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You Are Here: Home > Essay Topics > Art and Culture Essays and Research Papers > Arts, Media, and Popular Culture  > Essay on Music

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Essay on Music

The study of music from a modern social scientific perspective has a distinguished history, reaching back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1781 Essay on the Origin of Language (1998). Major advances include the development of comparative musicology by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholars such as Erich von Hornbostel, Alexander Ellis, Carl Stumpf, and Curt Sachs; Max Weber's path-breaking work on musical "rationalization" during the emergence of European capitalism in The Rational and Social Foundations of Music (1921); the close attention paid to music (both "classical" and "popular") and to the mass mediation of music by Theodor Adorno and other associates of the Frankfurt School of critical theory; and the development of ethnographic musical anthropology (often wrongly subsumed under the history of ethnomusicology in contemporary intellectual histories) by George Herzog, Melville Herskovits, David McAllester, John Blacking, Alan Merriam, and Steven Feld from the mid-twentieth century onward. Sociological approaches to music have proliferated in many national traditions in the twentieth century, and include such distinctive disciplines as ethnomusicology, ethnographic musical anthropology, the sociology of music, folkloristics, the psychology of music, popular cultural studies, and so-called "new" (historical) musicology; even the discipline of music theory has begun to grapple with cultural and social perspectives on sound structure and musical meaning. And music has become an important focus for cultural analysis in disciplines such as comparative literature, working-class studies, sociology, media studies, performance studies, gender and sexuality studies, race and ethnic studies, and many area studies traditions.

Given the heterogeneity of these approaches and disciplines, it is challenging to summarize a paradigmatic contemporary view of music as such--that is, as an object of specifically sociological inquiry. Even limiting consideration to the approaches prevalent in the Euro-American academy in the early twenty-first century would require separate considerations of approaches from anthropology (see Feld and Fox 1994), ethnomusicology (see Ellingson 1992), popular cultural studies, historical musicology, and psychology. A survey of the broad claims and premises of these approaches, however, suggests important points of consensus.

Chief among these is that music is not only, or even primarily, a sonic phenomenon that can be considered apart from human social action. Most modern approaches to music as an object of social inquiry begin with the premise that the object of such inquiry must be what musicologist Christopher Small (1998) calls musicking-- that is, the active making of musical sound and interpretation by socially situated agents. Whether this active process is viewed as a behavioral or mental phenomenon, or as primarily mediated by language, the sociological study of music broadly rejects a central principle of elite Western musical aesthetics that long dominated the humanistic study of music. This principle asserts the autonomy of (specifically, "art" or "classical") music from social life, and typically entails the hypostatization of the "work" of musical art, often represented by a written text ("score") that describes a phenomenologically specific sonic musical "structure," unrelated to the social organization of its creators' lifeworlds, or the music's social "context," and distinctive from any actual instantiation of the musical work in performance. In the traditionally humanistic music disciplines, as in the traditionally natural scientific ones, musical structure has been primarily explained in terms of principles of human neurobiology and cognition, or abstract mathematical models of formal systems, or histories of stylistic influence that are described as largely independent of social or cultural determinations, or in terms of particular individualistic (or conversely, aculturally universal) psychological characterizations of composers, performers, and listeners.

In contrast, the core premise of almost all sociomusical approaches is the claim that there must be determinate relationships between music as sound structure and the "social structure" of musical activity in particular, or more generally the social structure of the human communities in which particular idioms and genres of musicking take place. The anthropologist John Blacking famously and influentially described this relationship as one between "humanly organized sound" and "soundly organized humanity" ([1974] 1995), while anthropologist Alan Merriam offered a succinct and widely cited model for the sociological study of music as the mediation of "concept, behavior, and sound," with all three abstractions rooted in a "cultural context" of community-specific functional values (1964). Merriam described the aims of musical anthropology as "the study of music in its cultural context," which he later revised to become "the study of music as cultural context" (1964, 1977). Alan Lomax developed a systematic approach to the study of formal patterns of relationship between "folk" music "song structure" (broken down into codified descriptions of performance techniques and aesthetic ideals) and social structure (defined as a bundle of functional traits characteristic of particular forms of social organization, such as egalitarian or hierarchical political structures) (1962).

