Music Making & Bodily Discipline

I’ve been prepping for my summer Philosophy of Music course, and this includes developing some basic music/sound-making exercises. The course is almost entirely philosophy students, and I’m not assuming any familiarity with music practice or theory. But, because it’s important to have some material, concrete familiarity with the thing you’re philosophically examining, I wanted to include some practical activities that even a complete novice could do. In the process of prepping these activities, I’ve come across a philosophical question of my own. And let me emphasize that this really is a question–my thoughts here are very preliminary, and I’m hoping we can talk about this in class, on this blog, and in the course tumblr (

Do digital music production technologies–like, say, Ableton or Fruityloops or Garageband–make music practice/creation available as something separate from a musically-disciplined body? By “musically disciplined body” I mean a body shaped and habituated by years of, well, practice, as in, practicing an instrument. My question was sparked by an observation I made while thinking of how to explain our first-day-of-class exercise to students. This exercise involves using iTunes to cut a ringtone from a song in its library. It’s a relatively simple procedure: you define a beginning and an end time numerically, rather than by clicking on a wav file (but even casual soundcloud users would be familiar with something like that, so even that level of music notation/tech isn’t too alien to non-experts.). This process doesn’t require 10 years of lessons and practicing to perform–that’s what I wanted to convey to students to quell any potential anxieties they might have about their capacity to do the exercise. But then I realized that yeah, exactly, it doesn’t require years and decades of bodily training in music to perform–which is precisely what is required to play a traditional wind/string/percussion instrument.

As someone who spent a lot of time around classically trained instrumentalists, I know that this bodily discipline is absolutely central to legacy musical tech (by which I mean, instruments and bodies). In order to play the oboe well, you not only have to practice your fingerings, you have to have good posture, well-trained diaphragm muscles, proper breathing (which means relaxed upper body, open sinuses, open throat, etc.), and a proper embouchure (how you hold your mouth around the reed). You have to practice tounging and articulation. You have to figure out how to stand when playing (e.g., not swaying or shifting weight too much), what to do with your feet when sitting (especially if you’re a woman who might wear a short skirt), not making goofy expressions with your eyes and eyebrows…It’s a disciplining of the entire body. Music-making is so fundamentally corporeal that musicians’ bodies can get really fucked up by it–repetitive stress injuries are common, the Alexander Technique is commonly taught to musicians…to say nothing of Orff & Kodaly’s music ed programs, these are very much about the relationship btw music and properly disciplined bodies…

Turntablism, and even the use of analog synths–these also require distinctly musical bodily disciplining (i.e., the use of these instruments as musical instruments requires corporeal training/practice). Pop music performance is another sort of discipline–think of what it takes to lip synch well while dancing in some gawdawfully cumbersome and awkward costume for an hour or two every night. Or think about the sort of bodily comportment(s) one has to learn to come off successfully as a hip hop artist.

But what happens when my means of accessing musical creation/sound generation/etc. is my laptop, tablet computer, or phone? What happens to musical body disciplines when my ‘musical instrument’ is not an exclusively musical instrument? These digital technologies definitely require a disciplined body (and mind, and ear), but that body isn’t specifically musically disciplined. To use GarageBand, I’m using the same set of interface skills I use to type this paper, play video games (so even external controllers aren’t that different from devices one might use for gaming), interact online–in other words, the same set of interface skills I use for other, non-specifically musical applications. Now, I may get a kinesthetic feel for specific knobs (potentiometers) to twist in specific ways, and there’s definitely a learning curve involved in using new music software, but the physicality of this training is just of a different degree–perhaps a different kind?–than the physicality of training to play a traditional Western instrument.

There’s still musical training and discipline involved, but it’s less visibly corporeal, it seems. (Or maybe the corporeal aspect is less visibly/obviously/exclusively musical?) It’s “ear” training–you have to know how songs work, etc.–but this seems more like epistemic and aesthetic training than overall bodily discipline. It’s a discipline of the senses, of sense perception, of aesthetic taste, of aesthetic (and even corporeal) pleasure…So the musical training/discipline, insofar as it is epistemic and aesthetic, does involve the whole body (the body has to be acculturated or ‘oriented’ (to use Ahmed’s term) in specific ways to hear and understand particular types of music as such), but not in the same way that playing the oboe does.

So you might then say that it’s not the case that there is no corporeal discipline required to cut a ringtone in iTunes, but rather that there are two different (but genealogically related) regimes of corporeal discipline–one, the 19th/19th c European bodily disciplines involved in having the kind of body that can play the oboe well, and then the other, the 21st century globalized, post-racial/post-feminist (and I use these terms ironically), mixed-reality, non-digitally-dualist body of post-cinematic neoliberalism.

Some more things to think about:

  1. Bodily disciplines–how they are transmitted, who gets to practice them in what sorts of contexts–are still stratified by multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy. Certain practices whiten, other practices racialize bodies in other ways. And it would be really interesting to think more carefully about these ways.

    1. One obvious example is the gendering of specific kinds of/comportments to tech: Gendered socialization patterns have the effect of making it easier for boys master more prestigious tech skills (like coding), and easier for girls to master less prestigious forms of tech skill (like social networking, taking the perfect selfie for the occasion, etc.).

    2. Even though consumer music tech makes music-making more accessible to people who haven’t had 10 years of music lessons, it likely privileges the sorts of body-interface relations boys are more commonly socialized to practice than the sorts of body-interface relations that girls are more commonly socialized to practice.

  2. The gap between implicit musical knowledges required to understand and appreciate music (e.g, recognizing the 12 diatonic pitches in an octave as actual pitches), OTOH, and the implicit musical knowledges required to interface w/digital creation/production tech, OTO. The average consumer might have the latter–the bodily knowledges to interface with the tech, but they likely don’t know how to translate between that and their implicit musical knowledges, at least they won’t know how without some practice.

    1. For example, when I first started using Cubase (a music composition and production program), it was really, really alien to me–ME, with training in music theory, music performance, etc. Give me a score in traditional Western notation, and that’s easy to read–but a Cubase interface…that took some time to learn. Not only did I have to ‘get over’ or unlearn how I habitually translated between implicit musical knowledges and standard Western notation, I had to reconfigure my ‘translation’ mechanisms so they’d translate from sound–>Cubase–>sound (instead of sound–>notation–>sound).

    2. That reconfiguring work wasn’t visibly corporeal–and it didn’t feel bodily in the same way that practicing the oboe or the piano feels bodily (e.g., my lips don’t get chapped by the reed). But it was definitely a cognitive and sensorial experience…but what’s the role of the body/bodily schema here?

  3. Are there other questions or issues I/we should consider?