I have been a musician since I was in the fifth grade. I started out playing and have since played the drums, and continued on to become a mediocre piano player as well as a self-proclaimed “decent” singer. My goal with this project was to continue my study of music in a way that was entirely different. I wanted to discover what influence musical genres had on the societies in which they were most popular. The idea for this project came to me when I was listening to “Take the A-Train” by Duke Ellington. I began to think about how iconic the tune was, and how foundational jazz became to many of the genres we listen to today. My main learning outcomes were to discover how genres are formed, why genres are formed, and to discover how an individual determines their musical preferences.
In order to fully educate myself on the sociology behind music, I read three textbooks:
1.) Davis, N. (1996). African American music: A philosophical look at African American music in society. Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.
2.) Kotarba, J. A. (2018). Understanding society through popular music. New York, NY: Routledge.
3.) Martin, P. J. (2010). Sounds and society: Themes in the sociology of music. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
These texts provided me with the span of history I was most interested in focusing on—the Jazz era to music as we know it today. I discovered that many genres form as a result of the following variables:
Geographical Location - a genres location of origin influences not only the style, but the longevity of the genre itself.
Evolution - Many genres come to life through a desire to create a different sound than what is popular. This evolution of a genres sound often pulls from styles that are already established, leaving a traceable connection between most genres’.
Demand - Often, genres form alongside the needs of society. For example, many Jazz styles were created to satisfy a culture that wished for music they could dance to. As a result of that demand, a more upbeat swing form and big band Jazz rose to popularity.
Necessity - Sometimes, genres are formed because it is what society needs. Work-songs were a comforting tool for African American slaves who were forced to do work against their will in the early United States. A similar, but more modern example would be the rise of rap music on the west coast in the 90’s, as artist such as Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls attacked police brutality and the unjust treatment of African Americans.
I began to contemplate how individuals decide what they prefer to listen to musically. I hypothesized that a lot of it had to do with familial impact—that many people are influenced by what their family listens to. I conducted a survey of 50 college students at the University of Rhode Island, 86% of whom were between 18-24 years old, to gather a small sample of what these students are listening to and why. The specific sample surveyed seemed to enjoy hip hop and alternative music above most other genres, and almost 50% stated that hip hop was the most relevant genre in today’s society. When it came to familial impact, 76.47% stated there was a difference between the genres they listened to and the genres their parents listened to, while 23.53% indicated there was no difference. Interestingly enough, 70.50% of participants reported that their family had an influence on the way their musical preferences developed, while 29.41% said their family had no effect. I hypothesized that while many students listened to different genres then their parents, they ultimately held a connection to what they heard while they were growing up. For instance, an individual who likes alternative rock music may have a father who listened to the rolling stones, or rock music of that era. This would need further research however, and a larger sample would need to be taken.
Overall, I think this project was a great way for me to branch out of the musical genres I most resonate with, and to educate myself on the history of other musical genres. In hindsight, I would have loved to incorporate a section or even dedicate an entire project towards discovering the extent to which sexually explicit or violent content within songs influence an individual. This thought occurred to me when I finished a class at the University of Rhode Island which covered sex and violence in the media. It would have been interesting to compare the lyrics of modern songs the lyrics of older genres and see if they correlate. I also wanted to reflect on the section in my poster featuring responses to the question: “what impact does music have on society”. There wasn’t one participant who had anything negative to say about music, which helped me to realize just how important it has and will always be.
Music; Sociology; Musical Genres; Influence; History
Musical genres have been an integral part in all societies, ancient and contemporary. As time has progressed, so too have the styles and methods of making and consuming music. Modern music presents us with an enormous amount of variety, allowing us to choose which genres we prefer based on our own ideologies and preferences. In order to understand how these genres came to be, one must look at the context through which they were formed. The context includes a variety of factors, such as time period, cultural and social factors, familial influence, and the geographical location where the music emerged. Historically, musical genres have experienced less variety, with classical music being the predominant force in European music. As technology advanced, so too did our exposure to the music of foreign cultures. For example, a blending of European and African cultures generated the birth of Jazz in a late 19th century North America. ultimately, the blending of genres became common practice, revealing a path to the creation of other genres that remain extremely relevant today: Jazz, Rock, Country, Rap...etc. For my Honors Project, I studied how new genres form, and more importantly, how a particular genre might impact a society at the time of its creation, and at any point after. I studied the works of Nathan Davis, Peter J. Martin, and Joseph A. Kotarba. These authors observed musical genres through the lens of sociology. The goal of this research was to gain a personal understanding of how genres are formed and to discover what societal factors may have influenced their creation. I also sought to discover which genres have the most relevant impact in today's society. To do this, I surveyed a small sample of college students at the University of Rhode Island. My combined research and survey helped me to draw multiple conclusions about the impact popular music has on our culture today.