How Music Shapes Self-Identity

Music and Identity

Music and Identity

Sociological and communication studies have established that music is important in constructing self-identities (Gardikiotis and Baltzis 144). People share their intentions, emotions, and meanings through music which may not be possible through their spoken languages (Hargreaves et al. 1). Accordingly, music shapes individual or collective subjectivities and experiences by evoking deep and profound feelings through the infinitely subtle works of skilled composers or performers. Today, music is increasingly used as a means for regulating our everyday moods and behaviors as well as expressing ourselves to others in ways that we prefer. It follows that one’s musical tastes and preferences are likely to determine their values, attitudes and generally their worldview. This paper draws from the theories of Frith (1996), and DeNora (2000) to explore the impact of music in shaping people’s individual or collective identities.

Impact on Emotions

Music has a visceral, emotive effect on its listeners. Frith in his text builds on this assertion by explaining that music does not necessarily represent only a particular group of people but takes a life of its own once it is released (109). Therefore, there’s always a way it will influence its listeners; although it’s not possible to determine how much of an effect it will have. This is because music may be produced in one place for one reason but end up being appropriated in another place for a totally different reason (109). It appears that music as a form of art is originally accidental but it ends up making its own claims in the way it influences people’s emotions regardless of who the audience is. The usual academic position is that importance is attached on the effect music has on people based on how it is performed; however, Frith argues that the issue is how music produces its audience and constructs an experience in them (109). Therefore, his argument rests on the premises that identity is mobile and that music-making or music listening is best understood as a ‘self-in-process’ experience (109).

Frith’s ideas on how music has a powerful influences on its listeners offers an avenue to an understanding that the effects of music will take different forms. In this regard, when listening to the same type of music; one group of people may exhibit positive emotions like happiness and joy while another may show anger, frustration and irritation.  Popular music studies have posited that certain ‘music is good’ but there has emerged compelling counter evidence. Therefore, the effects of music are far from neutral and whatever position they hold on the spectrum of emotions, they have been noted to have deep inward influence on listeners. Musicians are therefore carriers of influence; whether they know it or not and often, they have no control over the impacts their music will have on listeners. This is particularly true of youth and adolescents of today’s society who are very malleable to the ideas they get from the music they listen to and thus can show emotions such as moodiness, resentment of happiness or optimism among others.

The relation between music and emotion has often been marred with discrepancies in music philosophy or psychology thus the concept of anger in music is not properly understood (Ansdell 72). Frith does well to explain the relationships between music, noise and anger thus giving a considerable clarity on this subject. Noise does annoy and there are moments when some people will perceive music as noise thus getting irritated by it. Anger may be evoked from a certain type of music if it invades one’s ‘spatial integrity.’ This does not mean that they are angered at the music but rather with the social circumstances that surround the music.  People will perceive music differently thus for one to have a certain emotion towards a particular type of music, they need to intentionally judge it based on their own understanding or based on the society’s view of it. This in turn determines whether the music will be considered as noise. Frith further comments that to make music is not just about organizing different sounds together but also to make sure that the sounds ‘make their mark.’

The need to Feel Part of a Group

Individuals may use music to feel part of a group within social organizations.  In this regard, DeNora argues that music is the source of ‘raw material’ that individuals use in a bid to express control over their moods, convey meaning on unclear things, and experience virtual reality while articulating their identity. This differs with Frith’s idea in the sense that he is of the view that an individual most likely has no control of the effect music has on them which. Her emphasis is that music is a material useful in the everyday life. She begins by focusing on ethnographic case studies that talk about women’s use of music in romantic encounters, managing their interpersonal relationships and in preparation for work (1-20). A balanced view of the effect of music has on an individual is that the individual may be helpless at the power of music or actually control its effects depending on different circumstances. Therefore, whether an individual is able to control the effects music has on them or not, they tend to use music in such a way that they can be part of a social group of their choice.

DeNora goes ahead to borrow the concept of entertainment from social psychology and thus explains how individuals seek to be part of social groups by using music to order their bodily behavior in such a way that it matches that of their external environments. Through case studies of aerobics classes and shopping activities, DeNora illustrates how individuals use their associations with different music genres to perform certain bodily behaviors in a bid to be accepted in certain social settings. In these situations, the aesthetics of music arouse an individual’s pre-cognitive understandings in relation to the social discourses surrounding certain genres of music. Consequently, the individual is prohibited from certain social behavior and thus try to belong to the prevailing social group requirements. It follows that music becomes an important tool for social organization as individuals use their affective and aesthetic experiences to be part of certain social organizations.

