Saturday evening, November 14, 4:00–4:50

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Meaningless Excitement and Smooth Atonal Sound: Phish at the Intersection of Music Theory and Cultural Studies

Without a radio hit, MTV exposure, or viral internet fame, the improvisational rock band Phish has remained one of the most vibrant, successful, and enigmatic forces in popular music for over twenty-five years. Phish regularly sells out arenas and amphitheaters across the country, stages immersive single-band festivals that draw upwards of 60,000 fans to remote locations, and in 2017, the band performed a 13-concert residency at Madison Square Garden without repeating a song. Phish's playfulness and virtuosic, exploratory improvisational style-no two concerts are the same-have earned them hundreds of thousands of devoted fans and inspired many jam bands and indie rock groups.

Despite these accomplishments, there is a dearth of scholarship on the music of Phish, especially from within music disciplines. This is surprising given that fan analysis, what Grasso (2019) calls "amateur music theory," is an integral part of Phish fan identity. An examination of Phish's improvisational style and process is therefore long overdue, as it reveals an aesthetic and form that can serve as a framework for theorizing improvisation in rock music more broadly. 

This joint AMS/SMT ninety-minute session examines Phish's music from the perspectives of music theory, cultural theory, and fandom studies. The first paper (AMS) argues that a discursive practice of analyzing improvisation among Phish fans constitutes part of their identity construction. However, this public music theory discourse is seldom based on technical musical terms, instead relying on fan-generated, affective descriptors. The second paper (SMT) uses these fan descriptions as a point of departure for theorizing multiple typologies of improvisational practice in Phish's music, which serves as a model for rock improvisation more generally. The final paper (SMT) analyzes Phish's improvisational style using a single case study of a live performance, demonstrating how the band's establishment, then abandonment of a basic groove is a significant generator of dynamic changes in musical intensity that also serves as a highly valued aesthetic quality among fans. Taken together, these three papers reveal that Phish's music and their fanbase provide a unique locus of study at the intersection of music theory, popular culture, and (sub)cultural practice.

Affective Music Theory, Public Musicology, and the Construction of Phish Fan Identity

Jacob A. Cohen


As numerous scholars have argued, Phish fans make up a significant subcultural group in the United States (Allaback 2009; Blau 2010; Yeager 2011). Many elements serve to construct this subcultural identity, including communal experiences (e.g. festivals), style, musical aesthetics, shared mythology, insider knowledge, and issues of race, class, and religion. Although these aspects may constitute identity formation in many kinds of musical affinity groups, Phish fans are unique in that they have also created an analytical tradition around improvisation as part of their identity. This discursive practice, which has unfolded online and in person for over twenty-five years among fans, is not only an example of music theory used by laypeople in the public sphere, but it is a rare example of music theory contributing to the construction of (sub)cultural identity.

This paper argues that Phish fans construct their identity around an analytical discourse that fosters an affective connection between fans and the homemade language and visual objects of their theories of improvisation. Fans privilege improvisational exploration that moves through a variety of keys and grooves as the highest form of musical expression, and therefore invented their own vocabulary to explain the music. A variety of analytical methods–including the creation of improvisational typologies and nomenclature for jamming styles, visual representations of improvisations, and analytical videos–show that a rich and thorough engagement with the band's music is part and parcel of Phish fan identity formation and experience.

Some of these approaches incorporate traditional musical terminology (e.g. Roman numerals) with which many fans are unfamiliar, yet these analytical methodologies still resonate with the fandom because they represent a notion of musical journeying that is fundamental to the Phish experience and musical aesthetic. This discursive practice, what Bakhtin might call a “speech genre,” creates an affective connection between Phish fans and the analytical language, and can function as a point of access to subcultural knowledge and as a way of performing subcultural belonging. As Jensen (1992) argues, taking a close look at fan praxis reveals that fandom is a rich site of intellectual activity and human identity formation.

Towards a Classification System of Improvisational Types in Phish’s Live Performances

Heather Laurel


Thoughtful musicological discussions are common among Phish fans despite a general lack of formal musical training. Discussions typically involve the band's live improvisations, which fans divide into two types: “Type 1” and “Type 2.” These categories were first introduced in a 1997 online forum by fan John Flynn, who described Type 1 as “jamming that is based around a fixed chord progression,” and Type 2 as “jamming that improvises chord progressions, rhythms, and the whole structure of the music.” For over two decades, fans have widely accepted and freely referred to these categories when discussing live versions of the band's songs, but this terminology is far too simplistic to accurately describe Phish's wide range of improvisational strategies.

Since Type 1 jams are essentially standard rock solo episodes, this paper focuses on Type 2 jams, which are divided into several sub-categories. While a Type 1 jam may simply circle around a basic two-chord progression (common examples are I – ♯VII or I – IV), a Type 2 jam might use the same progression but deviate from it in the following ways:

1) Consensual Dissonant Jamming (CDJ). Here, individual performers may stray from a song's harmonic progressions, typically leading other members to deviate as well.

2) Resistant Dissonant Jamming (RDJ). In this sub-type, an individual band member resists the basic progression, playing dissonant melodies or chords against their fellow musicians who adhere to the progression.

3) Mayhem Jamming (MHJ). In this rarest of sub-types, all players deviate from the progression using individual dissonant musical ideas.

Replacing the two basic jam-types with these three broad categories not only accurately describes the complexity of rock improvisation, it also reveals that jamming styles are at least in part determined by each member's reaction to dissonance as a way to venture into new harmonic spaces. Audio examples from across Phish's career demonstrate each type. By examining the improvisations of a single rock band, we can create a framework in which to hear other band's jam styles, serving as a springboard for further studies of other improvisational rock music.

On the Persistence of Groove: Structural Fog and Jouissance in a “Split Open and Melt” Jam

Steven Reale (Youngstown State University)


This presentation is a case study that springboards off of Laurel's taxonomy of dissonant jamming, showing how in a May 7, 1994 performance of the song “Split Open and Melt,” Phish's improvised deviations from its established groove create moments of climax. In doing so, the presentation adapts existing theories of groove, such as the importance of both expressive micro-timings (e.g. Keil & Feld 1994; Iyer 2002) and the bodily pleasures of listening to repetition (e.g. Butler 2006; Zbikowski 2004; Garcia 2005; Witek 2017). Notably, many such studies position themselves in explicit opposition to narratives of music governed by delayed gratification and subsequent release (Meyer 1956, 1967); here, Phish's performance does both, and the paper thus suggests a model for synthesizing these competing modes.

Phish first establishes a default groove: a four-measure loop with a repeating chord progression where the final measure features an added half beat preceding a cadential “hook” that leads into the next loop. After repeating this groove several times, the musicians begin to strip away its constitutive elements. An “intensity chart” indicates whether each player affirms, conflicts with, or does neither, with respect to one of four parameters of the groove, and it both serves as a visual representation of an aural experience of the jam as well as enumerates an intensity value for each loop; these values are then plotted on an “intensity curve.” When Phish almost entirely abandons the groove, a chaotic, unpredictable cacophony–a kind of “structural fog”–dominates, creating an intense musical effect that persists until they “snap back” into the groove. Peaks of intensity occur when few parameters are present, and concomitantly, greatest resolution occurs when they are restored. The listener is asked to perceive the groove persisting through the disorienting brume, and I propose that the experience creates in an attuned fan the kind of pleasurable pain that Lacan calls jouissance. Understanding fan attachment to dissonant jamming in Lacanian terms reveals a particular shared value among the fan base to Phish's musical journeying and experimentation.