Sociomusicology or Sociology of music: Overview

S0ciology of Music: Music is the art of arranging sounds and includes components such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. Music at its core has a social nature. Various theorists have used sociology to interpret the meaning of music. Symbolic interactionism looks at how shared meaning is constructed through music whereas the Gestalt perspective understands it through the embodiment of meaning. Music plays an important role in society especially as a form of resistance. This paper looks at how music is used as a political tool across time and culture.

Sociomusicology, or The sociology of music

Introduction: Music akin to spoken language can be understood as a form of communication. Individuals create, consume, and use music to construct meaning actively. Sociologically, music can be deconstructed as either an object- a timeless creation- or an action- something people do, as it always exists in a constant (Roy & Dowd, 2010). Given its intrinsically social nature, music is an area that can and must be studied analytically. A manner of analysis is sociomusicology, or the sociology of music, which examines the interactions revolving around music in everyday life (Sociomusicology 2021).

Overview: Lévi Strauss discusses how music evolves based on its environment. Its everlasting and genuine nature can be attributed to the social world. Culture, therefore, is relevant when talking about the components of music. This can explain why protest music was an important tool used to spearhead revolutions across time and space. The Vietnam War showed a rise in resistance music- the people would march down the streets singing songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “The Times They Are A-Changing,” supporting Simmel’s argument that music, whether vocal or instrumental, is a form of communication (Carr-Wilcoxson, 2010).

“The battle outside ragin’

Will soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’”

-Bob Dylan

Lyrics such as these sum up the anti-establishment sentiments that were particularly strong during wartimes. A possible interpretation is that Dylan is expressing his distaste for the government- the battle outside that saw the light because of the government will soon shake their windows because the people are changing; they are against the war.

Key Theorists: Symbolic interactionism analyses the creation and construction of shared meaning through the exchange of language and symbols. This perspective can be used to deconstruct Simmel’s conception of music. Music is the raw and direct expression of human emotion. Resistant music accurately describes how a shared experience is created to provide meaning individually and collectively. It differs across history and culture, therefore, the meaning of a song depends on the learned emotions of its social group (Hunt, 2017).

Meyers understands the nature of music from a Gestalt perspective. He proposed the concept of embodying meaning. According to him, music has a psychological significance that is created from context and references. Artists and composers transfer the abstract image and messages from their minds onto their songs. The words they chose to sing have a connotative meaning attached to them, and the social context helps uncover the meaning behind the lyrics (de Arce, 1974).

Role of music: Traditionally, music played the role of bringing people together, but with the industrialisation of society, music became a commodity. Weber argues that the rationalisation of music standardised its creation, and capitalism along with it led to the commodification of music. Adorno took a similar approach and was afraid of the detrimental consequences music as an art form would face. The introduction of charting could push artists to create music that would definitely become a ‘hit’ at the cost of authenticity. Coming to present society, this is something that can be observed, especially in mainstream western music. Albums were initially designed to narrate a story, but increasingly more and more artists package an album that can deliver a hit single or title track.

Tying Simmel’s explanation of music with Weber’s analysis of commodification describes how music helped create and maintain social distinctions. Genres arguably exist in a value-laden hierarchy wherein the upper echelon consumes ‘tasteful’ music, which is rich in value and production, and the commoners listen to music that is ‘rebellious’ and considered distasteful. There is a connection between the social and the aesthetic, which plays a role in constructing social identities. Bourdieu proposed that the bourgeoisie convert their cultural preferences for art into cultural capital, which allows them to distinguish themselves from the ‘lower’ classes of society (Hunt, 2017). The same can be said for subcultures. Roy describes aesthetic identity as the cultural alignment of artistic genres to social groups that separate the “us” from the “them” by giving the group collective representativeness. It can be contested that genre boundaries become social boundaries.

Subcultures use art, fashion, slang, and other social markers to construct their identity and give meaning to this identity. Musi plays a significant role in this process. Punks would listen to alt-rock and heavy metal music, while hippies were more into folk and rock music. Similarly, orchestral and other forms of classical music were associated with the richer parts of society. However, these distinctions are no longer static. With the evolution of streaming services and charting, the music industry changed. Previously, one had to buy a physical copy of an album or song in order to listen to it. However, with streaming services such as Youtube and Spotify, this is no longer necessary.

The shift from buying physical copies to digital ones allows individuals to experience a diverse range of artists. This meant that genres were no longer limited to a certain subgroup of a society. Individuals from Canada could access Japanese city pop, R&B migrated to different parts of the world, cultures worldwide merged hip-hop with their music, and so on. The globalisation of music heavily influenced the popularity of mainstream pop music and what counted as ‘pop’ music. A critical analysis is required at this juncture because who gets to decide what is and is not popular music, and how does music become popular? These are questions that can be answered by dissecting the evolution of streaming and charting. Before MTV popularised music videos, listeners relied on physical copies and radio stations to listen to music. The introduction of MTV revolutionised the music industry as artists relied on the visual aspect of their music to attract an audience. From there, music streaming has gone from Napster to Limewire to the pioneer of streaming- Spotify. These streaming services influence what counts as popular music. The Billboard Hot 100, for example, is dependent on the filtered US streams of Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube, and Amazon music.

