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Darryl Cressman (Simon Fraser University) Music as Media: An Innisian History of Western Musical Culture

One of the recurring examples used by Max Weber to explain the rational character of Western society is music. Rationalization, for Weber, is both a material process and a mode of thought, and in this way musical culture is instructive for understanding the object of Weber’s sociological analysis. Asking, “why harmonic music developed from the almost universal polyphony of folk music only in Europe and only in a particular time period, while everywhere else the rationalization of music took a different path?” (1978, p.95), Weber identifies a number of characteristics unique to Western musical culture: orchestras, sonatas, symphonies, opera and instruments like the piano, violin, and organ, each known only in the occident. What is striking about Weber’s proposed historical insights is what he determines to be the basis of Western musical culture, notation: “The specific conditions of musical development in the occident involve, first of all, the invention of modern notation” (1958, p.83). To point to notation as the beginning of Western musical culture is to argue that Western musical culture began not with music, but with media; that it began with an inscription, not a sound. Notation was the starting point of a millennium of musical culture characterized by the desire to make music permanent so as to reproduce it, control it, profit from it and disseminate it. Music became media after notation, a tradition that has shaped the musical culture we inhabit today. Starting from this point, my paper will examine the history of Western musical culture as media through a framework influenced by the work of media historian Harold Innis (1950, 1951). The interpretation of musical culture as media, based on Innis’ historiography, is particularly apt for this investigation for a variety of reasons. It prioritizes media in explaining the characteristics and trajectory of, in this case, Western musical culture. Influenced by Innis’ historical perspective, I pay attention to four transformations in media: notation and hand written scores (1000-1450); the invention of the printing press and the production of printed scores (1450-1800); the mass production and consumption of printed scores (1800-1900); and, recorded music (1900- ). From this, it is possible to identify particular cultural biases that these media lend themselves to and the monopolies of knowledge that they are predisposed towards. The purpose of this perspective, then, is to explore how patterns of control, composition, performance, listening, interpretation and commercialization emerge within musical culture and how particular media shape these patterns. This, of course, is simply the beginning of a much larger project, one that can only be discussed in quite general terms at this time. For the purposes of this paper, this particular reading of the history of musical culture provides a framework through which to interpret media and contemporary musical culture. In particular, I am interested in exploring the significance of the mp3 as a particular form of recorded music in light of both the history of music as media presented previously and studies that can be described as influenced by, or sympathetic to, media theory (Kittler; Sterne; Corbett). Some of the questions I will explore include: What is the significance of recordings against previous changes in media? Is this an abrupt break with history, or, a continuation of existing patterns? Is the mp3, and digitization in general, a radical change within musical culture, or simply another moment within the materially heterogeneous history of recorded music, no different from the shift from 78 to LP to cassette? These, and other questions, will hopefully lead to a re-thinking of musical culture, and in particular contemporary musical culture, wherein the question of media is given a primary role.


Works Cited
Attali, J. (1985).
Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Corbett, J. (1994).
“Free, Single & Disengaged: Listening Pleasure and the Popular Music Object.” In Extended Play: Sounding Off From John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham: Duke University PRess Innis, H. (1950).
Empire and Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Innis, H. (1951).
The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Kittler, F. (1999).
Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Winthrop-Young, G. & Wutz, M. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Sterne, J. (2006).
“The mp3 as Cultural Artifact.” New Media & Society 8(5), pp.825- 842. Weber, M. (1958).
The Rational and Social Foundation of Music. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Weber, M. (1978).
Selections in Translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.