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Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening

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Extending the inquiry of his early groundbreaking books, Christopher Small strikes at the heart of traditional studies of Western music by asserting that music is not a thing, but rather an activity. In this new book, Small outlines a theory of what he terms "musicking," a verb that encompasses all musical activity from composing to performing to listening to a Walkman to singing in the shower. Using Gregory Bateson's philosophy of mind and a Geertzian thick description of a typical concert in a typical symphony hall, Small demonstrates how musicking forms a ritual through which all the participants explore and celebrate the relationships that constitute their social identity. This engaging and deftly written trip through the concert hall will have readers rethinking every aspect of their musical worlds.

241 pages, Kindle Edition

First published June 15, 1998

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Christopher Small

23 books5 followers

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Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
37 reviews
August 6, 2021
Small tackles the ambitious and perhaps self-defeating question of why we play music, and what meanings are conveyed when we do. "Music" as this paradoxical thing, laden with implications and yet on a fundamental level totally incomprehensible, is a conundrum I think about a lot. I think Small's proposal for a new musical framework centered around "musicking" as a ritual of communication through performance, one which at every step of the way questions the assumptions implicit in that process, is a good one, and I think this book may be important and eye-opening for a lot of people. That being said, I found it rather exhausting. Small approaches the topic with this sort of old-philosophy abstractness, where arguments are backed up almost entirely by the strength of the author's rhetoric rather than any empirical or anecdotal evidence. His structuring of the book as a deconstruction of a classical concert coupled with three interludes felt needlessly messy and weirdly removed, and maybe things have changed in the last two decades but characterizations of orchestra performers as motionless and disengaged felt at best too general. And while Small assures us that this framework for musicking is descriptive, not prescriptive, his tone consistently meanders toward a condemnation of the classical canon (which I would probably be more fine with if that was his point). While pointing out how aspects of modern day concert going and concert giving are arbitrary and artificial, Small repeatedly resorts to "Mozart wouldn't have done it this way" and other assorted appeals to history, which feels weird juxtaposed next to harsh criticisms of the historically informed performance movement. This book is ultimately pretty cool and has some fun passages, but I think it ended up being a relatively unengaging read for me at this time.
Profile Image for K.
277 reviews3 followers
November 20, 2007
The reason why I decided to become a musicologist back when I didn't even know what musicology was.
April 14, 2016
Ένα σύγγραμμα που σίγουρα μπορεί να αποτελέσει εργαλείο (σε κάθε άνθρωπο, και ιδιαίτερα σε αυτούς που έχουν συνειδητοποιήσει την σημαντικότητα της μουσικής στη ζωή τους) ανάλυσης, εις βάθος κατανόησης και επανεκτίμησης του φαινομένου που ονομάζουμε μουσικοτροπία. Η μουσικοτροπία είναι μια δραστηριότητα μέσω της οποίας δημιουργούμε κάποιες σχέσεις οι οποίες αναπαριστούν τις σχέσεις του κόσμου μας-όχι όπως είναι, αλλα όπως θα ευχόμασταν να είναι. Η μουσικη πράξη κατα τον Σμολ φέρνει τους ανθρώπους σε επαφη με το "συνδετικό ιστό" ενα τεράστιο δίκτυο που συνδέει του ανθρώπους μεταξύ τους και με τον κόσμο. Μέσω της πράξης επιβεβαιώνονται, απορρίπτονται και αναδιαμορφώνονται οι σχέσεις αυτές. Αμφισβητεί την άποψη που πολλοί άνθρωποι έχουν για τον εαυτό τους οτι ειναι άμουσοι και ατάλαντοι. Αυτό που ονομάζουμε μουσική είναι ένα αποκύημα της φαντασίας, μια αφαίρεση της πράξης (μέρος μιας ευρύτερης τελετουργίας), της οποίας η πραγματικότητα εμφανίζεται μόλις αρχίσουμε να την εξετάζουμε από κοντά. Αποκαθηλώνει τα δημιουργήματα της τέχνης ως υπεραξίες. Καταπιάνεται με το παράδειγμα της συναυλίας συμφωνικής μουσικής για να εξάγει σημειολογικά εργαλεία. Οι χώρες και οι πόλεις που θέλουν να σηματοδοτήσουν την είσοδό τους στον «ανεπτυγμένο» κόσμο κατασκευάζουν ένα "κέντρο για τις παραστατικές τέχνες", όπως τα μέγαρα, και ιδρύουν μια συμφωνική ορχήστρα. Καταπιάνεται επίσης με τη σημειολογία της αρχιτεκτονικής αυτών των κτηρίων. Τα συναυλιακά μέγαρα που είναι ουσιαστικά μια εφεύρεση του 19ου αιώνα κατασκευάστικαν από την αστική τάξη ως επιβεβαίωση των μεταξυ τους σχέσεων και ως δείγμα διαφοροποίησης ισχύος από