John Shepherd



            Simon Frith once said: ‘Pop songs are open to appropriation for personal use in a way that other popular cultural forms . . . are not.’ Other cultural forms such as television soap operas, claims Frith, ‘are tied into meanings that we may reject.’ What makes music special, according to Frith, is ‘its direct emotional intensity.’ Because of its qualities of abstractness, explains Frith, ‘music is an individualizing form.’ Songs are ‘absorbed into our lives and rhythms into our bodies; they have a looseness of reference that makes them immediately accessible.’  The experience of pop music is thus ‘an experience of placing: in responding to a song, we are drawn, haphazardly, into affective and emotional alliances with the performers and with the performers’ other fans.’ What makes music ‘so important in the cultural placing of the individual in the social,’ Frith  argues, is an ‘interplay between personal absorption into music and the sense that it is, nevertheless, something out there, something public.’ As he concludes, ‘music can stand for, symbolize and offer the immediate experience of collective identity. Other cultural forms — painting, literature, design — can articulate and show off shared values and pride, but only music can make you feel them’ (Frith, 1987b, pp. 139-140).

            In these passages, Frith seems to be reaching for two aspects of musical experience instantly recognizable to musicians, fans, audiences and listeners. One is that music occupies a special place in the economies and topographies of desire. It seems to play a role of its own in the way in which people construct, position and identify themselves or, depending on one’s theoretical predilections, are constructed, positioned and identified. In these processes, music seems to become a special kind of object, or, perhaps more appositely, to constitute a distinct set of processes. It holds an appeal with a specific character, and occasions a particular kind of desire. Linked to this particularity is the possibility that music mediates affects and emotions in people through processes which are to a degree irreducible. Frith hints at this in referring to music’s ‘qualities of abstractness,’ an abstractness, presumably, related to the ‘looseness of reference that makes [songs] immediately accessible.’

            It is these possibilities that I want to explore in this afternoon’s presentation. I want to do this first by exploring the potential that exists in a particular psychoanalytic tradition for understanding the character of the relations between music and desire. I will argue that while this tradition does, indeed, exhibit considerable potential for understanding the character of the relations between music and desire, it is always compromised through the primacy it assigns to the role of language in understanding other forms of human expression and communication. I then wish to suggest that there are ways of theorizing music as a form of human expression and communication which render it relatively autonomous rather than colonized in its relations with language. Such forms of theorization, I will argue, not only throw light on the special character of the relations between music and desire. The reconceptualization of music as an object of study that results leads also to a rethinking of the purposes of musicology as a discipline.


Desire and Music

            The psychoanalytic tradition I wish to draw on is that which originates with the work of Freud, and can be seen to develop further through that of Lacan, Kristeva and others. There are two reasons for considering this tradition. The first is that it does, indeed, promise much in terms of its capacity to explain the creation and fulfilment of desire through music. The second is that the character of its failure in this respect does point to the necessity of theorizing music as a form of human expression and communication relatively autonomous in its relations with language. This failure thus indicates the necessity of theorizing music as a form of human expression and communication irreducibly distinctive in its ways of mediating affect, emotion and desire in people. The work of Lacan is central to this endeavour. It extended and reinterpreted the work of Freud in positing an intimate and powerful link between signifying practices and the formation and constitution of subjectivities that is crucial in spirit to understanding the intimate and powerful connections obtaining between music and subjectivities. And yet, at the same time, as the work whose shadow loomed large over that of Kristeva and of figures such as Barthes that she in turn so profoundly influenced, it offers a chilling epitaph to an intellectual marginalization of music as a form of human expression and communication.

            The point of departure for both Freud and Lacan was an abstract concept of human wholeness in terms of which desire could be theorized in terms of the need to compensate for biological ‘incompleteness’ at the moment of birth. If bisexuality for Freud constituted a ground in terms of which to conceptualize the complexities leading to the formation of the unconscious, then the possibility of an androgynous and biological completeness became for Lacan a concept in terms of which to theorize the inevitable biological lack that became evident at the moment of birth. The mother for children of both sexes becomes the object of the fulfilment of desires created through the fact of biological differentiation. The mother at this stage is not experienced in terms of an ‘object-other’, but rather as an undifferentiated extension of the child’s corporeal and somatic being.

