music & geography



Steven Pinker once asked, “What benefit could there be to diverting time and energy to the making of plinking noises?” He continued to argue that music “could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged” (Pinker 1997: 528). This hardly seems reasonable. Music accompanies us at home, in the car, at sporting events, and when we go out. The ascendancy of the iPod and those tiny white earbuds provide individual soundtracks as we move through space and time. The subconscious commercial power of music is increasingly being realized as music is being used to sell: Muzak is piped into spaces of commerce, designed to not only “fill uncomfortable conversational gaps but also to amplify purchasing behavior through subtle uses of tempo and the tastes of desired lifestyle groups” (Atkinson 2007: 1910). Then there is the music industry; U.S. manufacturers alone sold nearly eight billion dollars worth of recorded music in 2009. But while Steven Pinker asked his question about plinking noises and the use (or lack thereof) of music from the perspective of cognitive science, he did not dismiss music’s cultural and societal significance. Music is so prevalent in life that it is hard to imagine a society without it. And not just modern society. Music, according to Wallin, Merker, and Brown (2000: 4), “is a universal and multifunctional cultural behavior, and no account of human evolution is complete without an understanding of how music and dance rituals evolved.” They go on:

“Even the most cursory glance at life in traditional cultures is sufficient to demonstrate that music and dance are essential components of most social behaviors, everything from hunting and herding to story telling and playing; from washing and eating to praying and meditation; and from courting and marrying to healing and burying” (Wallin, Merker, and Brown 2000: 4).

My interest in music lies in the tension that seems inherent in the conceptual spaces between music as a representational cultural product and music as lived, performed, embodied, and experienced. On the one hand, musical analysis within the social sciences and humanities has traditionally tended to approach music in a solidly representational framework. According to British sociologist and music critic Simon Frith (1996: 108), there has long been an “assumption that the sounds must somehow ‘reflect’ or ‘represent’ the people.” He goes on: “The analytic problem has been to trace the connections back, from the work (the score, the song, the beat) to the social groups who produce and consume it. What’s been at issue is homology, some sort of structural relationship between material and musical forms” (Frith 1996: 108).

Recently, however, there seems to be a strong desire to break free of a conceptualization of music as a representational product of a reified notion of culture. “Music isn’t a way of expressing ideas; it is a way of living them” (Frith 1996: 111). Indeed, music is performed, lived, ongoing, experiential. It is both the product of and a force in what Nigel Thrift (2000: 216) terms “the push that keeps the world rolling over.” Or, in the words of Anderson, Morton, and Revill (2005: 640), “the practical ways we have of going on in the world, from moment to moment, event to event, utilizing a whole range of interconnected social, cultural, emotional, expressive, material and embodied resources.” Music is not separate from social life, existing solely in the realm of cultural representation, awaiting analysis by social scientists. Music is an active ingredient in the on-going processes of social life.

In the end, it seems to me that music is beyond representation and simultaneously representational in that it is bought and sold as a cultural product, oftentimes divorced from the complex and more-than-representational context in which it is produced and where it continues to be an active force in the on-going production of daily life. Perhaps it is this very tension that demonstrates the political necessity of a theoretical approach to music that takes seriously three elements: the embodied, emotional, affective, and performative nature of sound and music; the very real political economy of a global cultural marketplace that constructs—and that only functions if it constructs—music as a representational cultural product; and finally the fact that the first two elements are in constant interaction with one another.

My relevant publications:


  • Anderson, B., F. Morton, and G. Revill. 2005. Editorial: Practices of music and sound. Social and Cultural Geography  6(5): 639-644.
  • Atkinson, R. 2007. Ecology of Sound: The Sonic Order of Urban Space. Urban Studies  44: 1905-1917.
  • Frith, S. 1996. Music and Identity. In Questions of Cultural Identity, eds.  S. Hall and P. DuGay, 100-127. London: Sage.
  • Pinker, S. 1997. How the Mind Works . New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Thrift, N. 2000  . Afterwords. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space  18(2): 213-255.
  • Wallin, N.L., B. Merker, and S. Brown, eds. 2000. The Origins of Music . Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.