Music as a Social Phenomenon | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Music as a Social Phenomenon

IntroductionDespite the fact that from earliest times music has been created, appreciated, and used by people in a wide range of social circumstances, attempts to understand it as a social phenomenon - to investigate its 'sociality' - have proved problematic.

Despite the fact that from earliest times music has been created, appreciated, and used by people in a wide range of social circumstances, attempts to understand it as a social phenomenon - to investigate its 'sociality' - have proved problematic. Initial work in this area came not from musicology or the predecessors of ethnomusicology (systematic and comparative musicology as practised in the German-speaking world), but from sociology. Important early contributions were made by Max Weber and Theodore Adorno (see Bibliography). Beginning in the 1970s important new developments were made, especially in the area of popular music, by Simon Frith (see Bibliography) and others, and the topic has increasingly become the subject of interdisciplinary research.

The sociality of music generally is conceived in terms of the processes at work in the production and consumption of music within particular social and historical circumstances. While no theoretical or methodological consensus has been reached, by and large scholars have come to share the view that, ideally, a full understanding of music requires an examination of all the institutional arrangements and processes implicit in its production, as well as those through which, in the moment of its reception or consumption, it comes to be individually and culturally endowed with a wide range of meanings and uses.

Modern scholarship on music as a social phenomenon in Canada dates back to the late 1950s. Much work at this time was predicated on the belief that the 'conditions do not yet prevail' (KallmannHistory of Music in Canada, p 3) for the writing of a conventional musical history of Canada. By 'musical history' was meant 'the sequence of great composers and changing styles of composition,' as well as 'the continuity and cohesion of musical effort throughout a defined period and locale whereby mature nations assume a distinct musical character and entity' (ibid). With hindsight it can be argued that, although Canada certainly has attained musical maturity in the second half of the 20th century, the kind of conditions referred to by Kallmann have never obtained. In line with this definition, until approximately 1970, the majority of work on music in Canada assumed that musical life in this country was at a stage of 'pre-history'. By default, as it were, Kallmann dealt more with the social than the artistic aspects of music, with the 'great variety of meanings' music had held 'in the life of Canadians' (ibid; see also AmtmannMusic in Canada). Much work (eg, Walter 1957) thus concentrated on an examination of the social and institutional conditions assumed necessary for this life to reach a level of maturity taken to be comparable to that of other nations.

Work on music as a social phenomenon undertaken within Canada after approximately 1970 has, however, taken on a rather different character. It has been assumed that the study of music's social qualities is a valid topic in its own right which can cast light on the issue of music as an aesthetic phenomenon. There has also been less of a tendency to separate music as an art-form from the social and institutional conditions of its existence. It has been assumed that the cultural and artistic qualities of music have at the same time inalienable social dimensions. Work on music as a social phenomenon has thus retained a distinctively aesthetic dimension in addition to any institutional considerations it might entertain.

A number of Canadian scholars have made important contributions to the understanding of music as a social phenomenon. Some have participated in the growth of a significant body of international scholarship; others have written about the social conditions of musical activity within Canada.

The Contexts Of Canadian Scholarship

Canadian scholarship in the area of the sociality of music has emerged out of a variety of academic contexts, reflecting very different points of view. It has been reflected in curricular changes within certain university music departments, such as those at York University and Carleton University, which have offered courses and produced research in this area. The discipline of Communication Studies has become a major context for research into the relations between music and media of communications. Communications departments at Simon Fraser University, McGill University, and Concordia University are among those in which an interest in music and its social contexts has emerged as a major interest. Sociology departments have likewise included individual students and faculty members pursuing research into the sociality of music.

In addition, three major international conferences have been held in Canada with the aim of examining issues central to understanding music as a social phenomenon: one at Trent University ('The Sociology of Music: An Exploration of Issues' in 1983), and two at Carleton University ('Alternative Musicologies' in 1988 and 'The Music Industry in a Changing World' in 1990). Proceedings from all three conferences have been published (CUMR 1985; CUMR 1990; and Straw and Shepherd 1991).

Concerns Of Canadian Scholarship

One of the central assumptions of traditional approaches to music (whether 'classical' or 'folk') increasingly questioned in recent scholarship is that music's meaning is immanent, that is, self-contained and decipherable in terms of its intrinsic technical characteristics. From the contrasting viewpoints of a semiology of music and a sociology of musical styles, respectively, musicologists Jean-Jacques Nattiez and John Shepherd both have argued that a purely immanent view precludes an accurate understanding of the symbolic processes at work in and through music.

Drawing on the groundwork of the French semiologist Jean Molino, Nattiez (1975, 1987) has developed a tripartite model designed to account for 'the total musical fact'. The musical fact, he claims, consists not only of a musical text or structure, but also of the creative processes through which it is composed, as well as those processes through which it is perceived and interpreted. Music possesses meaning, asserts Nattiez, insofar as it relates to other objects that belong to the experience of the world of the individual using it, whether she or he be its creator or receiver. As a symbolic form, music thus gives way to an infinite set of meaningful signs (interprétants). The complex relations (renvois) involved in this process are the object of a semiology of music. According to Nattiez, the musical text is thus a key symbolic component of musical experience, but it is not meaningful in itself. Only through its relationship to processes of creation, reception, and interpretation may the musical text be said to be meaningful.

