is important to house music. The entry of new sounds, the sense of ‘progression’ and the constant transformation are held together by the ‘predominance of the beat’. [10] His point in theorizing beat, rhythm and structure is that the apparent regularity of the beat on the horizontal plane is contrasted with a ‘multi-dimensionality’ on the vertical plane which generates the rhythmic fluidity of the track. In other words, the listener can interpret the rhythmic layers of this track in a number of ways. However, Hawkins is keen to emphasise the intentionality of the beat in his discussion. At phase C he suggests:

That the functionalism of repetition triggers off all those physical reflexes which create the sensations of an imaginary space and an urgency to dance (Hawkins, 2003: 96).

In the final few pages, Hawkins brings together a number of issues and ideas which  reflect his understanding of the way the music might be interpreted in the socio-cultural context. Hawkins locates this music in the ‘house’ where the interaction of DJ, clubbers and technology results in musical exertion, exhilaration and abandonment as individuals respond to both the beat and ‘Cellular groove patterns’. For Hawkins:

The symbolic exchange of the beat always equates with the cyclical flow of erogenous material. And here, it seems as if our personal notions of time are dependent on instinctive responses to the dispersion of rhythmic pulsations. (Hawkins, 2003: 97-8)

In these ‘hyper-sexual tracks’ jacking would occur at an appropriate point in the build up of energy such as occurs in phase C, the final section, of the piece.

The stomping of the beat is the sexualised trademark of the track, its intention being to ‘jack’ the crowd into a state of excitement.

This heady mix of beat, rhythm, sexual excitement, hedonism, transcendence and thrill occurs in through the interactive process which unites the human body with its sonic environment.

The felt qualities of volume, mix, timbre, sound-system and groove produce the simuli for dance, so the affective force of energy flows through the beat into the body, eliciting powerful emotional responses’ (p. 101).

Hawkins uses the words ‘hedonistic’ and ‘spontaneous’ in his description of the aesthetic of the dance floor. The responses of the dancers is based on an ‘intrinsic awareness’ of structure, rhythm and musical energy. ‘What is at stake’, Hawkins would have us believe, ‘is the simultaneous mapping of one’s erotic identity onto the beat’. In his concluding observations, Hawkins emphasizes the humorous quality of this track, its ironic ‘edge’ and its ‘fun-like...musical rhetoric’. [11] For Hawkins, house music’s survival in the 21st century is assured.


Comments and critique

Hawkins’ analysis of French Kiss came to my attention because it is one of the few articles which considers dance music from a musicological perspective. While there is a wealth of written material examining the culture of dance music, very few of these texts contribute to an understanding of how the music is organised. The lack of analytical endeavour creates a fracture in our musicological thinking on dance music with any contribution standing in isolation rather than as part of a more active and continuous discourse on popular music. Without a sustained discourse, it becomes difficult to develop a critical approach which may lead to a better understanding of the music and its effect. In approaching Hawkins' study, I have therefore, attempted to consider its contribution to the wider debate on the importance of the musicology in popular music studies. [12]  

Part of the criteria I have applied in my approach to Hawkins, is to consider if his analysis is appropriate to the music he studies. To do this, I have adopted the idea of an analysis being like a map. Walser (2003), writing in the same book as Hawkins, creates a similar analogy by suggesting that:

analysis maps,  like any map… reduces and abstracts in order to show particular relationships more clearly. Two dimensional maps cannot accurately represent three-dimensional surfaces; so too with prose mappings of music… All maps are drawn to serve specific purposes, to show relationships at a particular scale. (2003:25)

Umberto Eco, in the novel Foucault’s Pendulum, points out that in the 12th century some schools of thought continued to make use of maps which were over 300 years old. [13] In the early days of exploration, a number of maps existed to allow the exploration of the world which, compared to today’s maps, offered very little in the way of accuracy. Why these schools of thought held steadfast to representations of the world is open to interpretation. What is clear is that it was some time before the old maps were discarded in favour of new and more accurate representations of our world.

