As sociology studies aspects of social life such as its processes, aims, forms and origins, so the sociology of music is an exploration of musical history and its functions, purpose and relationship to society. The sociologist of music seeks to find out what effect music has on the listener; what the music communicates and what function music plays in society.
Music is present in everyday life and has the ability to transform the human experience and play a role in human interaction. It forms a communication between the composer, the interpreter and the listener. The process of making music is an emotional and intellectual development of sound to music that is completely unique to humans. It is the power of music in human society that makes the sociology of music a worthy field of research.
Attempts to understand the relationship between music and society dates back to the times of Plato (429 to 347 B.C.E.) The term "sociology of music," was first used in the early 20th century as a sub-title for the work by eminent sociologist Max Weber, Die Rationallen und Soziologischen Grundlagen der Musik (1921). One of his observations was that the development of the system of musical notation was linked to an increasing rationalization of European society.
From a general discussion about music in society, the sociology of music has grown to embrace music history, the technology of music and (particularly in the United States) market surveys. The subject did not begin as an academic discipline but as a topic of discussion used, for example, in journalistic debate.
Ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians placed great emphasis on music. They had an official music culture that derived from nomadic and agricultural cultures. Their entire culture was based around symbolic sounds, which were applied under law; if instruments were untuned, for example, a punishment could be imposed upon the musician.
Music, like any other art, is created within a cultural, social and political context. It has the power to express political ideas and conversely, politics also shapes music. For example, it can be shaped by the production process involved in making it, including law, technology, industry structure and industrial organization. It has also played a significant role in social movements such as Nazi youth groups and religious fundamentalism. It can be a tool of violence and oppression but also of liberation.
Music has historically been used by different cultures to express their identity and mark boundaries between groups. For example in the 19th century classical music was used to mark social class distinctions; in Boston a preference for this kind of music was used by the rising commercial elite as a display of status. In the 20th century, African-American music (particularly jazz) was used as a form of resistance to the dominant white culture.
Into the 21st century, music has often been used to mark the distinction between opposing youth groups. Each generation generally marks the emergence of a new musical form, often much to the chagrin of adults who tended to equate the music of youth to adolescent deviance. Musical forms such as jazz, rock, disco, heavy metal and rap, were perceived to promote juvenile delinquency, drug taking and overt sexuality. Music sociologists have turned their attention to the analysis of song lyrics, particularly in relation to rap music.
Sociologists of music have tried to explain the phenomenal growth of hip-hop since it emerged on the black urban scene in the 1970s, becoming the top-selling music genre in the United States. This type of music is part of a global youth culture that is used to express concerns about marginalization or economic woe in almost any capital city in world. It follows much the same form everywhere, with rappers of all backgrounds using similar lyrics, music and attire. Rap has been used to comment on society and has become a powerful tool in countering the mainstream of society. For example ethnic minorities in Paris use rap to talk about issues of poverty and police brutality. In Japan, female rappers have used hip-hop to criticize gender restrictions for women.
The sociology of music is still relatively in its infancy. More research into the diversity of music can help illuminate the development of human society; not only where it has come from, but it may also serve to predict where it may find itself in the future.