            A number of objects in addition to the mother and her breast (for example, faeces and the gaze and voice of others: objects collectively referred to by Lacan as (a) objects) are identified by the child as symptomatic of both presence and absence, as points, says Silverman, ‘through which the child attempts to introject itself into those things which give it pleasure, and which it does not yet distinguish from itself’ (1983, p. 156). It is the ‘imaginary’ which becomes the location of these objects. It is within the imaginary that both identification and duality in relation to objects are registered. It is this ambivalence in relationship to objects that comes to be initially resolved through the mirror phase. In the mirror phase — and it seems certain that Lacan was here arguing metaphorically — the child recognizes in others an image of itself as the ideal of who he or she wishes to become. In a literal sense — where the child actually sees an image of itself — the image becomes ideal in the sense that the child does not recognize, for example, its own motor deficiencies. The child is led into the illusion that it is in control of its own movements as it perceives them in the mirror. In a more metaphorical sense, the ability of the child to act in such a way as to obtain the mother’s breast leads to an assumption that the breast is part of the self. In the mirror phase, this principle is extended so that the child assumes itself to be the image of the mother as presented, an image in which the mother (and thus the self) appears to be in control of her (its) actions. Nursling dependency is misrecognized as control of the breast. The biological unity of the bodies of the child and the mother is thus transformed into a putative separation through which the identity of the self as distinct from others begins to take place. The developing subject begins to assign to itself a coherence which is misplaced.

            It is clearly an advantage for the growing child if — in acting to satisfy its desires — it can map symbolically its universe through language. In order to understand the power exercised by language on subjects, it is necessary to understand Lacan’s concept of language. Lacan’s concept of language was derived from that of Saussure, but with one major difference. Whereas it seems reasonable to conclude that Saussure understood language to retain a relationship with the external world — albeit indirect and determined in its character by the functioning of language as a structure — Lacan understood language to occasion a complete break with material reality, whether as manifest in the body or in external reality. This move was made possible and, indeed, necessary, because, according to Lacan, only absence requires signification, not presence. In other words, language becomes necessary and useful as the mechanism through which the child attempts to satisfy the desire for something that it presently does not have. It can thus reasonably be concluded that language itself provides the presence or ‘substance’ made necessary through the material objects of the external world.  Interaction between the material realities of bodies (something that remains central to Freud’s theories of the developing subject) is in this way replaced in Lacan by interactions that are centrally linguistic in character. Material realities can therefore only be experienced through language.

            While not all signifiers have to be linguistic in character, all signifiers nonetheless abandon all relation to the real and, in this sense, have to be mediated through language. This means that language and signifying processes become crucial to the way in which emerging subjects relate to others and to themselves. Without the capacity to signify, it becomes impossible for emerging subjects to distance themselves from the objects of their desire and to enter into the illusion that they can ‘manipulate’ and ‘command’ them for their own ends in sophisticated ways. Finally, without the ability to say ‘I’, to recognize through language the distinction between others and self, there can be no subjectivity. Processes of signification thus become synonymous if not identical with processes of subjectivity.

            A major consequence for Lacan was that it was not subjects who spoke language, but language which spoke subjects. This position was not only a radical departure from that of Freud. It was also a significant departure from that of Saussure, who clearly did not go so far as to say that language was uniquely productive of meaning (and, by implication, subjects). For Lacan, therefore, the signifier ‘becomes a new dimension of the human condition’ (1982, p. 78). In Lacan’s thinking, language becomes both possible and necessary because of the absence of objects. It is absence which gives rise to signification, not presence. It is almost as if language itself provides the presence or ‘substance’ made necessary through the absence of the material objects of the external world.

