Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 2 (Winter 2001-2002)

Denora, Tia. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 181 pp.

Music in Everyday Life is the rather dull title of an anything-but-dull book.  To take one example from this remarkable study, what could be more fascinating than a consideration of how introducing music changes the way we experience units of time? Think about bicycling along a familiar street while humming a tune and, upon “snapping out of it,” you realize you have not only missed the scenery, but have lost a segment of time as well. Author Tia DeNora, a University of Exeter professor and past winner of the International Sociological Association's “Young Sociologist” award, contends that in such instances, music does not simply fill in the time of waiting or the activity, but it “reconstruct[s] the ongoing aim” of an individual's action.  Thus, and as DeNora adroitly puts it, the expected outcome of the activity (i.e., destination at the ride's end) is instead experienced as coming “too soon,” spoiling the pleasure of the music (8).

These mundane musical experiences, which DeNora calls “music as a technology of the self,” have been too rarely analyzed or understood. Indeed, as Shepherd and Wicke have observed with respect to cultural theory in its application to musical life, “there has been little conceptual space created for a theorization of the private, internal world of an individual's awareness of existence and self” (1997: 40).  Moreover, and until DeNora's book came along, there was almost no discussion of how individuals use music as a resource for creating and sustaining mood, well-being and physiological balance.  Using a series of ethnographic studies including in-depth interviews with a group of fifty-two British and American women aged eighteen to seventy-seven, the author examines how the subjects utilize music in such activities as exercise classes, karaoke evenings, at-home work, and shopping in large retail centres.

Fortunately the book moves beyond bald statements of what music “does” to respondents - how it “makes them happy,” etc. - to ascertaining the tangle of practices “in and through which people mobilize music for the doing, being and feeling that is social existence” (49).  DeNora has found, for example, that her respondents worked like disc jockeys to their internal selves, critically aware of how they used music and its technology to arrive at, enhance, and even alter aspects of themselves within the routine of their daily lives:

“Like with my R&B, most of the time I listen to it when I'm, you know, trying to relax.  I'm gonna sleep, sometimes I'll throw on a few tracks to wake me up, nice 'n slow and then I'll throw on something else.  And then, sometimes, you know, if I'm not really, not in that relaxed mood, I'm like, you know, I don't wanna listen to that - and I'll throw something fast on, or something fast is playing and I'm like - That's too chaotic for me right now, I have to put something slow on.” (Latoya, a twenty-five-year-old sales assistant at Manhattan's Tower Records, p. 49)
“And sometimes you just can't find the right thing, or you just want a particular bit and it's too difficult to find it in the tape, I mean a CD is a bit easier because you can just flick around.” (Lucy, an administrator for an international academic organization, in her early 50s, p. 50)

One of the strengths of this book is the attempt on the part of the author to ground the various ethnographic studies within a theoretical/multi-disciplined aggregate of contemporary thought.  Not only do we see the application of socio-linguistic theory, sub-cultural theory, sociology, and psychology, but also there is the welcome addition of, among other things, neonatology.  Neonatal science is used to great effect in a discussion of how infants achieve homeostasis, or, regular functioning of vital signs to ensure survival.  Current thought has it that one of the key mechanisms for establishing this viable bodily organization is through entrainment, a kind of integration of bodily features within some sort of recurring pattern or rhythm found in the greater environment. It is no surprise, perhaps, that in recent years, neonatologists have figured music as a crucial environmental material to help achieve the necessary level of entrainment for well-being.  DeNora hints at certain musical forms and genres (such as the march, waltz, cha-cha-cha, or children's nursery song), which as part of their stylistic aspects, are naturally predisposed to entraining the human body in small, sometimes “imperceptible micro-movements, such as how one holds one's eyebrows, cheekbones or shoulders, the tensions of one's muscles” (78).

With so much to celebrate about this wide-ranging and insightful study, I confess to some unease when pondering why such a book would choose to deal almost exclusively with one sex (female), while not making it a central feature of the book, as say, film theorist Jackie Stacey did with her 1994 book-length treatment on female cinematic spectatorship, Star Gazing:  Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship.  Indeed, DeNora claims her project was inspired by a casual conversation she had in 1998 in North London, England with a (male) stall manager at a location in which she was soliciting interviews with passers-by. As well, she quotes a male karaoke host, “Karaoke Bob,” on his views of how patrons interact with the music.  In another section, a severely disabled young man, Gary, (who is not able to speak for himself) is discussed within a conversation on music therapy.  DeNora does offer a rather abrupt statement on why her interviewees are women, saying she was “concerned with redressing the gender imbalance characteristic of cultural studies of music and social life” (48). While not disagreeing with this statement, I find it difficult to accept without any reservations the profound and perceptive claims she is making with respect to self and aesthetic reflexivity in a late-modern age when we cannot be sure if such claims are gender neutral. That concern aside, I have not read such a provocative book in a good long while.

-Teresa Magdanz