Shepherd (Music as Social Text) rejects the idea that, since music does not refer outside itself to objects and ideas, it possesses either no meaning or one which is exclusively symbolic. He argues that such a referential view of meaning, which accounts for the signification processes at work in language, does not apply to music's function as a social symbol. Drawing on the dual traditions of British cultural studies and French structuralism, Shepherd attempts to deal with music as a social text, that is, as a 'social medium in sound' which articulates, from within the inherent characteristics of its sonic channel, socially mediated messages. 'Because people create music', writes Shepherd, 'they reproduce in the basic qualities of their music the basic qualities of their own thought processes' (ibid, p 12). Similarly, because people's thought processes are known to be socially mediated, the basic qualities of different styles of music may be said to be socially mediated and thus of social significance. This sociology of musical styles rests on the premise that the collective reality of any society is not given but, rather, collectively constructed by its members, and that the form taken by this reality is significantly influenced by the medium of communication of that society. Given the nature of thought and experience within industrial capitalist societies, Shepherd considers music as an antidote to the tendency of dominant literate media of communication to separate the meaning of a word from its referent and to distinguish between thought and the world on which thought operates. Music, as a medium of sound, makes its materiality felt - most notably through timbre claims Shepherd - 'reminding us of our connectedness to the materiality of the world as signified' (ibid, p 6). The meanings of music are derived from specific and real situations, and can only be grasped, he concludes, if a referential meaning is transcended by the immanence 'in' music of abstracted social structures or by the articulation of social meanings within individual musical events.

Research on music as a social phenomena undertaken outside the disciplinary boundaries of musicology has often pursued the implications of British sociologist Simon Frith's claim concerning music and industrial processes. Traditionally, argues Frith, those analyzing popular music have presumed 'that music is the starting point of the industrial process - the raw material over which everyone fights - when it is, in fact, the final product.' As Frith concludes, 'the industrialisation of music' can't be understood as something that happens to music, but describes a process in which music itself is made - the process, that is, which fuses (and confuses) capital, technical and musical arguments' (1987b, p 54). This implies not only that music's industrialization cannot be taken as an indicator of its value, but that the only way to critically evaluate music is to take into account how it comes into being and is used. A number of Canadian researchers have followed this line of reasoning and analysed music - in most cases popular music - in terms of those processes through which it is produced, disseminated, and received.

Three scholars from outside musicology, Jody Berland, Will Straw, and Line Grenier, have examined the impact of various media (in particular, that of radio broadcasting) on the dissemination and reception of popular music. In a study of commercial, 'popular' format radio in Canada, Berland, a communications scholar, argues that, as a result of its simultaneous reliance on a local advertising market and an increasingly global turnover of popular recordings, popular radio is transforming our relationships to time and space. Music programming on radio, Berland argues, 'demarcates the present from the immediate or distant past; with its new hits, its repetitions and recyclings, its rising and falling stars, the playlist reinforces the space-bias of commercial radio by making diverse communities more and more the same, by spreading technical and administrative processes outwards from an economically dominant centre, and by defining symbolic production in terms of rapid temporal change' (1990, p 187).

The work of sociologist Line Grenier is similarly concerned with the role of radio broadcasting in producing the distinctive cultural 'spaces' within which music becomes meaningful. In an exploratory study of 'transformat' radio music in Quebec, Grenier is interested in those songs that are played on a wide range of radio stations whose operating licences require them to specialize in different musical genres. The playing of 'transformat' music, like the broadcasting of music on radio more generally, is intimately tied to processes of repetition which combine similarity and distinctiveness in order to 'establish a song's or programme's specific location within the broader musical or broadcasting space in which it makes sense' (1990, p 230). Straw's work has been concerned primarily with the manner in which popular musical forms, as they become integrated within the programming of those media through which they are promoted and disseminated, come to be aligned with particular coalitions of population groups. The tensions driving the recent history of Western popular music, Straw argues, are those between different racial, ethnic, and gender groups and the musical tastes and sites of consumption associated with each (Straw 1988).

Understanding music's sociality in terms of the processes through which it is made, disseminated, and received also has important implications for the highly debated issue of cultural and social identity. Most theorists admit now that, inasmuch as different groups share different cultural and political expectations, their manner of making music is likely to differ. However, the assumption that different musics merely reflect or express already existing social and cultural differences is increasingly challenged. Rather, it could be argued that music plays an active part in the process by which the differences - such as those of region, race, age, gender, language, or class - that are so significant to our understanding of heterogeneous musics and musical practices come to be felt within lived experience and rendered meaningful. For example, in a study of Amerindian cultures of the subarctic Algonquin area, ethnomusicologist Beverley Diamond (1989) has shown how levels of participation in musical activity, as well as the musical styles, structures, and meanings embodied in this culture's music, are differentiated by gender. Cavanagh claims that an attention to Native explanations of music and dance offers a model for further research on gender and music: 'it provides a language for integrating actions... as well as teachings in legends with rituals. It permits an examination of the symbolic, not just the semantic content of song texts. It begs for a reexamination of early ethnographic sources wherein, as always, we see new "data" when we use a different lens. Finally it may point to new types of gender difference in the structuring of contemporary events' (1989, p 64).