            This, presumably, is what leads to the prominence of signifiers in Lacan’s thinking. It is the material base of signifiers, their sounds, which ‘stand in’ for the materiality of the objects of the external world. However, before the child enters fully into the linguistic universe and develops a clear sense of the distinction between others and self, it can be assumed that the sounds of words constitute a significant aspect of the imaginary. The gaze and voice of others, Lacan tells us, partially constitute (a) objects. It can therefore be concluded that the sounds of words as uttered by others are experienced initially as an extension of the child’s corporeal and somatic being, and only slowly, through their location in the imaginary and as a consequence of the mirror phase, come to be recognized as ‘belonging’ to others in contradistinction to the sounds of the words which the child itself begins to utter. Lacan’s thinking can in this way support the possibility that there exists between music and subjects a tight connection as materially constituted. If the sounds of language can be experienced as ‘part of us’, then ‘not part of us’, and then again as ‘part of us’, then so can the sounds of music. As Frith observes, it is the ‘interplay between personal absorption into music and the sense that it is, nevertheless, something out there, something public, [that] makes music so important in the cultural placing of the individual in the social.’ It is in these ways that the sounds of music can be thought of as mediating effectively between the external and internal worlds in their appeal to emotion and affect, in much the same way as language is conceived by Lacan as a phenomenon external to the subject which then constitutes the subject.

            However, the promise of this line of thought for understanding music is at the same time effectively dashed as a consequence of Lacan’s arguments. Music, by definition, cannot aspire to the condition of what Lacan calls ‘the symbolic order’, at least insofar as it remains unmediated by language in its position of privilege. At the outset, therefore, the denial of a socially effective role for music can be traced to Lacan’s insistence on the privileged position enjoyed by language in mediating the signification of all signifiers. It is to be presumed that music does not escape this mediation, and can only in this manner enter the symbolic order. According to this logic, music can only be understood to be a consequence of language in its manner of signification.


Music and Signification

            In order to theorize music as a form of human expression and communication that affects individuals intimately and powerfully through the character of its material connectedness to people in a manner that is not ultimately reducible to the conditions of language, it is necessary to turn to the possibility that music is relatively autonomous in its relations to language. It is necessary, in other words, to countenance the possibility that music is irreducibly distinctive as a form of human expression and communication in the ways in which it mediates affect, emotion and desire in people. However, to suggest that music as a signifying practice evidences specific characteristics that are not reducible to other kinds of human activity is to immediately invite charges of ‘essentialism’ from scholars in disciplines such as sociology and cultural studies. Behind this charge lies the twin suppositions that: firstly, processes internal to music as a signifying practice are being fixed conceptually in such a way as to render the generation of significance through music insusceptible to negotiation through wider social processes; and, secondly, there is a failure to recognize that the notion of ‘music’, together with the linguistic term used to denote it, are themselves social constructs which do not necessarily subsume in an unambiguous or uncontested fashion the phenomena or practices to which they are customarily taken to refer. There is one sense in which these charges are well taken. Some musicologists and aestheticians have contended, as Leonard B. Meyer has put it in criticizing their position, that ‘the meaning of music lies specifically . . . in the musical processes themselves’, and that, as a consequence, ‘musical meaning is a thing apart, different in some unexplained way from all other kinds of meaning’ (1956, p. 33). Because of this, there is a clear need to render both the practices that give rise to musical affect, and the attendant epistemological and linguistic categories through which music is understood to be ‘music’, conceptually open to the possibility of wider social and cultural mediation. These are points to which I will return.

            However, there is a sense in which these charges of essentialism carry with them an element of the disingenuous. An equivalent claim that language evidences specific characteristics that contribute to human expression, communication and understanding in ways which are not reducible to other kinds of human activity is one that routinely goes unchallenged. Indeed, it is an accepted wisdom on how language signifies - drawn from the pioneering work of Saussure (1916) - that has underpinned much cultural theory on signification across the whole range of human communication. The idea that there does not have to be a necessary or logical connection between the characteristics of the sounds of language (‘signifiers’) and the characteristics of the mental concepts (‘signifieds’) with which they are customarily associated, and that the relationship between the sounds of language and ‘what they mean’ is as a consequence fundamentally arbitrary, has made easy and, in a sense, served to guarantee the argument that all meaning is socially constructed and therefore socially negotiable. But while it was these characteristics of the linguistic sign - signifier and signified joined arbitrarily yet seamlessly - that for Saussure guaranteed language an irreducible role in human life, this same principle was not extended to other forms of signification. Rather, it was assumed that other forms of signification occurred in the image of language. It is against this line of thinking that any suggestion that the sounds of music may be involved in processes of signification in a manner other than the ‘arbitrary’ becomes tantamount to claiming that ‘the meaning of music lies . . . specifically in . . . musical processes themselves,’ and in this way outside processes of social constitution and negotiability. Hence the charges of essentialism, and, indeed, idealism.