Interpretive and phenomenological traditions of theorizing "culture" reshaped Euro-American sociomusical scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s, influenced by developments in cultural Marxism and popular cultural studies, interpretive anthropology, semiotics, folkloristics, and linguistic anthropology. Most contemporary sociomusical scholars tend to describe principled relationships between abstracted sonic and social structures in terms of mediation rather than in terms of correspondence, homology, or determination. Steven Feld (1984a, 1984b, 1988) and Thomas Turino (2001), among others, have stressed the complexity of this mediation, applying semiotic and communication theory to characterize the principled relationships that might obtain between sonic and social structures.

But despite this diversity of approaches, the key problem in sociomusical scholarship has been, and remains, the question of music's social essence: How does musical practice, understood as comprising sonic, conceptual, and behavioral dimensions, either reflect, determine, or mediate social life? What kind of analytic purchase does music provide on "sociality" or "culture" that is not provided by analyzing language or other modalities of human practice and communication? And how might the social functions, meanings, and values enacted in specific forms of musical practice be understood as providing the basis for a general social theory that would explain why it is a fact that all humans make music? These are ultimately comparative questions that presume a universal basis for a diverse range of human practices, the boundaries of which remain poorly understood or even described, especially when compared with the massive advances in addressing these same questions for language in linguistic theory.

Several major empirical and methodological foci have been central to the efforts of ethnomusicologists, musical anthropologists, and other sociomusical scholars to address such questions systematically. Among these foci, the most important have been the mutual embeddedness of music and language in song (see Feld and Fox 1994); the inextricable association between music and emotional or affective dimensions of culture; and the nexus of music and ritual (also generally understood to include dance, poetic language, and other forms of the patterned communicative embodiment of social experience and ideology). A final major focus that has emerged as central in recent years is a questioning of the adequacy of conceptual distinctions between "folk," "art," and "popular" musics, with the last category grounding an increasingly forceful critique of the investment of Western musical disciplines in an ideologically narrow conception of musical meaning and value. Beyond that, the turn to popular music as not only a legitimate object of sociomusical inquiry, but as perhaps the most important musical expression of "modern" societies has reshaped contemporary sociomusical thought profoundly.

Many contemporary sociomusical scholars challenge the longstanding ideological and analytic delimitation of "folk" musics as functional and communal and fundamentally face-to-face and oral forms of expression detached from the political and economic logics of capitalist modernity, a delimitation bound up in the nationalist projects of nineteenth-century folkloristics (an important ancestor of contemporary ethnomusicology, which remains very much concerned with questions of culture as a symbol of political identity, rather than culture in the anthropological sense of a way of life or system of values). Increasingly, many sociomusical scholars also challenge the delimitation of "art" musics--and their partial exemption from sociomusical study--as autonomous and individualistic idioms unrelated to the functions of folk and popular musics. Many contemporary sociomusical scholars, including an increasing number of musicologists concerned primarily with interpreting the Western "art" musical canon, as well as eth-nomusicologists and anthropologists who write about non-Western "art" musical traditions such as Hindustani music (Neuman 1990), increasingly describe "art" musics not in terms of their transcendence of mere social function or cultural symbolism, but in terms of specific systems of elite patronage and labor organization that arise when wealthy and cosmopolitan classes and societies are able to support music as a specialized form of economic activity and leisure practice, and thus to support the making of music as a profession. Such a characterization, which eschews the idea that "art" musics are distinguished from other musics by their degree of autonomy from social life, makes the distinction between "art" musics and "popular" musics largely one of degree, because "popular" musics are generally understood primarily as products of a commercial process of mass mediation and economic exchange in the service of such non-aesthetic social functions as symbolizing ethnic, generational, and nationalistic political identities, earning a profit (the industrial apparatus of popular music production has been extensively studied since by sociologists in recent years), and providing a pleasurable leisure experience.

