The Power of Inertia

Stability is a perennial problem in the study of social organization. I’ll begin the discussion of that problem with an example: the world of so-called “classical” music. One of the remarkable things about that world is how stable it is. Things change, but not much. Orchestras of about the same size have been playing the same repertoire, with occasional additions, for almost a hundred years, on instruments not very different from those players used almost a hundred years ago. The personnel change, but the new ones are much like the old ones. The United States still imports conductors, mostly from Europe, though it doesn’t import orchestral players as much as it used to. The public hasn’t changed much. Rich people pick up most of the tab, and some members of the upper-middle class attend regularly. More people hear music in the 1990s than did, say, in the 1930s, because of the ubiquity of radio, television, and recordings. Fewer people make music in their own homes, perhaps for the same reason. So the classical music world and its ways of doing things are, all in all, quite stable.

That’s a theoretical problem. Any activity—making music is the example here—can be done in a great many different ways. I like the John Cage position, according to which (I quote from memory) “Music is the moral evaluation of noise.” That is, any sound or combination of sounds can be music—any sound made any way, with the help of any object as an instrument, with or without the intention of the maker. It’s music if you listen to it in a way that makes it music, paying close attention, and in the mood Dr. Johnson called being “willing to be pleased.” Our conventional ways of making and listening to music—the orchestras and concerts and recordings and all the rest of it—represent the choice of a very few from among all those possible ways of doing those things. The theoretical problem is to understand the narrowness of our choices of how to make music when there are so many possibilities. (The extensive literature on the sociology of music is reviewed critically in (Hennion 1993.)

I don’t want to rehearse sociology’s intramural spats in any detail, but I do want to make one distinction, in a way that is perhaps oversiplified (perhaps not). One variety of sociological thinking (often called “functionalism”) takes the stability of social organizations as natural, the way things are supposed to be. Institutions, on this view, represent a Best Way to do things. Once that best way is found, people stick to it because it is, after all, the best way, the one that meets certain needs, or ensures that certain necessary functions will be performed. Once such a “functional equilibrium” has been found, things just naturally go on that way. If anything interferes, the world tries to reestablish the Best Way. The stability of the music world is not a problem for such a theory. Once you have identified the functions the organization serves, you have done all the analysis that is necessary. (See the trenchant criticism of this view in (Hughes 1984. p. 53.)

Another variety of sociological thinking, which I find more realistic and useful, thinks all that is a fairy tale. On this view, social organizations are generally flying apart and stay organized no more than is necessary for people to get done whatever they have for the moment decided they want to do together. People get together, or find themselves together, and work out how they will do what they are going to do, and then try to do it, in circumstances that are never quite what they imagined, with problems and hindrances popping up that they never anticipated. From this point of view, the stability of the music world is a substantial theoretical problem. How can things possibly go on just as they have been?

In fact, music is always changing. Look at all the innovations music has incorporated in the past century: everything from serial methods of composition to minimalism, all sorts of alternative music systems from around the world (the musics of India, Japan, China, for instance), electric and then electronic instruments, a variety of tonal and harmonic systems.

A good example of such changes is the music of Harry Partch. Partch was a somewhat eccentric composer who composed for a forty-two tone scale. Since no instruments existed for forty-two tone music, he had to invent and construct them himself, which he did (since he didn’t have much money) mostly out of scavenged materials. When the instruments were made, no one knew how to play them, and so he had to teach a generation of Partch instrumentalists. He not only had to teach them to play the instruments but also, because no forty-two tone notation existed, he had to invent the notation and teach them that as well. And since there was no literature for a music based on forty-two tones, he had to write that too (which, of course, was why he had gone to all that trouble in the first place).

Partch’s music was, however, played by players who rehearsed a work that they played from a notated score composed by a composer. They typically performed, as we say, “in concert,” in a hall, for an audience who had come especially for the purpose of listening to that music. They recorded the music, which was issued on discs and sold through more or less conventional channels. So Partch’s music was a change, but certainly not a complete change. Much of the conventional practice of music-making stayed the same.