Hawkings is very clear about the purpose of the map he creates and, as I have already described, he spends a considerable time outlining exactly what his analysis will (and by implication, will not) do. Hawkins’ primarily interest is in identifying the internal logic of the piece and he therefore largely engages in what might be called a structural analysis. Before engaging in the analysis itself, there are certain preliminaries considered by Hawkins including an extended discussion of metre and repetition.  In the context of House music, the necessity for this prelude to the anlysis seems out of place. Indeed, the arguments explaining the aesthetic difficulties of repetition appear, in many ways, to belong to the late 1980s when musicologists studying popular music were in the position of defending their work against an antagonistic Western European musicological tradition.

While Hawkins feels a need to reiterate discussions on repetition and beat, he does constrain his discussion largely to the territory of the footnote. [14] However, by using Langlois (1992) as a way of arguing for the musicality of this genre and by referring to Christopher Small’s discussion of the ‘intensional quality’ of music, Hawkins’ strategy suggests more than a backward glance to a theoretical past. Those of us who did not grow up with house music, hip hop, rap and other technologically generated dance musics, may have acquired different musical values which conflict with those of the DJs, producers and consumers.  However, a contemporary audience, many of whom are now undertaking post school education in musicology, have few problems with the values presented by contemporary dance genres. In our schools and colleges, many talented students are able to move effortlessly between Bach and the break beat. Other students, equally as talented but less diverse in their musical background, have little experience of the Western European Classical Tradition. For those whose main study is the turntable and the mixing desk, a set of values emerge which make Langlois, Small, Middleton et. al. an anachronism. [15]

As an example of how this retrospective justification works in Hawkins can be seen his use of Blom and Kvifte (1986) who suggest that it is:

also obvious from the fact taht metrical signs in written music - time signatures and barlines - are not represented by distinctly audible features in the music... barlines can only be inferred, not directly preceived. [16]

Given the style of music, the relevance of ‘barlines’ in appreciating the hypermetricity of house rhythms could hardly seem more alien. To add to the confusion, there are some sections of the track, from roughly 7’ 30” to 8’ 10” where an attempt at adding bar lines would prove extremely difficult. It is unlikely that Louis was thinking in terms of bar lines at this point being more concerned with (intuitively) increasing the tempo before the entry of the final groove.

The effect of metrical placement becomes even more confused because of the use of digital delay in the production of the music. The opening seconds of the track provide a good example of the type of delay used in this piece. Alongside the sustained string sound are two ‘space sounds’ which have an underlying, decaying rhythm. This rhythm is not generated from repeatedly hitting a keyboard, but from the output of a delay effect. The delay can be seen clearly in fig. 1 where the initial attack of the sound has a number of gradually diminishing reflections after it. The first sound is mirrored at least six times and a second sound decaying over 8 ‘echoes’. If individual sounds can be converted into rhythmic pulses, it becomes difficult to understand how traditional ways of representing the music can have any currency. How we might perceive delayed rhythms, make sense of them and understand them are unlikely to be found in discussions of the bar lines. 


Fig 1(opening to 5”) [17]

It is worth acknowledging that Hawkins does try, over several pages, to wrestle with the complexity of metre in French Kiss. He suggests that ‘metre might be best understood as conceptual in its function’ residing ‘in the minds of the respondent’. [18] Moreover, he suggests that ‘in most music, metre has a direct bearing upon how we interpret gestures of rhythm and beat duration’. However, while Hawkins understands metre as ‘more in the mind than the music’ there is a danger of ignoring the fact that for many people, the body may begin to interpret the rhythm before the mind becomes aware of the metrical or rhythmic organisation. Our understanding of beat, rhythm and metre may, therefore, not exist at a conceptual level alone. Mind-body dualisms have been problematic in discussing our predisposition to move to a rhythmic sound. Others have criticised this dichotomy: Keil and Feld (1994) [19] called for a new aesthetic of groove based on ‘process’ to be developed and Middleton, (2000) has begun to address some of these problems in his search for a theory of gesture. [20] Neither of these approaches is fully worked out, but they do, at least, raise significant issues that may offer other theoretical models to analyse our interaction with the musical beat.

One potentially innovative tool for analysis which Hawkins uses is the sonogram, a graphical representation of time, frequency and intensity of sound. I have already demonstrated its potential use in providing a visual representation of the delay patterns (fig. 1).  Hawkins has high hopes for the technique when suggests that the sonogram may ‘hold the clue to the chemistry of the groove’. [21] Hawkins notes that we are able to recognise the succession of metronomic pulses, as well as consider the ‘distribution of energy’ at the microstructral level. His analysis of the sonogram of the opening of French Kiss reveals a range of intensities concentrated at different frequency levels.  The opening, as Hawkins points out, displays a concentration of sound in the lower and higher audible spectrum. In addition, the spatiality of the beat becomes evident.

