The Digital Revolution(?): Music, Musicology, and Social Networking.

By Kieran Fenby-Hulse

It is has become a commonplace to refer to the development of the internet and more recently Web 2.0 technologies as a digital revolution. But if revolution is defined as period that results in a sharp break with the old order, I’m not convinced this quite rings true, at least in the case of our relationship with music. In my opinion, whilst the development of digital technologies has provided us with new ways of listening to and engaging with music, I don’t think the nature of our relationship with music has undergone a radical change.

Recently, I’ve been exploring the impact the iPod and mobile music platforms have had on our relationship with music and would say that one of the most profound effects that the so-called digital revolution has had on this relationship is the increased ease with which we can listen to almost whatever music we want, when we want, no matter where we are. While listening to music on the move isn’t actually that new (after all, there were Walkmans in the 1980s, transistor radios in the 1950s, and music could be listened to in cars as early as the 1930s), the ability of accessing a huge library of music in a range of remote locations at the click of a button does mean music is now pretty much available on-demand. In short, digital media enables listeners to personalise and aestheticise almost any geographical location.

So what does this revolution mean for music listeners and musicologists? Well, firstly, I think it begs some interesting questions about the relationship between the music we listen to and our understanding of place. The ability for us to listen to music almost anywhere means that music can be heard in an endless array of different contexts, with each context potentially affecting the way in which the work is understood and perceived. For instance, what does it mean if we listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, a work intended for a concert hall, while sitting by a brook in the middle of the countryside? And, how does listening to a rural folk song while travelling on the London underground differ form listening to the track from the comfort of our home? These are interesting questions that ask us to think about music in terms of personal experience and place.

Secondly, I think the development of web 2.0 technologies provides scholars with a plethora of digital data for exploring music and understandings of music. The use of hashtags to describe activities on Twitter, for example, allows for searches to be conducted that explore what people are listening to at different moments in time, and whether musical listening is connected to time, events, and working schedules. (This search could then be refined by plotting user locations and identifying possible geographical trends).

The creation of user playlists on Spotify is another fantastic resource, and something I am particularly interested in at the moment. These homemade compilations provide a fascinating insight into how people are listening to and categorising music. Playlist titles (Music for the Gym, Wake-up Music, Sunday Morning Chillout) are particularly interesting to explore, as they often provide contextual information on how the musical tracks are grouped, thus providing the playlist with an overarching narrative and in some cases a specific function. Music, it seems, is being used increasingly to accompany specific daily routines, events, and tasks. The titles given to shared playlists also have the potential to affect how we hear and understand a track, the narrative of the playlist becoming entwined with the narrative of the musical track, allowing listeners to reimagine and rethink familiar songs in a new ways.

YouTube is also a fantastic place to explore how people are engaging with music. The comments provided by users on music videos can help us to understand people’s reactions to a particular track or piece and, perhaps, the role interaction and dialogue plays in people’s relationship to digital music and media. The homemade music videos and the various cover versions of songs hosted on YouTube can also help us to understand how people consume and experience music. The potential for future research is great.

To sum up, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that digital media has revolutionised our relationship with music, as many of the ways in which we listen to and engage with music still hold sway. Indeed, radio, television, records, gigs, stadium concerts, and amateur performances are remain important. I do think, though, that the developments in digital media have provided us with a new way to listen to music and some new tools with which we can explore music.

Kieran Fenby-Hulse works at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Brighton as a Research Officer. His principal research interest lies with understanding the relationship between music and narrative and he is currently exploring the impact digital media has had on how we listen to and understand music. To read more from Kieran, visit his blog here.

