Music Matters. Materiality, Knowings and Practices in Performing Arts


Perspectives from Music Sociology

Rosa Reitsamer

From the perspective of music sociology, music is an ephemeral, elusive and abstract cultural form, while it is also embedded in the material cultural of everyday life (DeNora 2000, Hesmondhalgh 2013, Straw 2002, 2012). As Born reminds us, music is “perhaps the paradigmatic multiply-mediated, immaterial and material, fluid quasi-object, in which subjects and objects collide and intermingle” (2005, p. 7). Music sociology thus joins a variety of “material approaches” in that it emphasises how socio-musical practices are connected with bodies, subjectivities, identities and knowledge formations and with non-human entities including, for example, musical instruments, media technologies, concert halls, clubs, computers, records, notations, fanzines and so on.

The sociological study of music’s materiality acknowledges practice theories (Hillebrandt 2014, Reckwitz 2002, Schatzki 2001, Schmidt 2012) that stress that “the social is a field of embodied, materially interwoven practices centrally organised around shared practical understandings” (Schatzki 2001, p. 12) and consider both embodied forms of sociality and material forms of sociality articulated through practices of producing, performing, rehearing, distributing, consuming and listening to music. In this respect, things, artefacts and objects are not only considered to be mediators of musical practices, but can themselves propagate musical practices.

Exploring music’s materiality also means drawing attention to various forms of knowing formations: e.g. tacit knowledge (Polanyi 1966) stored in our bodies through learning and rehearing an instrument and enacted in music performances, listening practices or the attribution of musical values; hegemonic/dominant and alternative, subaltern knowledge formations produced through socio-musical practices in specific historical, social, cultural and political contexts; and the ways music can “materialise” alternative subjectivities and identities, tending to reinforce existing social formations (Born 2011).

There are numerous ways in which music’s relationship to material culture and knowledge formations can be conceptualised. We welcome PhD proposals that draw upon theories of practice, materiality and knowledge, use empirical methods (ethnographic, qualitative and quantitative) and address one of the four research areas:

(1) In the last few decades, the materiality of recorded music has changed considerably, most notably from vinyl to CDs and MP3s. This, in turn, has fostered the emergence of new practices for the production, performance, dissemination and consumption of music in everyday life and in different regions around the globe. Moreover, the download economy has emerged as a consequence of the changing materiality of recorded music.

  • Which distinctive listening practices are associated with, for example, the use of LP albums, as material form, and iPods, mobile phones and other MP3 players?
  • How have music streaming platforms affected the music industry, particularly major labels, musicians and music audiences? Has there been an increase of social inequalities in access to music or have advanced music production technologies and the internet contributed to an increase of “prosumers”?

(2) We can also witness a growing importance attached to material culture and popular music, from memorabilia to museums and (digital) music archives.

  • How can we describe and analyse the material and bodily perspective of these archival and curatorial practices from the perspective of producers and audiences?
  • How do museums and (digital) music archives support the diversification of popular music’s past and challenge the dominance of the white, Anglo-American, middle-class baby boomer generation in the production and canonisation of twentieth century rock music and their artists?

(3) Music’s materiality is accompanied by potentialities, but also associated with constraints, especially when it comes to gender, race, class, age and sexuality.

  • How are racialised and gendered discourses as well as experiences of racialisation and gendering attached to sounds, instruments, images of recorded music and music’s materiality?
  • Which strategies, knowing formations and bodily techniques of “performing” race are developed by subaltern and racialised groups around the globe that challenge dominant/hegemonic discourses, but cannot be reduced to the “struggle paradigm” (Swedenburg 2013)?
  • How are dynamic technological developments involved in the unfolding of different effects according to intersectional categories and spatial fragmentation? These approaches include, but are not limited to, materialities and musical careers; the intergenerational gap in relation to technological practices; the shaping of material affordances through social inequalities; access barriers to material infrastructure and knowing in relation to particular areas such as the global south.

(4) Music’s materiality is manifold and dynamic. This situation becomes even more complex when considering the particular material cultures of different music genres (e.g. rock/pop, hip hop, western art music, folk and folk-like music, traditional music, electronic dance music etc.) and the intersection of music with other art forms and their particular materialities.

  • How does music’s materiality affect dance, music theatre or film and vice versa? This issue refers to different “communities of practice” (Wenger 1998) and do-it-yourself cultures and to overlapping intersections of different material cultures, potentialities, constraints and logics.


Born, G. (2005) On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology and Creativity. Twentieth Century Music, 2(1), pp. 7–36.

Born, G. (2011) Music and the Materialization of Identities. Journal of Material Culture,  16(4), pp. 376–388.

DeNora, T. (2000) Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hesmondhalgh, D. (2013) Why Music Matters. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Hillebrandt, F. (2014) Soziologische Praxistheorien. Wiesbaden: VS Springer.

Polanyi, M. (1966) The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reckwitz, A. (2002) Toward a Theory of Social Practices. European Journal of Social Theory, 5, pp. 245–265.

Schatzki, T. R. et al. (eds.) (2001) The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London, New York: Routledge.

Schmidt, R. (2012) Soziologie der Praktiken. Konzeptionelle Studien und empirische Analysen. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Small, C. (1998) Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan UP.

Straw, W. (2012) Music and Material Culture. In: Clayton, M. et al. (eds.) The Cultural Study of Music. A Critical Introduction. Second Edition. New York: Routledge, pp. 227–235.

Straw, W. (2002) Music as Commodity and Material Culture. Repercussions, 7-8, pp. 147–172.

Swedenburg, T. (2013) Palestinian Rap: Against the Struggle Paradigm. In: El Hamamsy, W., M. Souliman (eds.) Popular Culture in the Middle East and North Africa: A postcolonial Outlook. New York: Routledge, pp. 17–32.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.