            It is this line of thinking which has led many sociologists and cultural theorists to claim that the ‘meaning’ or significance of music can only be grasped legitimately by examining concrete instances of music as integral aspects of the social and cultural circumstances of their practice. This approach in understanding the significance of concrete instances of music is certainly desirable, if not necessary. However, an insistence on it as an exclusive way of grasping processes of signification in music (as that which underlies the generation of actual significance in concrete instances) can only be based on three interrelated assumptions: that all forms of human symbolism signify in fundamentally the same way as language; that, as a consequence, there is nothing really distinctive about processes of signification in music; and that, in conclusion, any claim to the effect that processes of signification in music are distinctive is inevitably to place music outside the realms of social constitution and negotiation, and to treat it as something apart. The disingenuousness of this line of thinking lies not in the arguments which have been made about modes of signification in language. It lies in failing to be as critical about the claims routinely made for the universal relevance of processes of signification as exemplified through language as about the possibility that music might be a signifying practice with its own, distinctive processes of signification. As a consequence, it lies also in failing to contemplate for music the same status commonly afforded language, namely, that of a signifying practice with its own, distinctive processes of signification which guarantee for it, as for language, an autonomy relative to the individuals who use it, the societies in which it is practiced, and other modes of signification with which it intersects and interacts.

            There is thus a need to theorize music in a manner which — in circumventing any reliance on the arbitrary and therefore non-material character of the connection between signifiers and signifieds — pays full attention to the material, and therefore intimate and powerful character of the connections between music and people. There is a need, in other words, to develop concepts other than those of the signifier and signified which allow for the manner in which the sounds of music as a material phenomenon are themselves implicated in processes of meaning construction, but which at the same time allow for the social negotiation of meaning and affect in music. The concept I wish to propose in terms of which sounds in music may be thought of as offering up a ground for a construction of meaning that nonetheless remains socially negotiable is that of the 'medium' (Wicke, 1989 and 1990). The term 'medium' is used here in a very specific sense drawn from the world of science: to mean an agent or a material substance in which a physical or chemical process takes place - and without which it cannot take place - but which remains unaffected by the process. As applied to an understanding of music, the concept of the medium has two distinguishing characteristics. Firstly, it conceptualizes the use of sounds in music as being of a purely ‘structural’ character consistent with music’s evocation of a world that is fundamentally non-denotative. This world is also assumed to be powerfully material and corporeal in character. Secondly, while the medium conceptualizes sounds in music as being in this way structured and structuring (structured by people, and structuring in providing the sonic grounds for the construction of meaning), it in no way assigns an agency of achieved meaning (and, in this sense, an agency of meaning construction) to them.

            It is because of this second characteristic that the concept of the medium allows space within which the construction of meanings through music's sounds can be understood as being socially negotiated but not arbitrary. Just as the characteristics of the medium in a physical or chemical process determine the kind of processes possible within it without determining their character, the characteristics of the medium of music are of decisive importance for the kind of cultural processes that may be realised through it. However, the characteristics of the sounds as medium cannot determine the characteristics of the cultural processes they make possible. As a consequence, they cannot determine meanings. This notwithstanding, it is equally important to understand that the specific form of music as a medium does not result from the music being an object of appropriation of the external world and external reality, but is itself an agent which mediates this process of appropriation in a culture-specific form. As a structured and structuring medium for — rather than agent of — the construction of meanings, the sounds of music both restrict and facilitate the range of meanings that in any instance can be constructed through them.

