“The Role of the Instrument Maker in Popular Music Studies,” by Will Connor

by Mike D'Errico on October 23, 2013

To celebrate the upcoming release of Ethnomusicology Review Volume 18, IASPM-US is teaming up with the online journal for a co-edited series on the broad topic of Ethnomusicology and Popular Music. Our third piece comes from Will Connor, a percussionist and recent PhD graduate from London’s Royal Holloway University, where he focused on ethnomusicology and popular music studies.

Turbine Drum

Popular music studies have been approached through a wide range of angles, covering a vast number of topics, such as technology, authenticity perceptions, youth culture, economics, social concerns, subcultural identity, and the anatomy of fame. By taking a closer look at musical instrument makers, one can gain a better understanding of the ways in which their roles affect and are affected by the musical communities and settings in which they operate, as well as develop greater insights into the ways in which popular musical communities develop, flourish, and evolve. Builders of musical instruments inject “intentionalities” into their wares, exhibiting an agency that is an inseparable part of the musical social and cultural web. Therefore, by examining makers and the instruments they build, their connections and influences become more apparent and affords a deeper investigation of popular music cultures.

Of course, musical instrument makers are not the only members of a musical community with agency; perhaps the more obvious ones being the musicians that perform the music and their fans. In his discussion of the ways in which performers of Early Music formulate their performance style, Bruce Haynes (via Richard Taruskin) argues that musical instruments do not perform music, but rather musicians do (Haynes. 2007:153). That is a logical assumption, taking into account the fact that music performance is initiated and undertaken by players, but he goes on further to claim that musical instruments have little bearing even on the formulation of the styles performers construct and embrace. In other words, humans—not inanimate objects—possess the agency necessary to make decisions and engage them.

In a larger context, however, instruments have a much greater influence on the musical community in which they are played, even as inanimate objects. Musical instruments—however they are used—are “non-neutral,” “entangled objects” that embody various aspects of cultural and social value (Dawe 2001:223) as well as assist in “constructing meaning and aesthetic power in performance” (Stobart 2006:73). Musical instruments can embody a variety of traits through which they may take on cultural and social importance: developing market value, ethnic identity, strong historical associations, and genre performance preferences or constraints. The ways that musical instruments come to afford these dimensions is a complicated and often fluctuating process. The most prominent interaction, of course, is performing with them, but connections also occur through social, cultural, and nostalgic associations. These associations may take the form of highly intimate, personal experiences to broader nationalistic or ethnic identity constructions. This highly involved network of connections between instruments and players reveals far reaching associations and elements beyond the scope of the player’s immediate interactions with the instruments. To whom else does this agency belong? Returning to the logic of human agency developed by Haynes and Taruskin, I argue that there is another paramount human agency that informs the cultural, social, historical, economic, and acoustical traits of an instrument: the people that build them. One could say, “Instruments do not build themselves, either; instrument makers do.”

The agency of builders is embodied within the instruments they make. An instrument maker’s construction decisions and sensibilities significantly contribute to and draw from the ways in which this network between players and instruments evolves and extends to their surrounding musical communities. As Henry Stobart points out, “sometimes highly effective feedback mechanisms exist between [players and makers] where innovations in construction both enable and respond to shifting performance possibilities and expectations” (Stobart 2006:73). Makers, through the construction of their instruments, engage material, social, and cultural realms (Dawe 2001:225); realms in which the players, members of their musical community, and the instruments themselves develop and interact.

Ethnographically engaging the makers of musical instruments is perhaps an obvious method of gaining insight into the role of these builders. Conducting interviews, undertaking apprenticeships, and placing commissions in the hopes that makers can articulate exactly what they perceive their role in their musical community is a valid and necessary methodology. This direct approach alone, however, may be problematic according to Richard Sennett (2008:78), who claims that a maker’s articulation of creative endeavors through verbal communications may be beyond oral transmission.  An alternative approach—given that agency is the focus of my methodological suggestion—is to observe other members of a musical community that possess agency in order to clarify the role of the makers.

