In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sociology of Music

  • Introduction
  • Classical Sociology
  • The Production of Music
  • Sociology of Musical Genre, Musical Classification, and Musical Diversity
  • Sociology of Popular Music
  • Sociology of Less Commercial Music
  • Music and the “Art Worlds” Perspective
  • Sociology of Music and Cultural Economics

Sociology Sociology of Music
Siobhan McAndrew
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0198


Music is central to cultural life and therefore also often perceived as central to social life. The study of music in society has been of interest to canonic social thinkers, including Weber, Simmel, and Adorno, since the establishment of sociology. The study of music has also concerned scholars in adjacent disciplines, particularly musicology, cultural studies, and economics. In the landmark Distinction, Bourdieu argued, “nothing more clearly affirms ones ‘class,’ nothing more infallibly classifies, than tastes in music” (Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste [London: Routledge, 1984], p. 18). Sociologists of music have accordingly been concerned with the importance of musical taste for signifying status and distinguishing cultural hierarchies. Sociologists have also been concerned with the socio-demographic correlates of musical preference, how musicians and the music industry organize to provide music and influence taste, and the education and working conditions of musicians. What tends to distinguish sociology of music from other disciplines is a commitment to the sociological imagination or the use of social research methods—but not necessarily both. And many sociologists of music work across disciplines. Sociologists have also coalesced around the study of different genres, and those contributing in the sociology of particular genres often do so not as sociologists but as music, folklore, or history scholars whose interests have extended to the sociology of music. The American sociology of music tradition has arguably been influenced more heavily by symbolic interactionism and rational choice theory than the European, where critical theory has been more influential. Nevertheless, conceptual and methodological interchange is growing, particularly with the increasing influence of Bourdieu in US sociology. The sociology of race, gender, and sexuality has also influenced the field significantly. This conceptual and methodological diversity means the field has low paradigmaticness. However, this diversity does lead to productive exchange and synthesis of ideas and methods. Notably, there is growing interest in music as a social technology and insights from science and technology studies. As in cultural sociology more broadly, attention is turning to “the music itself,” music as mediating social interaction, and artists and works embedded in wider socio-musical systems using computational tools, particularly network analysis. Data proliferation is generating innovative quantitative work. Qualitative research is also being reinvigorated by new technologies enabling new interview methods, digital ethnography, and computational methods for processing textual data.

General Overviews

A sociology of music tradition can be traced back to the birth of the discipline, although single works providing a comprehensive overview of this tradition are relatively few. The field exists because methodological sociology offers a distinct perspective on how music is created, received, and used in everyday life. The contributions of Weber, Simmel, and Adorno (see Classical Sociology) established a sociological pedigree for the subdiscipline. From the United States, Howard Becker began publishing on musicians in the early 1950s (see Music and the “Art Worlds” Perspective). Bourdieu’s place in the canon is assured, although his best-known analysis of music is based on data now half a century old (Bourdieu 1984). There was rapid increase in academic interest from the late 1970s and the publication of Becker’s Art Worlds in 1982. Bringing occupational and organizational sociology into the sociology of popular music, Richard A. Peterson demonstrated the internal logic of cultural production in terms of risk and reward (see Anthologies). The work of Peterson and Kern 1996 on omnivorousness also generated a rich empirical research agenda in the area of taste, consumption, and participation. Together, Becker, Bourdieu, and Peterson have made programmatic statements dominating the discipline, if not individually achieving dominance or providing general overview. Disciplinary fragmentation and the penetration of other disciplinary approaches have been noted by Shepherd and Devine 2015 and by Marshall (see Sociology of Popular Music). Nevertheless, useful and compelling overviews of the subdiscipline do exist. Martin 1995, although disavowing any claim to providing a comprehensive sociology of music due to the inchoate nature of the field, does present an authoritative definition of the sociology of music and an account of its evolution. Shepherd and Devine 2015 fills a notable gap in providing exhaustive coverage of both classic statements on the sociology of music as well as contemporary empirical and conceptual studies. DeNora 2000 has established a case for “music sociology” and researching music as a social force. Roy and Dowd 2010 also provides an exhaustive introduction to the contemporary literature.

  • Becker, Howard S. 1982. Art worlds. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    Jazz musician and Chicago School sociologist Howard Becker analyzes art worlds as involving collective action on the part of producers and consumers. Amidst a varied career involving the study of deviance, work, methodology, and art, relatively little of Becker’s published output is purely about music. While this addresses the arts in general, it provides case studies from a variety of musical genres and a conceptual framework that has influenced sociologists of music.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge.

    A tour de force in the “grand theory” tradition, this is one of the 20th century’s most important sociology texts. Based on empirical research conducted between 1963 and 1968, this text argues that occupational status, sociocultural taste, and practice are closely associated (although eschewing strong causal explanations) and predictable from members’ economic, social, and cultural capital. More broadly, Bourdieu argues that cultural capital related to musical taste and knowledge reinforces economic and social capital, social reproduction, and inequality.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The field of cultural production: Essays on art and literature. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    A collection of ten essays on art, literature, cultural works and the importance of culture for intellectuals. Field is conceptualized as the social space where agents—producers and audiences—take different positions that should be understood in relational terms. Art works are endowed with symbolic value through restriction and sacralization on the part of producers. Increasingly influential among sociologists interested in the production of music who reject a purely economic paradigm.

  • DeNora, Tia. 2000. Music in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511489433

    Draws on ethnographic evidence from four different settings and interviews with fifty-two British and American women. Assesses the affective and embodied aspects of music and analyzes music as an independent force in structuring women’s inner and social lives.

  • Martin, Peter J. 1995. Sounds and society: Themes in the sociology of music. Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press.

    First major monograph-length work written in English on the sociology of music: its production, distribution, and consumption. Sympathetic to interactionist approaches and interprets the creation and performance of music as essentially collaborative. Challenges the dichotomization of the subdiscipline between those concerned with “musical meaning” and those with “music in social context,” by highlighting the inadequate treatment of meaning on the one hand and tendency to treat society as a black box on the other.

  • Peterson, Richard A., and Roger M. Kern. 1996. Changing highbrow taste: From snob to omnivore. American Sociological Review 61.5: 900–907.

    DOI: 10.2307/2096460

    Seminal paper advancing a “highbrow omnivorousness” hypothesis, challenging the then-orthodoxy that elite and lowbrow cultural forms were socially incompatible and introducing the concept of the “cultural omnivore.” Analyzing the 1982 and 1992 waves of the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, they found that those who consume the “high” arts tend to consume a wide variety of popular culture rather than eschewing the tastes of the less advantaged.

  • Roy, William G., and Timothy J. Dowd. 2010. What is sociological about music? Annual Review of Sociology 36:183–203.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102618

    Comprehensive overview of the sociology of music, considering how it is particularly sociological. Reaffirms music as involving activity and interaction rather than existing as an object. Reviews the literature on musical meaning and music as a technology of the self and establishes the unique importance of music for both social differentiation and integration.

  • Shepherd, John, and Kyle Devine, eds. 2015. The Routledge reader on the sociology of music. London: Routledge.

    A recent anthology of central source readings for student sociologists of music serving as the first such edited collection. Selections from Spencer, Simmel, Weber, Adorno, Susan McClary, Pete Martin, Lisa McCormick, Andy Bennett, Peterson, Marion Leonard, William Weber, and Sara Cohen. Also provides an incisive account of the evolution and current state of the subdiscipline, identifying a shift to mixed-method approaches, the rise of digital humanities, and reaffirmation of the “sociological imagination.”

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