            I would argue that the notion of the medium allows for some progress in understanding the character of musical experiences. Firstly, the way in which the medium is conceptualized prevents music being reduced to the condition of its sounds, which is a noticeable trend within the discipline of musicology. The medium is conceptualized only as sounds recognizable as the sounds of music, as we might imagine them to be present in external reality. Music is then conceived as the processes of interaction between the sounds of music and individual people. Although this might seem obvious, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that ‘music’ cannot happen without sounds which people recognize as ‘musical’, and the meanings which people construct and invest in these sounds as being suitable for such investment. This leads to a second, important point. The connection between sounds and people is a concrete, tangible and direct one which is structural in character, and which yet remains to a degree negotiable. The kinds of ‘meanings’ which people invest in the sounds of music are thus grounded in forms of structured and structuring corporeal awareness (structured by the sounds of music and structuring the sounds of music). It is for this reason that the meanings people construct to invest in the sounds of music must have a certain character which renders them amenable or suitable for such investment. The character of the musical experience is thus constrained and to a degree explained by the fact that only certain kinds of meanings are ‘musical’ meanings (this because of the specifically corporeal and ‘structural’ character of the connection between people and the medium or sounds of music as a material phenomenon), and that, within the character of these kinds of meaning, only a certain range of meanings can be invested successfully within any particular medium.


What Is Music?

            There are three important points which need to be made in the context of the arguments I have just presented. The first is that the relationship between sounds and people that I have described as being 'characteristic of music' should not be thought of as 'defining' music as if 'music' were a phenomenon 'given' to people rather than an epistemological and linguistic category constructed by them. The second is that a crucial distinction therefore needs to be drawn between the epistemological and linguistic category of 'music', and the kinds of cultural practices to which this term customarily refers. The third is that it is the character of these practices, rather than particular concrete instances of them, which should underwrite the constitution of musicology's object of study. My argument — and this leads me to the third part of my presentation — is that musicology's object of study — in a more inclusive fashion — should be underwritten by a characteristic use of sound by people, and not just by certain cultural practices which — in a frequently a priori manner — have been judged to be 'music'. Musicology’s object of study is, indeed, ‘music’. We can now see that this object of study is constituted not just by individual musical practices and by the sounds of music themselves (its medium), but by the actual character of the processes of interaction between sounds recognized as ‘musical’ (the medium) and individual people that constitute ‘music’.

            This understanding of the expansion of musicology’s object of study leads to the three points I need to make. In thus expanding musicology’s object of study, its character is changed somewhat. The object of study is now explicity understood to be underwritten by, and to subsume, a specific use of sound by people. This use of sound can be distinguished from the characteristic use of sound by people in language. The characteristic use of sound by people in relation to language can be termed ‘arbitrary’. The characteristic use of sound by people in relation to music can be termed ‘structural’. However, what is at stake here is not some exclusive and defining characteristic of, respectively, language and music. What is really at stake is a realization that, as a material phenomenon presented to us by the external world, sound displays a number of potentials for signification which people, at various moments in history, have taken up to develop ‘language’ and ‘music’.

            It is necessary to expand on this point. The arguments I have made could lead to the conclusion that the particular relations between sounds and meanings that I have identified as 'characteristic of music' constitute the exclusive and 'defining' characteristic of what is commonly understood to be 'music'. It could be thought that it is this which bestows on music genuine status as a distinctive signifying practice with an autonomy relative to the individuals who use it, the societies in which it is practiced, and other modes of signification with which it intersects. However, it has to be understood that the basis for this common understanding lies not in the character of a particular relationship obtaining between sounds and the meanings whose construction they both facilitate and constrain, which then exclusively and consistently constitutes the object of study customarily referred to as ‘music’. This would, indeed, be to essentialize music. The meanings invested in the term ‘music’ are not consistent. They are contested. As Grenier has observed, the term ‘music’ is ‘highly polysemic’ (1990, p. 28). The basis for commonsense understandings of the term ‘music’ therefore lies in the manner in which this particular signifying potential of sound as a material phenomenon has by choice been subsumed by people acting in specific social and historical circumstances as a central, if not fundamental, component in the various and often conflicting ways in which ‘music’ as an epistemological and linguistic category has been both constructed and constituted. The focal point in understanding ‘music’ as a distinctive signifying practice with its own relative autonomy is not, therefore, some essential characteristic which is exclusively and consistently symptomatic of it, and which as a consequence unambiguously ‘defines’ it as something ‘presented’ to us by (as opposed to 'in') external reality. The focal point is rather an emphasis given to a particular signifying potential of sound as a material phenomenon (a phenomenon that, as a consequence is presented to us by external reality), which is used variously by people in conjunction with other signifying potentials of sound (the ‘mimetic’ or imitative, and also the ‘arbitrary’, which underwrites but does not exclusively constitute ‘language’) and those of images and movement to constitute ‘music’ as a performance event.

