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Music and Manipulation: On the Social Uses and Social Control of Music

by Steven Brown and Ulrik Volgsten, Editors
Berghahn Books, New York, 2006
400 pp., illus. Trade, $80.00; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 1-57181-489-2; 1-84545-098-1.

Reviewed by Alise Piebalga
University of Plymouth


This fascinating and challenging book is an outcome of a conference on the sociology of music, held in Stockholm, Sweden, that provided a rare platform for psychologists, humanists, and sociologists to develop a common discourse, addressing the most fundamental and pressing questions concerning the production, distribution and consumption of music. The topically wide ranging essays have been divided into two major themes: ‘Manipulation by Music’ and ‘Manipulation of Music,’ and have been further grouped under headings, such as ‘Musical Events,’ ‘Background Music,’ ‘Audiovisual Media,’ ‘Governmental/Industrial Control,’ and ‘Control by Reuse.’

The concepts of control and manipulation are introduced by Steven Brown. He examines the fundamental structure and mechanism of music as a communication system and highlights the generally little-regarded agency and role of sender/initiator. He concludes with a plea for a more pragmatic approach to the sociology of music, providing a framework for practical intervention and challenging existing epistemology. However, Brown’s communication model is challenged by Peter J. Martin in ‘Music, Identity and Social Control’ in chapter two. Martin proposes that, it is not sufficient to view music as a ‘message’ passed down from the ‘sender’ to the ‘receiver,’ but as a social activity deeply embedded into the social contexts of its production and consumption. The author negates the existence of a passive victim manipulated through music by an active sender and highlights an individual who actively pursues and constructs a distinct and unique identity.

Similarly to the two authors above, Ellen Dissanayake and Ulrik Volgsten have contributed to the wider debate on music’s uses, manipulation and roots, as well as the role in the formation of individual identities and social cohesion in an original manner. These essays provide an introduction and a larger, theoretical framework for the following discussions that deal with more specific areas of research within the discourse. One of such essays is Rob Strachan’s ‘Music Video and Genre: Structure, Context and Commerce.’ The author examines the structural elements of two disparate music videos and illustrates their close assimilation into the social conventions and cultural associations of their respective musical genres. Strachan highlights the music industry’s economic drive behind such classification, manipulation and vigorous marketing; however, he also concludes that the audience is not passive in the reception of old and the production of new social and cultural conventions; calling for further research into the subject area.

The papers grouped under the title-‘Manipulation of Music’ are just as diverse and challenging. For example, Marie Korpe, Ole Reitov and Martin Cloonan in ‘Music Censorship from Plato to the Present’ examine the driving forces and mechanisms behind music censorship with particular attention to the religious and governmental agencies. Their case studies have been taken from the former Soviet bloc, Nazi Germany, South Africa, Afghanistan and modern day America.

On the other hand, papers by Roger Wallis, Ola Stockfelt, Ulrik Volgsten and Yngve Åkerberg examine and dissect the various elements of the multinational music industry from its past and present structure to the various dilemmas surrounding the concept and the practice of copyright laws. However, Joseph J. Moreno’s ‘Orpheus in Hell: Music in the Holocaust’ turned out to be the most thought provoking. The essay examines the various occurrences of the manipulation of music during the period of the Holocaust. From the formation of prisoner ensembles forced to perform to the SS men and women as well as fellow prisoners and family members while they are being marched to gas chambers to the last attempts at quenching the soul by turning to music. The question begs an answer: If Orpheus’ music can make wild beasts tame and soften the hearts of Hades and Persephone, why the suffering and the pain of another man, expressed through such an emotional and infectious medium cannot melt the heart of another?

Moreno’s essay, as well as all of the contributions to this book, illustrates the diversity, the depth and the potential of the field of the sociology of music. As much as these texts enlighten, they also highlight the vastness of the research yet to be conducted. However, this book is far more than just a compilation of papers presented at a conference, they are relevant discussions to anybody who turns on the radio, purchases or downloads a record or even sings a lullaby.



Updated 1st October 2006

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