Interview with Tia DeNora

Tia Photo

This week, SPA Undergraduate News catches up with music sociologist, Professor Tia DeNora.

Hi Tia, I hope you are well! Let’s start this interview then. Could you give us a brief introduction about yourself?

Tia: I’m from New Jersey, not far from NYC. My parents come from farming stock. One side is old American, from out on the far side of Long Island. They arrived back in the 17th century so they’re very old WASPs. The other side came from Apulia in Italy around 1900 and eventually ran a market farm on the Passaic River near Paterson, NJ. Those are two very different cultures (though both sides of the family were highly interested in food and cookery!). It was only in retrospect that I realized how the ways we managed those family contrasts fuelled my interest in things sociological. That said, I didn’t discover Sociology as a subject until halfway through my first degree. As a teenager, my main interests were musical. I had aspirations to be a concert flutist but when I got to University (studying music) I rapidly realised (a) I was never going to be good enough to get a job in an orchestra but, happily, (b) that Sociology was the most fascinating subject I’d ever encountered! For a while I thought I wanted to work in journalism. I interned with a CBS affiliate TV station (in the Editorials department) and wrote for my university student newspaper. I still remember my first assignment, a report on controversial and expensive carpet installation in a notoriously noisy, ‘party’ dorm. The title went something like, ‘Committee Sweeps Noise Issue Under Rug’. In the last year of my degree, my dissertation supervisor pointed me to the work of Theodor W Adorno and I realized music sociology was for me. I did a PhD (on Beethoven and the construction of genius) at the University of California, San Diego and then moved to Cardiff and my first academic job, a University of Wales Fellowship (two years to do my own academic thing – such a luxury!). I moved to Exeter in 1992. I love working here!

What sort of research do you conduct? What are the main areas you focus on?

Tia: I’m interested in how culture works and what it does to and for us in our lives. More specifically I like to pursue what I have called the ‘in action’ perspective, or a focus on culture in real time, situated activity. For me this always means grounded theory and concepts and perspectives that are ‘ecologically valid’ (in other words, concepts that match up with people’s real-life experiences and accounts). Most of my work has been in the area of music sociology, however I’ve also conducted research on the history of technology (the so-called ‘mucus’ method of contraception as a case study in knowledge-based controversy) and, ever since my grad school days, I’ve had an interest in micro-studies of communication, especially prosodic features of talk, things like voice tone, pitch and rhythm. Over the years I’ve done ethnographic work (Music in Everyday Life) and historical work (Beethoven and the Construction of Genius). Finally, I’m interested in how people, of all walks of life and ages, are ‘experts’ and expert craft-workers in their everyday lives even if and when this expertise is either discounted or unseen.

You’ve also published extensively. Could you give us a lowdown on your recent publications?

Books can be like buses, nothing happens for a while then you get three all together. Music Asylums: Wellbeing Through Music in Everyday Life (Ashgate, 2013) is the first book in a three-book project addressed to music, health and wellbeing. That project is collaborative – I’ve been working with Dr Gary Ansdell, an internationally renowned specialist in, and founding father of, Community Music Therapy. Music Asylums is sole-authored by me, and there’s a second book, How Music Helps (Ashgate, 2014)written by Gary. I’ll tell you about the third book in a minute.

So Music Asylums is about how action, experience and wellbeing take shape in social-ecological settings. These settings work with us or against us, depending on who we are, where we are, and what we are trying to do. They consist of arrangements of people, things, symbols, settings and patterns that we inherit, resist, enjoy and, to different degrees, together, individually, collaboratively and in conflict, create. Part of any ecology is aesthetic and part of aesthetics and aesthetic media is music. How we find and build up musical niches that support agency and wellbeing is one of the most important things that music sociology can examine. That means a focus on how arranging things material and symbolic is politics by other means. Those arrangements can make us well and they can make us ill. Someday, I hope our understanding of health and illness will make the social and cultural conditions of wellness/illness more explicit and in ways that contribute to what we might think about as cultural medicine. We’re not there yet but there’s been a lot of progress in the field of health humanities!

A second book, and one that isn’t part of the triptych, is Making Sense of Reality: Culture and Perception in Everyday Life (Sage 2014). It examines the cultural bases of perception and how the recognition of reality takes shape in the here and now. I wrote that book in part to help me prepare for a new module, Culture and Perception, which I taught for the first time this year (thanks to a simply brilliant group of students by the way!).