            This is the first point I need to make. The distinction I am drawing is, perhaps, a subtle one, but it is important if music is not to be essentialized. The second point follows from it. It is that there is a critical distinction to be made between concrete cultural practices involving the use of sound, and epistemological and linguistic categories such as ‘music’ and ‘language’ which are used to refer to them. All human societies use sounds to communicate, and they use sounds - in various and different social and cultural contexts - in ways which draw in different degrees and combinations on the various signifying potentials of sound as a material phenomenon (as well as on these signifying potentials in relation to the various signifying potentials of vision and movement). These different and complex modes of sonically based signification and communication then come to be grasped and categorised in various cultures in relation both to the characteristics of these modes as socially and culturally constructed, and in relation to the epistemological and linguistic categories that come to be constituted in relation to them.

            It should thus be remembered that there are many cultures which do not possess an epistemological and linguistic category equivalent to that of ‘music’. Actual and concrete practices of sonically grounded human signification and communication are always couched within an understanding, categorization and formulation of these practices in terms of the ways a society or culture may reflect on them through an extension of these very same practices.  The actual, concrete practices and their epistemological and linguistic categorization are powerfully and indissolubly linked in the sense that they emanate from the same, related modes of communication and metacommunication. However, it is important to understand that, in acting on these practices, these epistemological and linguistic categorizations are in a certain sense distinct from them. It is therefore important to understand that signifying practices which in certain cultures might be recognized as ‘musical’ might not be recognized as such in others. Some observations made by Charles Keil are pertinent here. Keil is talking about the epistemological and linguistic biases which Western scholars can bring to the study of non-Western musics. It is this which makes the study of the musical terminologies of other cultures important. This exercise, says Keil, ‘serves to remove some of the blinders, biases, and distortions inherent in our own vocabulary’. He continues: ‘Coming to terms with (or with terms to) another system of musical thought, we are forced to question the axioms of our own musicology’. Keil concludes:

The problem of our biases hit me rather forcefully when it became clear that a word corresponding to our term ‘music’ could not be found in one African language after another . . . It is easy to talk about song and dance, singers and drummers, blowing a flute, beating a bell, but the general terms ‘music’ and ‘musician’ require long and awkward circumlocutions that still fall short . . .  (1979, pp. 26-7)


            In this sense it is crucial to understand that neither `language' nor `music' are phenomena 'given' to people. This is true with regard both to the practices to which such terms customarily refer, and to the terms themselves. There are no such `things' as `language' and `music ' which develop and exist independently of human volition. It is, indeed, true that the practices which these terms gather up, grasp, and present to us are, indeed, given to us in the sense that they constitute a very important aspect of the constructed reality of the social world. However, it is also crucial to realize that the epistemological and linguistic categories which are used to understand and refer to them are also social constructs with a particular history and politics. As Keil comments, ‘if it should turn out that West African cultures are typical and that the vast majority of the world’s peoples do not bother with a word for “music”, it’s conceivable that we may eventually think it silly, ethnocentric, even pompous to be designating disciplines with names like “musicology” or “ethnomusicology”’ (1979, p. 27). The point here is not that scholars should not be examining and attempting to understand cultural practices for which we use the term ‘music’. It is that there is a need to ‘get beneath’ the surface of language and the established ways of thinking that language perpetuates to grasp the characteristics symptomatic of the practices that are customarily thought of as ‘musical’. This is the third point that I wish to make. As we have seen, such an approach will require an expansion in musicology’s object of study.

            One final point does, however, need to be made. The issue of the relationships between terminologies and objects of study, and disciplines and objects of study is not simply a philosophical one. It involves real issues of power. It is as a consequence essential to understand how knowledge comes to be constituted, established and thereby controlled as a basis for the exercise of power. It is all the more essential to develop such understandings because epistemological and linguisitc categorizations come to render the world as `natural' and unexceptional, given rather than constructed. Richard Middleton has made this issue clear in relation to the thorny question of ‘what is popular music?’ The answers provided to such questions can influence what is and what is not regarded as a legitimate object of study, who should study it, and how it should be studied.  As Middleton argues,:

much recent historical work, notably Foucault's, has stressed the importance of investigating the discursive formations through which knowledge is organised. If we do not try to grasp the relations between popular music discourses and the material practices to which they and at the same time the necessary distinctness of levels between these, we are unlikely to break through the structures of power which, as Foucault makes clear, discursive authority erects.  (Middleton, 1990, p. 7)



Why Study Music?

