Ubiquitous Musics: The Everyday Sounds That We Don’t Always Notice - Edited by Marta Garcia Quiñones, Anahid Kassabian, and Elena Bosch. Ashgate, 2013


By Marcel Cobussen

The first thing that attracts my attention is the title and the subtitle: Ubiquitous Musics. The Everyday Sounds That We Don’t Always Notice. Is it for marketing reasons or an example of “musicological arrogance” that music and sound seem to be used here almost synonymously? Given the background of the editors and the book’s objective, I can hardly believe the second option is right. But let’s be clear: this book does not, for the most part, deal with everyday sounds; it is about the many different ways music is presented and listened to in our contemporary (mostly Western) societies. It is about the many different roles and functions music has these days (although the unanswered question is of course how much these contemporary roles and functions differ from previous ones, technological innovations aside). It is an implicit as well as explicit attack on traditional musicological research which still takes the paradigm of “attentive listening” to (mainly) “canonized musical works” for granted and as the most important focus of its research agenda (p. 1–3 and the book’s final essay). Ubiquitous Musics, instead, consists of nine contributions (the Introduction by the editors excluded), divided into three sections: histories, technologies, and spaces. As usual, this ostensibly clear structure is immediately undermined by the essays themselves, as almost all of them would fit into any of the three categories. But this is only a side issue …

As the Introduction, also available online, already provides summaries of the nine contributions, I won’t repeat that here. Also, the list of contributors can be found elsewhere. I think it is sufficient to state that the book does offer a good, albeit rather arbitrary, insight into the various roles and functions of music today, from “sonic wallpaper” becoming “foreground music” at train stations and parking lots to choosing the right music for specific situations on (online) cell phones; from historical “mood music” to the functional use of music in contemporary gyms; and from the educational role of radio stations in the past (thus playing mostly classical music) to the way visible playback technologies inflect film music’s narrative meanings independently of what music is being played.

These essays are framed by the Introduction – in which the editors state that ubiquitous musics “are listened to allegedly with less attention than is generally deemed appropriate” (p. 7) – and Franco Fabbri’s closing text in which he not only asks for a clearer definition of musical attention but also questions the editors’ statement by replying that “listening via earphones can be a way of focusing all possible attention on music, while some concertgoers often fall asleep” (p. 161). I must say that I like this kind of oppositions in books, as it requires from the reader a more active engagement with the texts: which arguments are more convincing? What are my own thoughts on this? What are my personal experiences here? Is there other literature defending another, third, position? Etc.

Is the book (therefore) interesting? Yes and no. Scholars who have already done some readings in this field will not find too many new insights: Sterne’s work on “Muzak” outside shopping malls has, with its slightly different wordings, already been published; Garcia Quiñones’ contribution on listening to music in cars resonates with much of the writings of Michael Bull; and Serena Facci’s text on soundtracks in gym centers does not really add new information to a chapter on the same subject in Tia DeNora’s Music in Everyday Life.

However, as a first acquaintance with this topic (the various ways in which music in contemporary [Western] societies is produced, distributed, and received), this book should certainly find its way into introductory BA courses in musicology, cultural studies, communication studies, sociology, etc. Almost certainly, the students will recognize much of their own musical behavior and experiences in these texts.