Musical Dramaturgy

A couple of days ago after class, I was sitting in my office talking with a student about potential career opportunities. As we finished our talk, the student looked around the office, and noted, “You must really like music a lot.” I confirmed the student’s interpretation, and we chatted for a moment about the records on my office wall and the guitar sitting between the file cabinet and bookshelves on another wall. After the student left, I began thinking about the observation, and the ways that I surround myself with musical symbols.

I originally stumbled into Interactionism due to my interest in symbols, and the dramaturgical efforts people engage in to signify who they believe themselves to be and what they feel is important in their lives. As I looked around my office that day, I realized I had (consciously or otherwise, I’m not sure) done a rather nice job of signifying my musical interests while decorating the space. Whether I looked at the framed 7 inch records on one wall I’ve picked up in various cities I visited for academic conferences, the artist certification plaques on another wall that celebrate achievements of artists I enjoy, the guitar I wrote about in the last post, or the album artwork and concert memorabilia adorning other walls in the office, my office feels like a kind of shrine to music at times.

My office, however, has nothing on my home. Visitors have often noted that my home kind of looks like a record store on the inside. There are framed vinyl album covers on every wall (different artists on each wall, situated together and formed into shapes I like) spanning genres including but not limited to hip hop, country, Americana, rock n roll, heavy metal, bluegrass, grunge, experimental, and piano pop. There are guitars in each room (a bass, an electric, and an acoustic) as well as drumsticks, capos, and slides littered about. There are books about music alongside vinyl and compact disc box sets on the bookshelves and in other nooks throughout the place. There are also countless band t-shirts in the closet if one takes a moment to look for some reason, and even a couple of different stereos so I can blast music throughout the space. While I picked these decorations (some that I found and others that were meaningful gifts from important people in my life) because they make me feel comfortable at home and in my office, they also signify the role of music in my overall life as well as my taste in different types of music.

Interactionists have long discussed the ways people use objects to signify selfhood, and some scholars have even investigated the meanings people attach to specific objects and styles associated with various music subcultures (see this piece by William Ryan Force for an example of such an analysis in relation to punk music). Like me, many people surround themselves with symbols that speak to musical tastes, inclinations, passions, and interests, which bring them comfort or other positive feelings while also (intentionally or otherwise) sending messages to others about who they are. This observation leads me to wonder about the myriad of ways people do such dramaturgical work in relation to music. How do you adorn your body and space with musical symbols, and what do these symbols say about who you wish to be? What do you think others gather from these symbols?

J. Sumerau

About Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog

The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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13 Responses to Musical Dramaturgy

  1. This was very interesting, Jason. I suppose we are all of us imprisoned in our own preferred music interest. So anyone who is a general expert on music terminology would be able to delimit the likely age we are now. I didn’t recognise some of your interests, as I am unfamiliar with them. Some like hip hop, country, rock n roll, heavy metal, piano pop I know, even if only vaguely for some of them, but not Americana, bluegrass, experimental.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      You’re probably right, I think culture / geography as well as age. I remember earlier this year a friend talking about all kinds of Afghanistan music I knew nothing about at the time even though it ended up being stuff that really fit other interests / genres in my catalogue. I think our selections likely say far more about us than we often think about, which just fascinates me.

  2. Xan Nowakowski says:

    Wonderful use of dramaturgy to analyze narration of identity–and perhaps the very consolidation and maintenance of an integrated identity concept–through music. When I think about how dramaturgy offers insight into music within my own home, two things stand out. First, the placement of my guitars and ancillary equipment (amplifier, stand, headphones, etc.) is very deliberate and speaks to my priorities. Within easy reach are technique-building books and a variety of tools to craft my sound in precise ways. I define and organize my spaces as places of purposive activity and continuous quality improvement; this is reflected in my musical practice space as well as other areas of my home. Second and perhaps by contrast, my home is currently overrun with CDs. I ran out of shelving and just started stacking them in front of my books on the big bookshelves in the dining room. Consequently, they are not alphabetized because rearranging the vertical stacks constantly would be treacherous and time-consuming. Even though I ordinarily dislike not having my CDs alphabetized, right now I find more comfort and reinforcement of identity in simply being surrounded by them, rather than organizing them meticulously. This mirrors a more general trend of attempting to be less rigid in my thinking–and by consequence, my concept of who I am and what I can be, both internally and in relation to others in my life.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      These are lovely insights, and it really does speak to the ways our objects (music or otherwise) may reflect elements of our lives or times in our lives in interesting ways

  3. hansbakkerguelph says:

    Every “object” is a “sign”! Every sign tells us something. When we think “symbolic interaction” we need to broaden it to “semiotic interaction.” That was the subject of an essay that can be found in the journal SI, “the Club DJ.” The musical beat is a sign. It serves as one kind of “symbol” in any musical performance. Think gamelan. Collin McPhee, a Canadian who went to Bali, Indonesia, used Balinese “beats” from the gamelan orchestra in his music.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      I would agree completely with this notion that every object is a sign and especially in relation to music wherein every element of a song, hook, beat, or even a single chord can invoke meaning in so many ways and contexts for people. I also like the thought of “semiotic interaction” in many ways. Thanks for sharing!

    • jk542013 says:

      Very interesting. A suggestion: how about a brief and simple explanation of the relationship between a sign and a symbol. I have a sense that some of the blog’s readership may not understand the difference, and no one is better suited to explain it than you.

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