Musical Structure and Ideological Force: Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”

The Glenn Miller Story, the 1954 biopic starring James Stewart as Glenn Miller and Louis Armstrong as himself, reveals a stark contrast between the men and their music. These contrasts can be mapped as a series of structuring binaries, though here I map the binaries associated with Miller and refer to the structuring elements as being either “used” or “unused.”f Charles Eckert’s structuralist Marxist and Freudian reading of the film Marked Woman represented a major breakthrough in cultural studies, showing how the deep structure of a text could reveal its ideological operations. The writing sample about Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” below, demonstrates how Eckert’s method can be used to study music.

“In the Mood” valorizes corporate technocratic values over modernist high art values. I found the following sets of structural oppositions in the song. The left side consists of materially verifiable data, with the used side on the left and the unused side on the right. The second set consists of inferences built from the first set.

Table One: Verifiable Data

Used || Unused

4/4 rhythm || 2/4 rhythm
riff-based composition || melody-based composition
repetitive arrangement || varied arrangement
simple 1-4-5 chord pattern || complex chord pattern
major key || minor key
fast tempo || slow tempo
ensemble featured || soloist featured
big band || small band
with leader || with no leader
instrumental || vocal
white band || black or integrated band
male band || female or mixed band
short song (but could go on) || long song
winds and brass separate roles || winds and brass together
scored || unscored
“clean” playing || “rough” playing

Table Two: Inferences derived from Table One

Used || Unused

secular || religious
for dance || for listening
for radio, jukebox, and record || for concert hall
for play and work || for sex
professional || amateur
machinic (train, telegraph, factory) || lyrical
not virtuosic || virtuosic
efficient || excessive, decorative

“In the Mood,” but for what?

Like the modern factory, the Miller Orchestra’s labor is divided, with winds and brass taking separate riffs. The entire organization of skilled laborers (professional musicians) is led by a “manager” (Glenn Miller) and played according to a “blueprint” (score). The efficient performance and riff-based structure of the piece gives it an “industrial” sound (like machines moving in perfect counter-rhythm: the sounds of train and telegraph). The effect is of an ensemble of machines and human workers performing well and at full capacity. Not surprisingly, the song was hugely successful on record, radio, and jukebox, modern machines in social spaces.

Although “In the Mood” features “black” musical traits (the 1-4-5 chord progression, swing rhythm, and riffs), and there is some “growling” and glissando playing in the solos, Miller “cleans” up the black forms by playing straight major chords (no “blue” notes, like flat fives and sevens), sweetening the sound with wind instruments played in unison, keeping the rhythm section and winds to mezzo-piano dynamics with mild crescendos while the brass “punctuates” with fort√© dynamics. The song appealed to the vogue among white youths for energy and vitality in music: it is uptempo, perfect for jitterbug dancing, designed for fun not contemplation, syncopated, and repetitive; there is no vocal part, no sheer virtuosity, and no artiness despite a surprisingly complex coda.

“In the Mood” feels overwhelmingly optimistic. The introduction swings, beginning with the winds in unison playing an ascending major arpeggio, then telegraphically repeating the high note five times before finishing the phrase. The brass takes over from the winds, playing a repeated riff with a strong emphasis on the one and four beats, which the rest of the band punctuates. Then the piece settles into its “in the mood” groove, with the brass punctuating the four and one beats of every second bar until the twelfth bar; then the brass plays the same note, in syncopated rhythm, eight times, ending on the four-one beats. When the piece hits full stride, the brass punctuates the four and one beats of every bar.

The arrangement clearly makes the ensemble the star. While “In the Mood” features soloists, none have the dazzling power of Louis Armstrong, whose playing heroically dramatizes the value of the individual. By contrast, the Glenn Miller Band is a perfectly functioning machine, with each solo player exercising a controlled exuberance within the context of a corporate arrangement.

The ideological force of “In the Mood” suppresses anxieties about emerging social pressures such as the increasing submission of the individual to the group and to authority, and the introduction of machines into every aspect of daily life. Instead, the song promises fun relations between individual, group, authority, and machine in which submission no longer poses a threat.