The text, Music in Everyday Life by DeNora thus explains the sense of trying to belong to a group by paralleling the 20th Century theory of mass culture. On the one hand Adorno emphasizes on the mass culture as the driving force for social behavior with regard to music (47) while on the other hand DeNora builds on the material culture theory. Therefore music performance and the associated behavior according to DeNora is due to particular music materials. It follows that music for dancing or shopping will enroll certain individuals into listening or performing while yet others may be prohibited from certain actions such as women initiating romance via heavy metal. DeNora’s may have a different theoretical frame but she still echoes Adorno in the sense of a return to music entertainment for understanding listening. Therefore, an understanding is further developed on how people use music to belong to a social group.

The Cathartic Function of Popular Music for the Self

Adorno’s work gives insight to the typical structure of popular in comparison ‘serious music’ thus showing the experience of emotional release that a listener to popular music is likely to have. He bases his arguments on a dichotomy that often is only superficially acknowledged by both listeners and critics of music. For Adorno, popular music has an abstract structure and its hallmark is standardization. Therefore, vastly different genres will assume the verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern with no introduction of anything fundamentally novel. It follows that popular songs are recognizable by such features as the entrance into the chorus (popularly known as the hook) which tends to excite the listeners. On the contrary serious music does not have an abstract structure and there is a meaning which is based on the relationship between different parts of the song. Adorno gives an example of Beethoven’s music and how its individual parts draw their meaning from the context of their environment. It follows that serious music follows as formulaic behavior which misses in popular music.

The contrasts between popular music and serious music paint a picture that the latter is better than the former. Therefore it appears that Adorno considers popular music to be of a lesser value than serious music. However, his arguments reveal certain positive aspects of popular music to the listener. Contingently assembled materials are repeated in popular songs thus forming their structure. It can be thus concluded that the popular songs are structured in such a way that their materials can give them their form. This then provides grounds for a positive outlook on popular songs in the sense that they embody an alternative concept that dominates. Through Adorno’s work, it becomes possible to appraise popular music in a positive way. In this regard, popular music is considered in the sense that that it can be used for presenting truth in the sense that materials and materials’ bodies are able to realize themselves.

According to Adorno, standards in popular music are set by the media with a view to catching the listener’s attention. This focus on the entertainments tends to meet the needs of the listener which results in a catharsis, thus appealing to their emotions. In this cause-effect arrangement, the listener is not challenged to read deep into the specific elements of the song but rather to enjoy it. It is also possible in popular music to substitute elements of a song without losing the meaning of the song. This makes it possible for the listener to have a wide range of popular songs which are simple and able to help them to release their emotions easily. The rigidity of serious songs means that their utility in entertainment is limited as compared to simpler and less rigid popular songs. For instance, a study on popular songs that convey sorrowful emotions established that they enjoy widespread popularity with varying expressions across different cultures or forms of popular music (Tsai et al. 410). It was also noted in the study that that there were different reactions at different time periods in the songs; at the passage that precedes the chorus and at the start of the chorus. The skin conductance of study participants was such that the first part of the songs caused significant decrease in finger temperature while the second part caused an increase in the finger temperature. This meant that the study subjects were experiencing an accumulation of negative emotions at the first part of the song while the second part reflected a release or regulation of the negative emotions. As noted by Adorno and the study above, it can be seen that popular music evokes a cathartic effect on a listener.

Music and Self-identity

DeNora sees music as a tool for exploring the relationship with identity and also helps in ordering one’s life. Accordingly, music acts as an active ingredient for the care of self thus one is able to hold a coherent image of themselves and understand who they are (63). This does not happen by fluke but involves activity in the social and cultural domains through remembering and turning over past experiences. Consequently one gets to a point where they are able to construct an image of who they really are. Music plays an important role in this process as it serves as a way of memorizing and constructing one’s identity. Therefore, music does not only serve as a device for artefactual memory but also for future utility in the generating future about who one is.