Conversely, many sociomusical scholars have been concerned to show the high levels of artistry and individual expressive genius characteristic of "folk" and "popular" musics, increasingly with the aid of music theorists now attempting to describe the particular dimensions of complexity and aesthetic significance in "popular" musics, which are often refractory to theoretical models designed to elucidate the structural complexity of (especially Western) "art" musics. But the overwhelming thrust of contemporary sociomusical scholarship has been to breach the wall separating the study of music as an elite "art" and the study of music as a fundamental human activity, which in modern societies has come to mean an activity imbricated with commerce and modern social functions.

Recent developments in sociomusical scholarship, heavily influenced by popular music studies, have advanced the enormous significance of modern musical and communications technologies for a vast range of contemporary musical practices, focusing on the diverse ways technological mediation shapes and is shaped by commercial, aesthetic, political, and cultural imperatives. Ethnomusicology in particular has focused on the emergent category of world music and, in turn, the central modern social scientific subject of cultural, economic, and political globalization, a focus that brings together perspectives on "art," "folk," and "popular" musics under the umbrella of a broader theory of cultural modernity and the global circulation of musical commodities and styles (see Stokes 2004). This turn has engendered a strong critique of the ideological history of established sociomusical concepts (as much as musicological ones), such as the premise of a universal human musicality or the premise of an "authentic" or "unmediated" mode of human musical experience that is not determined by particular social histories and cultural systems.

Inarguably, the sociological study of music, despite a long history of systematic work, is still in its theoretical infancy, and remains a less widely institutionalized tradition of thought than parallel humanistic and natural scientific traditions. However, the influence of sociomusical theory on those traditions has grown substantially since the mid-twentieth century, and increasingly it has become fundamental to contemporary interdisciplinary musical thought, in the process sharply revising many deeply entrenched ideologies of musical value and assumptions about music's essential sociality.



Blacking, John. [1974] 1995. How Musical Is Man? Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Ellingson, Ter. 1992. Transcription. In Ethnomusicology: An Introduction, ed. Helen Myers, 110-152. New York: W. W. Norton.

Feld, Steven. 1984a. Sound Structure as Social Structure. Ethnomusicology 28 (3): 383-409.

Feld, Steven. 1984b. Communication, Music, and Speech about Music. Yearbook for Traditional Music 16: 1-18.

Feld, Steven. 1988. Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or "Lift-upover Sounding": Getting into the Kaluli Groove. Yearbook for Traditional Music 20: 74-113.

Feld, Steven, and Aaron Fox. 1994. Music and Language. Annual Review of Anthropology 23: 25-53.

Lomax, Alan. 1962. Song Structure and Social Structure. Ethnology 1 (4): 425-451.

Merriam, Alan P. 1964. The Anthropology of Music. Evanston: University of Illinois Press.

Merriam, Alan P. 1977. Definitions of "Comparative Musicology" and "Ethnomusicology": An Historical-Theoretical Perspective. Ethnomusicology 21 (2): 189-204.

Neuman, Daniel M. [1980] 1990. The Life of Music in North India: The Organization of an Artistic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. [1781] 1998. Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music, ed. and trans. John T. Scott. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College and University Press of New England.

Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Stokes, Martin. 2004. Music and the Global Order. Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 47-72.

Turino, Thomas. 2001. Signs of Imagination, Identity, and Experience: A Peircian Semiotic Theory for Music. Ethnomusicology 43 (2): 221-255.

Weber, Max. [1921] 1958. The Rational and Social Foundations of Music, ed. and trans. Don Martindale, Johannes Riedel, and Gertrude Neuwirth. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.


Aaron A. Fox

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