Beyond the agency of musicians that perform the music, their fans that support them, and that of the makers discussed above, there is another agent at work. Early material culture scholars and sociologists upheld that humans possessed the entire agency that determined cultural values and traits, and objects were merely conduits through which these agents presented their values and concerns (Latour 2005:63-71). According to this logic, the human agents hold dialogues with other members of their communities, dialectically interacting, passing values back and forth through the associations and traits perceived as embodied within the objects. Bruno Latour argues against this idea that humans possess total agency, claiming that objects participate interactively, regardless of their sentient state, and in doing so, also become actors (2005:71). Certain actions, he states, cannot be undertaken without specific objects. Cutting cloth requires scissors, boiling water needs a kettle, and, of concern here, playing instrumental music requires a musical instrument (2005:70-74). Thus, musical instruments are more than just conduits through which makers and players have a dialectic interaction: musical instruments are also agents within the maker-instrument-player network.

For Latour, the agency of objects must necessarily be included in the analysis of action in general. But, can something or someone be an agent if they are passively involved in a network? Potentially, as taking no action is an action in and of itself. Clifford Geertz (1973), Richard Schechner (1976), John Cage (1973) and many others have taken this as a basic post-modernist stance when speaking of ethnographic fieldwork or performance studies. The same logic applies to the agency of musical instruments. An instrument does not need to do any acting to be an actor. Instruments can be perceived as agents in a social structure, and thus they “actively [engage] in social interaction, and constitute an important element in social organization” (Nercessian. 2001:10). In this context, considering a musical instrument as an agent can be extremely helpful in speculating how builders of musical instruments cultivate associations and interactions with other agents in their musical networks.

Some highly informative and extensive research focusing on instruments and makers has already been conducted, and I do not mean to suggest that I am making a ground-breaking appeal for a new direction of study. It has been my experience, though, that focusing on the instrument builders and their wares can often generate significant insights by placing the study of popular music within a broader social scope. My research to date has included studies of folk or traditional musical instruments1 as well as performers and instrument builders with the realm of popular music.2 Although I have worked with non-commercial makers and artisan builders, I have not undertaken any research on mass-produced instrument construction, nor have I explored the impact of economics, instrument construction and human physiology as it relates to popular music performance. Furthermore, the ways in which the internet and digital media affect the network of makers, instruments, and popular music culture is an issue that deserves greater attention.

In this essay, I hope to have demonstrated that the maker – through agency exhibited via decisions, priorities, and aesthetic values – often has a profound impact on wider musical processes and performance practice, and thus deserves extensive investigation within a popular music context.

Will Connor is a percussionist/ethnomusicologist who studied at Clemson University, University of Hawai`i, and recently completed his Ph.D. at Royal Holloway University of London. His fields of interest include Tibetan folk music, modern performance of Medieval style music, musical instrument construction, Italian Futurist music, and Lovecraft-related music studies. Connor currently performs in a Gothic rock group, a dark ambient Lovecraft-influenced noise project, a steampunk/Gothic theatre troupe, and a Medieval Celtic speed folk band. He lives in London, England with his wife, dog, Xbox, and cacti.


Cage, John. 1973. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

Dawe, Kevin. 2001. “People, Objects, Meaning: Recent Work on the Study and Collection of Musical Instruments”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 54 (May, 2001). 219-232

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Haynes, Bruce. 2007. The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty First Century. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Herzfeld, Michael. 2004. The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value, Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2007. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network 205

Merriam, A. P. (1969). “The Ethnographic Experience: Drum-Making among the Bala (Basongye).” Ethnomusicology 13(1): 74-100.

Nercessian, Andy. 2001. The Duduk and National Identity in Armenia. Lanham, Md and London, Scarecrow Press.

Schechner, Richard. 1988. Performance Theory. New York:Routledge.

Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. New York, Penguin Books.

Stobart, Henry. 2006. Music and the Poetics of Production in the Bolivian Andes, 207

  1. During my main post-baccalaureate research project, I conducted a project that looked at the construction of shaman drums built and performed within the Tlingit nation in Alaska, where some were being introduced into Tlingit popular music and drama performances. While working on my master’s degree, I worked with Tibetan instrument builders that produced various folk lutes which were being used in Tibetan and other Chinese popular music contexts.
  2. Part of my Ph.D. research involved working with several Early Music instrument makers via internships and interviews, during a project that focused on the role of instrument makers in Neo-Medievalist Gothic subcultural popular music communities.

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