As with any visual representation of music, the range of information will be limited. The opening groove of French Kiss shows the following pattern on a sonogram. As with (fig. 1) the spectral display shows time across the x axis and frequency across the  y axis. Figure 2 shows the concentration of sound in the lower spectrum and the middle range with a sparseness in the   1500 – 6000Hz region.


 Fig. 2 Sonogram, opening grove, French kiss.

How we read this particular graphic representation is very important. While the sonogram does allow us to consider the music at the micro level, we may not perceive all this information and a more extensive understanding of the psychology of music may be worth considering before developing this system further.  In Figure 4, the missing frequency level seen in Fig. 3 are partially filled in as a result of the shaker being introduced into the texture. The resultant sonogram illustrates this changing dynamic.

Fig. 4 Sonogram, shaker entry, French Kiss.  

Comparing these sonograms with other pieces of music may give us a clue to the way we can utilise these spectral representations. Fig. 5 is a sonogram of  Big Fun by the Gap Band (1986). As a dance piece, it contains the characteristic ‘blocks’ which represent the beat, and similar distribution of frequencies with the predominant beat in the bass. The bright area around 2 seconds is where the voice enters using breathy sounds and other vocalisations.

Fig. 5 Sonogram of Gap Band’s Big Fun

It appears from fig. 5 that there is a similar distribution of frequencies in disco and house music. What this frequency distribution tells us about the chemestry of a genre would have to be correlated with readings from a range of other genres. In the following sonogram, (fig. 6) we see a completely different ‘chemistry’ with similar, but less intense, rhythmic beats and a much stronger presence around 50-4000Hz. The sonogram in fig. 6 represents the last four chords before the tenor saxophone solo in Charlie Mingus’ Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. The concentration of sound in the lower-middle frequency spectrum suggests a completely different listening experience. The warmer, lower tones and a different intensity of groove presents a significant contrast to the examples from disco and house.

Fig 6. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

This short digression offers an opportunity to consider the usefulness of sonograms as a tool for analysis. The choice of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is largely arbitrary, but it provides an interesting comparison to the disco and house tracks from The Gap Band and Lil’ Louis. At the micro level, sonograms may reveal many interesting features that we simply do not hear because of the physical limitations of our auditory systems. The horizontal lines seen in fig. 1, for instance, are not heard as individual sounds but as a single sustained note. Sonograms therefore need careful reading. As with any visual representation, we have to be sure that we have an accurate key which allows us to interpret information effectively. It may be possible, for instance, to make certain assumptions about the energy of French Kiss being distributed in the lower and higher frequencies.  It may equally be the case that the track was mixed to deliberately create an acoustic space for the DJs voice to be heard at the beginning of the track. This may provide one explanation for this particular distribution of frequencies but there are likely to be several others. Until we develop a familiarity with this tool and learn to read it effectively, it may of little real use in meeting our analytical objectives. Given the micro-structural level that sonograms operate at, it is also possible that we begin to read too much into the music. Some visual representations, such as the space between the beats of French Kiss (see fig. 2), happen in a microsecond and cannot be heard except as part of the general articulation.

In order to analyse the music of French Kiss, Hawkins develops a system of categorisation which is informed by the process of musical transformation. His suggestion is that:

while we might easily perceive one main groove running throughout the track, there are also grooves within grooves; it is this aspect of musical organization that ultimately provides the alternating levels of intensity that define the track’s syntax. [22]

Hawkins approach to analysis is primarily formalist. Syntactical analysis has dominated much of musicology and with it comes a specific language and a hierarchy of importance. The formalist approach draws on past scholarship which Scott Burnham suggested, ‘takes on the self-sufficiency and absorbing intensity of a game: we learn rules, protocols, calculated risks, all of which can be negotiated with a limited intervention of verbal language’ (Burnham, 1999: 213). [23] The danger of the formalist approach is that in searching for the internal logic of the piece, it is possible that the analysis may inadvertently recreate the music in ways that it is not heard. [24]

To illustrate this point, it may be useful to consider organising structure in relation to the creative process. The TR 808 drum machine (fig. 7) was a popular instrument amongst DJs and producers of house during the 1980s. Each percussion sound can be programmed separately or layered into patterns. The functionality of the machine makes it very easy to create rhythms, build them into larger grooves by adding and subtracting instruments.


