Sonic Borders Virtual Panel: Devon Powers, “Popular Music Studies: An Audible Discipline?”

by justindburton on February 27, 2013


IASPM-US and Sounding Out! are proud to bring you a collaboration that represents the first official panel of the the 2013 IASPM-US conference. While the rest of the conference will be held in Austin, TX (2/28-3/3), this first panel will feature six essays from Sounding Out! and four from IASPM-US during the months of January and February – a discourse in cyberspace that addresses and enacts the theme of the conference, “Liminality & Borderlands.” “Sonic Borders” features scholars from sound studies and popular music studies (many of whom work in both disciplines) discussing the two disciplines’ shared principles, disparate ideologies, and un/common purposes. The results should be exciting, as we invite not only the panelists to contribute their essays but also conference participants and readers of both sites to join in the conversation as we prod the connective tissue of popular music studies and sound studies.

Many thanks to the three co-founders of Sounding Out!Liana Silva, Managing Editor, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief, and Aaron Trammell, Multimedia Editor, as well as Kwame Harrison, chair of the IASPM-US conference program committee, and all of our panelists. A full schedule will be included at the bottom of each essay we publish to this site. Today’s post comes from Devon Powers.

In his glowing review of Jonathan Sterne’s now canonical book, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, UCLA professor of sociology William G. Roy claims that “While scholarship has thoroughly interrogated vision, as evident in the literal and metaphorical prominence of such terms as gaze, image, vision, and seeing, there has not been much attention paid to sound, especially mediated sound” (p. 457). This premise, echoed in other reviews of the book, also aids in justifying the establishment of sound studies, a growing field of study that, as Sterne notes in the introduction to The Sound Studies Reader, names “the interdisciplinary ferment in the human sciences that takes sound as its analytical point of departure or arrival” and “redescribes what sound does in the human world, and what humans do in the sonic world” (2012: p. 2). Along the same lines, in the first special issue of American Quarterly devoted to entirely sound, published 2011, special editors Kara Keeling and Josh Kun proclaim “The era of sound’s marginality in American studies scholarship… seems to be over,” further commenting  that “more and more scholars across a variety of disciplines are beginning to not only take the culture, consumption, and politics of sound seriously but are making it the centerpiece of their research, publishing, and pedagogy” (p. 446).

The two aforementioned Sterne publications are convenient markers for what we might reasonably now designate as the “coming out” of sound studies. Not that this is Sterne’s doing alone: the early 2000s also saw the publication of field-defining work of Emily Thompson,  Michael Bull, Les Back, and others; important antecedents on sonic culture, aurality, audiovisuality, and soundscapes appeared with some regularity in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and before. Nevertheless, in recent years sound studies has stood on much firmer ground. Once an anomalous area of inquiry, it is no longer rare to meet doctoral candidates writing dissertations on sound studies, to encounter a scholar of sound at an academic conference, or to become aware through buzz and hearsay of the latest addition to the sound studies literature. To put it briefly, and apologies for the pun, the field of sound studies is now more audible than ever before.

The arrival of sound studies is an exciting development for scholars of popular music, but it also begs a number of questions about what we do and where we are going. Sterne (2012) suggests that the rise of sound studies owes some debt to the radically and rapidly changing experiences of sound occasioned over the last ten years, and it is hardly a stretch (and indeed, may be an understatement) to attribute much of that change to transformations in musical sound. The rise of peer-to-peer file sharing networks, the mass adoption of MP3 technology, the invention of mass-storage MP3 players, and the introduction of cloud-based musical storage systems, often accessed by powerful mobile devices: as scholars of popular music, we have had to come to terms with these changes even as they fundamentally re-conceptualize our object of study. Moreover, as sound studies captivates an increasing number of scholarly imaginations, serious questions can and should be raised about what a singular focus on popular music may bring to the table.

Like the foment around identity and area studies of the mid-to-late 20th century, we have once again entered a period in which disciplinary boundaries cannot contain or adequately address the kinds of questions many scholars are finding most urgent to answer. It is not specific technologies, identity categories, or methodologies that energize sound studies, visual culture, consumer culture studies, digital humanities, or their kin; rather, they are organized, however loosely, around ways of experiencing the world and spheres of human practice, and as such allow for expansive terrains of interest. As Hilmes (2005) remarks in considering the motivations behind sound studies, ”“various venues of academic work on sound phenomena so rarely speak to or take heed of each other, and equally as rarely do they attempt to systematically theorize across medium-specific practices” (p. 252). If, in this transitional moment, the goal is “to think across sounds, to consider sonic phenomena in relation to one another—as types of sonic phenomena rather than things-in-themselves” (Sterne 2012: 3), then sound studies offers a nimble and holistic view of the soundscape that popular music studies does not—and, frankly, cannot.

Without careful deliberation about these issues, then, the perennial marginalization of sound in numerous fields may quite easily result in the eclipse of popular music studies. Given the choice, it is quite possible that sound studies will become the terrain of choice for answering questions related to sonic phenomena, leaving popular music scholars with  an existential question: who are we and where are we going? And more: how should those of us who study popular music think about ourselves? Are we sound studies scholars by another name? What might be lost were we to decide that we were? In short, does popular music studies continue to matter?

The questions I’ve raised are large ones and far be it from me to suggest that I have adequate answers for them, especially in something as brief as this post. I’d like to spend the remainder of this post, though, offering a few ideas for some directions forward in the task of thinking about why the study of popular music matters.