κατώτερες τάξεις. Πολύ ενδιαφερον παρουσιάζει και η παραλληλία με το θέατρο και πως αυτή οδήγησε στην εδραίωση της φόρμας στην κλασική μουσική. Το ρεπερτόριο μια κλασικής συναυλίας που σχηματίστηκε απο συγκεκριμένες ανάγκες των ανθρώπων για κατασκευή μύθων (συνθετών) ως υποδείγματα δράσης, παγιώθηκε μόλις στον Ά παγκόσμιο και σίγουρα βρίσκεται εκτός μητρικού περιβάλλοντος, και εξυπηρετεί διαφορετικούς σκοπούς, γεγονός που υπονομεύει τη σοβαροφάνεια μιας τέτοιας συναυλίας. Επίσης θίγεται στο βιβλίο η σπανιότητα των μουσικών αστέρων ως ένας μηχανισμός που μέσω της εμπορευματοποίησης της μουσικής δημιουργεί την αξία αυτών των ολίγων, γεγονός που αναδεικνύει το συμφέρον του συστήματος να κρατά στη διαχείρησή του (βλέπε διαγωνισμούς) τον αριθμό νέων ταλέντων. Όλα τα παραπάνω αποτελούν ένα μέρος από θέματα που καταπιάνεται το βιβλίο και σίγουρα ανοίγουν νέους ορίζοντες στην κατανόηση και επαναδιαπραγμάτευση των εκφάνσεων της ανθρώπινης δημιουργίας η οποία αποτελεί τη συγκολλητική ουσία μεταξύ των ανθρώπων και του κόσμου που τους περιβάλει.
Profile Image for Stephen Jenkins.
34 reviews2 followers
August 11, 2016
I have spent my professional music life (such as it is) telling myself and others that music is something you do. That's what this book is about. Not only the performer does music, but Small insists that any human who comes into contact with music (from the composer to the person who sets up chairs for people to sit in while they listen or play) is doing the music.
Profile Image for Bennett.
52 reviews9 followers
September 11, 2012
probably the only work of musicology that everyone should read (ie not just musicologists).
Profile Image for Loretta.
93 reviews1 follower
April 15, 2022
The main points of this book—that music is not a thing but rather a highly ritualized activity; and that the activity of music making exists to “explore, affirm, and celebrate” human relationships—make intuitive sense to me as a composer, a performing musician, and a listener.
Profile Image for Sarah Beaudoin.
256 reviews11 followers
January 23, 2009
Small uses Musicking to deconstruct a symphony orchestra and as a result is able to create an inclusive definition of music that includes virtually everyone who may have any influence on the outcome of a performance, reaching far beyond the composer, musicians, and audience to also include building workers, popcorn vendors, and more. I appreciate what he is trying to do but think that his ideas begin to falter once they are applied beyond the narrow range in which Small applies them. He privileges performance, and as a result, non-performance driven music falls to the side. His theories also assume that every single role will be performed as expected and leaves no room for the unexpected, which must always be considered in performance arts. Overall, Musicking creates a useful definition of music, and the book itself is very readable.
3 reviews
September 13, 2018
An incredible perspective and scholarly discussion on the politics that informs the very nature and format of the western classical music and its live performances. Though, is extremely subjective, and author himself admits the dichotomy of him enjoying the pleasure of classical music, while being annoyed by the racial superiority and discriminative politics the very act of the performance of the piece represents. As a frequent concert goer, I will definitely read this book many times in the future.
6 reviews2 followers
November 16, 2017
"The convenience of having nouns that enables us to name and talk about things inclines us to think of every idea, every relationship, as if it were a thing. We take from the action of loving, for example, or hating, or performing good and evil acts, or telling the truth, or worshiping, or musicking, the abstractions we call love, hate, good and evil, truth, God and music, and if we are not careful we find ourselves coming to treat the abstractions as if they were more real than the actions." I think this is important. Important enough to share. And I applaud the author for having taken a strong stand against a mainstream attitude toward classical music, and how it should be delivered, especially back in 1998. I think he was very daring in pointing out to things like racism, class-ism, and elitism in classical music in its history and industry. Often, I laughed out loud the way people laugh when true things that are difficult to actually verbalize is said by someone else.

However, it became more and more difficult to read toward the middle of the book, and I am giving up on ever finishing the book. The truth is, his assertion - that music is an act and not a concept - is contracted by him having written the book, because he is guilty of the same crime he is accusing the industry/history of. He goes on and on, describing how music should be, without actually presenting any music. He does offer examples, but...