            Bearing in mind the caveats I have just laid out, it does, indeed, seem possible to theorize music as a distinctive and irreducible form of human expression and communication in such a way as to explain why music might occupy a special place in economies and topographies of desire. We can begin to understand why, as Frith puts it, ‘pop songs are open to appropriation for personal use in a way in which other cultural forms are not.’ We can begin to understand how songs ‘are absorbed into our lives and rhythms into our bodies.’ We can begin to understand how songs can ‘have a looseness of reference that makes them immediately accessible,’ and how it comes to be that music’s qualities of ‘abstractness’ makes it ‘an individualizing form.’ We can begin to understand how music, quite literally, places people. However, we can also begin to understand how explaining the character of musical desire in this fashion requires a rethinking of musicology as a discipline.

            In studying 'music', it transpires that we are studying a second, signifying potential of sound which, it can be argued, is at least as equally implicated in the creation and maintenance of human societies as the first, ‘arbitrary’ one which has served as the basis for the constitution of ‘language’. Since it is this second signifying potential of sound — whose function has been described in terms of the sonic medium of music — which seems to be assumptively subsumed within various constitutions of the epistemological and linguistic category of ‘music’ — it would equally seem to be the case that this second signifying potential of sound — together with the implications it holds for the creation and maintenance of human societies — should form a central and basic component of musicology’s object of study. This would, indeed, cause musicology to re-define its boundaries considerably. However, I believe that there is good reason for doing this. Musicology cannot defend itself against the ‘incursions’ of other disciplines simply by reducing music conceptually to the condition of its sounds, which has so far been a noticeable trend within the discipline. To the contrary, musicology needs to be more aggressive in extending the range of its interests.

            In doing this, musicology will have to understand music, not as something constituted exclusively by individual instances of musical practice and the medium of sound which underpins them, but as a process constituted through the interactions of individuals living within social and cultural collectivities with this medium. It is in this sense that the study of music will have to become increasingly interdisciplinary in character, and that musicology will have to accept the contributions that other disciplines can make to understanding its object of study. It is therefore with good reason that Frith argues that ‘rather than agreeing, then, as a sociologist, that, of course, musicologists understand music and I do not . . . I want to suggest that, in fact, sociologists can make their own contribution to the analysis of musical meaning and value’ (1990, p. 97). This kind of contribution should not, however, be viewed with apprehension, as something that will cause, as Lawrence Kramer has put it, ‘the dispersal into context of what we usually grasp as the immediacy of music’ (1993, p. 27). Contributions from other disciplines should be able to aid in grasping the immediacy of music as an emanation of the direct and concrete, yet symbolic, interaction of individual people with the sonic medium, and should be assessed in terms of their capacity to so do.

            If music has this ‘immediacy’ — and if this is a fundamental characteristic of the ‘musical experience’ — then it has to be understood that this immediacy and the affects which are symptomatic of it are not contained within music’s sonic medium. Meanings and affects are not, therefore, coterminous with music’s sounds. It is for this reason that Frith is correct to argue that ‘the industrialization of music cannot be understood as something that happens to music, but describes a process in which music is made - the process, that is, which fuses (and confuses) capital, technical and musical arguments’ (Frith, 1987a, p. 54). The notion of authenticity is therefore largely a myth. Indeed, in the context of rock music, Frith has argued that ‘the myth of authenticity is . . . one of rock’s own ideological effects’ (1987b, p. 136). If music’s sounds travel across the world in a complex and not infrequently unethical web of economic exchange, then it is not musics and cultures which are traveling. It is the sounds of music only. This is not to say that the manner in which sounds travel, the ethically questionable financial arrangements that accompany such travel (or do not, as the case may be), and the undermining of musics and cultures that frequently results, are not of grave concern. It is simply to say that, within the constraints set by music’s sonic medium, the meanings and affects constructed always remain negotiable. However, musicology should not as a consequence back away from a concern with music’s intrinsic sonic characteristics. It should study them in the knowledge that, because they are implicated in processes of meaning construction in a way in which sounds in language are not, there is a need to focus also on the way in which music’s sounds are bound up in economies of exchange, as well as with the ways in which they are thereby implicated in the creation and maintenance of various forms of identity: sexual, gendered, ethnic and so on.