Now consider a possibility that differs much more from the way we conventionally make music. I base this possibility on a story I heard about a man who lived in a place where bamboo grew. Whenever he felt like making music, he picked a piece of bamboo and made a flute from it. He made holes in the bamboo tube using a randomizing procedure to determine their placement. In that way, each flute he made gave him a different scale to work with. He then spent the day experimenting with the new flute, seeing what melodic and harmonic possibilities that scale gave him, composing whatever seemed appropriate to those resources and the day and his mood, and then—this is the crucial difference between what this experiment accomplished and what one might get from an electronic synthesizer—at the end of the day he burned the flute. That day’s music was that day’s music and when the day was over its music went with it.

These three ways of making music—conventional concert practice, Harry Partch innovative compositional practice, and the randomly contructed bamboo flute—suggest the analytic dimension I’d like to make responsible for the stability of conventional music making: inertia. We might also call it, with somewhat more of a political twist, hegemony.

In conventional music-making, nothing goes away at the end of the day. We don’t invent a new scale every day. In fact, we hardly ever do, unless we are as eccentric and individualistic as Partch, or like to experiment mathematically as Easley Blackwood did when he systematically explored the possibilities of scales made by dividing the octave, electronically, into increasingly fine units. Instead, we use one of the several scales in common use. We don’t really invent new melodies every day, either, even those of us who improvise. Paul Berliner’s research on jazz improvisation (Berliner 1994) shows that even the most inventive jazz players work with a small library of short phrases which they vary and combine endlessly, starting on different degrees of the scale and at different places in the bar, to make enormous numbers of distinctive variations. He shows further that those phrases are typically not invented by the people playing them, but are part of a vocabulary of such phrases that go back to the beginnings of jazz playing. Thus the phrases he finds in the improvisations of trumpeter Booker Little can also be found, in slightly variant forms, all the way back to the beginnings of jazz trumpet playing, in the recorded solos (which Little surely knew) of Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong (and even in the early piano solos of Earl Hines).

Similarly, we don’t burn our instruments. They’re too expensive. We’re used to them. We know how to play them. We don’t have to explore their possibilities. We’ve done that and the possibilities are in our fingers, built into our bodies the way David Sudnow described his own learning of jazz piano practice being built into his hands (Sudnow 1978). So, instead of burning our instruments, we take good care of them, have them repaired when they need it, and insure them so that we can replace them if anything happens.

Those decisions aren’t unconnected. We use the instruments because they have built into them a selection of tones that is not new and different, a selection we are used to and can work with. We use those scales because they are built into the instruments we have and know.

In short, a way of making music is what sociologists of science have come to speak of, not very originally perhaps, but certainly intelligibly, as a “package.” Each piece in the package presupposes the existence of all the others. They are all connected in such a way that, when you choose any one of them, you find it enormously easy to take everything that comes with that choice, and enormously difficult to make any substitutions. It’s the package that exerts the hegemony, that contains the inertial force, if I can attribute agency to such a conceptual creation.

Think about Partch. When he spent a year at a college campus as composer in residence, he would spend months with students building instruments, teaching them to play what had been built, teaching them a notation, working on particular pieces, all in order to prepare (between September and May, let’s say) a two hour concert. A major orchestra in the 1990s spends no more than nine hours, and more likely six, preparing a similar amount of music. You might say that the difference between nine months and nine hours is a rough measure of the inertial power of a conventional musical package.

It is not only these musical considerations—scales and instruments—that make up the package. The package also contains the social situations in which music gets made, and in which the players and everyone else involved is trained. Symphony concerts are not the way they are just because the instruments are there and the music is written in an already established notation. They are what they are, also, because concert music is a business. The people who make that kind of music get paid for it, not as well as they might like, but enough that raising the money to pay them is a serious problem. That means that the orchestras must hire people to see that the money is there: fundraisers, marketing specialists, ticket sellers.

All that money requires tending, so orchestras also need bookkeepers, accountants, and lawyers. The players usually belong to a union, so there are labor relations to take care of; the inability of players and management to agree on a contract has killed off a few orchestras. The economics of the symphony business are what make it necessary for players to have certain skills, e.g., the ability to perform a difficult piece of music creditably or excellently with only a few hours rehearsal (when the rehearsal must be paid for at union rates). After all, it is not a necessary feature of making good music that you be able to learn to perform a particular piece quickly; that is a business driven requirement, as Samuel Gilmore’s (1987) explorations of such alternate musical organizations as university-based ensembles makes clear.