Anyways, it was amusing in the beginning, too much details in the middle (it may be because I just wrote a doctoral thesis on this topic, and so a lot of his claims were familiar to me), and I didn't read the end.

Profile Image for Stefan Szczelkun.
Author 19 books33 followers
August 30, 2015
Musicking is music as activity rather than music as an object.

The interesting thing for me about Small’s book is that it is a analysis of classical music in terms of its class operation. The first bourgeois literary idea about music is that music’s essential spirit is captured by a written score. The next step is that this score is printed and published to claim the originality of its singular authorship. The second idea is that when this score is performed it is a one-way communication from composer to audience, usually through the medium of an orchestra. Neither the audience nor the musician should contribute meaning although they are allowed a modicum of interpretation. Third is that there is no feedback from the audience nor communication between the audience whilst the performance is in progress - silent listening and stillness of body are required. Fourth the score sets the upper limit of what can be achieved. Fifth, the quality of serious musical works is autonomous of context - and so assumed to be universally valid. p.6

These parameters are set to place 'classical' or 'serious' music above the rest of the music in the world - “The great restless ocean of human musicking" p.11 - that does not rely on written notation. For Small this ‘ocean’ of sound is most commonly an encounter between human beings, in a particular setting, in which sounds play a central organising role. He calls this process musicking.

He deconstructs the symphony concert as an example. It has now become global and aspirational. A central musical rite of the new bourgeois classes as capitalist production spread around the globe. Small seeks to find the meaning of the concert in the relationships between the people who make and attend this event rather that the relationships of notes in the score. He notes the growth of prestige concert halls around the world in the second half of the C20th. To have a concert hall is a civic essential "to signal entry into the developed world". There are perhaps as many recently-built concert halls as ones that date from when the music was mainly composed in the previous century.

“A grand ceremonial space such as this imposes a mode of behaviour on those who are unaccustomed to it. The become somewhat self-conscious lowering their voices, muting their gestures, looking around them, bearing themselves in general more formally. They may even feel something like awe." p.23
"What they all have in common is, first, that they convey an impression of opulence, even sumptuousness. There is wealth here, and the power that wealth brings…. Second, they allow no communication with the outside world. Performers and listeners alike are isolated here from the world of their everyday lives." p.25
"The auditoriums design not only discourages communication amongst members of the audience but it also tells them they are there to listen and not talk back." p.27

The social contact between audience and players is reduced with separate exits and the realised platform. He contrasts this separation of functions with the old ‘Pleasure Gardens’ of London. (ref Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens) in which the social classes mingled and there was greater access for the local artist. The concert experience is that of passive and elite consumption. We can see it as a submission of the regular audience to bourgeois relations. ftnt: Another small avant guard scene is reserved for experimentalism and critique.
This conservative canon is extended in a sophisticated way into the playlist of BBC Radio 3 and, in a banal way, to Classic Fm. Works by great experimental composers of the C20th like John Cage or Cornelius Cardew, are rarely heard on Radio Three. Small does not extend his argument to the avant garde.

The logistics and infrastructure of a modern performance are very far from spontaneous. There is a vast management structure that promotes and defends the exclusive nature to the art form. Performers can only take part is they make their way through layers of competitions that serve to exclude most musicians. p.31 The professionals who do not make it through this highly selective process are left with less lucrative markets and are lucky if they get a season’s work in a London musical. There is no place for amateurs except in a few Youth Orchestras.

The repertory that attracts a profitable audience is frozen in the first decades of the C20th. A finite number of classic works to be shared out further restricts the programme. The effect of all this is a high culture that can challenge or relate to nothing in our contemporary experience. It simply celebrates a formative moment in European Bourgeois imperialist and the ritualised gathering of a thousand or more bourgeois persons at such an event, is simply a ritual self-affirmation of their superior status.

“In the improvising orchestras of the first brilliant explosion of opera in the early seventeenth century, it was leadership rather than conducting that was the keynote.” p.82
“To hear a symphony orchestra play, in fact, is to be presented with the very image of power that is under control and harnessed to a purpose.” p.122.

It creates in cultural form the image of industrial production with its core myth that it is the bourgeois who are the creators (composers) and the proletarians merely trained bodies who rigorously follow the score of the mastery.
“Art galleries are ritual buildings as much as are concert halls and theatres and as much as are churches and temples.” p.108

Behaviour and passivity of consumption is circumscribed in a similar way but at least the works of Art might relate to the time in which we live. In spite of this the canon of classical music is promoted (it would seem quaint if it was not delivered with such authority) as the only Real or serious music. If you are not proficient as a performer or knowledgeable as a consumer of classical music, you are not ‘musical’. If you like vulgar forms of music you have inferior taste or ‘no’ taste.

