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Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life

Michael Siciliano
p. 306-308
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Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 196 p.

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1Tia DeNora’s contemporary classic, Music in Everyday Life, explores the affective and aesthetic components of agency and social organization through the use of music. Due to the recent “affective turn” in critical cultural studies (e.g. Massumi 2002; Gregg et al. 2010; see Ley 2011 for a review and critique) and the recent attempts within cultural sociology to develop a research program based in the materiality of cultural objects (e.g. Born 2010), DeNora’s study offers a valuable empirical example of what has become an increasingly central concern: the aesthetic and affective dimensions of social life. It is in this context that I revisit Tia DeNora’s Music in Everyday Life. In this essay I provide a brief review of the text and then establish its potential value for scholars engaged in the research trajectories mentioned above and audience research in general.

2DeNora’s Music in Everyday Life presents a series of case studies in order to argue that music plays a role in constituting and permitting what she calls “aesthetic” and “affective” agency. DeNora argues that music provides the raw cultural material used by individuals in order to exercise agentive control over mood, convey meaning, experience “virtual” possibilities, and articulate identity. Theoretically rich, DeNora argues that music is itself a material object and, in an implicitly Latourian sense, music has agency itself. DeNora emphasizes the material experience of music and its use as a material for living and so it should come as no surprise that she begins with a critique of semiotic readings of culture. She illustrates these points through ethnographic case studies of women’s use of music in romantic encounters, preparation for the working day, and managing interpersonal relationships. Though potentially limited in generalizability due to her explicit focus on women, this limitation provides for elaboration in further studies.

3In chapter 4 (Music and the Body) DeNora introduces entrainment, a key theoretical concept borrowed from social psychology. Entrainment refers to the ordering of bodily behavior based on the external environment. DeNora illustrates this concept through case studies of aerobics classes and shopping in order to further her argument that music and the associations that individuals have with particular music genres elicit and allow for particular bodily behaviors in these social settings. The pre-cognitive understandings aroused by the aesthetics of music, mitigated by the social discourses surrounding various genres, enable or prohibit certain forms of social behavior. Music then acts as a means of social organization and thus affective and aesthetic experiences enroll individuals into particular individual or organizational projects. Shopping and working in a clothing store serve as prime examples. Sound then becomes a social material that both structures behavior and provides for agency within this structure. For readers familiar with previous reviews of this text (i.e. Cook 2001), citing entrainment as DeNora’s theoretical centerpiece should come as no surprise.

4On one hand, DeNora’s text can be read as an attenuated continuation of the long trend of research within cultural studies and cultural sociology that seeks to rescue the “forcibly retarded” (Adorno 1991:47) listeners (or consumers) from their fates at the hands of mid 20th century theorists of mass culture. Citing Paul Willis, she places the book within this context in the first chapter. Curiously, DeNora then moves on to link her research agenda to “… that revolting, wraithlike creature” (Mazzarella 2013) known for stealing away pleasure and agency from music listeners in the first place: Theodor Adorno. Invoking Adorno appears, at first, to be incongruent with DeNora’s affinity for the redeemers of mass consumption. However, by emphasizing material encounters with aesthetic materials and the pre-cognitive, bodily sensations that they evokes in these individuals, DeNora parallels Adorno by way of material culture theory. Particular musical materials allow for and enroll actors in certain forms of behavior (e.g. music for dancing, shopping, or making love), while prohibiting others (e.g. women rarely initiate an intimate romantic experience via heavy metal). In this way, DeNora’s theoretical frame echoes Adorno by way of Latour and precedes Born’s recent call for a return to the object (2010) and the employment of entrainment as a theoretical concept for understanding listening (2011). For this reason, Music in Everyday Life benefits from being re-read as a precursor to more recent issues within sociology and cultural theory. This constitutes a return to the Adornian concern with aesthetic materials and their ability to constitute and structure social experience (Horkheimer & Adorno 1972; Adorno 2004).

5Read this way, Music in Everyday Life appears as a book that contemporary scholars might do well to revisit. This rings true given that the sociology of art and culture has largely abandoned the crucial role of the cultural object (Born 2010) and the mediations these material objects undergo (De La Fuente 2010). Additionally, the contemporary “affective turn” in cultural theory often ignores the materiality of everyday life in favor of textual readings and speculative theorization. By grounding her theory DeNora not only illustrates the limits of affect’s supposed “autonomy” (Massumi 2002), she demonstrates its functional use in the context of organizations and marketing. Additionally, the key theoretical contribution of entrainment continues to be an important tool for social analysis (see Watkins 2010 & Born 2011). Looking back, this key text provides for a study of music, and aesthetic experience in general, grounded in the material circumstances of the most banal moments of social existence. In other words, contemporary scholars of music, culture, and the pre-cognitive netherworld of the social’s affective and aesthetic dimensions would do well to rediscover Music in Everyday Life.

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Adorno, Theodor W. 2004. Aesthetic Theory. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Adorno, Theodor W. 1991. “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” In The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge.

Born, Georgina. 2010. “The Social and the Aesthetic: For a Post-Bourdieuian Theory of Cultural Production.” Cultural Sociology 4 (2) (July 1): 171 –208.

Born, Georgina. 2011. “Music and the Materialization of Identities.” Journal of Material Culture 16 (4) (December 1): 376–388.

Cook, Daniel Thomas. 2001. “Music in Everyday Life by Tia DeNora.” American Journal of Sociology 106 (5) (March 1): 1484–1486.

De La Fuente, Eduardo. 2010. “In Defence of Theoretical and Methodological Pluralism in the Sociology of Art: A Critique of Georgina Born’s Programmatic Essay.” Cultural Sociology 4 (2) (July 1): 217–230.

Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth. 2010. The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. 1972. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder.

Leys, Ruth. 2011. “The Turn to Affect: A Critique.” Critical Inquiry 37 (3) (March 1): 434–472.

Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Duke University Press.

Mazzarella, William. 2013. “Why Is Adorno so Repulsive?” In Beyond the Aesthetic and Anti-Aesthetic, ed. James Elkins and Harper Montgomery, University Park: Penn State University Press

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Michael Siciliano, « Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life », Volume !, 10 : 1 | 2013, 306-308.

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Michael Siciliano, « Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life », Volume ! [En ligne], 10 : 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 décembre 2013, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Michael Siciliano

Michael Siciliano est doctorant en sociologie à l’université de Californie, Los Angeles. Ses recherches portent sur les pratiques organisationnelles et le travail au sein de l’industrie du disque américaine.

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