An Exploration of the Idea and Importance of Practice-Led Research in the Current Climate

By Lauren Redhead

Practice-Led Research, although in many ways a new concept in the history of University-based research, is by now a familiar part of what takes place in most university creative arts departments. Depending on the department, and the researchers themselves, it might be described as Practice-Based Research, Practice as Research, or Creative Arts Research. There are subtle differences between some of these labels: ‘Practice as Research’ most often implies that the researchers see little or no need for any written exegesis, or for other components such as written statements of research questions, believing that the practice should speak for itself; ‘Practice-Based Research’ usually implies a fixity of methodology meaning that all of the knowledge and understanding generated by the project arises from the practice itself (rather than, for example, an evaluation afterwards); ‘Creative Arts Research’ usually implies that the objects created by the research should themselves be considered art. All of these labels contain important assumptions about Practice-Led Research in universities: that artistic practice can speak for itself, without the need for the addition of language (Practice as Research); that practice is a way of generating knowledge and not simply something one knows about (Practice-Based Research); that the objects created by research have intrinsic artistic value, that is not necessarily connected with their research questions or outcomes (Creative Arts Research). Personally, I prefer ‘Practice-Led Research’ as a label for what I do. This is not because there is anything deficient about any of the other labels, but because I believe that they are all encompassed under ‘Practice-Led Research’. The extra assumption that this label makes, as well as those already described, is that practice can occur at any point during the research process, the most important part of the process being that the practice that is done by the research plays a crucial role in generating knowledge and understanding. But why do we need this type of research at all, particularly at a time when universities are re-evaluating their activities due to funding cuts?

Why is Practice-Led Research important at all?

Some of the reasons why Practice-Led Research is important are not linked to specific projects that have been undertaken, but the implications made by undertaking and supporting this type of research in universities.

  • Practice-Led Research values different kinds of knowledge than just the linguistic. Of course, other researchers can rightly claim that they also value extra-linguistic kinds of knowledge, but the value of the objects and outcomes of Practice-Led Research that are themselves extra-linguistic helps to communicate that this type of knowledge is of equal importance in research today.
  • Practice-Led Research can also help to establish and explain links between disciplines. For example, in my own discipline (music) there is an accepted link between music and philosophy that is often studied in the context of Wagner’s link with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. This is an interesting line of enquiry, but establishing that link between music and philosophy is only sensible when researchers consider the value and existence of similar links in the present (e.g. between contemporary philosophical thought and contemporary music).
  • Practice-Led Research allows all researchers to understand the nature of what is studied in and by arts disciplines. The results of Practice-Led Research projects reveal artworks not to be discrete, fixed, objects but dynamic systems that relate to themselves, each other, and society in a number of fluid and changing ways.
  • Finally, Practice-Led Research projects enable researchers to understand the performative nature of research itself. This kind of meta-understanding of the situations in which research is undertaken allows for consideration of the nature and purpose of research by universities as well as individuals.

What are the problems that face Practice-Led Research and researchers in the current climate?

It seems to me that many of the problems faced by Practice-Led Researchers today are linked to poor communication and understanding of the assumptions made by this type of research.

  • Researchers might not state their research questions clearly or provide sufficient exegesis for non-practitioners to understand its nature and purpose. Whilst I mentioned that one of the assumptions of Practice as Research was that the practice should be able to speak for itself, this also assumes that it can be universally understood by even others outside of the practitioner’s discipline. This is not something that is assumed readily in other types of inquiry, and even when researchers do not consider communicating research questions or evaluations to add to the value of the research, it could be argued that this does add to the value of its dissemination.
  • Some outcomes might be misunderstood as not being research due to poor communication of their value: researchers might assume that others in their discipline will value the creation of art due to their shared area of study. This may not always be the case, and there is room for criticism and suspicion of Practice-Led Research as simply a cover for artists to undertake their practice on university time and money. The discussion of the value and appropriateness of Practice-Led methodologies needs to be more foregrounded to prevent this from being the case.
  • Practice-Led Researchers may struggle to find funding opportunities in the current climate as universities prefer to fund ‘traditional’ research with linguistic or numerical data outcomes, considering it a ‘safe’ option.
  • Research councils and bodies also do not extensively fund Practice-Led Research, perhaps for the reason given above, and perhaps also because Practice-Led Research can be more expensive than other types of research (for example: funding a year’s research leave to write a book might be cheaper than funding a year’s Practice-Led Research with its implications in terms of costs of space, materials, performers and production).
  • As a result of the limited funding opportunities available from universities and research councils, Practice-Led Researchers may be pushed towards creative arts funding which is interested in the outcomes of their work and not in their research, and which is also diminishing in the face of government cuts.

