Sociomusicology: A Status Report

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The study of music has evolved over the years into a domain with distinct divisions, each concerned with a specific perspective. Historical musicology has as its focus the sequential, chronological development of music. Ethnomusicology examines music within the cultural context in which it appears. Systematic musicology inspects the systems involved in the production, appearance, and apprehension of music.

According to Seeger, Guido Adler in 1885 divided the study of music into two branches: historical and systematic. Ferdinand de Saussure clarified the orientation of the two branches and their independence by introducing the terms synchronic and diachronic. Synchronic examination of music is concerned with structural elements, internal processes, and relationships which exist at anyone time or across time. It involves the examination of systems. Diachronic examination of music identifies external, evolutionary or functional relationships which develop through or over the course of time. In discussing these two approaches, Seeger suggested that the dichotomy is not necessarily that distinct, that "synchronically described structures, events, and states of affairs" can evolve or develop, so the synchronic and diachronic may be seen to interact and coexist.1

Seeger described "the aggregate of historical studies [as] the history of systems; that of systematic studies, the system of history." He went on to say that

system, like history, is ultimately concerned with the relationship of structure and function, event and process, products and the traditions in accordance with which production is achieved. Yet the individual musicological work will inevitably be predominantly either a historical or a systematic presentation. It is itself a product in a tradition . . . and bears a functional relationship to other products or structures of its kind.2

So the major distinction between these two divisions of study remains.

The third major division of musicology is one within which the distinction separating the other two divisions tends to blur a bit. Ethnomusicology examines both diachronic and synchronic relationships in music, with emphasis on cultural context and from the perspectives of particular cultures.

It may be true as Seeger suggests, that musicology has allowed divisions to persist and subdivisions to emerge without the reexamination of the theoretical and philosophical system of the whole. In this way, a concept of unity in the study of music necessary to the development and refinement of a more general theory of music may have been damaged.

Some scholars confess to being troubled by the prospect of an area of knowledge in which the emergence of different perspectives creates new divisions rather than the development of machinery for their acceptance as natural contributors to the whole. Few remain who believe that the appropriate study of music is confined to a diachronic examination of one or two styles, in one or two parts of the world, during one or two periods of time. Yet the retention of divisions, even where they facilitate the exploration of new perspectives, results in certain insulation from ideas. This would appear to affect adversely the development and refinement of a theory of music.

Some academic areas solve this problem by using the development of theory as the focus that integrates divisions of concern. Special conferences are held whose purpose is the refinement of theory. Such an approach appears to be a possibility that could be explored for music. It would provide an opportunity to observe the interaction between perspectives and the effect of that interaction on our perception of music. At the least such an activity would be likely to ameliorate some negative effects of divisions in its study.

Another aspect which bears on the negative effects of divisions in the study of music—in terms of the development of a theory of music—is identified in an examination of learning theory.3 One aspect of the cognitive process is concept formation. The categorization involved in concept formation is a necessary cognitive operation. However, categorization becomes inaccurate to the extent that values are placed on the categories as if the values were indigenous to them. Values applied to categories or concepts are, in fact, affect "leaks" in a cognitive process. The valuing is appropriate. The mental mischief caused as a result of treating the values as if they were indigenous to the concept is inappropriate. On an academic level there is some tendency to believe that certain categories of study, or perspectives on music, are intrinsically more valuable than others. The retention of that inaccuracy impedes the objective examination of the work of that division, as well as communication between divisions and resultant progress toward the development of a theory of music.

The lack of a sense of wholeness resulting from the discreteness of divisions within musicology would appear to create some very real problems. However, since there is little question that musicology has also been strengthened as a result of dialogue between the divisions, let us move to an examination of a burgeoning perspective within one of these divisions.

Sociomusicology focuses on the study of music in its social context. Therefore sociomusicology is closely related to ethnomusicology as well as psychomusicology and historical musicology. Its perspective affects aesthetics and criticism. It deals with concerns that often overlap one or another of these areas of study. It is possible that, as Smelser has explained about sociology, sociomusicology

does not deal with a special class of empirical data; instead, it deals with data as interpreted within a special type of conceptual framework. . . . Its subject matter . . . is the product of a selective identification of aspects of the empirical world for purposes of scientific description, classification, and explanation.4

To put it another way, Seeger's words can be reapplied to remind us that the "operational idiosyncracies of our instrument of study color the subject studied . . . in certain predictable ways; . . . [that] concepts . . . function as a kind of lens through which we observe and report upon music.5 Sociomusicology provides that kind of lens, a sociological perspective from which traditional concerns of music can be approached, as Raynor has amply demonstrated, while it allows focus on areas which have not been explored using procedures which have not been traditionally employed.

