Sociology of Music: What Music Means in Our Life


What you are doing at the moment you are reading this letter? Am I right when I say that you are listening to music? What is it now? Another Hip-Hop CD, or can you impress me with something original you have become interested in? Do not switch your music off and just keep reading the letter. The music will serve as the soundtrack to it, as here I am going to share some insights offered through the reading of the literature on music. I do believe that my narration will enlarge your scope of knowledge in the field of music, and, maybe, will make you look differently at it.

Have you ever wondered what music means in your life? In Tia Denora’s chapter Music as a Technology of Self from Music in Everyday Life, I have learned about the research that investigated the role music plays in people’s life. Sixty-seven persons were interrogated about their emotional responses to music; forty-one out of them identified music as a “change agent” in their lives (Denora 46). When the respondents were asked to describe how they use music, they defined six thematic categories of their use of it: “memory, spiritual matters, sensorial matters (for pleasure, for example), mood change, mood enhancement and activities (including things such as exercise, bathing, working, eating, socializing, engaging in intimate activity, reading, sleeping).” (Denora 46) To what group do you refer yourself, I wonder?

Denora concludes about the research mentioned above that it points clearly to how music is appropriated by individuals as a resource for the ongoing constitution of themselves and their social-psychological, physiological and emotional states. As such it points the way to a more overtly sociological focus on individuals’ self-regulatory strategies and socio-cultural practices for the construction and maintenance of mood, memory, and identity (Denora 50).

A part of a human’s process

In simple words, I can tell you that the phrase I quoted for you above means that music can be considered as a part of a human’s process of the constitution and maintenance of the self. Therefore, watch the music you select for listening to every day: choosing this or that CD, you choose a tool for building your personality! And do not underestimate the transformative power that the music has: it really “‘does’ things, changes things, makes things happen” (Denora 54). You and I and everyone listening to music should understand one of the research’s findings that music might serve as “an accomplice in attaining, enhancing and maintaining desired states of feeling and bodily energy (such as relaxation), it is a vehicle [we can] use to move out of dispreferred states (such as stress or fatigue). It is a resource for modulating and structuring the parameters of aesthetic agency – feeling, motivation, desire, comportment, action style, energy.” (Denora 60) I suppose that when we realize the magical power of music we are empowered to make use of it appropriately.

Speaking of the inspiration that music provides the listener with I cannot but remember your strivings to devote yourself to rap music. The thing is that your desire to rap thus sharing your views with others and reflecting both objective and subjective reality should not be restricted to buying new CDs, reading hot news about the most famous rappers all over the world, and rapping the items you have created without a person as your listener.

I have read Jeff Chang’s Making a Name: How DJ Kool Herc Lost His Accent and Started Hip-Hop and understood that there is nothing impossible if one desperately wants to succeed. This was the story of how DJ Kool Hers made his name during the West Bronx party at the end of the summer in 1973. The party has become a myth, a myth of creation, as it made everyone speak of DJ Kool Herc. Who knows, maybe you are the next to make a stir?

Also, it seems to me that you will be very interested in one more reading of us. I strongly recommend you to read On Black Music and Authenticity by David Hatch and Stephen Millward which gives some insights into black music. Please, do not be repelled by the first sentence of the work which states: “The concept of black music has become something a shibboleth, to the extent that even to question its pre-eminence amounts to heresy.” (Hatch and Millward 88) The authors claim that significant contributions that are made by black musicians are not properly evaluated by society. A lot of musical masterpieces of black culture were simply ignored because of the racial prejudices our society suffers from. I like how the authors treat the problem of racism and explain its significance to music development.

They say:

Delineation of people in terms of black and white has always been enormously complex in both theoretical and practical terms. The traditional dichotomous distinction belies these complexities. In dividing persons into those who are white we are merely distinguishing between those who are completely white and those who are not. Any such distinction ignores not only the legal but the social realities in the United States (Hatch and Millward 88).

The phenomenon of “passing for white” according to Hatch and Millard determines the whole basis of racial segregation (Hatch and Millward 88). Though there are no official figures available as far as this problem is concerned, the authors refer to the report made by Stetson Kennedy in 1959 which states that from five to eight million persons have passed for white in the USA (Hatch and Millward 88). The existing rigid distinction between “black” and “white” led to the sufferings of those classed as “black”. In the work I recommend you there are the authors’ examples of how racial inequalities affected musicians. At the same time, Hatch and Millward say how music became a vehicle for a forceful expression of political statements and demands. Instances included “Say It Loud – I am Black and I am Proud” (James Brown 1968), “Give More Power to the People” (the Chi-Lites, 1971), and “Young, Gifted and Black”, a Nina Simone song dating from 1968, which seemed to amount a statement of triumph by 1972 when Aretha Franklin’s version was released (Hatch and Millward 89).

I know that you are interested in soul music as well, therefore, you are sure to find interesting the issue of the interconnection between soul and white pop music. The authors suggest an example of how essentially white guitar styles were important to the soul (Hatch and Millward 90). I am inclined to think that all music styles exist in close interconnection with each other. The work I have talked about above focuses on the interconnection between white and black music, no matter how unpleasant the idea of differentiating the music in two colors might be.

As I have already told you during our classes, we have come across numerous interesting readings that throw light on various problems of music in its different aspects. One of them is Philip Brett’s article Are You Musical? In which the author investigates the rise of gay musicology. Brett is concerned with the so-called “queer” music. He admits that earlier the term was used with “oppressive – or, for homosexuals, self-oppressive connotations” but in his research he resorts to it in its inclusive sense, not in opposition to ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’” (Brett 370). The point discussed in the work is rather controversial and evokes a lot of thinking in the reader. I know that you are an opponent of any stereotypes or prejudices and assume that you will not agree with the author’s singling out ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ music, neither was I while reading. Still, I want to hear your ideas as far as the problem of such a distinction is concerned.

I also wonder how you find this statement of the author:

The listeners, the silent majority except when they clap, benefit from the universal significance of the sounds thus created, returning to earth only to buy the CD of what they have just heard. If they had sex on their minds at any time during the process, they would be accused by critics of reductive thinking (Brett 370)?

I believe that any possible divisions in music according to sex or racial principle do not make any good to contemporary society. Music is art and art is boundless. To see music in terms of “black”, “white”, “lesbian”, “gay” or other distinction means not to have any respect to its authors at all. I know that you will agree with me at this point. Hope, that I encouraged you to read the works I mentioned. One day we will discuss the issues they investigate.

By the way…how about your music? Still, playing? Maybe, it is better to change the CD? Remember, music is boundless, so…why not explore more and more dimensions of it?

Hope to see you soon. Good luck with your rapping! I know that one day the world will hear of you.


Brett, Philipp. “Are You Musical?” The Musical Times 135.1816 (1994): 370-376.

Chang, Jeff. “Making a Name: How DJ Kool Herc Lost His Accent and Started Hip-Hop.” Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop. Ed. Jeff Chang. Picador USA, 2005. 67-89.

Denora, Tia. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hatch, David, and Millward, Stephen. On Black Music and Authenticity. Derek B. Scott, 2000.