The third, and most recent book, which is currently in press, is Musical Pathways in Recovery: Community Music Therapy & mental wellbeing (Ashgate 2016). That’s a co-authored book and the middle ‘panel’ of the book ‘triptych’ project I mentioned earlier. Gary and I have been involved with this study for ten years. The book offers an ethnographic account of music making and mental health in and around a psychiatric medical setting – a mental health unit and a community day centre for training and social activities, SMART. The book’s aim was to learn and display service users’ engagement with music and also their lay expertise on the topic of how to use music for wellbeing. Needless to say I learned a lot from this work, both from the service users, and from Gary (and his colleagues in music therapy, most notably Sarah Wilson). Watching Gary and Sarah interact musically with SMART members, and taking part in that interaction myself, was awe-inspiring. The point of both the book and the project is: stop thinking about what ‘professionals’ can do ‘for’ clients musically speaking, and look instead at what emerges when people come together musically in mutually supportive ways. The results can be empowering –for everyone involved. In writing up the story we took inspiration from something once said by the great doctor/poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). Williams was talking about how, as a doctor, he’d hone in on the ‘particulars’ of a case, and only then try to ‘figure things out’ or, and I think this is a direct quote, ‘get the right picture’. So Gary and I tried to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ about mental health and music and to do that we wrote in a way that packed into the ‘picture’ as much complexity as a scholarly book format can allow (so we’ve used some novel methods, pictorial and musical data, and a lot of thick description). I guess the appropriate musical metaphor here would be polyphony or multiple strands, textures, voices, interwoven and mutually supporting. Our aim was to try to ‘figure it out’, as Williams put it, while collaborating with SMART service users every step of the way. The book, perhaps unsurprisingly, is long – over 120,000 words.

What do you think inspires you to write on the topics you publish? Is this with reflection to a changing of times, your current interests etc.?

Tia: For me inspiration always comes from things that have to do with people’s opportunities – to be, to do, to feel – and how those opportunities are made, constrained and distributed. That’s sociology, or at least how I understand my discipline. A focus on the arts is part of this, and the part that’s perhaps most interesting of all because it’s about how non-verbal, pre-cognitive and aesthetic media ‘get into’ who and what we are. As I age (and as I’ve had more experience of caring for loved ones who are living with challenging health conditions or who have died) I think my focus is increasingly drawn to questions about dis/ability, and wellbeing even in extremis. The other really significant influence is my colleagues. Our research culture here at Exeter is amazingly interdisciplinary, as you know, and for me it’s the mix of anthropology’s focus on practice, philosophical perspectives on embodied mind, first-class sociological theory, and our stellar STS group. All this offers the perfect laboratory for cultural sociology. We’ve made some amazing new appointments at all levels and then there are colleagues that I’ve worked with, argued with, and learned from, in some cases for twenty years! I’m also inspired by the students I work with – at UG and PGR level. And finally there is the group that’s very close to my heart, SocArts…..

You also head the SocArts Research Group in the university. Could you tell us more about the work your team does?

I’m sure I’m in no way biased when I say that SocArts is simply the best research group in music and arts sociology in the world. There are now 20 members. That includes staff members Dana Wilson Kovacs, David Inglis and Tom Rice. It also includes currently 5 postgraduate researchers and 11 academics who got their PhDs in SocArts over the last 10 years. SocArts PhD graduates work in universities, a major European Business School, even the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (just shows you what you can do with a PhD in arts sociology!). Then there is the wider SocArts family – academic visitors from Canada, the USA, Japan and Europe – who’ve spent time with us here in Exeter and who come back to see us now and then. SocArts researchers are interested in the culture-agency interaction, new ontologies (so things like emergence, complexity, temporality, materiality and craft), tacit and non-propositional knowledge, consciousness, and embodiment. Empirically, work in the group has examined how the arts and aesthetic practices more generally mediate, transform and transcend seemingly ‘given’ physical, social and psychological realities. Check out the webpages at:

The current work in SocArts addresses health and wellbeing; aesthetic media as technologies of identity, self and memory; aesthetic and sensory representations of knowledge; and the arts in relation to social cohesion, community resilience, conflict, and reconciliation. And it deals with ‘real world’ problems and ‘applied’ topics such as dementia, mental health, eating disorders, conflict transformation, and identity politics. Researchers in SocArts speak, at last count, 10 languages between them. Their work has won prizes and been shortlisted for honors by the American Sociological Association, the Royal Society for Health Promotion, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the Leverhulme Trust and Exeter’s own Impact Awards. We also love to eat and drink together, a lot, and sometimes have been known to walk in the countryside. When we can, we travel together to conferences and meetings, and we’ve hosted a lot of symposia here at Exeter.

You have quite a focus on music in the work you do. Could you tell us how music plays a part in the everyday life of an undergraduate?

Ha ha! I reckon you could tell me a thing or two about that. I learn new facts each week from the undergraduates I work with! As a kind of ice-breaker, one of the things we talk about in Ethnomusicology is students’ ‘Desert Island Discs’ – which eight tracks would you choose to take to a desert island and why? I got interested in the format after doing a small research project on the public presentation of the private self for a British Academy conference a couple of years ago. Public musical affiliation and display is a wonderful topic for sociologists because it reveals so much about self-identity, key occasions, events and loved ones and also aspirations and – perhaps most importantly – the presentation of self.