While it might be assumed that research dealing with music as a social phenomenon will have as its principal concern the relationship between 'music' and 'society,' some scholars have attempted to dissolve the separation between these two categories. In a challenge to the traditional limits of the term 'music,' R. Murray Schafer has argued that 'all sounds belong to a continuous field of possibilities lying within the comprehensive dominion of music. Behold the new orchestra: the sonic universe! And the musicians: anyone and anything that sounds!' (Schafer 1977, p 5). Schafer has addressed music in the context of an acoustic ecology which would study the relationship of humans to an environment in which sound plays a highly significant role. Focusing on the so-called soundscape - in his words, 'sounds that matter' - Schafer studies the significant features of a society's acoustic environment. These include 'keynotes' (sounds that are overheard, and do not have to be listened to consciously), 'signals' (foreground sounds that people listen to consciously), and 'soundmarks' (sounds that are specially noticeable by the people of a given community).

'Music' is a term which, within certain societies and cultures, has been applied by common consent to a range of concrete cultural practices. In this sense, music is not a transhistorical or transcultural phenomenon, and can therefore no longer be regarded, inscrutably, as a cultural phenomenon with certain fixed essential qualities. As Judith Cohen's ethnomusicological study of Judeo-Spanish songs in Sephardic communities in Montreal and Toronto (1989) illustrates, a single musical repertoire is seldom perceived in the same way even within a given milieu; on the contrary, her analysis demonstrates that scholars, community members, and both Jewish and non-Jewish musicians value musical performances in contrasting ways which together are integral parts of the meaning of Judeo-Spanish music. Similar conclusions have been reached by Jocelyne Guilbault (1991) concerning popular music in the Lesser Antilles. In her study on zouk in four Creole-speaking islands, Guilbault has examined the various constructions of zouk in relation to the particular musical fields from which each is derived. She shows that the consumption, production, and marketing of zouk differ greatly from one island to another. Rather than looking for its 'truest' origins or its most 'authentic' form, she addresses the zouk phenomenon in terms of the wide range of meanings and practices it embodies, as a composite genre situated at the crossroads of many local, regional, and even international musical traditions.

Re-examining the 'nature' of music has also meant re-examining the partitioning of the musical field into mutually exclusive musical genres. Folklore scholar Neil Rosenberg's work on country musicians (1986), for instance, challenges the widespread distinction between folk music and popular music. Based on interviews with professional musicians, his analysis delineates distinctive stages within the careers of country music performers in terms of the scope and levels of the market within which they unfold. Refusing to draw a clear division between small group and mass audience performance and define the characteristics of folk music solely on the basis of the size of a market or audience, he focuses on the broad spectrum of performances involved in the realm of country music: 'performers manipulate their repertoire to advance their career while at the same time presenting songs which are ideologically and stylistically acceptable to their audiences' (ibid, p 163). In keeping with Russell Nye's imperative to consider 'all levels of artistic accomplishment as related rather than separate' (quoted in Narvaez and Laba 1986, p 1), he concludes that all types of country music performances are part of the folklore-popular culture continuum.

Such blurrings of genre categories have drawn, in part, from a renewed attention to performance and to the active role of the audience in any musical phenomenon. This concern is itself part of a larger enterprise of breaking down traditional conceptions of text and context. As researchers question the notion of the musical text as a self-enclosed entity, new insights into the meaning of different sorts of music have emerged. Ethnomusicologist Regula Buckhardt Qureshi, in a study of the Sufi music of India and Pakistan with an emphasis on Qawwali music (1986), has developed 'a musical grammar that includes programming Qawwali in performance, that is, a context-sensitive grammar that would enable a musically literate reader to understand how variation in performance of Qawwali is generated, or how, abstractly, he could generate such variation himself'. To do this, Qureshi has invented an original method for analysing video recordings of individual performances, devising what she calls videographs and videocharts, which combine staff notation with indications of the constant interaction between performers and audiences.

Nicole Beaudry has made a similar attempt to incorporate contextual dimensions within the analysis of musical sound. Analysing a Yupik drum dance from southwest Alaska, Beaudry (1988) is concerned with the significant elements that allow listeners to differentiate one performance of a given musical genre - a drum dance - from another. She demonstrates that while musical parameters do not change from one musical event to another, the vocal, instrumental, and choreographic style of performance do, and that these so-called contextual elements form an integral and significant part of the genre in question.

As the study of music as a social phenomenon takes hold as an interest within a variety of academic disciplines, debates over the role of internal musical structures in determining the meaning of musical events are likely to intensify. While scholars are virtually united in their concern with breaking down the divisions between 'music' and 'society,' there is less agreement over the degree to which analysis of the formal properties of music should remain a privileged point of departure.

See also Ethnomusicology; Musicology; Profession of music; Unions

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