From the sociologist's viewpoint, sociomusicology is one of many specialized sociologies. The French sociologist Raymond Aron described them by saying that

specialized sociologies . . . are attempts to explain the evolution of human phenomena in relation . . . either to the social causes of influences which favored, opposed, or modified these intellectual creations. The so-called specialized sociologies are a specific approach to the study and interpretation of realities which have a social aspect, without their essence being exhausted by their social character.6

As a specialized sociology, sociomusicology develops the sociological perspective as its contribution to a theory of music. Since the focus is primarily on music, employing appropriate strategies to inspect any aspect of music or music-making that influences, or is influenced by society, sociomusicology's problems are essentially musical ones. Its conclusions are oriented principally toward musicians. Therefore the term sociomusicology appears to be more appropriate than sociology of music in suggesting its emphasis and role.

There is increased interest in sociomusicology. The reasons are subjects for speculation. It has been suggested that anthropology became a field of study when the concept of one's own people as "civilized" and others as "primitive" began to be questioned. Could something similar be happening socio-musically that could explain an expansion of interest in sociomusicology?

It is obvious that the formation of music education's Special Research Interest Group in Sociology, Social Psychology, and Anthropology (cf. Barnes) could be expected to be spurred on by the well-documented social challenges facing education and music education in particular. Beyond that, however, Richardson has postulated that during periods of social movement or unrest, people become aware that society is a man-made institution, something that can be studied and analyzed. When a population is mobile, even without changes of status, there is increased awareness of differences in social relationships, standards, and behavior. Where there is a change of status of whole groups of people in terms of livelihood, economics, privilege, or authority, vertical mobility occurs with resultant clashes of ideas. In either case the structure of society itself becomes the subject of discussion and criticism.

Awareness, which results in such an examination of society, may appear to be quite sudden as during political revolutions, or slightly more gradual as during the Industrial Revolution and the American civil rights movement. As awareness of societal change occurs, academic interest in society also appears to increase. Historically, the great theorists of sociology followed the French Revolution or dealt with the effects of the Industrial Revolution. A similar phenomenon may be taking place in sociomusicology.

Last year Mediacult, the Vienna-based International Institute for Audio-Visual Communication and Cultural Development, one of whose founders is the sociomusicologist Kurt Blaukopf, was honored as being the first nongovernmental, specialized organization in the field of communication and cultural development to adopt a sociological point of view in its approach to artistic and cultural matters. In November, 1979, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Mediacult, the director of the Division of Cultural Development of UNESCO had this to say:

Each society has some communication system. . . . But only in the last century have we had the emergence of . . . societies organized around mass media systems. The way we reflect on things, act on things and interact with one another, . . . [is] rooted in our ability to compose images, produce messages and use complex symbol systems. A change in that ability transforms the nature of human affairs. We are in the midst of such a socio-cultural transformation. It stems exactly from the mass production of symbols and messages—a new industrial revolution in the field of culture. New media of communication provide new ways of selecting, composing and sharing perspectives. New institutions of communication create new publics across boundaries of time, space and status. New patterns of information animate groups, communities and societies at large. Along with other dramatic changes, we have altered the symbolic environment that gives meaning and direction to man's activity.7

If changes in social development as described in the speech to Mediacult can be said to result in increased awareness, hence academic interest in society as an institution, and in relationships between music as one aspect of culture, and society, it appears that such a result has already occurred.

During June and July of 1980, bibliographical research for this article was undertaken at the University of Washington. In order to facilitate the examination of the large amount of material resulting from this research, reports and abstracts were placed on cards by 20 graduate students. Key words were identified, and Daniel Asmus of Grays Harbor Community College in Washington took the leadership in sorting the studies into categories. These categories were based on large, inclusive concepts which had appeared to be the focus of groups of studies. A list of some of these conceptually-based categories includes:

Taste and Criticism: Social Context
Preferences in Music
Manipulation of Public Taste
The Musical
Music in Politics and the Law
Personality and Music
Social Status of Musicians
Music and Socialization
Language and Music
Distribution and Dissemination Systems
Technology and Music
Effect of Social Settings/Contexts on Music
Effect of Society on Style
Significant Repertoires and Their Social Context
Functions of Music
Sociology of Music
Socio-cultural Settings and Compositional Devices
Competitions and Festivals
Music as a Reflector of Social Change
The Composer/Performer
Performers and Ensembles
The Managers
The Audience
The Music Industry
Economics: Historical
Economics and Composition
Economics of Performance

Because of the number of citations, the problem of permanent indexing has still to be solved satisfactorily. It was originally planned that after the conceptual sorting which would serve the needs of this article, the index headings of Sociological Abstracts would be used. Further study of the indexing system indicated it was more useful for sociology than for the relationships of music and society. However, the decision not to use the index is being reconsidered since at least one of the alternatives—the Library of Congress headings—are much too general and incomplete, and do not reflect the directions of current research. At this time the book citations, a result of the Washington State Library search, remain within the Library of Congress headings until a better alternative is found.