Given my background in media and communication studies, what has always stood out to me most is that music is, in essence, a form of communication. This means two things. First, that music is expressive; it is a repository of ideas and emotional states, even if those things cannot be reduced to or explained in language. Second, music is intentional—its presence always has purpose, even when it is not on purpose. These ontological differences between sound in general and music in particular frame the kinds of questions their study might incite. If sound studies, to echo the above, “redescribes what sound does in the human world, and what humans do in the sonic world,” music is the very embodiment of that interaction between the human and the sonic—a sound through which we know, and also question, what it means to be human at all.

I have already in some ways made my second point: that while all music is sound, music is also much more than sound. This multiplicity is apparent in the enormous range of approaches taken to tackle what popular music is—focusing on industry, technology, or celebrity; on form, function, or identity; on distribution, categorization, or circulation, and all the above in both past and present tense. It is not uncommon for many of us who study popular music to very rarely actually talk about music per se; instead, music becomes our prism through which to talk about race, or nation, or capitalism, or criticism, or history. Music holds incredible power to reflect and refract social and cultural meaning. It is this enchanting power that has arrested so many of us who study it, stirring our fascination as well as our passion as we wander in and around musical worlds.

There are many ways in which the study of popular music is not a discipline. The number of dedicated departments of popular music studies is few and far between; we claim no particular methods as our own; we do not yet have the clout or resonance of sociology, economics, or English. And yet, one thing disciplines require is reflection on the past and directed speculation about the future. The emergence of sound studies is, in some ways, just the latest reminder of the imperativeness of this task for popular music studies, of our imminent, if somewhat controversial, arrival into disciplinary status. We must proceed down this path carefully and methodically,so that we may reap the confidence and security afforded by disciplinarity without losing the pliancy that makes what we do enjoyable.

Of course, all of this discussion of what’s special about music, and in turn scholarship on it, is to say nothing of the vast amount of lessons we may glean from sound studies. It is true that scholars of popular music have often taken its sound for granted; we often fail to listen deeply and critically.  Likewise, the boundaries I have erected between popular music studies and sound studies here are in some ways falsehoods—many of us travel across them with ease as well as joy, while others of us fail to see any boundaries at all. But it is worth it to acknowledge that preserving a presence for the study of popular music is a goal that is related to, but not the same as, the building up of sound studies. In the end, no one field can, or should, claim ownership over something as rich, perplexing, and varied as the soundscape. That’s music to my ears.


Keeling, K and Kun, J. 2011. Introduction: Listening to Sound Studies. American Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3. Pp. 445-59.

Hilmes, M. 2005. Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does It Matter? American Quarterly, Vol. 57, no. 1. Pp. 249-59.

Roy, W. 2004. Review of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Recording. Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 33, no. 4. Pp 457-58

Sterne, J. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Recording. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Sterne, J. 2012. The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Sonic Borders Schedule

1/21 – Liana Silva, Sounding Out! – “I’m on My New York Sh*t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City

1/28 – Regina Bradley, Sounding Out! – I Like the Way You Rhyme, Boy: Hip Hop Sensibility and Racial Trauma in Django Unchained

2/4 – Marcus Boon, Sounding Out! – One Nation Under a Groove?: Music, Sonic Borders, and the Politics of Vibration

2/6 – Barry Shank, IASPM-US – On Popular Music Studies

2/11 – Tavia Nyong’o, Sounding Out! – Freedom Back: Sounding Black Feminist History, Courtesy the Artists

2/13 – Theo Cateforis, IASPM-US – No Control, or: How I Learned to Start Worrying about Sound

2/18 – Tara Betts, Sounding Out! – They Do Not All Sound Alike: Sampling Kathleen Cleaver, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis

2/20 – Shana L. Redmond, IASPM-US – The Sounds We Make Together: Chuck Berry’s Onomatopoeia

2/25 – Airek Beauchamp, Sounding Out! – Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis

2/27 – Devon Powers, IASPM-US – Popular Music Studies: An Audible Discipline?


Barry Shank February 27, 2013 at 11:33 am

Wonderfully put, Devon. As you know, the question of the specificity of popular music studies is near to my heart, too. One thing that struck me about the contributions to our mutual dialogue was that in almost every case the phenomena discussed were musical examples. This could have been a result of the structure of a dialogue between Sounding Out! and IASPM. But still, I found it curious and would like to open a discussion about the specificity of sound studies as an approach to the discussion of popular music. One way of asking that question would be–is any scholarly discussion of popular music necessarily popular music studies? Is there a sound studies way of discussing popular music that would not fit that category? I know that sound studies does include discussions of non-musical sounds–many of the pieces in Keeling and Kun do so. But is there a distinction between the way that sound studies scholars and popular music scholars talk about popular music? Or is the distinction about something other than the forms of analysis?

Devon February 27, 2013 at 11:42 am

Hi Barry: I think these are really excellent questions and ones that I hope we can discuss more over the coming weekend. Friday’s panel doesn’t have a “sound studies” person on it per se, but I’ll be sure to raise some questions along these lines during the moderated discussion. I do think a lot of popular music scholarship has neglected, say, audio engineering–just one instance of how sound studies might provide a useful way of thinking about popular music anew.

Steve Waksman February 27, 2013 at 8:50 pm

I would put the matter differently. The way that “sound studies” has evolved in recent years, I have felt more and more that it has become a way for scholars to talk about sound without having to talk about music – meaning that sound studies seems progressively to be defining itself as the study of non-musical sound. And I think, given the way that sound studies has so quickly gained traction, it is leading to some extent to the marginalization of the study of music within non-music based fields like American Studies, which is one of the reasons why I’ve distanced myself from the ASA so much in recent years. The pieces that have been posted on the IASPM-US website are happily not indicative of this general tendency, but I think the special issue of American Quarterly edited by Kun and Keeling is symptomatic. To my mind, sound studies has much to offer popular music studies (and vice versa) but it hardly supplants the need for it.

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