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The "fourth wall" may be a concept more suited in movies, plays, video games or even literature. For instance, in a play the actors and actresses are not supposed to interact with the audience, creating a virtual wall between the two groups. Nonetheless, the singers and bands do interact with their audiences when performing. A band can ask the audience to sing along with them a well-known song, or introduce themselves while singing among many other forms of interaction.

But even so, there are some times that I feel like some kind of fourth wall has been broken while listening to some songs. Usually a song tells a story that can be narrated in first person, third person or even in an impersonal way, but even if the song tells a story about the singer itself, only seldom it is completely made clear.

I was listening to some Beatles' songs when Only a northern song started to play:

If you're listening to this song
You may think the chords are going wrong
But they're not
We just wrote them like that

This song references itself in the lyrics, and the singer references the band by using "we". I felt indeed that a fourth wall had been broken but it could be something similar to metafiction. In fact the Wikipedia states that it is a meta-song.

So the question is, does the concept of "fourth wall" exist at all in music?

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    Dear downvoters, would you mind leaving a comment explaining the negative votes? I would really like to improve my questions. – Charlie Apr 24 '18 at 10:16
  • brilliant question ! – user2808054 Apr 24 '18 at 13:46
  • @Charlie Don't worry about it. On this question, I don't think that the downvotes really indicated any flaw in the post. – user45266 May 3 at 4:25
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I'm not sure if this is completely what you're looking for, but you may be interested in Carolyn Abbate's book Unsung Voices, a book on musical narrative in opera. It's a tremendously famous and influential book if you're interested in that type of scholarship.

Among the many questions it addresses, it considers whether or not the opera singers on stage are aware of the music that the audience hears. This is similar to the notion of breaking the fourth wall in that it's asking whether the opera singers are aware of their presence in a musical performance in front of an audience.

  • This is quite interesting, and raises another question: is an opera closer to a theatrical play or to a music band playing in a stage? Sounds like an opera may be an intermediate step between both worlds. – Charlie Apr 23 '18 at 19:40
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I consider songs that reference the song's own structure/composition/theory as fourth-wall-breaking, but for me the concept of breaking the fourth wall (in terms of theater) is less defined by interacting with the audience and more by the characters' acknowledgement of the medium. A recently popular example is Marvel's Deadpool; when he references his comics' writing or film studio politics, he is not interacting with the audience but is aware of being a character and this is what makes it fourth-wall-breaking.

For example:

"Farmer Refuted", from Hamilton : Don't modulate the key then not debate with me. (immediately following a key change) (of course, as a piece of musical theater, this is also plain old-fashioned fourth-wall breaking)

"Hallelujah", by Leonard Cohen (and covered by many others): The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift (while the named chords play)

There are also countless songs that reference the process of songwriting or playing music, or the music business, which I feel are different because they are (in my experience) conveying a narrative about being a songwriter and musician.

For example, in Bayside's "Stuttering": But I have to write a love song / Cause my momma said I should / But I have to lose the minor chords / And I'm not so sure I could. This song isn't breaking the fourth wall any more than the characters in The Music Man are when they talk about playing instruments.

My examples are, as you said, examples of meta-song. They could also be considered the songwriting equivalent of a visual pun. But, in the way my creative circles use it, at least, the core of fourth-wall-breaking in narrative is that the character knows that they are a character. By that token, wouldn't a fourth-wall-breaking song be the song knows that it is a song?

In terms of non-lyrical pieces of music... perhaps when the soundtrack of a parody movie skirts the edge of copyright infringement in referencing the film being parodied?

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I think the fourth wall in theatre means that the characters being portrayed are not aware of the audience. Since musicians are not portraying characters the concept doesn't apply. Musicians engage the audience from the moment they go on stage.

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PLenty of songs are directed at a person, so whether you consider yourself (in the audience) that person is kind of up to you. SImilarly, lots of songs are about the performer being onstage.

An alternative view: It's also common for singers, or even instrumental groups up toand including pops orchestras, to invite the audience to sing along.

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What an excellent question.

From my own experience, this is probably something that the song writer or performer may choose to play with as they see fit.

In a live performance, sometimes we see a band open up to the audience and grab a cheer etc after a particularly gloriuous moment, or at other times they may revert back and 'get on with it' themselves, and the audience can listen if they like.

Playing with this raising/destroying of the fourth wall is something that we see masters like Queen do, as they spend some time revving the audience up with call-and-return then going on to play a song or guitar solo where it's one-way communication: Queen play, the audience listens.

I think your question answers itself for recorded music though: The audience can't actually interact with the music/band, but the musicians acknowledging the audience or that they're in a band playing music certainly does the trick.

The recording of Elvis Presley where he starts laughing halfway through is possibly an example of the dropping of that wall: Are you lonesome tonight

At first the song is a man pouring his heart out over potenital love, and the audience and band are not an influence on the intended lyrics of the song. The band play the music, so they influence that of course, but it's not referred to, it's just .. there.

Something happens and Elvis starts laughing. Suddenly the veil is dropped (4th wall), the message of the song becomes irrelevant and you know you're listening to some people in a room where something funny has caught the man himself by surprise. You can probably imagine being in the room with them.

Thinking about this has clarified a few things in my mind, thanks for explaining about the 4th wall !

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I absolutely view certain lyrics as breaking the fourth wall, just as mentioned previously. A couple of examples:

"Every day's a Saturday" by Bowling for Soup: "Monday was manic / Tuesday was worse / I've gotta say Wednesday for the sake of this verse"

"Life after Lisa" by Bowling for Soup: "Listening to House of Pain / Having headaches in my brain / Listening to you complain / Shopping at the mall again / I'm out of rhymes I've gotta say"

Yes, a song writer and/or singer will interact with the audience in ways that actors do not. "Get in the Ring" by Guns N Roses is self-aware and signing about themselves. Many songs may be autobiographical in nature and talk about the fact that they are musicians. But any song which observes its own lyrics is where I think a 4th wall is broken.

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The breaking of the fourth wall in your example is in the lyrics, because they have context they can "talk" to the audience directly.
Many times music is used in performing (or maybe even in theatre if you're writing a musical) songs so you can break the fourth wall with the song. This has nothing to do with music.

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Yes, there can be a 'fourth wall' in music, and your question describes it very well. You are also correct in saying it's a concept more applicable to theatre, books etc. than to music.

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