“The voice is at the centre of all musical activity, but it is all to easy to silence and very hard to reactivate, since those who have been silenced in this way have been wounded in a very intimate and crucial part of their being.” p.212

This is my experience of growing up in the Fifties, and that of millions of other aspirational families that I have detailed in my early autodidact thesis CGT. http://www.stefan-szczelkun.org.uk/ta...
Profile Image for Massimo Sassi.
12 reviews
September 27, 2022
Great read. I do think that out of all the sub-disciplines of music, ethnomusicology is the only area that seems to have theoretical & methodological takeaways that are actually very widely relevant & applicable. For example, whether one is a performing musician, composer, music teacher, etc., I think that there is something to gain from framing instances of musicking (practice, performance, documentation, musical intention & reception, etc. etc.) as this far-reaching network of relationships. My own take is that it helps us shift the focus away from this tendency to privilege the composer (the "authenticity movement," as Small called it) and towards the active role that music plays in our daily lives. I.e., not just shifting this focus to the musical performer, but also understanding how listeners, box office workers, the people moving the piano on and off stage, the architect of the building, etc. are all involved in these meaningful musical relationships. Also, Small's work kind of prompted me to consider the possibility of expanding the definition of what we mean by 'performer.' Isn't the middle-to-upper class audience that he writes of taking part in their own type of performance art as they enact & embody all the steps of the ritualized classical musical concert in the post-industrial "Western" world?
Profile Image for Carol.
1,176 reviews
May 1, 2023
This may be one of my favorite musicology books ever. Small's thesis is almost deceptively simple - that music is not a thing but an activity. And that activity has at its heart the modeling and exploration of human relationships - to each other, to our environment, etc. Small also takes a very expansive view of the activity of music as well - it encompasses performing, listening, and even sweeping up after a concert. I very much like this view of music - it speaks to some of my frustrations with the contemporary music scene and also inspires me to take a new look at how I've experienced my own musicking.
Musicking was also very enjoyable to read. Small's prose is clear and dynamic, and his argument flows really well. One other thing I liked a lot about the book is the way Small really doesn't get too much into exactly what he thinks the relationships and values a symphony concert expresses are. He touches on it, but it's not that important to his thesis. I really appreciated this because I think he and I may disagree on this to some degree, but also because I think it better serves the point of the book to leave the reader to come to their own conclusions about it.
Profile Image for Thomas Feng.
42 reviews2 followers
January 24, 2022
i take issue with some of the particulars of this book: it engages v much in “othering” as a means of self-examination and critique (if the Western tradition is a the male protagonist then literally every other strand of musicking is treated by Small as a “manic pixie dream girl” who might deliver us back to ourselves). i also find some of his arguments heavy-handed and not entirely nuanced.

that being said it reads beautifully as polemic and a much-needed intervention against Western concert’s culture weird myopic obsessions. music is an action/ritual, a process – not a thing; the “work concept” is (i think) rightfully asserted as an obstacle to a more expansive perspective of what music can mean and do.

it is not “perfect” but this might be the only book i’ve read about music that i would to recommend to anyone – nonmusicians and musicians alike, and especially music students
Profile Image for Jxy Breez.
1 review
March 15, 2021
Un livre assez ambitieux qui tentent de saisir l’essence du pouvoir de la musique. Un essai de musicologie certes mais un livre de sociologie et de politique également.
8 reviews1 follower
June 6, 2021
a brilliant mindbending mixture of left wing politics and musical analysis. required reading for every serious musician in every musical domain!
Profile Image for Emma.
30 reviews
May 31, 2010
"When we perform, we bring into existence, for the duration of the performance, a set of relationships, between the sounds and between the participants, that model ideal relationships as we imagine them to be and allow us to learn about them by experiencing them. The modeling is reciprocal, as is implied by the three words I have used persistently through this book: in exploring we learn, from the sounds and from one another, the nature of the relationships; in affirming we teach one another about the relationships; and in celebrating we bring together the teaching and learning in an act of social solidarity. The simultaneous inward and outward flow of information that goes on throughout the performance is made possible by the fact that the language of the information is not that of words but of gestures" p. 218.
Profile Image for Thom.
27 reviews9 followers
May 26, 2012
I read this book when I took a philosophy of music education course in graduate school. I agreed with Small's thinking a lot in those days, and I think I still fall into that direction but I want to re-read this book to see if any of my views have changed. I guess I should re-read some Bennett Reimer after this one.
Profile Image for Andy.
2 reviews15 followers
October 16, 2010
while this book isn't about internet music per se, it's all about the active creation and listening experiences that are a part of the modern music experience even more than ever.

a must-read for anyone responsible for the features and user experience of a digital music product.
Profile Image for Lidia.
7 reviews2 followers
December 27, 2015
This is probably the most important book about music that you will ever read.
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