In general terms the bibliographical research revealed that since the early 1900s there has been a marked increase in sociomusicological research all over the world. The variety is quite overwhelming, the focus broad. Procedures range from descriptive, ethnographic studies to empirical ones; from the application of mathematical techniques to entirely speculative language. Everything from the role of song texts or particular genres in revolutions to economic manipulation in the music industry is examined. Studies analyze the social interaction between conductors and musicians in orchestras, at times using such studies to stand for similar status-bound, product-oriented relationships in society. They examine the social interaction in recording studios which affects music as business, as well as the role of music in changing the social behavior of children and adults. The use of music to control attention during television programs is studied, as is the use of music—alone or with drugs—in cross-cultural comparisons of ritual. The socialization of musicians has been analyzed along with elements in the acculturation and enculturation in music of groups of all sizes, from all over the world. Some studies examine aspects of music which appear to assist in creating and preserving social orders, and inspect the extent to which music is made to play a manipulative role in society.

Continuing a general review, the studies reflect the political contexts within which they were undertaken. It is also clear that many of the studies are socio-historical as was much of the early scholarly work in musicology. These studies reflect an orientation toward descriptive, historical accounts with a social referent. There is somewhat limited and obvious use of the application of the theories or procedures, either historically or presently being used in sociology. But there does appear to be evidence of a growing desire to undertake systematic study of music and society and an understanding of what that entails. The role of the sociological component in the ethnomusicological perspective appears to be, as yet, somewhat unclear.

It would appear that such a sociological component could be expected to include the perspectives of social anthropology and social psychology which are reflected in the literature. To emphasize, even temporarily, such an inclusive sociological component could provide a theoretical and procedural base which would be expected to release sociomusicology from any tendency to rely exclusively on socio-historical or philosophical approaches.

This would be one means of encouraging a synchronic, systematic orientation to the study of music in its social context. Such study provides the possibility of insight into contemporary socio-musical phenomena. It supplies procedures and conceptual frameworks not currently covered within other divisions of musicology. Equally important, it provides the willing colleagues to undertake what is a sizeable academic challenge.



Aron, Raymond. Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Vol. 1. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., 1968.

__________. Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Vol. 2. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., 1970.

Barnes, Stephen H., ed. Newsletter: Music Education Sociology, Social Psychology, and Anthropology Special Research Interest Group, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1980.

Carlsen, James. "Some Problems in Musical Learning," Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1969, pp. 7-12.

Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.

Merriam, Alan P. The Anthropology of Music. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Raynor, Henry. Music and Society Since 1815. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.

Richardson, John G. (Assistant Professor of Sociology, Western Washington University) Oral communication, October, 1979.

Seeger, Charles. Studies in Musicology: 1935-1975. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Smelser, Neil J. "The Optimum Scope of Sociology," A Design for Sociology: Scope, Objectives and Methods, Robert Bierstedt, ed. Philadelphia: The American Academy of Political and Social Science, Monograph No. 9, April 1969, pp. 1-21.

Ziolkowski, Janusz. "Address by the Representative of UNESCO to the 10th Anniversary of MEDIACULT, International Institute for Audio-Visual Communication and Cultural Development," MEDIACULT Newsletter, Vol. 27, March 1980, pp. 1-2.

1Charles Seeger, Studies in Musicology (Berkeley: University of California, 1977), p. 3.

2Idem, p. 5.

3James Carlsen, "Some Problems in Musical Learning," Journal of Research in Music Education, Spring 1969, Vol. 17, No. 1.

4Neil J. Smelser, "The Optimum Scope of Sociology," A Design for Sociology: Scope, Objectives and Methods, Robert Bierstedt, ed. (Philadelphia: The American Academy of Political and Social Science), April 1969, Monograph No. 9, p. 3.

5Seeger, op. cit., p. 7.

6Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Vol. 1 (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., 1968), pp. 8-9.

7Janusz Ziolkowski, "Address by the Representative of UNESCO to the 10th Anniversary of MEDIACULT, International Institute for Audio-Visual Communication and Cultural Development," MEDIACULT Newsletter, March 1980, Vol. 27, p. 2.

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