Part of the concert music package is an associated set of educational organizations. Professional training schools produce the players who can do everything the other parts of the package require: quick studies with virtuoso skills who can adapt to a variety of conductors. Elementary and secondary schools teach some rudiments of music (see the description of such a program in (Hennion 1988), in the places where penny-pinching state and city governments haven’t made that impossible, and take children to “children’s concerts” to give them a kind of minimal exposure to music, which might make them into potential customers for the concert business, if not for the live concerts then perhaps for television and recordings.

We can add to the package such frills as critics, theorists and scholars. I’ll leave their relations to what I’ve described as an exercise to be done at home.

All these parts of the package could themselves be done some other way. Music could be supported otherwise than by raising money from rich people and selling tickets. It could be an amateur activity, as so many other kinds of music are. Children could learn to play instruments proficiently in school, instead of learning to be consumers, the way some number of them learn to be proficient enough players of rock.

So that’s the package, and it creates the inertia that keeps things as they are. It’s important to see that it doesn’t in any way require anyone to do anything in the conventional way, or prevent innovation or unconventionality. You want forty-two tone music? Go ahead and write it. But you’ll have a lot of trouble getting it played, because no one will have the instruments or know how to play them and, for that matter, no one will know how to listen to it either, since it will not be one of the kinds of music they learned to hear in school or from records. You want to pick pieces of bamboo and invent whole new musical systems from scratch every day? Be my guest. But keep it to yourself and don’t expect anyone to cooperate with you. You want to do it on a computer? Fine, but then you will spend time you might have been composing learning more about computers than you ever wanted to know (like Michael Joyce, who wanted to write interactive fiction and thought a computer would be the way to do it, and it was, but it took him, collaborating with Jay Bolter, three years to develop “Storyspace,” the software that made it possible, before he could write the first story (Joyce 1990).

You can do anything you like, but the cost is high. The more you want to depart from the standard package, the more you find that everything else connected with making music has gotten more complicated and difficult. You will have to recruit and train people who otherwise would have been ready to go, you will have to learn new ways of doing things, you will have to construct machinery or adapt it to your purposes instead of being able to use off-the-shelf products. All of that will eat into the time and resources you might have devoted to making art, which is what you set out to do.

So it isn’t surprising that most people, confronted with that kind of choice, decide to do things as they’ve been done. At every turn, there’s an easy way to go and a hard way, and people who have some art they want to make are likely to choose the easy way. Not because they are lazy, but because they want to get on with the work they set out to do. That may not look like the exercise of power, but it is, in its most insidious form: the structuring of choices so as to make one choice “obvious.”

On the other hand, it’s clear that this isn’t such an extreme of power as to prevent people from innovating. There seem always to be enough people around to keep things moving a little, enough people with new ideas and the energy to give them a try. The problem about change is not whether there are such people but whether their ideas will be incorporated into the workings of the rest of the package, whether the changes will be institutionalized so as to get the advantage of all the apparatus that is already in place. Alternatively, can innovators create for themselves a new apparatus, which will do all those things the regular system does for older kinds of work? In some ways, at least for a time, you could say that rock music did that, creating a network of performance sites and training institutions that were independent of what had been there before. Rock music did not take over jazz venues, or recruit the audience of jazz; it found new venues (San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium replaced an “Over Thirties Ballroom” whose clientele had gotten too old to dance) and created a new audience.

To show what it takes to make an enormous change, we can look at Pierre-Michel Menger’s study of the compositional scene in France (Menger 1983). When composer-conductor-theorist Pierre Boulez came to control about 80% of all government money available for classical music (the kind of thing that can happen in so centralized a society), he declared a shift of emphasis from composition to “research in sonorities,” concerned less with producing works to be played in concert and more with investigating the new possibilities introduced by digital music. The result, according to Menger, was a paradox: governmental supported music that was radically avant-garde, neither conservative nor popular, but instead esoteric in the extreme.

That suggests one last aspect of the power of inertia, one implicit in most of what I’ve said until now. Boulez could do this because he was able, by virtue of the centralized apparatus he controlled, to control the definition of what constituted music. That control of definition exists in all professionalized music worlds. I began by referring to John Cage’s catholic and democratic notions about what constituted music. But then I pretty much proceeded, as most sensible scholars would, to ignore those ideas, by accepting the notion that music is what is conventionally thought of as music, which is to say professionalized music someone makes a living by. Within that enormous restriction on what I defined as music, I mostly concentrated on conventional concert music. By doing that, I accepted the most insidious exercise of power, which consists of letting people whose business it is define what that business includes, which versions of it are serious and important, and which don’t matter much.