Fig.  7. Roland TR 808 drum machine

One conventional way of composing with sequencer technology is to create an underlying riff and then, section by section, add more layers to the fundamental groove. This is precisely what happens in the first part of French Kiss. After the introduction, the initial pattern is heard. Shakers are added to this pattern followed by a brass chord, then claps and finally, a four note repetitive motif.  In this way the piece gradually builds in intensity until around 2’ 40” when the full version of the groove is heard. From this point, parts can be brought in and out of the multiple layers, and treated with delay processes.

Stripping away the analytical jargon of ‘organic unity’, ‘variation’ and ‘transformation’ offers an opportunity to understand the compositional process in a different way. It is literally possible, at the push of a button, to add and subtract rhythmic layers to build the overall texture. This process becomes an important feature of the compositional technique and can be clearly heard in the opening section. [25] The result of such a processual analysis can be seen in the following table. The terminology draws from Tagg (2000) and describes each separate idea as a ‘museme’ or ‘museme stack’. Each entry of the musical idea is shown graphically and the different entries of instruments create markers for differentiating the structure. Various ideas are listed including the initial groove pattern, shakers, claps, chords and melodic ideas along with delays, changes in tempo and pitch.  The bottom of the grid shows structural details including the number of bars,  subdivisions into 4 bar phrases, overall structural outline and Hawkins’ structural analysis. 

Fig. 8 Structural features of French Kiss [26]

To return to the idea of understanding French Kiss as a process, each element of the music is added in turn. Main sections are emphasised through episodic markers (snare drum rolls) indicating a significant shift in events. After 2’40”, delays, modulations and tempo changes provide a significant contribution to the musical organisation.

In terms of structure, there is not much difference between this version and Hawkins’ original analysis. However, in terms of approach, there was a significant difference. Instead of constructing a deeper level structural framework of hypermetric units and CGPs, this analysis concentrates on surface patterns identified by significant transformation events. Recognising the structure in this way not only corresponds with the push-button technology which created the piece in the first place but also with what you hear. Shakers, claps, drumbeats are added and subtracted from the texture at the touch of a button and modulations are created by the turn of the vari-speed control are structural signifiers.

Even after many repeated listenings, I still do not hear or understand French Kiss in terms of Cellular Groove Patterns. I do hear shakers, claps, organ sounds, snare drums, melodic motives, modulations and tempo changes. I also hear different features that are either ‘brought out’ in the mix or discovered as my mind focuses in on a different layer of the music. In addition, I also hear the ‘hypermetricity’ created either through changing individual tempos of tracks or by changing the volume of parts in the mix or, interestingly, through the psychological effect that tempo changes have on our perception of the beat. Unfortunately, I do not agree with Hawkins’ assertion that the transcript of CGP i  is a ‘clear through transcription of how the distribution of metre in ‘French Kiss’ is manifested in a rhythmicization of events’. [27] The rhythmic events of French Kiss are creatd through a complex interaction of several different processes. As these production processes cannot be notated, the most effective way to describe them would be to listen to comparative versions. These comparative versions would then allow us an opportunity to draw conclusions about the effects of  different compositional techniques used in French Kiss.

To illustrate this analytic process, the following example an aural representation [28] of French Kiss  recreated to analyse the effects of delay on our perception of the rhythm. can be heard with the dry signal, then mixed with a delayed signal and finally heard just as the delay. With close listening it is possible to gauge the rhythmic effect that a delay will have on the ‘dry’ version. To make the effect more apparent, the final section of the example contains only the delayed sound.

Example 1.

Dry version

c. 10”

Dry version with delayed sound

c. 10”

Delayed sound only

c. 5”

While Hawkins does raise the use of technology in French Kiss, it seems to be regarded as having an almost insignificant effect on the rhythmic process. While I do not necessarily have the answers to analytical problems, I can at least highlight the issues and suggest that this type of comparative listening may offer us a way forward in understanding how rhythm, metre and other parameters work in a piece such as French Kiss.

