What is sociological about music

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what is sociological about music

Music: Black, White & Blue: A Sociological Survey of the Use and Misuse of Afro-American Music by Ortiz M. Walton

Ortiz M. Walton was a musician and music scholar, as well as being heavily involved and active in African American studies. He was the first African American member of the Buffalo (New York) Philharmonic Orchestra. He earned his doctoral degree in sociology at UC Berkeley and spent the last years of his life in the Bay Area.

Music: Black, White And Blue would seem to be a book about music; jazz, for the most part, in this case. However, it probably served the higher purpose at the time of its publication of being a form of protest of white jazz musicians doing their best to play African American music and reaping all the benefits from it while excluding their African American counterparts from sharing in those benefits. I don’t need to go into this because it is a known fact that this took place throughout the 20th century. It was not until fairly recently, it seems to me, that these tables have turned, especially with hip hop’s ascension to perhaps the most popular “style” of music in the world.

There is a great deal of righteous vitriol from Ortiz when he writes about the exclusion of African American musicians from classical orchestras, the vast disparity in funding for white orchestras versus African American orchestras, the vilification and persecution of African American be bop musicians, etc. He argues that jazz should be viewed as the African American form of classical music, which is an interesting idea, perhaps, but perhaps no longer important or relevant. This book is a clear snapshot of a time when racism, in all its forms, was more sanctioned and accepted than I’d like to believe it is now. Now, at least, racism is called out by the media and racists are ridiculed and scorned.

Regardless of the modern relevancy of this book, it’s full of interesting information and thought provoking ideas. While I don’t feel motivated or even that qualified to discuss the bigger, deeper ideas of racism and social prejudice, I did take away a great deal from reading Walton’s work. Most of this, of course, is of the musical variety.

Walton speculates that the practice of referring to songs as “numbers” came from the practice of ragtime musicians clipping the song titles off their sheet music so no one would know what they were playing. Each piece was then numbered and referred to by those numbers. Thus, “For this next number” and so forth. Similarly, later jazz musicians would play with their backs to the audience or a handkerchief draped over their fingering hand so no one could copy their fingerings.

I loved the part where Walton criticized jazz critics and their penchant for identifying new fads and trends. He states that jazz seems to have been broken into ten year units by jazz critics, whereas classical music is looked at in hundred year units, the idea being that one cannot tell what happened and how without quite a long period of removal and hindsight.

One thing I didn’t buy was Walton’s statement, “White groups like The Beatles were able, through electrically powered instruments, to achieve simulation of the power and emotional intensity that heretofore had been produced entirely without, or with a minimum of, such aids by black musicians.” The fact is, The Beatles were preceded by a long line of African American musicians who developed the fine tradition of plugging in and turning up. The bands of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters then Ike Turner and B. B. King and so on played loud, amplified, electric music (blues, R&B) that provided the inspiration for rock ‘n’ roll, which ultimately turned into plain old rock in the 60’s. That’s not to say these bands weren’t influenced by jazz, but that was not where the primary inspiration was drawn.

Walton described the phenomenon by which orchestras before World War II found themselves with a dearth of string players, which, as Walton puts it, was due to the difficulty of interesting “white youth (especially males) in the study of the violin, viola and cello.” This shortage of string players was temporarily ended when middle class Europeans, fleeing Nazism, immigrated to the U.S.

And I like that early jazz bands in New Orleans were often referred to as “spasm” bands.

Maybe the most interesting idea for me is that, without strife between the sexes, racism, oppression, etc., blues would cease to exist. It’s difficult to imagine a world in which these things did not exist but, as Sam Cooke sang, “What a wonderful world it would be.”
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Published 27.11.2018

Sociology of music

Heavy Metal Music and Sociological Imagination

Music is central to cultural life and therefore also often perceived as central to social life. The study of music in society has been of interest to canonic social thinkers, including Weber, Simmel, and Adorno, since the establishment of sociology. The study of music has also concerned scholars in adjacent disciplines, particularly musicology, cultural studies, and economics. Sociologists of music have accordingly been concerned with the importance of musical taste for signifying status and distinguishing cultural hierarchies. Sociologists have also been concerned with the socio-demographic correlates of musical preference, how musicians and the music industry organize to provide music and influence taste, and the education and working conditions of musicians. What tends to distinguish sociology of music from other disciplines is a commitment to the sociological imagination or the use of social research methods—but not necessarily both. And many sociologists of music work across disciplines.

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In the context of an interdisciplinary panel discussion, in front of an audience that consists mainly of medical practitioners, what may sociology have to say about the link between music and health? It must perhaps first of all be mentioned that the link between music or culture and health is somewhat less studied to this day from a sociological perspective compared to other disciplines, such as psychology, medicine, psychotherapy, and neurosciences. Sociology has quite abundant studies and writings in these two fields separately — sociology of music, and sociology of health — but much fewer that combine the two. There are also sociological studies that discuss these two aspects music and wellbeing , though the link remains more implicit and needs to be carved out. Pity, because from the few studies we have today, there seems indeed to be much more to be said on this from a sociological viewpoint.


  1. Thina J. says:

    The sociology of music has become a vibrant field of study in recent decades. While its proponents are well aware of this field's contributions.

  2. Christabel B. says:

    Why music matters for sociology: conversation with Prof. Les Back - UWL Repository

  3. Gabrielle B. says:

    Sociomusicology - Wikipedia

  4. Cagfirycor says:

    This paper presents methods for instructors to deal with student anxiety over theory courses.

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