Depending on what is considered a ‘hit’ and popular music, more and more people across the globe will be exposed to it. The focus on new artists or the spotlight these streaming services provide lesser-known artists allows for more people to discover them from various parts of the world. Genres and artists are no longer limited to a particular audience. What’s more interesting is the fact that artists and producers have taken it upon themselves to experiment and explore different genres, more often than not combing different genres into one. It is rare to see a pop artist make music that strictly adheres to the definition of ‘pop’. This has led to the blurring of genres- a pop artist might make music drawn from jazz and r&b or takes elements from alt-rock and indie music. Music still plays a role in creating one’s social identity; however, the divisions that were once distinct have become more fluid.

Mainstream music and politics: Art has always been political. As mentioned earlier, music was used to channel the emotions the people felt during politically unstable times. They would take their stance through the art that was produced. It could be said that music played a particularly important role during times of war. The apartheid was a difficult period for Black people, and throughout their struggle, they incorporated rhythm and sound. One of the earliest songs during this period, titled “Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd” (“Watch Out, Verwoerd”), was very influential in the struggle movement. The lyrics translate to ‘Here is the black man, Verwoerd! Watch out, here is the black man, Verwoerd!’ It directly calls out Hendrik Verwoerd, who was the South African prime minister from 1958 until his assassination, he was often called the ‘Architect of Aparateid’ because of his role in implementing the system (Vershbow, 2010).

Other powerfully resistant music during this period include Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine, Fight the Power by Public Enemy, and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gill Scott Heron, to name a few. Music was raw and was unapologetic in calling out the system. However, fast-forward to Bush’s reign, there was a visible decline in the release of political music. Artists were afraid to speak out, and this ties back in with the evolution of streaming and charting. The changes made dictated how popular an artist would be, and in order to become popular, they needed ties with the industry and the appreciation of the public. Saying the ‘wrong’ thing had the potential of taking down their career.

The Dixie Chicks are a great example of this. In 2003 they made a statement criticizing the Bush government, and the public found this incredibly controversial. Their CDs, albums, and merch were destroyed, and people actively boycotted their performances and releases, which damaged their career to the point of no return. This marked the Dixie Chicks as a cautionary tale for artists of all kinds who tried to speak out against the government. The importance of charting must not be neglected because artists who did produce songs post the Dixie Chicks rage that was critical of the government were not remotely close to the top 40.

In 2004 Green Day released American Idiot, which took the people by storm. The punk rock song brought back elements of protest music of the earlier days and unabashedly called out Bush and his response to the 9/11 attacks. Along with American Idiot, System of a Down released B.Y.OB (Bring Your Own Bombs), which was arguably one of the most popular rock songs of the year. The lyrics “ Why don’t presidents fight the war, why do they only send the poor” particularly stood out and neatly pens down the anger and frustration felt at that time.

Rhythmic resistance across the globe: Protest music is a global phenomenon. One can see residues of resistance through these timeless pieces. During the CAA protests in India, people took to the streets singing Hum Dekhenge, a lyrically powerful protest song. A line from the song translates to “When the mountains of oppression and cruelty will float away like carded wool, we will see.” The kind of emotional catharsis that such songs give is incredible, they tie individuals from all over the country together, and the sole focus is on resisting the system. Given India’s diversity, it is to be expected that protest music exists in different languages, each holding its own story and shared meaning. Arivu, a South Indian rapper, criticizes the system and calls out their abuse of power through his rap piece Hashtag Justice. It is in direct response to the custodial killings of a father and son who hailed from Sathankulam, a town in Tamil Nadu.

Ebright, a Mexican musician, uses his platform to speak against the atrocities the Trump administration has committed against immigrants and Mexicans in particular. A part of his song Dreamers goes like this: “So I say to make America great, my friend / They’re gonna have to make America Mexico again / All of these DREAMers could contend that they / Never crossed the border, the border crossed them!”. In order for America to be great again, it must return lost territories (during Mexico-America War) back to the people of Mexico.

Throughout their career, BTS, an idol group hailing from South Korea, has spoken out against the inherently oppressive nature of the South Korean government, which has led to a number of their songs being flagged as ‘controversial’.  Am I Wrong is one such song that directly attacks the elite. The lyrics “We’re all dogs and pigs” are in reference to a political scandal with an official from the Ministry of Education, and “Hey, shout it out MAYDAY MAYDAY” calls out the now impeached president on her disastrous management of the Sewol Ferry tragedy. The song questions the unjust dynamic that exists between the elite and the commoners. It is interesting to note that on-stage performances are reflective of this as well.

Conclusion: Music continues to grow, and the kind of importance it has in individual’s and the collective’s lives differ with context. Songs can tie people together because of their unflinching political stance or because it provides comfort and healing properties. With the growth and evolution of technology, no single genre is contained with a specific social group. The distinctions which were once strikingly clear have become blurred. This not only allows the general population to explore more styles but also allows artists to experiment with sounds and genres. So to answer the question ‘what is sociological about music?’, it is everything.


Carr-Wilcoxson, A. (2010). Protest music of the Vietnam War: description and classification of various protest songs (thesis).

De Arce, D. M. (1974). Contemporary Sociological Theories and the Sociology of Music. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 5(2), 231.

Hunt, P. (2017). The Sociology of Music. In K. Korgen (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Sociology: Specialty and Interdisciplinary Studies (pp. 304-310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316418369.032

Roy, W. G., & Dowd, T. J. (2010). What Is Sociological about Music? Annual Review of Sociology, 36(1), 183–203.

Vershbow, M. E. (2010, June 1). The Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Movement. Inquiries Journal.

Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, April 25). Sociomusicology. Wikipedia.

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Prathyusha Madhu is a student at FLAME University, currently pursuing Psychology and Sociology. Her interests lie in poetry and music.