 In the following example, it is possible to hear the rhythm parts gradually slowing down from 124bpm to 38 bpm before speeding up again.

Example 2.


This example demonstrates that the way we perceive a rhythm may change according to the tempo at which it is heard. Different relationships emerge during the speeding up and slowing down process that can be identified at particular moments. As the relationship between the periodicity changes, the musical patterning in our mind takes on new relationships. Researchers have been investigating temporal expectations since the 19th century and studies show that ‘metrical behaviours’ are dynamic as one layer of sound interacts with another. [29] This would seem to sugggest that as tempo changes, we can identify specific moments where significant changes can be perceived. While these significant moments seem possible to quantify, our own participatory contribution to the groove may be more difficult to assess. My suggestion here, drawing on Keil and Feld (1994) is that our participation in the groove should not be ignored as part of the creative process. .

The final example is similar to ex.2 except that it contains a 4 note motif. Again, the example slows down and speeds up with different relationships emerging as the dynamics of the temporal relationships change. Unlike ex. 2, the following example contains a slight delay which, as in ex. 1,  can be heard at the end of the example. [30]

Example 3 Temporal changes to  example.

What all these examples seek to achieve is a better understanding of the processes we, as listeners, engage in when we listen to a piece such as French Kiss.  By concentrating on the sound, I hope to have abstracted particular ideas and discussed, in a limited way, the way we understand and interpret the sounds themselves. The major difference in approach is not only to acknowledge the dynamics of the music, but also to acknowledge our own part in the formation of the groove.  In short, the variations and transformations are not only to be found in the musical sound, but inside our heads/bodies as we respond to metrical thresholds. While much of the variation and dynamic interplay is acknowledged by Hawkins his approach draws, to a large extent, on those formalist approaches of the absolutists. [31]

It is only towards the end of his discussion that he begins to acknowledge and discuss paramusical influences. He suggests that:

the total effect of the processes of rhythmic organization around the beat is what results in pent-up action on the dancefloor. Moreover, the arrangement of the sounds in a meaningful fashion is what makes musical sense for persons ‘into’ house. (Hawkins, 2004: 97)

However, my view is that the rhythmic organisation outlined by Hawkins in terms of CGPs, are not those which dancers listen to. Returning to analogy of the map, the representation of the music as CGPs may not guide us adequately through the terrain. Middleton (2000), suggested that in order to understand the meaning we have to deal with the affective, cognitive and kinetic aspects of the music by taking into account that, ‘how we feel and how we understand musical sounds is organized through processual shapes which seem to be analogous to physical gestures’ (Middleton 2000: 105). [32]   My reading of this is that dancers, through their interpretive gestures, create an order or an understanding which they represent through movement. The idea that we can interpret musical gestures through other gestural shapes will be difficult for some schools of musicology to grasp. However, when we listen and when we play music we move; some people move more than others. Part of this movement seems necessary, perhaps vital, to understanding and finding meaning in the sounds.

With such a range of alternative strategies available, it seems surprising that  ‘Feel the Beat Come Down’ looks backwards rather than forward. There appears to be little analysis of ‘feel’ in his study and the dancers themselves are significantly absent from the discussion. Perhaps Hawkins recognises this and in the final pages of the study, he examines the ‘symbolic exchange of the beat’ which, he claims, ‘always equates with the cyclical flow of erogenous material’. If this assertion is correct then, ‘our personal notions of time’, expressed through dancing, would be ‘dependent on instinctive responses to the dispersion of rhythmic pulsations’. [33]  

If my brief analysis of the sounds of French Kiss have tried to demonstrate one thing, it is that while our understanding of metre and rhythm may not be fully developed, there are possible explanations for how we understand and respond to rhythm. The metrical thresholds which psychologists have recognised since the 19th century, and our own experiences listening, feeling and moving to the music may lead us to consider explanations beyond simplistic, pre-conceptual instinctive responses. [34] There also appears to be some confusion to the equasion as Hawkins reminds us that the effect of MDMA is to generate feelings of friendship and harmony rather than the erotic. The crowd, he suggests,  ‘becomes united through a utopian form of ritualistic display of erotic response’. [35] At the same time he suggests that, ‘while dancers are able to focus on their own individuality, their physical motions function to establish a ‘communal ethos’ which in turn define the event, genre and context’. [36] The end point of this discussion acknowledges that  each house event ‘presents a different experience’ which is unique to the social occasion.

