Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

The Construction of Music as a Social Phenomenon: Implications for Deconstruction

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

The Construction of Music as a Social Phenomenon: Implications for Deconstruction

Article excerpt


Over the past decades, there has been a growing acknowledgement of the social character of music, an acknowledgement which has led researchers from various disciplines to pay closer attention to the work and findings of social scientists. As a result, many researchers have also come to urge the necessity of a multidisciplinary approach to music, recognizing that far from leading to a purely reductionist approach, the social sciences could contribute significantly to renewed and extended musical studies. In this context, sociology is often pointed to as one of the disciplines which could play an important if not decisive role in this joint venture. But what could or should be sociology's most fruitful role?

Without underestimating the valuable and necessary empirical work that has been (and still will be) undertaken, one of the most original and significant contributions sociology could make is of a theoretical nature. In my opinion, it should consist in bringing forth a definition of music as a fully-fledged social phenomenon, one that would not only grasp its constitutive social dimensions, its various historical forms and foundations, but also recognize and account for its very specificity.

Some steps have recently been taken in this direction. However, to my knowledge, there is as yet no fully developed conceptual framework which lives up to these two requirements. This does not imply that autonomous views - according to which music is conceived as a self-contained phenomenon, totally independent of social, psychological and historical realities - still prevail. It means that to a large extent music is still granted only a limited or partial social character, and allowed only a mere aesthetic or artistic specificity.

Under these conditions, deconstruction appears as an absolute prerequisite to any theoretical inquiry. I would like to contribute to what I consider to be a "constructive process of deconstruction" by disclosing the limits of today's most predominant theoretical frameworks which, despite the fact that they convey divergent concepts of music, fail to theorise music as a fully-fledged and specifically social phenomenon.


Perhaps more than before, music is the object of a wide range of theories which sometimes complement but, more often, contradict each other. It is surely tempting to impute at least part of those discrepancies to the variety of disciplines involved. However, this would constitute far too reductionist or simplitic an explanation. For instance, how could it account for the fact that various contrasting approaches cross over disciplinary (as well as institutional) boundaries: or that theories issuing from diverse disciplinary locations share the same basic conception of music?

It seems more likely that most ambiguities can be ascribed not only to the highly polysemic nature of the term "music," but above all to the fact that the notion encompasses distinct concepts. Considering their current state of development, one can advantageously apply to the field of musical studies the results of Zygmunt Bauman's analysis of the notion of culture in the modern social sciences: "in-each case the term, though keeping its form intact, connotes a different concept" (Bauman 1973: 6). 1 believe this is the prevailing situation in music: while talking about "music," researchers might be addressing very different issues! In my opinion, the notion of music is indeed related to heterogeneous semantic fields; it designates distinct observable phenomena and stands for diverse if not irreconcilable objects of research. More precisely, I would argue that it connotes three basic concepts, hereafter referred to as "conceptualized art," "cultural product" (or practice) and "symbolic system" (or phenomenon).

Taken as a whole, the field of contemporary theory on music can be said to form an axiomatic tripartite division within which each concept is embodied in a separate - almost exclusive - set of premises and assumptions. …

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