Often people use music to remember key people in their lives such as loved ones who are dead. For instance one may remember their dead grandparent through a piece of music that they loved when they were alive. There may also be memories of lovers or former partners in some forms of music that people will tend to experience and such are the thoughts that help them understand who they really are. When people hold others in their memories through certain songs; these songs reveal aspects of their emotions and thus help them to construct their self-identity. It follow that music in this sense is used to relive moments in the past and thus creates an interpersonal link between where and with who one has been thus helping them to understand who they are (64)

Sometimes the power of music to unearth the emotional content of relationships may be too painful to bear. For example, if a particular song reminds someone of their lover who they were very intimate with but since died, there will be resultant effects of not wanting to listen to the music (65). This therefore make them understand that they haven’t really moved on from the loss and may never truly do so. Their understanding of self in this respect will be that they are still dealing with not having their loved one with them; and the pain that comes with it. Such a reliving of past memories includes a presentation of self to self as well as to others. This then can cause them to project their past into the future and to help them remember what their accomplished identities are, what they are currently and also what they would become. Memories carried in music therefore come up with trajectories of the past that carry momentum with them. The power of music to carry past memories and thus construct ones identity is based on the co-presence of music with other things which include people, events and places (66). The actual meaning of a song is not necessarily linked to the memory one has with it but over time it begins to hold a meaning held in one’s memory. For instance, one may remember their loved one who is dead through a happy song. They may even cry upon listening to the happy song because of the kind of memory it on them.

Music and the Nation

DeNora explains that music has the power to affect the shape of social agency. Therefore, to be able to control music in social settings is a source of power. When a collection of musical items from diverse musical styles embody aspects of a given nation, they end up creating a national identity. Over time, songs that did not necessarily have national outlook may develop and thus possess national pre-eminence when certain meanings are attached to them by citizens of a country. It follows that music may be stabilized through certain practices and procedures over time so that it evokes a national identity. Music may be reappropriated and applied in certain interpretive uses thus it ends up acquiring a national outlook. As opined by DeNora, musical affect is contingent upon the circumstances in which is appropriated thus the semiotic the semiotic force may not be fully specified in advance before it becomes a source of national identity.

Generally speaking, the presentation of non-musical ideas in a musical way is quite complex as there are multiple interpretations that are encountered along the way even when a nation has relatively homogenous citizens. Therefore, national fields of popular music provide the platform through which various cultures of music engage in a contest and struggles; leading to the emergence of some songs that will exhibit national tastes, sensibilities and characteristics. These are the songs which get institutionalized as forming part of music with a national identity. The process is quite complex and may include contests in that appropriation of styles, accusations of imitations and authenticity claims. There are also issues of power that will come to play in the context of the control of education systems and which kinds of music are taught in all schools.

Music and Identity
Music and Identity

Negus, ‘Articulation’

A famous quote by Karl Marx in 1973 said that ‘a product receives its last finishing touch in consumption.’ It follow that Negus, ‘articulation’ refers to the above mentioned quote when looking at music and the enduring distance between production and consumption. In this argument, music is seen to achieve its meaning when it is made then listened to. Music thus becomes articulate if it is not only produced but also reaches its audience. It is in the course of production meeting consumption that there is an emergence of identities among individuals and different societies. Cultural intermediaries play an important role in bridging the role between the production and consumption of music. In this sense, the prevailing culture and practices that proliferate after music is production will influence how listeners will perceive who they are (Negus 502).

Cultural intermediaries act as a special occupational grouping that comes between music production and consumption. Accordingly, creative artists who embody certain cultural practices will form a point of connection between music-making and listening (Negus 502). In the process, the meaning of music will not remain static but will go through dynamic transformations of its meaning, depending on the cultural intermediaries. These intermediaries have been accorded roles of creativity, self-consciousness and reflexivity; thus they will cause music to have meaning in a socially acceptable way (Negus 511). In this regard, music’s point of origin (Production) does not generate a fixed meaning for the audience but rather changes multiple times as it traverses the distance to the listeners. Therefore, articulation is often noted at the point of consumption rather than production as it depends on the different meanings and identities that will emerge when it interacts with the cultural intermediaries. In the foregoing, identity is socially constructed thus music is a key source for constructing individual or group identities.


Is Simon Frith additionally

Comments that “… to make music is not just to

Put sounds together in an organized way, but also

To ensure that these sounds make their mark”

(1996, p. 100).

Simon Frith additionally

Comments that “… to make music is not just to

Put sounds together in an organized way, but also

To ensure that these sounds make their mark”

(1996, p. 100).

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