Given the variety of interpretations from individual to collective community, I find it hard to understand Hawkins bold assertion that ‘what is at stake is the simultaneous mapping of one’s erotic identity onto the beat’. At the same time as taking this seemingly essentialist stance, Hawkins suggests that understanding the organizational principles of,


how the sound works puts into place mechanisms of identification, which, at least for the discerning musicologist, should test all those ideological predispositions our discipline has historically had towards the essentialization of the body. [37]

In analysing French Kiss in so much detail, it might be that we loose sight of  how the actual sound of House really works. There is some consideration of this in Hawkin’s writing. Drawing on Chernoff (1979) and Small (1987), Hawkins likens the role of the DJ to the ‘master drummer’ found in certain African cultures whose responsibility it is to control the music for the event. At the ‘event’ we can assume that French Kiss would sound significantly different to the version released in 1989. The three versions of the song released on ffrr (12” single, and CD album version) along with a 7” version released on Diamond Records [38] are all different mixes, some with the addition of speaking parts. However, in the context of the event, these tracks would be mixed with other tracks, they would have DJs speaking over the records and adding effects. A recent BBC radio show, Soulful House played the Diamond Records version of French Kiss as part of an ‘Old School Classics’ evening. [39] The transformation of sound is considerable as DJ Aaron Ross mixes French Kiss in from the previous record, continually speaks (to the imagined House) over the recording, and mixes in the next record. The effect is, at times, chaotic in comparison to the ordered sound of the record. In example 4, the effect of mixing two tracks together can be heard with the synchronised beat being displaced towards the end of the example. If, as Hawkins posits, ‘mapping one’s erotic identity onto the beat’ is genuinely what is at stake, then we would have to ask, which beat?

Example 4 French Kiss. ‘live’.

Everyone has their own history of house, as they do for other genres, and there is no doubt that ‘jacking’ played an important part in establishing the aesthetic of house. Jack may be a new term for groove which has, as Hawkins acknowledges, been evident in precursors of house, notably disco. Sexually suggestive music such Kool and the Gang’s Get Down On It are part of the aesthetic of disco. While Hawkins considers this to be a courtship style, I am less convinced by that analysis. Sexual displays do change over time and there will always be the opportunity to push accepted boundaries. However, Poschardt points out that the role of the DJ was to create emotional peaks as well as moments of relaxation in order for the peaks to come again. Frankie Knuckles would, at the peak of the evening, ‘switch off all the lights in the Warehouse and, at deafening volume…play the soundtrack of a speeding express train… the audience…was so excited by the volume of the noise and the weirdness of the darkness that everyone would start screaming like mad’(Poschardt, 1995: 247). The variety of responses to house need to be acknowledged. By 1987 ‘house had won world-wide acceptance. The ‘desire to jack your body’ had by now escaped all [previous] ethnic or sexual determinants’ (Poschardt, 1995: 245). By 1989, the release date of French Kiss the entire context of the music had changed and the location moved from the House to the home. In the late 20th century until the present day, the sounds of house can accompany almost everything from media presentations to majorette competitions. [40]

Final thoughts

My interest in this article comes from my continued research into groove. In writing this article, and spending so much time listening to and thinking about French Kiss there have been moments where I have thought ‘why bother’. In the end I decided that I ‘bother’ because music has something to say about who we are and how we live our lives. When we analyse music of any kind, we say something about the people who create the music, about the people who use the music and also about ourselves as academics. My concern can be summarised in a relatively simple question: does the analysis say something about the music and therefore about ourselves? My energy to undertake this paper comes from my concern that when we analyse, we make it current, relevant and above all meaningful. There is a danger in undertaking the important task of mapping out pieces through musicological analysis, that we draw a different map. In effect, we become concerned with charting our own theoretical manoeuvres rather than plotting the terrain of the music.

