Singing Sociologists

Les Back

Sociologists are often secret musicians.  This goes all the way back to W.E.B. Du Bois and Max Weber in the nineteenth for whom musical life was always woven into their sociological thinking.  These founding figures had strong attachments to music and both men had fine singing voices.  As biographer David Levering Lewis (1993) comments ‘Willie’ Du Bois, as he was known during his students days at Fisk University, was enthusiastic and member of the student organisations, acting as literary editor of its magazine and a regular public speaker at it events and debates.  He was also a member of the Fisk Mozart Society.  The mastery of the highest forms of music Europe had to offer the young African American were in many respects a statement of their equal faculty and capacity for the mastery of the musical canon from Mozart to Wagner.  Studying in Berlin between 1892-1894 Du Bois deepened his appreciation of European music and particularly Schubert’s symphonies, operas by Weber and Wagner and also the German tradition of folk music (Beck 1996).

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts it was moving to South in the 1880s that ‘Willie’ Du Bois encountered the songs that truly carried full historical load of slave experience.  In the second of his biographies he wrote: ‘I heard the Negro folksong first in Great Barrington, sung by the Hampton Singers. But that was second-hand, sung by youth who never knew slavery. I now heard the Negro songs by those who made them in the land of their American birth’ (Du Bois, 1968, p. 120).   He taught in country school as a student and he attended church.  From across the field he heard ‘a rhythmic cadence of song – soft thrilling, powerful, that swelled and died sorrowfully in our ears.’ As he approached the ‘little plain church perched aloft’ he saw the intensity and excitement of the congregation:  ‘A sort of suppressed terror hung in the air and seemed to seize them  – a Pythian madness, a demonic possession, that lent terrible reality to song and word’ (Du Bois, 1968, p. 120). 

That ‘terrible reality’ was most manifested in the embodied medium of music, first through spirituals and Jubilee singers but also reverberating through the whole history black popular song as it changes and takes on new forms.  The songs, he wrote, are the ‘sifting of centuries’ with melodies ‘more ancient than the words’ (Du Bois, 1989, p. 180).  Du Bois’s use of music comes from more than only a listener’s appreciation.  He minimizes his musical skill in his classic The Soul of Black Folk (1903) when he writes with, I would argue, false humility: ‘I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase…’ (Du Bois, 1989, p.  179). As a singer, who sang in choirs and understood harmony and could read and write musical notation.  He comes to understand the embodied social aspect of musical expression and is able to link this to the affordances of slave song and struggle for freedom.  This is why is able to write in a few lines this deep historic insight: ‘I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world’ (Du Bois, 1989, p. 179).

Weber’s concerns with music were very different from those of Du Bois.  Contrary to Weber’s austere sociological image he was a profoundly musical person.  He sang the songs he learned in patriotic male choirs of his youth in Germany with his brother Richard, with whom he had a torrid sibling rivalry, right up to the end of his life.  For him the history of Western music is one of limiting rationalization.  The emergence of the piano and keyboard harmony and its incorporation into domestic bourgeois life constrained rather than expanded the human faculty for making and hearing music.  The emergence of the piano as the pre-eminent Western bourgeois instrument limits rather than extends the capacity for hearing.  The technological developments that lead to this rationalisation included everything from the construction of musical instruments and their tuning, the twelve-note scale and the emergence of written musical notation.  Always the comparative and historical thinker Weber felt by contrast that other human cultures display a much sharper sense of hearing than those in the West.

Weber could play the piano. Although, during the hard financial times his pianos were often sold and there were long periods when he did not own one.  In 1911 he bought Steinway piano for his wife Marianne as a birthday present. Joachim Radkau (2009) recounts a story in his intimately revealing biography of someone who visited Weber’s home around this time.   When asked to give an impromptu lecture about his sociological treatise on European music he surprised the visitors by sitting at the piano and demonstrating his argument about theory and harmony by playing for them.  The visitors, Radkau’s writes, were ‘greatly surprised’ and left thinking the great sociologist had ‘never done anything more phenomenal’ (Radkau, 2009, p. 367).  Radkau argues that his musical life was also linked to his complex emotional relationships and erotic life arguing that it was through his extra-marital relationship with pianist and muse Mina Tobler that Weber developed an interest in writing a historical sociology of music.  His long essay The Rational and Social Foundations of Music  was written in 1911 but it didn’t appear in German until a decade later in 1921 (Weber 1958). 

Weber’s emphasis on the relationship between technology and music set the course for the study of music throughout the twentieth century.  It was in turn picked up by the Frankfurt School Marxists most prominently in Theodor Adorno’s writing. Adorno was himself an accomplished pianist and composer.  As a young person Adorno even dreamed of being a professional musician (Müller-Doohm, 2005, p. 38).  He famously argued that the commodification of music exacerbated this rationalization or what Adorno referred to as standardization.  This for him produces a ‘regression of listening’ (Adorno, 1991, p. 40-41) that results not only aesthetic and sonic limits but also a produces moronic conformity amongst the masses and a masochistic submissions to capitalism (Adorno, 1989/90).  What is interesting here is that both of these sociological analyses of Western music would not have possible without Weber and Adorno being trained musicians.  Their critique is only possible because they understand how the organization of music works. 

The musical life of sociologists offers then an interpretive device or practical form of insight. I think this is true of W.E.B. Du Bois’s reading of the politics of slave song as well as Max Weber’s insight into the constraints of modern rationalization.  Du Bois, Weber and Adorno are not isolated cases and I could have chosen many other examples ranging from Roland Bathes and cultural theorist Stuart Hall who both played the piano.  When you start to look music seems everywhere in the sociological tradition although there are times where caution is needed.  In July of 1947 C. Wright Mills wrote  a letter to his friend Dwight Macdonald from a ranch where he was staying temporarily in Sutcliffe, Nevada.  Mills told his friend cheerfully:  ‘I am playing the guitar now, about an hour a day in the sun, with the lizards running around on the rocks’ (Mills & Mills, 2000, p. 108). Reading this letter provoked fantasies of discovering that Wright Mills had a secret guitar toting life.  However, when I asked his daughter Kate Mills about it via email she was surprised and told me no one in the family had ever heard him play although he did play the harmonica as a boy (Kathryn Mills, personal communication 18th July, 2018).  So, it is important not to jump to conclusions and be cautiously precise over the exact nature of the relationship between musical and sociological craft. 

Les Back teaches sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His work attempts to create a sensuous or live sociology committed to searching for new modes of sociological writing and representation. This approach is outlined in his book The Art of Listening (Berg 2007) and Migrant City with Shamser Sinha (Routledge 2018). He also writes journalism and has made documentary films. He tweets @AcademicDiary.

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