            In thus recasting the position of sound in the analysis of music, musicology would be better equipped than it presently is to take on board the contributions that other disciplines might  have to offer in developing an understanding of its object of study. In making this move, musicology would, in a sense, be moving the study of music ‘beyond interdisciplinarity’, because the contributions that each discipline might make to this study would now be subsumed within a much clearer sense of purpose. Indeed, it is possible to argue that this kind of process will require some re-thinking in other intellectual traditions such as that, for example, of cultural theory  (see Shepherd and Wicke, 1997). However, such recasting and repositioning, together with the basis that is thereby provided for a more connected and organic sense of interdisciplinary co-operation, depends in the first instance on a firm grasping of musicology’s object of study. For if it is accepted that music is in some ways distinctive as a signifying practice, that it contributes to qualities of human expression, communication and understanding in ways which are not reducible to other kinds of human activity, then a failure to understand the constitutive characteristics and workings of music will constitute also a failure to understand certain important characteristics of human existence. Not only will the ‘musical experience’ remain privatized and mythologized, something that is assumed in many quarters to be ‘unanalyzable’. So will various realms of activity vital and fundamental to human societies that percolate through into forms of expression, communication and understanding other than music. Claude Lévi-Strauss was, perhaps, being a little less than rhetorical when he said that ‘music itself [is] the supreme mystery of the science of man, a mystery that all the various disciplines come up against and which holds the key to their progress’ (Lévi-Strauss, 1970, p. 00).



Frith, Simon.  (1987a) ‘The Industrialization of Music’, in James Lull (ed.), Popular Music and Communication (Newbury Park: Sage) 


     ________  (1987b)  'Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music', in Richard Leppert and Susan McClary (eds.), Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 133-149


________  (1990), 'What Is Good Music?', in Shepherd (1990), pp. 92-102


Grenier, Line.  (1990)  'The Construction of Music as a Social Phenomenon: Implications for Deconstruction', in Shepherd (1990), pp. 27-47


Keil, Charles.  (1979)  Tiv Song (Chicago: Chicago University Press)


Kramer, Lawrence.  (1993) ‘Music Criticism and the Postmodern Turn: In Contrary Motion with Gary Tomlinson’, Current Musicology, vol. 53, pp. 00-00


Lacan, Jacques.  (1982) Feminine Sexuality (tr Jacqueline Rose) (eds Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose) (New York: W.W. Norton)


Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  (1970)  The Raw and the Cooked  (trs John and Doreen Weightman)  (New York: Harper and Row)


Meyer, L. B.  (1956)  Emotion and Meaning in Music  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)


Middleton, R.  (1990)  Studying Popular Music  (Milton Keynes: Open University Press)


Saussure, Ferdinand de. (1916). Cours de linguistique générale, ed. Charles Bally, Albert Sechehaye with Albert Riedlinger. [(1966). Course in General Linguistics, tr. Wade Baskin. New York: The Philosophical Library Inc.]


Shepherd, John. (ed.)  Alternative Musicologies/Les musicologies alternatives, special issue of the Canadian University Music Review/Revue de musique des universités Canadiennes, vol. 10, no. 2  (Toronto: Toronto University Press)


Shepherd, John and Wicke, Peter (1997) Music and Cultural Theory (Cambridge: Polity)


Silverman, Kaja.  (1983)  The Subject of Semiotics  (Oxford: Oxford University Press)


Wicke, Peter.  (1989)  'Rockmusik - Dimensionen eines Massenmediums: Weltanschauliche Sinnproduktion durch populäre Musikformen', Weimarer Beiträge, vol. 35, no. 6, pp. 885-906


________  (1990)  'Rock Music: Dimensions of a Mass Medium - Meaning Production through Popular Music'  (trs Regina Datta, Ernst Oppenheimer and Peter Wicke), in Shepherd (1990), pp. 137-56

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