The publication of Analyzing Popular Music comes at a very important time in the study of popular music. Renewed interest in the musical object could be precisely what popular music studies has needed to invigorate and stimulate the study of an important aspect of our daily lives. Writing in the UK, I am aware that  many young people studying popular music have a new context for thinking about their subject. These young people, the academics of the future, do not  suffer from the same contextual burden that an older generation has. While we can undoubtedly learn from the past, we should be careful not to dwell in it. The analysis maps we create will not only be important for understanding where we are  now, but they will be important for finding our way forward over the coming years. This might be considered an idealistic viewpoint, but my optimism is grounded in the reality of the education system I work in. As musicologists we are given considerable responsibility to ‘map the terrain’ effectively so others can build on our efforts. Good models for understanding music already exist but often they have failed to be supported because we seem unable to shake off the musicological traditions of the past.

In thinking about the context of this book, of Hawkins’ article, and my own ideological leanings, I re-read this passage in Middleton (1990):

The approach outlined here leaves much still to be investigated. The discussion has several times strayed into semiological terminology and it has taken the nature of ideology largely for granted; both signification and ideology in popular music demands detailed study.  The relationship between social formation, cultural patterns and musical practice have been touched on, but require more extended analysis. We need to look more closely at processes of change (and structures of stasis), particularly the roles of the forces and the relations of production. (Middleton, 1990: 32).

Although taken slightly out of context, it seems appropriate at this point to remind ourselves, like reading an old report card from school, of where we were so we can reflect on how far we have come. Hawkins makes an important contribution to the discussion on dance music by offering one of the few published musicological contributions on the subject. French Kiss was released the year before Middleton published his particular contribution to the musicological debate. From that perspective, it has taken over thirteen years for a musicologist to become sufficiently interested in this style of music. In that thirteen years, if Hawkins inclusion in Moores book is at all representative, it appears that little has changed in the way we analyse the music. By setting out a restricted, formalist agenda, by leaning towards an absolutist ideology, and by reducing our responses to an erogenous instinct, Hawkins inclusion in Analyzing Popular Music may do more harm than good. Then again, this may be precisely the catalyst that would be musicologists need to explore and find other ways of analysing music.

[1] See review of this book by Kenneth Cloag (2004) in Popular Music 23/3.

[2] French Kiss was later released in 1989 as a 12” single (ffrr 886 675-1(London Records)). An alternative mix of the track can be found on the 1989 album, From the Mind of Lil’ Louis (ffrr: 828 179-2). It was also released in the same year, again as an alternative mix,  on Diamond Records (LD8927).

[3] Bidder. 1999. House: The Rough Guide. (London: Rough Guides).

[4] See Gloag, K. 2004. Review of Analyzing Popular Music in Popular Music, 23/3 pp.387-389.

[5] Hawkins, 2003: 81.

[6] (Hawkins, 2003: 85)

[7] (Hawkins, 2003: 90)

[8] (Hawkins, 2003: 90)

[9] Sonogram image is on page 93 of Hawkins’ text. No details of the parameters the programme have been given to account for the range of the frequency axis (0-17kHz).

[10] (Hawkins, 2003: 95)

[11] (Hawkins, 2004: 103)

[12] There is no necessity here to repeat the extensive discussions which have taken place on the development of musicology. For a more recent assessment, see Tagg, (2003) chapter 2,  pp. 33-92. 

[13] Eco, U. 1988. Foucault’s Pendulum. p. 456. Little progress was made in cartography until after the 14th century. Before the 15th century, the main purpose of cartographers was ‘not to discover what actually existed but, rather, to rationalise the world around preconceived notions of religion and philosophy’. (see http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/eurvoya/geocart.html) An interesting scroll of maps can be seen at: http://imaginarymuseum.org/MHV/PZImhv/HarleyCartographyV1.html

[14] See Hawkins (2004), footnote 13.

[15] I am aware of the difficulties this discussion presents and acknowledge the importance of a well rounded, contextual view of the problem. However as an example of our ability to theorise from the past, I have never understood the importance given to Adorno in popular music writings. While I do understand his importance in an historical context, I cannot see why, given the quality of so many other theorists in this field, that his ideas continue to be discussed at all. (See Dave Laing’s comments about ‘Adorno getting in the way’ in Tagg (2003) pp. 82-3.) It seems that too often we are locked into a theoretical past unable to see where we might be going and in no hurry to get there. 

[16] See page 92 in Hawkins.

