Jan 27 Readings

The readings for this weeks center around redefining fundamental concepts of music. While there are clear distinctions and differences between each of these authors, they are each interested in broadening the definition of music through historical, cross-cultural, and sociological analysis.

Redefining Music

In his book Musicking, Christopher Small1 argues for reimagining music as a verb—musicking–as opposed to a noun in order to emphasize the processual and socially-bounded nature of musical activity.

"Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do. The apparent thing "music" is a figment, an abstraction of the action, whose reality vanishes as soon as we examine it at all closely"2

For Small, our continual quest for understanding the meaning of music is undermined by our ignorance of the nature of music, that is, music scholar's traditional focus on musical works rather than the processual and social nature of music. Musicking refocuses the analytical lens by contextualizing musical practice in time and place, as suggested in the opening vignettes in Small's "Prelude":

- a concert hall during an orchestral concert
- a supermarket
- a stadium during a sporting event
- mobile music technology (Walkman)
- congregational singing at church
- a political rally

Small's argument is subversive. To argue for a processual approach is to undermine the canon and upend the Western obsession with masterworks as the central feature of Euro-American musical culture. And he doesn't hold back, he pulls no punches.

"For performance does not exist in order to present musical works, but rather, musical works exist in order to give performers something to perform."3

Small's argument implicitly challenges power relationships in musical society. In his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1985).4, Jacques Attali5 situates music within a Marxist discourse, considering the relationship between noise (music) and power. Music, while not explicitly defined, is understood through a series of suggestive metaphors:

- music is a "mirror of society" (p. 4)
- music is the "organization of noise" (p. 4)
- music is a "metaphor of the real" (p. 5)
- music is "prophecy" (p. 11)
- music is "intuition, a path to knowledge" (p. 20)

Like Small, Turino6 is concerned with Western definitions of music. He begins this chapter from his book, Music as Social Life, by questioning how we conceptualize—and categorize—music (e.g. stylistically, socio-culturally, recorded format). No doubt inspired by Small, Turino points to shifts from music as a noun to music making, and recorded music as music-object to recordings as representation. Drawing upon diverse musical cultures—Peru, Zimbabwe, North America—he raises issues concerning musical value and the value of musicality. Like Small, the is a clear sense of relativity in Turino's writing:

"I have found it useful to conceptualize music making in relation to different realms or fields of artistic practice" (p. 25)

These four fields of artistic practice are:

  1. participatory performance: a practice lacking a distinct demarkation of artist and audience
  2. presentational performance: a practice where performers provide music for others
  3. high fidelity: making of recordings that are indexical or iconic of live performance
  4. studio art: creation of a "sound object" that is not representation of live performances

As with Small, Turino's social-process approach to musicological study, and the resulting broadening of the definition of music, is clear:

"The focus here is on the types of activity, artistic roles, values, goals, and people involved in specific instances of music making and dance." (p. 27)

Participatory Music

Both Small and Turino are explicitly concerned with the issue of participatory notions of musical activity. Small's definition is extremely broad, allowing for the most flexible conceptualization of musiking:

"To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing. We might at times even extend its meaning to what the person is doing who takes the tickets at the door or the hefty men who shift the piano and the drums or the roadies who set up the instruments and carry out the sound checks or the cleaners who clean up after everyone else has gone. They, too, are all contributing to the nature of the event that is a musical performance."7

With this definition, Small opens himself up to criticism, moving the definition of music so far beyond sound-producing activities that the term may have been stripped of any value at all. Turino, however, defines participation more narrowly than Small:

"I am using the idea of participation in the restricted sense of actively contributing to the sound and motion of a musical event through dancing, singing, clapping, and playing musical instruments when each of these activities is considered integral to the performance."8

While Small is more broadly inclusive, even within strict presentational settings, such as the concert hall, Turino indicates an interest in musical practices and settings that privilege active, sound-producing roles. Participatory performances, for Turino, lack a distinct demarkation of artist and audience, an issue that is also at the heart of Attali's book.

"The distinction between musician and nonmusician—which separates the group from the speech of the sorcerer—undoubtedly represents te very first divisions of labor."9

"What is called music today is all too often only a disguise for the monologue of power."10

I think this following video may be served as one of the examples of Participatory Music.

The roles audience played in this video display both Small and Turino’s distinct yet connected definitions. A number of crowd surrounded Anderson and Roe were watching a performance in the midst of NYC’s Washington Square Park, therefore taking part as an audience according to Small. At one point, (0:35), the crowd clapped as well as shouted, “Mambo”, which serves as an integral part of the performance. Thus, this performance could not be completed without the participation of an audience.

Steinway’s Self-playing piano also played an important role as a main performer, whereas Anderson and Roe’s role switches back and forth between being a main performer, and a supporting role; we see them scraping strings inside the soundboard, using sheet music to create varying sounds, as well as providing a rhythmic ostinato supporting the self-playing piano. Therefore, all three main participants; Anderson and Roe, the Self-playing piano, and the crowd are contributed to musical activity in creating this engaging performance.

Turino acknowledges division of labor as central to contemporary musical practices, but does not consider it antithetical to participatory musical practices. Advanced technique and specialization are central to the success of participatory music-making and necessary for avoiding boredom.

This is where Csikszentmihalyi's theory of "flow" comes in to play.

Striking the right balance between familiarity and challenge "enhances concentration and a sense of being 'in the groove,' at one with the activity and the other people involved."

But this emphasizes is rather narrow and, frankly, Western in its perspective of music, placing it within the realm of entertainment and art, where particular qualities of excellence are valued and pursued. To a certain extent, Turino unravels his own argument here regarding the difference between participatory and presentational music.

Ritual and Relativism

Both Attali and Small consider musical activity as fundamentally ritualistic, the "ceremony in Symphony Hall."11 Musicking as ritual emphasizes not only process, but recenters the musical actors within the event, regardless the the particular activity or contribution each actor makes to the ritual event.

"If everyone is born musical, then everyone's musical experience is valid."12

For Attali, the power and politics of ritual is embedded in the very process of musicking.

"…music is ritual sacrifice…it is reproduced, normalized, repitition. …Today, in embryonic form, beyond repetition, lies freedom: more than a new music, a forth kind of musical practice. It heralds the arrival of new social relations. Music is becoming composition."13


  1. If the ticket-taker and roadie are musicking, what place does sound have in music research and study? Should sound have a priviledged position vis-a-vis other "musicking" activities?
  2. How do Turino and Small's conceptualizations of musical participation differ? Which has greater value? Which emerges more forcefully within cybercultural settings?
  3. How is sound inherently political? How might the political be emphasized in cybercultural contexts of musical practices?
  4. How does the concept of ritual help us understand musicking?
  5. With the exception of Turino's discussion of sound recordings, technology is not a central issue in these readings. Where does technology come into play in regards to participatory music-making, musicking or music as ritual?

Iowa School of Music

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