Why Am I Here? Musics, Cultures, Emotions

An introduction to who I am, what I do, and why I think music is important socially, emotionally, and politically.

An Ottoman period kanun (plucked board zither) in the Mevlevi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey

I am new here. A good question to ask whenever one finds oneself in a new space, be it physical or virtual is, "Why am I here?" This is not always an easy question to answer, and can sometimes lead the witting questioner down a mountain path that leads to dead ends or disorientation. 

In this case, putting existential questions to one side, the answer is fairly simple. I am here because I would like to share things I have learnt, and things I have experienced that mostly concern the broadly defined verb "musicking."

To those unaware of this transformation of the noun "music" into the verb "musicking", its stems from the work of Christopher Small. His view was that the idea of music being an abstract object was essentially drawn from the Enlightenment view of "art for art's sake," which situates arts as merely objects of entertainment, for "disinterested pleasure." 

He proposed instead that music is not an object but an action, a process which exists only in the moment. Music is not for its own sake as it can (and often does) have a specific cultural function.

Another vital idea from Christopher Small is that musicking is not only implied in the performance of music. It includes any action related to music, from performing, to listening, to building instruments, and it is this breadth of meaning by which I hope to consider music (by writing this, I am musicking right now!).

As you may have guessed by now, what I do is take an academic approach to music. I play guitar, hold a degree in Popular Music, and am a Masters student in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London. 

Ethnomusicology had a number of definitions, and while the term's inventor, Jaap Kunst, meant it more as the study of "ethnic," meaning non-Western music, perhaps its most widely accepted definition is described in the title of Alan Merriam's book, The Anthropology of Music

One reason for illustrating this is that it's annoying having to explain myself every time I meet a new person.

My main interest is in musical emotion, particularly in relation to lyrics, and in the Indian/Pakistani devotional Sufi (mystical Islamic) music qawwali

However, in these stories, I hope to cover a range of musical experiences and a range of social, psychological, and political implications of these.

It is partly for music's emotional power that I believe it to be politically important. Although it is never this simple, some theories of musical emotion (that is, emotion directly induced by musical experience, rather than "intended" emotion or emotion perceived as being expressed by music), suggest that it is contingent on the build-up and release of tension, of expectation. 

If this is true, then it suggests the possibility of the sublimation (transference) of potentially violent feeling to a more or less "harmless" experience. Music is used by many people as a form of emotional regulation. Music can also create a safe space for the airing of grievances, be used directly as political resistance, or as a method to bring together two peoples.

It can, of course, be politically damaging too, with war drums keeping soldiers in time, orchestras idealising the division of labour in capitalist society for the consolidation of the power of elites, or the use of music by US soldiers in Iraq to desensitise themselves to the killing, as well as to torture captives.

In summary, music is socially important, because it is functional. It is emotionally important because it regulates the emotions. And it is politically important as a space of contestation or domination. I hope that didn't get too academic, and I promise the next one will be more specific. Next time you hear or play a piece of music, try to think about what it is that is happening to you, and what is political about the content or context of this music. 


Thomas Graves
Thomas Graves

Aspiring academic, sometime activist, lapsed musician. Creating content on music in culture, music and emotion, and music in politics.

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Why Am I Here? Musics, Cultures, Emotions