[17]   The x axis of the sonogram represents time and the y axis represents frequency. The broken lines across the image are the sustained string sound with each individual harmonic identified in the spectral analysis. The brighter the image, the louder the sound.

[18] (Hawkins, 2003: 92)

[19] See Keil and feld, 1994 pp. 72-76.

[20] Middleton takes a more holistic view and  suggests that we need to understand the ‘affective and cognitive as well as kinetic aspects’ of music if we are to understand how musical sound is organised  ‘through processual shapes which seem to be analogous to physical gestures’ (Middleton, 2000: 105). See also Frith, S. 1996. Performing Rites. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

[21] (Hawkins, 2003: 94)

[22] (Hawkins, 2004: 90)

[23] Burnham, Scott. 1999. ‘How Music Matters’ in N. Cook and M. Everist (eds.) Rethinking Music. (OUP).

[24] In an  ‘experiment’ with postgraduate music students at the University of Montréal, after listening to the piece I asked for first impressions of the piece. Apart from one student, a composition major, no one else made any consideration of the structure. If such a small experiment can make a point, it is that other factors in the reception of the music, other than structure, become important to the majority of us.

[25] It is interesting to note that sequencer technology, used in composition classes I have taught, often caused a problem because students thought about compositions in vertical terms, building up large riff structures, fully ‘orchestrated’ and with no consideration of the structural process. Consequently, students created intricate 4 bar pieces which they could cycle indefinitely. The obvious solution to this was to strip away the piece to its fundamental and to gradually build it up, layer by layer, until the ‘original’ idea was hear in its glory. The reverse process was a useful device for creating an ending for the piece.

[26] It should be noted that there are some discrepancies in the timing between my own and Hawkins version which I cannot fully explain. In section 25 (8’19”) my version of the 12” single was damaged. Despite this, my thanks to E-bay where I finally found the record for the princely sum of €1 

[27] I also do not hear a Cm11 chord but that would be a discussion at another time.

[28] Without the original masters to analyse, I have created a version of the piece to illustrate the points I make in the discussion. There are obviously problems with copying the original music.

[29] See London, J. 2002. ‘Cognitive Constraints on metric Systems: Some Observations and Hypotheses’, in Music Perception, 2002, Col. 19 no. 4 pp. 529-550. The suggestion (see page 538) of research is that there would seem to be ‘three significant thresholds within the metric envelope, one around 200-250 ms, another around 600-700ms and a third around 1.5-2 s’. This equates approximately to 300-245 bpm; 100- 85 bpm and 40-30bpm. Interestingly, from a slightly different perspective, in listening to the example you may find your body moving, not moving, and then moving again, but only at a particular threshold where the different elements interact in such a way as to cause this response. Of course, you may also find yourself not moving to the whole example.

[30] At a slower tempo you may become aware of a modulation caused by the delay speed adjusting in step with the tempo change. This only lasts for a short time as at a faster speed the effect is masked.

[31] See Tagg, 2004 for discussion of absolute music, pp. 9-32.

[32] Middleton, R. 2000. Popular Music Analysis and Musicology: Bridging the Gap  in Middleton, R. (Ed.).  2000. Reading Pop: Approaches to Textual Analysis in Popular Music. (Oxford University Press). pp104-121

[33] Hawkins, 2004: 97-98.

[34] Observing the reactions of my own children and their friends who overheard the first part of French Kiss it was interesting to see that they moved in different ways to the music. Our 9 year old friend who came to visit put together an interesting interpretation of the music using her arms, extending them forwards in a ‘wave’. None of this was in any way erogenous, as far as I know.

[35] Hawkins, 2004: 99-100.

[36] Ibid: 100

[37] Hawkins, 2003: 101.

[38] Diamond Records was run by Louis as a subsidiary of Warehouse, a Chicago label formed by Amando Gallop and Mike Dunn. See http://www.discogs.com/label/Warehouse for further information.

[39] BBC radio, 27 November 2004. Aaron Ross presenter of Soulful House. At the time of writing, this broadcast has been archived on http://www.bbc.co.uk/1xtra/tracklistings/aaronross/aarontracks.shtml

[40] As I completed this paper, I found myself at a youth drama evening watching a small group of 15+ girls giving a majorette display to the beat of house. The tape used was ‘edited’ as part of a competition piece the leader had used.


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