From Steven Feld, “Sound Structure As Social Structure,” Ethnomusicology, Sept. 1984 pp.  383-409.


“I propose . . .  six broad areas of inquiry into music as a total social fact, into the social life of organized sounds.  . . .  For each of the six rubrics I elaborate some rudimentary questions;  the lists are not meant to be exhaustive in any sense.”



1.  Who can make sounds/music, and who can interpret/use them?

2.  What is the pattern of musical acquisition and learning?

3.  Are there stratifications of skill and knowledge?  What types?  How are they sanctioned, recognized, and maintained?

4.  It musical acquisition assumed to be unproblematic?  A necessity?

5.  Do ideologies of “talent” determine or constrain acquisition and competence?

6.  What is the relationship between competence, skill, and desire for music?

7.  What are the differences between production and reception skills, for individuals, across social groups?



1.  What are material musical means and how are they organized into recognizable codes?

2.  How are musical means distributed across settings and participants?

3.  What are the preferred aesthetic ordering?

4.  What are the boundaries of perceived forms?  What does it mean to be wrong, incorrect, or otherwise marginal from the standpoint of code flexibility and use?

5.  How flexible, arbitrary, elastic, adaptable, open is musical form?  How resistant to changes, internal or external pressures, or other historical forces?



1.  What are the relationships between makers and materials?

2.  What is the relationship between individual and collective expressive forms and performance settings?

3.  How are forms coordinated in performance?  How adaptable and elastic is musical form when manipulated by different performers at a single moment in time or over time?

4.  How do cooperative and competing social relations emerge in performance?  What meanings do these have for performers and audience? 

5.  How do performances achieve pragmatic (evocative, persuasive, manipulative) ends, if at all?



1.  What resources does the environment provide?  How are they exploited?  What relationships exist between resources, exploitation, and material means and social occasions for performance?

2.  Are there co-evolutionary patterns, ecological and aesthetic, linking the environment and sound patterns, materials, situations?

3.  What are the visual-auditory-sensate relationships between people and environment, and how is this pattern related to expressive means and ends?

4.  What myths or models scaffold the perception of the environment?  Are these related or complimentary to conceptions of person, society, expressive resources?

5.  What mystical or cosmological associations with the environment support, contradict, or otherwise relate to the socioeconomic context of musical beliefs and occasions?



1.  What are the sources of authority, wisdom, and legitimacy about sounds and music?  Who can know about sound?

2.  Is musical knowledge public, private, ritual, esoteric?

3.  What dimensions of musical thought are verbalized?  Taught verbally?  Non-verbally?

4.  Is theory necessary?  How detached can theory be from practice?  What varieties of knowledge and activity count as musical or aesthetic theory?  How is music rationalized?


Value and Equality

1.  Who values and evaluates sounds?  Who can be valued and evaluated as a maker of sounds?

2.  How are expressive resources distributed, specifically among men and women, young and old?  How do stratifications emerge?

3.  How do balances and imbalances manifest themselves in expressive ideology and performance?

4.  Do sounds deceive?  Mystify?  Who?  Why?

5.  Are sounds secret?  Powerful?  For whom?  Why?

6.      How do musical materials or performances marked or maintained social differences?  How are such differences interpreted?  How are they sustained, broken or ruptured?  Accepted or resisted?


Feld goes on to evaluate this idea:


The great force shaping music and its meaning is social inequality specifically as it manifests itself in four directions at once: The dominance of some men over other men, of men over nature, of men over women, and of some societies over other societies.  Among those remaining primitive peoples who have managed to maintain the social, natural, and sexual equalities, I assume that "music" is a vital part of that maintenance.  Indeed, in such societies what we call music-dance-ritual-religion-ecology seem to be fused into nearly an homeostatic system, symbolizing nothing or everything. 

Charles Keil, “Marxism as the Context for a Symbolic Analysis of Music,” Society for Ethnomusicology paper, 1979