In addition, there have been some superb projects in my Ethnomusicology module on this topic, also dissertations and a few project reports in Knowing the Social World. Students at Exeter use music for emotion management, motivation, remembering, socialising, studying and showing off to others. Did you know that music is integral to preparing for Exeter’s Women’s Rugby Team events? Or that the musical features of Exeter clubs vary according to time of evening and type of space within a club? Or that students’ notions of motherhood and mothering are worked out through the music of Kirsty MacColl? Those are just some of the topics that SPA undergraduate students have researched this year. Others have considered how song writing is linked to recovery from trauma, how people respond to the ‘music’ of the bells of Exeter Cathedral, spiritual healing in local religious venues, music in Exeter’s retail outlets and its influence on shopping behaviour and experience, and Exeter’s Big Band in terms of how its sound inflects space and ambience.

More generally, I think students here at Exeter make use of music as a medium for working on and working out problems, deal with illness, manage home sickness. I know students use music to get into the right mood for an evening out, to exercise, and to consolidate and maintain family ties (including mourning and remembering loved ones who have died). Really, now that I think about it, there ought to be a blog by students for students on this topic sponsored by the student health service! In fact, it might be a thought if, along with info on what to take to university in year one, we were to recommended that students prepare a few play lists before setting off to university year one for tough times, one for home-sickness, etc.

Over the years, how have you viewed music in terms of its changing patterns of consumption?

Well obviously digitisation has had a major effect on how people consume music. You can carry music with you anywhere today and cocoon yourself in it, reclaim and remediate public space, and carry a vast repertoire of tracks around with you. One of the interesting things we learned, however, when we did a study of how young people use their ipods was that they’re less likely to listen in exclusively ‘private’ and personalised ways and more likely to share music with their ear buddies and on speaker phone. More recently the rise of streaming and online radio has changed the scene yet again. And at the same time we’re seeing the resurgence of vinyl with the counter-trend toward analogue and the re-embracing of ‘real’ things and with that more live music making. I guess that behind all of these trends what interests me is the social structure of music production, distribution and consumption – how much can people affect and change the music they are making, hearing, sharing in real time and how collective or individualised is that experience? From there, as always, it’s a question for me of how musicking – in whatever form it takes – comes to be linked to things that happen later but which, one way or another, refer back to musical experience and musical engagement. It’s not just how people consume or what they consume but how that process is linked to what I like to call ‘para-musical’ processes, that is things that partake of musicking but are also something else.

Another topic here is how musical performances spaces are changing. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a large project application to look at music in hospital settings. What’s really interesting there is how hospital spaces afford new ways of presenting music, new musical styles and genres and new ways of thinking about the spaces in which music occurs. The hospital I’m working with has recently revamped their A&E and the sound space there is designed by Brian Eno! I think we’re only beginning to see how music can contribute to and sometimes even transform the ways we understand spaces, and the things we do, the roles we need to play, within those spaces. One of the undergraduates this year is looking at how guitarists perform differently when they place inside guitar shops as opposed to in other locations. It’s the interaction between music, musician, recipient and location that matters here. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more focus on the places where music is performed over the next decade and perhaps with a few surprises. Watch that space!

And finally, taking into account the shifting patterns in which music shape our lives, how would you advise our undergraduates to use music in improving their overall university experience and well-being?

A: Listen to Mozart and Vivaldi for an hour before every exam (Only joking! As if it were so simple!) There are lots of studies out there that suggest music can improve concentration. Some of those studies will tell you that there are only certain styles and genres and even composers that can make you smart (note they’re usually classical/’serious’ music composers, heavy metal is rarely cited as good for your cognitive faculties!) What I would say, more seriously, is that the evidence is growing everyday that music can promote wellbeing, that it helps to make and keep connections with people, to forge relationships and styles of relationships, and that it can be used to manage and alter mood, energy levels and attitudes. Check out this recent article by my collaborator at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Daisy Fancourt:

Psycho-socially, if you’re feeling really down, sometimes listening to music that makes you feel even sadder can be cathartic. If you’re working through problems and difficulties music can be a ‘constant companion’. If you need distraction, music can give it. And active music making is – so the research tells us – one of the best things you can do for mental health and wellbeing. Music is pre-verbal communication. We’re all musical even if we cannot hold a tune we can enjoy music. And who says you need to sing in tune anyway? That’s where the politics comes in – who says what counts as good music? In my view, ‘good music’ is music that does ‘good’ and does us good. One of the most ‘beautiful’ performances I’ve ever witnessed happened impromptu in a hospital ward when the SMART Singers were asked to perform Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Music making happens outside judgemental settings (auditions, Britain’s Got Talent, etc).  ‘Go get involved in a music club or create a new one. It will help on so many levels!

For more information about Professor Tia DeNora, check out her staff profile here:

Jason Chang

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