In the beginning pages of Tia DeNora’s book, Music in Everyday Life (2000), the author outlines her “Human-Music Interaction” theory and her interactionist critique of the semiotics of music. In this blog, I seek to understand her thoughts, to elaborate upon them, and to draw connections with them to contemporary society.­ In conclusion I illustrate ways that DeNora’s theories have informed my own guitar teaching practice.

DeNora’s Human-Music Interactionist theory is at once social, practical, and ethological (p. 32). Her theory focuses on the social context in which musical interactions take place and how how those agents believe that music moves them to action. To illustrate her theory, DeNora draws on Paul Willis’s “motor-bike boys” from his classic ethnography Profane Culture (1978). These English working-class motorcyclists listened to the early rock ‘n’ roll of the late 1950s. They preferred music that did not leave them “sitting there mopping all night” (p. 7). Instead, they listened to fast records that invited them to get up and do something, such as dance or go for a motorcycle ride. For these individuals, the music they chose to listen to alluded to aspects of the world around them – speed, vitality, and movement. They aligned and synchronized themselves with the music through action; skating, dancing, and motorcycling. This interaction between listener and musical artifact – and the actions that issue forth from this interaction – is essential to DeNora understanding of the “human-music interaction” theory. Here, in that moment, the listener ascribes meaning to the music.

Nested within this prosaic “human-music interaction” theory is DeNora’s critique of musical semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. In semiotic theory the symbol is known as the signifier, and the object the signified. The word “car” for instance, is merely a symbol for “that thing” that moves an individual from one point to another. It is also important to note that the symbol bears no similarity to the object – it is arbitrary. Music is also thought to be a signifier; a symbol containing meaning. DeNora believes that the semiotic decoding of music, by writers such as McClary and Adorno, rests on epistemologically weak ground. That is because these authors imagine that their transcription – conversion between signifier (music) and signified (the written word) – is objective. However, individuals are prone to decoding symbols through the lens of their own lived experience. The result of this faulty premise is a mapping that is more autobiographical than universal; they mistakenly imagine that their interpretation would be the same as everyone else’s. In his instance, the voice of the semioticitian is given privilege over the interaction between the listener and their music.

A musical example may help to illustrate. We can easily asses if a musician successfully transcribes a piece of music from iconic symbol (e.g., musical notation) to sound. We look at the musical score and compare it to what was heard. The difference between the musical sight-reader and the semiotician is that there exists an agreement about what the signifier and the signified represent (musical notation and auditory representations) – there is no such agreement about the meaning of sound, however. DeNora argues for a more isomorphic musical mapping; one that is more corporeal, situated in action, less cognitive by nature. She advocates that the activities generated by musical agents be recognized as the signified, and not the written word. Her theory proposes that, not only can music act on individuals, but that individuals can, through their own agency, act on music. People structure the use of music to their own ends; they choose what music to listen to, where to listen to it, and for what purpose. We see this embodied in today’s society when people use iPods at the gym, drive to work with the radio on, as well as to get them out of a bad mood.


But what does this mean for music educators? DeNora herself does not address the question. We might begin by asking ourselves, “Do musicians interact with music in significantly different ways than non-musicians?” I think that they do – DeNora suggests the same. She highlights an important difference between musicians and non-musicians when she writes; “for those respondents over seventy and to those who were professionally trained musicians, the idea of music as “background” to nearly anything was antithetical. Music is something one either makes or listens to intently” (DeNora, p. 61). For DeNora, the function of music in society is utilitarian, pragmatic, domestic. For most professional musicians, however, (those who make their living from teaching and performing) music is more than that. They have a need to be involved in the creative music making process and to reveal themselves at a deep level. Musicians are people who become fascinated with certain sounds. They want to be able to reproduce those sounds. They gravitate toward a particular instrument and begin to practice. They have a desire to progress and to become better at what they do. To offer another analogy – most people understand the concept of money, however those who work with money as a profession, such as economists, understand money at a much higher level resolution than the layperson.

One way of integrating DeNoras ideas would be by envisioning the process of music education as a means to an end. This model would be student-centered; more egalitarian in nature. It would also be focused on practical music making within the community and how students use music in their everyday lives. This model would place significant challenges on the educator; requiring them to adjust their curriculum for each student. Some educators may rise to this challenge, while others may feel inadequate or overwhelmed, depending on the range of repertoire. The guitar, for instance, has a 500-year history that straddles two parallel universes – one in the pub, the other in the royal court. No other instrument has such a wide range of styles and genres. In England alone, the repertoire spans from the high Renaissance lute songs of John Dowland to the punk rock anthems of the Sex Pistols. A typical guitar student might come to a lesson intending to learn the latest Metallica tune from tablature, or how to improvise over blues and jazz progressions; they may want to “hum and strum” folk songs, learn flamenco dance rhythms, or even play a Bach fugue. To more closely align with Denora’s theory, I have changed pedagogical directions in my studio by focusing on the musical ethnography of my students. One student may request help learning a “cover songs”, because they are in a rock band. I show how to transpose chords to another student because the choir they lead on Sunday morning cannot sing in the prescribed key. These two instances show why it is important to teach with human-music interaction in mind. Giving appropriate musical tools to student’s enables them to be more in control of their individual musical settings. These students are aware of the powers of music, and freely allow the music to control and shape elements of their everyday lives. They consciously engage in musical participation in a way that is self-directed and enhances their everyday lives – socially, emotionally, and musically.


DeNora, T. (2000) Music in everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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