What kinds of contemporary issues can Practice-Led Research address?

Despite the problems encountered by some researchers, it makes little sense to value Practice-Led Research simply by the funding available for it, or its relative costs. If this were the case across the board, few science or technology projects would be funded. If Practice-Led Research is important, it is because of the kinds of issues it can address successfully.

  • Almost in spite of the problems I have listed above, Practice-Led Research communicates the value of the arts, and of funding for the arts. By presenting Creative Arts Practice as both a methodology and a valid form of knowledge, Practice-Led Research explains the value of such practice outside of commercial entertainment industries, and the personal enjoyment of connoisseurs.
  • That art ‘enriches the soul’ is considered a poor argument in favour of the value of creating new artworks in times of austerity. Practice-Led Research can help to explain the mechanisms by which we gain knowledge from artworks and through artistic practice. Thus, it actively argues for the creation of new artworks in order to allow for the creation and dissemination of new knowledge.
  • Practice-Led Research is uniquely placed to address the issue of contemporary consciousness: not only can and do artworks address contemporary situations, an understanding of the practice and processes involved in their creation can shed light upon the consciousness that brings about those situations and the reactions to them (just as much good work is being done by researchers understanding past artworks in exactly the same way).
  • In addition, and linked, to the previous point, Practice-Led Research also allows researchers to understand interaction of individuals and groups with society, or each other, not through analysing the outcomes of these interactions after the fact but by actively manipulating their form and structure. This gives Practice-Led Research a privileged interior perspective on these interactions.

So, why is Practice-Led Research important in the current climate? And why should institutions support it?

The suggestion of the issues Practice-Led Research can address well is one thing, but reconciling the value of these issues with the problems and costs of this research in the current climate of austerity is also necessary. I would argue that the value of Practice-Led Research to universities is greater than the sum of the values of the individual projects undertaken by researchers.

Practice-Led Research projects are frequently exploratory, open-ended, and often seen as specialised. They are the kinds of projects that are set to decline in all areas of research as access to funding is tightened. Added to the fact that they often produce the kind of extra-linguistic knowledge that it is difficult to include in reports, such projects look to be some of the most precarious in the current climate. And yet most university departments continue to support this research. Why?

I believe that the answer is that support for Practice-Led Research is, in kind, support for all research. When universities support these projects, they are sending the message that they don’t believe that knowledge and research are uniform, that sometimes research doesn’t have outcomes that are clearly defined in advance (and, let’s be honest, if it always did we wouldn’t be learning much), and that research agendas must be set by researchers and not external bodies. In addition, continuing support for Practice-Led Research sends the message that universities understand research in the arts as a contemporary concern rather than one that is only concerned with historical theories and objects; this doesn’t mean that research in the history of the arts or historical art works aren’t important, it means that this research, too, is understood as being relevant in contemporary society.

Therefore, Practice-Led Research is important in the current climate, precisely because when this type of research is valued by universities, by implication other types of project must also be valued for their inherent research-value rather than their ability to gain funding, or produce knowledge that fits a specific template.

Lauren Redhead (@laurenredhead) is a composer from the North of England. Her work has been recognised internationally and performed by, amongst others, BL!NDMAN, Ian Pace, Rhodri Davies, the Nieuw Ensemble, Trio Atem, Philip Thomas and Edges ensemble, and rarescale. Her opera, green angel, was premiered in January 2011 with the support of the Arts Council of England, and she has been commissioned by Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Yorkshire Forward, and Making Music. Lauren is also a performer of British experimental music for the organ and has premiered works by many composers including Chris Newman, Caroline Lucas, and Nick Williams, a performer with the experimental vocal group Vocal Contructivists, and a musicologist writing on the aesthetics of contemporary music.