Now I’ll repair that error. Take an unbiased look at musicmaking, as Ruth Finnegan did in her study of musicmaking in the new English town of Milton Keynes (Finnegan 1989). Look and listen as she did, using an inclusive Cagean definition, and find everywhere in such a city (whose population is about 200,000) that people are making music. You find all the rock bands, church choirs, and amateur orchestras. You find the large number of organizations in which specialized ethnic music is made: the Milton Keynes Irish Society, the Bletchley Edelweiss club (devoted to Austrian, Swiss and German music), the Hindu Youth organization, and the less organized but still musical Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Sikh, and Bangladeshi communities. The schools, of course, have musical organizations and programs. So do the clubs and pubs.

I’m not making a sentimental anthropological plea that we remember and honor all these wonderful folk, or even the Cagean aesthetic plea to enjoy ourselves by listening to all the wonderful sounds to be heard if we just pay attention. It’s an analytic point: when we talk about music and power, we must recognize that all these ways of making music are in active use and the power of professional definition prevents us from taking them seriously.

What does it mean for a kind of musicmaking not to be taken seriously? At the most material level, it means that all the standard, already in place, ways of paying for musicmaking (not just salaries, but the provision of instruments, places to play, and so forth) will not be available to you: no grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, no fellowships, no commissions from players and groups. More generally, all the apparatus I described above, all the available stuff that makes it so easy to make music, is only available to people who are making what the people in charge of that stuff recognize and define as “music.” Which does not include the full panoply of musicmaking Cage would have us recognize and Finnegan found in Milton Keynes.

A striking example of what it means not to be part of the world defined by the professionals is found in Hermano Vianna’s study of the world of funk in Rio de Janeiro (Vianna 1988). Based on intensive obervation of this world, Vianna estimates that there are between one and two thousand clubs in the metropolitan area (whose population is around five million), each of them drawing as many as a thousand people a night for two or three nights each weekend to listen and dance to funk music imported from the United States. One striking finding of his research is that, until he wrote about it, “no one” in Rio, which is to say no intellectual or journalist or opinion maker, knew that this was going on. It was something poor, mostly black, people were doing in their own neighborhoods, neighborhoods to which the experts on “popular culture” never went. So, from a certain point of view, Rio’s funk scene “didn’t exist.”

Another surprising finding is that this was not a case of cultural imperialism, of culture from the metropole being forced on a helpless population in a dependent country through the devices of modern mass marketing. The companies producing these records in the United States were typically small, struggling enterprises which could not afford the price of cultural imperialism. Nor were the records the Brazilian funk fans liked ones that were popular or even well known in the United States. The only way the disk jockeys who ran these parties could get the records their fans liked was to fly to New York, spend the day scouring stores for possible music, and take the fruits of their search back to Rio with them the next evening. This is a long way from the stereotypical picture of the greedy multinational exploiting the “natives” of a poor country.

The poor funk lovers of Rio make their own world and so could overcome the inertia that might be imposed by the existing packages of the music world. In that way, they are a model of what is possible, as is Partch, and the bamboo flute maker, all showing what you could do if you really wanted to and what the price would be. And all that shows how organizations stay stable—by raising the price of innovation—and how they change—through the activity of people for whom that price is, for whatever reason, not prohibitive.


Becker, Howard S. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Berliner, Paul F. Thinking About Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Finnegan, Ruth. The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Gilmore, Samuel. “Coordination and Convention: The Organization of the Concert World,” Symbolic Interaction 10 (1987), pp. 209-28.

Hennion, Antoine. Comment la musique vient aux enfants: Une anthropologie de l’enseignement musical. Paris: Anthropos, 1988.

Hennion, Antoine. La Passion musicale. Paris: Édition Métailié, 1993.

Hughes, Everett C. The Sociological Eye. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1984.

Joyce, Michael. afternoon, a story. Hypertext edition ed., Cambridge, MA: Eastgate Systems, 1990.

Menger, Pierre-Michel. Le Paradoxe du musicien: le compositeur, le m êlomane et l’Etat dans la societé contemporaine. Paris: Flammarion, 1983.

Sudnow, David. Ways of the Hand: The Organization of Improvised Conduct. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Vianna, Hermano. O Mundo Funk Carioca. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 1988.