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The best books on The Ethnography of Music

recommended by Phillip Vannini

The Professor of Communication and Culture enlightens us about musical enthnography — what people do with music, and how they interact with music (and with one another)

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What do you mean by an ethnographic approach to music?

There are many different social scientific methods to research music. There are approaches that focus on historical dynamics, others that focus on the semiotic (either lyrics or sound structures) components of songs, and others that focus on what people do with music and how they interact with music and with one another with regard to music. The latter is called ethnography. It is a research tradition – typical of anthropology and related fields – used to write about people’s ways of life. Of course it’s not just used for the study of music, but within this context it works particularly well because of its elegance and simplicity in revealing the everyday life dimensions of musical production and consumption. Imagine going to a concert. What would you do there? You would watch the show, listen to the music, sing along, cheer, interact with friends, and all that jazz, right? Well, you couldn’t get a sense of all that by way of historical or semiotic analysis. Ethnography is about being where the action is, and taking part in it. That level of participation, combined with observation, when repeated over and over, allows you to scrutinise what people take for granted.

On to your first book: what does Tia DeNora argue in Music in Everyday Life?

DeNora makes an incredibly simple, but incredibly compelling argument: within the domain of everyday life we utilise music as a technology. We do not always do so in an overly rational way, of course, but for the most part we act towards music in light of what it does for us. On the basis of a lot of interviews about how people listen to music DeNora finds that music is a technology of the self, a set of tools and techniques, which we utilise, for example, to work out harder at the gym, clean up floors to, or set the tone for a date. DeNora’s focus in especially on how music is used to mould our emotional states, or to play into them. I think anyone can relate to that. Can anyone bear listening to Phil Collins while they’re trying to pump some iron at the gym?

She argues that music plays an important role in shaping human behaviour. How does music affect the way we behave in society today?

One of the most interesting ideas that arise out of her work is the strategic use of music to set or modify emotions. Music, in this sense, is used as a means to an end – whereas traditionally, as a form of art, music ought to be made and consumed for its own sake. What that means is that we now have an incredible amount of choice of music made and consumed for a specific purpose. Take for example workout music: it has become a genre in its own right.

Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience looks at the effect of personal music devices on the people who use them. Tell me about the book.

Michael Bull is a very influential writer in a new field called sensory studies. Scholars of sensory studies examine the social and cultural aspects of the human senses and sensations. Here the study of music takes a very strong embodied turn. This book, in a way, is thus less about music and more about aurality and hearing. This book is a classic in this field, especially because of the remarkably contemporary topic. Bull’s argument and findings – again based on ethnographic research – point to the ways in which people create personalised urban soundscapes through their portable music players. The city, in this sense, becomes a very unique soundscape that each of us can choose.

Is it a good thing that iPods allow us to escape our immediate reality into the world of music any time we choose?

I am incredibly old fashioned about these things. Personally, I always like to tune into the soundscape as it comes, rather than craft one of my own. To a great degree it has to do with where I live. I live on a very small island, populated by few people who tend to live quite apart from one another. With the exception of the occasional seaplane humming over my head or the ferry horn when the boat leaves, all the noises I hear on a daily basis are natural: birds, the winds, and things like that. So when I go to a city I like to feel like I’m escaping. It’s an adventure, really. I wonder if I’m going to last the day in Vancouver – or some other metropolis – or if my ears are going to blast before I’m due to go back home to my soundscape heaven. So what I’m trying to say is that whether I love it or hate the soundscape that I’m in is always fascinating to me.

Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital looks at the cultures which emerge around music. Tell me about Sarah Thornton’s argument.

The key argument here revolves around the concept of subcultural capital. Thornton examines the insiders of a much maligned scene: the dance scene. Ethnography pays attention to insiders, and it does so by asking something unique from the researcher: to view the world from the perspective of those she is studying. In doing so Thornton finds that insiders to these scenes share a meaningful taste culture – regardless of what others think of it. A taste culture is a community made of people who have similar taste, and that taste is a shared disposition towards not only music but also a host of many other individual characteristics, such as clothing and make-up, for example, and even bodily shape. Taste cultures emerge around coalitions of people’s determined shared definitions of these things.

She talks about how certain youth cultures emerge from shared tastes in music. How does this process occur?

Besides what I mentioned, Thornton argues that individuals become members of a club culture, a scene, or a subculture – these terms are all very interrelated – by accumulating subcultural capital. What does she mean by it? Think of financial capital, for example: it’s something you accumulate over time by collecting pieces of it, money in this case. Once you have enough you can make certain claims: you claim to be a millionaire, to be successful, to be a VIP, and maybe even demand that you be allowed into that exclusive country club. Subcultural capital works in similar ways. Over time you become an insider by acting like an insider, by displaying conspicuously elements of that scene.

Tell us about Music Scenes: Local, Translocal, and Virtual.

This is a different book, compared to the others, because it is a reader. As an anthology its purpose is less to advance an exhaustive argument than it is to generate ideas and give a sense of evolving traditions, concerns and concepts. Thus, the beauty of this book comes from its own internal diversity. There are essays on the ‘tween scene’, on London’s salsa scene, on riot grrrl, on karaoke, etc. What holds all these essays together is the focus on the concept of ‘scene’. A scene is a lot of things: it’s a group of people, it’s a shared taste, it’s a system of rituals, of common values and practices, and it’s also a place. But of course scenes aren’t just anchored in places intended in the traditional sense: there are internet-based scenes, and also scenes that travel – like bluegrass communities, or like transplant scenes.

The authors argue that music scenes are good for the participants. In what way?

To a great extent this is one of the key concerns of all ethnographic research: music scenes are ways for people to make sense of the world around them, to give and find meaning in life. Music scenes are also ways that people have of building bonds with like-minded others. In this sense scenes give us meaning and they give us identities, a sense of who we are in relation to others.

What is Inside Subculture: The Post-modern Meaning of style about?

This is a crucial book in the field of subculture studies and cultural studies. Its importance comes from the finding that members of subcultures – or subculturalists – are a lot less coherent than they were originally thought to be. Coherence was a critical component in earlier studies. A subculturalist chose a certain music and a certain style because it carried a coherent set of ideological values. You couldn’t be into both punk and trance, for example, and if you were, well, you were a true fan of neither. But this is no so true in postmodern times any more. It’s quite common for many people to have eclectic tastes, and therefore to have eclectic styles, and diverse cultural elements to choose from and combine together. This is not a form of incoherence, however. Rather, it is a form of pastiche, of bricolage. Subculturalists are a lot more playful than originally thought, and lot more diverse – within their own scene – than previously argued.

July 28, 2010

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Phillip Vannini

Phillip Vannini

Phillip Vannini is an ethnographer and author. In 2011, Vannini published Ferry Tales, a hypermedia book that explores mobility and sense of place and time on the British Columbia coast. In November 2014, he published Off the Grid: Re-Assembling Domestic Life, the culmination of two years of research into the lives of people across Canada who live off the grid. Vannini is a professor at Royal Roads University.

Phillip Vannini

Phillip Vannini

Phillip Vannini is an ethnographer and author. In 2011, Vannini published Ferry Tales, a hypermedia book that explores mobility and sense of place and time on the British Columbia coast. In November 2014, he published Off the Grid: Re-Assembling Domestic Life, the culmination of two years of research into the lives of people across Canada who live off the grid. Vannini is a professor at Royal Roads University.