Soundtracks set the stage on which we live our lives

Music in Everyday Life
November 10, 2000

Tia DeNora sets out to investigate how music on an everyday level is a "medium for making, sustaining and changing social worlds and activities".

But this is tied to a more ambitious task of articulating a theory of agency and its relation to culture in which "the aesthetic bases of the social areI relocated at the heart of sociology's paradigm". Music is important because it plays a central part in "how people compose their bodies, how they conduct themselves, how they experience the passage of time, how they feel - in terms of energy and emotion - about themselves, about others, and about situations" that can also elicit "associated modes of conduct".

This thesis draws on post-structuralism, feminism, cultural studies, psychology and biology to build a unitary theory of the cultural construction of the body, subjectivity, self, agency and society. But DeNora insists that this theory needs substantive grounding in an empirical investigation of how people interact with music. DeNora supplies a phenomenology of music use through a series of quasi-ethnomethodological studies of its everyday use ranging from interviews with people about how they use it to ethnographic observation of music use in aerobics, karaoke, music therapy and shopping.

The problem is that these studies become overburdened by DeNora's theoretical stance rather than being grounded by it. Music is seen to have a material presence, but its powers are interpreted through metaphors, largely musical, that literalises their rhetoric. So DeNora argues that the body "tunes into" music; subjectivity is a "hearing" of time and place; the self is a "song"; agency is an "awakening" and society is an "orchestration" of interaction. So the valid position that social structure requires agency for its realisation is turned into the extreme postmodern proposition that there is no social structure, only configured and aesthetic forms of the cultural articulation of reflexive human agency.

The studies show structure and demonstrate the ethnomethodological point that everyday life is encountered by its members in terms of the natural attitude, which is positivistic and practical and in which the world is real and structured. Since action consists of doing some "thing", it requires people to treat the world as a world of "things" to engage in it.

DeNora does show the importance of music in the everyday world, but her studies show how much its expressive use calls on a taken-for-granted sense of its meaning. Moreover, this meaning is seen to be intrinsic to the music, which is what allows its practical appropriation in everyday life to articulate feelings, organise bodily movement and set social scenes. There is agency in this, but it relies on treating music as meaning this or that. That this meaning is a matter of history, tradition, convention and commerce is true, but this is the institutionalisation of music. Music is, indeed, a soundtrack to everyday life but also a structure to this. It is used to express "things" about the reality of life. DeNora is in danger of aesthetically exaggerating this use into a claim that it actually makes life a song or a symphony. The book, however, will be of value to those seeking to understand music as a social phenomenon.

David Walsh is senior lecturer in sociology, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Music in Everyday Life: Soundtrack, Self and Embodiment in Everyday Life

Author - Tia DeNora
ISBN - 0 521 62206 9 and 632 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 181

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