Foundations of Music Education

Monday, February 23, 2009

Social Functions of Music

Although musicians and music educators are often aware of the aesthetic functions of music, attention should also be paid to social functions. The social functions of music span a wide variety of activities and contexts but are still clearly separated from artistic functions.

Sociologists offer many explanations for the social purposes of music. The anthropologist Allan Merriam lists ten: emotional expression, aesthetic enjoyment, entertainment, communication, symbolic representations, physical response, enforcing conformity to social norms, validation of social institutions and religious rituals, contribution to the continuity and stability of culture, and contribution to the integration of society (Abeles, Hoffer, & Klotman, 1995, pp. 123-124). Max Kaplan, a writer on music education and sociology, cites eight social functions: as a form of knowledge, collective possession, personal experience, therapy, moral and symbolic force, incidental commodity, symbolic indicators of change, and as a link with the past (p. 124). Music sociologist Paul Honigsheim names ceremonial, entertainment, accompaniment for work, use in the home, concerts, and oratorios as social functions of music (p. 124). And finally, psychologist E. Thayer Gaston identifies the need for aesthetic experience, the enhancement of religion, communication, emotional response, gratification, and the potency of music in the group situation (p. 124). Abeles et al. (1995) point out that in American society, music is often a “sonic background” for non-musical activities; this trend seems to have grown exponentially since the authors’ 1995 publication with the advent and extreme popularity of personal mp3 players in the early 21st century (p. 124). Although each of these theories presents itself differently, there is much overlap, allowing musicians and music educators to have a general grasp of the social functions of music.

The artistic, aesthetic functions of music differ from the social functions, despite mention by each theorist of the aesthetic purpose. According to Abeles et al. (1995), the aesthetic view of musical purpose is that “art music functions to meet a desire that human beings have to represent certain ideas in sound, or to symbolize states of feeling, or to transcend everyday life…. Any effects on the listener in terms of promoting actions or beliefs are largely incidental and irrelevant to the main purpose of the music” (p. 125). Clearly, this is a much more lofty and philosophical but much more narrow view of musical function, as sociologists, psychologists and social psychologists would be quick to point out.

It is important for music educators to bear in mind these social functions for several reasons. One, the social function of a piece of music should affect the way it is presented to students because of necessarily different pedagogical approaches. Two, students should recognize different social functions of music in order to adjust their listening approaches. Finally, nonmusical associations in music are relevant to understanding the musical context and therefore should be taught to students as well (Abeles et al., 1995).


Abeles, H. F., Hoffer, C. R., & Klotman, R. H. (1995). Foundations of music education (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomas Higher Education.

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