The Role, Function, and Position of Music In Contemporary Society

In Music and Society (1987), musicologists Susan McClary and Richard Leppert advocate an ‘alternative’ musicology besides or in addition to one that primarily focuses on formalistic principles and intrinsic characteristics of music. Main notion in Music and Society is that prevailing social ideas take shape in music. However, perhaps more important is the reversal of this reasoning: musical constructions also contribute to the body of ideas within a society and/or culture. Music is affected by and affects other cultural fields and discourses. Its role is never merely an aesthetical one; it is determined by and determines thoughts on economy, ethics, politics, religion, and gender as well. To think about the role, position and function of music in contemporary society thus always means to think about reciprocity, about a two-way traffic. This double bind is traceable on different levels and various intensities throughout the whole course.

 

Pierre Bourdieu makes clear how certain forces and characteristics within music are used by certain social strata to determine the amount of Cultural Capital of an individual. Conversely, one can also say that someone’s Cultural Capital strongly influences her/his musical preferences. Bourdieu’s thoughts are primarily based on the social and especially economic role that music plays in society (the accumulation of capital).

 

Soon after 9/11, Richard Taruskin champions an extra-musical morality which can and ought to influence musical performance practices. With the help of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy, Marcel Cobussen upholds the idea that music can teach us something on ethics. Step 1 here is to understand ethics as hospitality; step 2 starts with the question how hospitable music(al discourse) is with respect to what was so often and so long excluded from music(al discourse), namely silence and noise. So, both Taruskin and Cobussen zoom in on the relationship between music and ethics.

 

George Steiner writes that the power of the music industry leads to a ‘musicalization of culture’; we can hardly escape music’s omnipresence. According to Steiner, this musicalization of culture can (at least partly) be ascribed to the decline of eruditeness and literariness (the loss of a common aesthetic ground and shared cultural criteria) which both clear the way for this new ‘lingua franca’ (i.e. music). Music’s position as described by Steiner is both a very important and an inevitable one: music is everywhere around us, which has its positive as well as its negative implications.

 

In the philosophy of Theodor Adorno it is especially the social and/or political function of music that is strongly emphasized. According to Adorno, ‘true’ or ‘good’ music should express the disharmony that permeates and determines contemporary Western societies. On the other side of the spectrum it is the capitalistic society that, through its cultural industry, thrusts on us cultural commodities tending to preserve the social, cultural, political, and economical status quo.

 

Susan McClary stresses that music is no neutral cultural product which should be contemplated on pure aesthetic grounds and solely valued on the basis of intrinsic qualities. In music current thoughts on gender are (re)presented, questioned, and developed. In music the male dominance over the female is played off.