Performing with Grain

In response to: Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice”

Ashlyn E. Tom

            The primary purpose of “The Grain of the Voice”, it seems, is to illustrate the difference between language and voice. To draw this line, Barthes discusses the theory of “pheno-song” and “geno-song”:

“The pheno-song (if the transposition be allowed) covers…in short, everything in the performance which is in the service of communication, representation, expression, everything which it is customary to talk about, which forms the tissue of cultural values…which takes its bearing directly on the ideological alibis of a period (‘subjectivity’, ‘expressivity’, ‘dramaticism’, ‘personality’ of the artist). The geno-song is the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the space where significations germinate ‘from within language and in its very materiality’; it forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation (of feelings), expression; it is that apex (or that depth) of production where the melody really works at the language – not at what it says, but the voluptuousness of its sounds-signifiers, of its letters – where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work. It is, in a very simple word but which must be taken seriously, the diction of the language” (Barthes 1991, pg. 183)

That is, the pheno-song is the technique, the structure of song. The emphasis on the art of breathing when singing, Barthes says, is an excellent example of the pheno-song. It is discipline for delivery. The pheno-song certainly does not lack emotion altogether. As this essay points out, using the example of singing a death, Mussorgsky’s death of Boris is “expressive or if preferred, hysterical” (pg. 186). But this is not the same as the geno-song, as Barthes observes. “Performances of the death cannot be but dramatic: it is the triumph of the pheno-text, the smothering of signifiance under the soul as signified” (page 186-187). The act of displaying an emotion through song is not purely a geno-song characteristic. Rather, the way it is portrayed is what distinguishes pheno-song from geno-song: a culture that lacks grain, for whom pheno-song typifies their music, will “’translate’ an emotion and represent a signified (the ‘meaning’ of a poem);, an art that innoculates pleasure (by reducing it to a known, coded emotion) and reconciles the subject to what in music can be said: what is said about it, predicatively, by Institution, Criticism, Opinion” (page 185). The pheno-song portrays emotion in such a way that is predictable.; it takes a feeling and has it portrayed more obviously relatable manner. It lacks a personal voice. The pheno-song is characterized by perfection—technique and discipline that sounds so exact and precise, but what it lacks is soul of the body, not simply the song; it lacks grain (page 189, 183).

Alternatively, the geno-type goes beyond language by including the grain of the voice, the distinguishing traits of the singer. It has originality, and true interpretation in its expression: “there is a progressive movement from the language to the poem, from the poem to the song and from the song to its performance” (page 186). Saying that geno-song is different from pheno-song, however, is not to say that it abandons musical technique altogether. With the art of breathing, Barthe’s earlier example, the geno-song does not mean that the audience hears the breaths taken. Instead, they hear the phrase divided (page 183). Or perhaps one might consider Panzera, the singer Barthes uses as an example of geno-song. “Similarly, Panzera carried his r’s beyond the norms of the singer – without denying those norms. His r was of course rolled, as in every classic art of singing, but the roll had nothing peasant-like or Canadian about it; it was an artificial roll, the paradoxical state of a letter-sound at once totally abstract (by its metallic brevity of vibration) and totally material (by its manifest deep-rootedness in the action of the throat)” (page 184). A singer who demonstrates geno-song is not one who forgoes musical standards in song. However, (s)he is one who ads a personal emotion, one whose soul surpasses the language in song—it extends to the inner body (page 188-189).

Barthes says that what allows the pheno-song to thrive and the geno-song to fade out is technology, “mass ‘good’ music (records, radio)” (page 187). A notable way we see the pheno-song persist today is with auto-tune. We have the means now to make someone who is a sub-par vocalist sing perfectly on-pitch. It means, however, that the song when performed lacks a personal emotion that cannot be made up for. The resulting sound is a little too perfect, and while it may display emotion in the way the singer carries out the lyrics, the language—it comes short in the grain of the voice. It is funny, on the other hand (and contrary to Barthes), that sometimes we stray from that perfection in the modern world with increasing production of “mass ‘good’ music”, stray from the pheno-song, because it is so easy to obtain now. A unique voice with a particular means of expressing a feeling, belonging to an artist who can sing in such a way that portrays this emotion through their body as they perform, may get more attention than the singer who sounds perfect but is predictable with their emotional portrayal. Celebrities with such a voice, a uniqueness that is brought to their voice because of their personality and the way they emote, create more realism when they sing, speak, act…it is something we undeniably look for in a world where a “perfect voice” is all too easily obtainable. Regardless, this distinction between “pheno-song” and “geno-song” is crucial in understanding how language and voice relate, and where to draw the line between them.


Barthes, Roland. 1991. “The Grain of the Voice,” in Image-Music-Text. (Stephen Heath, trans.) New York: Noonday Press.

Featured Image: Roland Barthes, Die Tageszeitung (taz)


One thought on “Performing with Grain

  1. Careful, attentive reading of a challenging essay. I particularly appreciated your point that– contrary to Barthes’ predictions about the disappearance of amateurs and practitioners with mass culture–people continue to appreciate unique, imperfect voices precisely because “perfection” is available via tools of recording technology such as Autotune.


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