Thursday, December 26, 2013

What is Sociomusicology?

The interpretation of words is inevitably subjective, for meanings are constantly evolving, negotiated through discourse across each sector of society. Still, it has now been over six years since I decided to start this blog called SOCIOMUSICOLOGY, which at this point has over 72,000 page views, so it now seems a good idea to explain my understanding of what this word can mean.

Sociomusicology has been discussed in various ways by music scholars. Some view sociomusicology as a specialized subfield of sociology - essentially the “sociology of music” - while others view it as a particular form of ethnomusicology. Comparing the sociology of music with ethnomusicology, Keller observed a “difference in expertise and competence between the two disciplines” that “derives from their different historical roots” (Keller, 1986, p.179). Personally, I am equally happy with both understandings of this term, which is why I use sociomusicology here, but I also include a subtitle “musical arts – education – social sciences” on this website to suggest some more specific interests. My main fields of academic study are music teacher education and ethnomusicology, so I examine music teaching and learning (and the institutionalization of music) from a global perspective, and I am also very interested in developing new approaches to research that are informed by recent developments in philosophy and new technologies.

In my view, sociomusicology can generally be seen as a form of musicology that proceeds with the intention of producing outcomes that have a social impact, or findings of relevance to practitioners, such as musicians and music teachers (from studies of music ensembles, music learning strategies, and performance techniques, for example). Sociomusicology can also be understood as a specific form of applied ethnomusicology, marked by an openness to research methodologies that may sometimes be distinct from ethnographic fieldwork, such as historiography, computational analysis, practice-based research, and arts policy studies.  

I agree with Norman Stanfield that it is a bit regrettable ethnomusicology was not called “sociomusicology” all along, for ethnicity is merely one dimension of the array of social themes commonly explored in the field usually called “ethnomusicology”. Interestingly, it is really “musicology” - with its traditional focus on composers of “common practice” European art music - that tends to be a specific kind of ethnic-musicology, while “ethnomusicology” tends to be the more holistic field, embracing all kinds of music everywhere in the world. When viewed from the perspective of other fields – such as linguistics or drama – this situation in the academic disciplines of music surely must seem counterintuitive. Still, this is all changing nowadays, as the division between musicology and ethnomusicology now seems to be diminishing.

Here are some examples of how scholars in the past have discussed sociomusicology:
According to Barbara Lundquist (1982), “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.

Lundquist also writes the following:
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.

Regarding the term “sociomusicology”, Charles Keil (1996) writes that it is “Not ‘ethnomusicology’ because the ‘ethno-’ means ‘other’ in the minds of most people and also fosters the misconception of a style or styles tied to one culture at a time, an equation no longer true if it ever was. ‘Sociomusicology’ because musicking only has definable feelings and meanings in social contexts.” Keil notes in one of his other publications that “The most basic sociomusicological idea is that interacting sounds constitute the abstraction ‘music’ in the same way that interacting people constitute the abstraction ‘society’” (Keil, 1998).

Kizinska’s discussion of sociomusicology emphasizes the role of capitalism and the “transformation of social practices into objects of economic exchange” (Kizinzka, n.d.).

Related Articles:

Steven Feld, “Symposium on Comparative Sociomusicology: Sound Structure as Social Structure” Ethnomusicology, 28/3 (1984). Retrieved from:

Charles Keil, “MUSE Incorporating and Applied Sociomusicology,” MUSE (1996). Retrieved from:

Charles Keil, “Ethnomusicology in Education-Skills for Children’s Liberation: An Applied Sociomusicology for Echologists,” Folklore Forum, 34: 17-27. Retrieved from:

Charles Keil, “Applied Sociomusicology and Performance Studies,” Ethnomusicology, 42/2 (1998). Retrieved from:

Marcello Sorce Keller, “Sociology of Music and Ethnomusicology: Two Disciplines in Competition,” Journal of General Education, 38/3 (1986): 167-181.  

Karolina Kizinska, “Elements of Sociology of Music in Today’s Historical Musicology and Music Analysis,” Ad Alta: Journal of Interdisciplinary Research

Barbara R. Lundquist, “Sociomusicology: A Status Report,” College Music Symposium, 22 (1982). Retrieved from:

Barbara R. Lundquist, “A Sociomusical Research Agenda for Music in Higher Education,” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 86 (1986): 53-70. Retrieved from:

John Shepherd, “A theoretical model for sociomusicological analysis of popular music,” Popular Music, 2 (1982), pp. 145-77.

Material from a recent Wikipedia entry on the topic:
Among the most notable of earlier sociologists to examine social aspects of music were Georg Simmel (1858-1918), Alfred Schutz (1899-1959), Max Weber (1864-1920) and Theodor Adorno (1903-1969). Others have included Alphons Silbermann, Ivo Supicic, Max Kaplan, K. Peter Etzkorn, Charles Seeger (1886-1979), Howard Saul Becker, Eli Siegmeister, Jacques Attali, John Mueller (1895-1965), Kurt Blaukopf and Charles Keil.
More recently, notable sociomusicologists have included
§  Peter J. Martin
§  Tia DeNora
§  John Shepherd
§  Hildegard Froehlich
§  Christopher Small
§  Steven Brown
§  Timothy Dowd
§  Andy Bennett
§  Steve Waksman, and
§  Robert Faulkner.
Younger scholars whose work contributes to the field of sociomusicology include:
§  Shyon Baumann
§  David Hebert
§  David Grazian
§  Eric Hung, and
§  Joseph Schloss.