Toward a Sociology of Musical Styles*

By Shepherd, John | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1981 | Go to article overview

Toward a Sociology of Musical Styles*


Shepherd, John, Canadian University Music Review


The idea that different groups and societies create and appreciate their own stylistically distinguishable kinds of music is not one that would be likely to invite dissension from musicians or sociologists. Neither, on the face of it, is the assumption that the stylistic characteristics of these different kinds of music might have some connection with what may be loosely termed the "cultural background" of their creation. As Lévis-Strauss has argued with respect to language:

Between culture and language there cannot be no relations at all ... . If there were no relations at all that would lead us to assume that the human mind is a kind of jumble that there is no connection at all between what the mind is doing on one level, and what the mind is doing on another level (1968:79).

That there are connections between "what the mind is doing on one level, and what the mind is doing on another level" is not difficult to illustrate on a prima facie basis where music is concerned. Is it a complete coincidence, for example, that functional tonality arose from the fervor of an intellectual and artistic movement (the Renaissance) which arguably laid the foundations for modern capitalist society? Is it a complete coincidence that alternatives to that musical "language" began to be offered at a time when the "reality" of three-dimensional perspective in painting was under attack, and when classical physics was facing a very considerable crisis? Is it completely without foundation that many people have seen in the rise of Afro-American-influenced popular musics social implications of great importance?

It is, of course, possible to argue that the cultural and social implications of different music styles are completely associative in nature. That is, that although there are connections between what the mind is doing on different levels, a particular music style carries the cultural and social implications it does only because the group or society in question externally imposes a set of meanings or significances on the music in a manner completely arbitrary to the music's basic structure. The argument is that any kind of music will serve a group or society provided the music is stylistically distinguishable from all others; there is nothing internal to the basic structure of the music, in other words, which predisposes it to impart any one kind of significance above all others.

In contrast, it is also possible to argue that the internal structure of a musical style is of itself significant. This is not necessarily to assume that the significance of music is located in some form of asocial, ultimate reality, however. It can be asserted that because peopie create music, they reproduce in the basic structure of their music the basic structure of their own thought processes. If it is accepted that people's thought processes are socially mediated, then it could be said that the basic structures of different styles of music are likewise socially mediated and so socially significant.

It is in the light of this second possibility that a sociology of musical styles becomes a viable proposition, at least in theory. If musical styles have an inherent social significance, then it should be possible to demonstrate that significance by carrying out musical analysis in terms of the social reality which gave birth to and is articulated by a particular musical style.

Such analyses are notably absent from both the musicological and sociological worlds. Surface reasons for the scant attention given to the sociology of music (as opposed to the sociology of musical life) are not difficult to find. Few sociologists feel themselves to be competent in a discipline which requires a significant degree of technical knowledge as well as, preferably, some first-hand experience as a practitioner. Musicologists, on the other hand, repelled by what they see as unending waves of pseudo-scientific jargon, have apparently decided that the area should be left well alone. …

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