View of Music as Equipment for Living

Music as Equipment for Living

By Brynjulf Stige

Brynjulf Stige

The American critic and theorist Kenneth D. Burke (1897-1993) proposed that literature could be thought of as equipment for living. Burke's perspective was situational; he took an interest in what language and discourse could do for audiences and authors and he focused upon how texts (including everyday forms such as proverbs) offer people wisdom that they may use as guides when living their lives. His ideas have been influential in multiple fields, and have for instance informed Barry Brummett's (1985) interpretation of mass communication, Jerome Bruner's (1990) discussion of cultural psychology, and Barbara Myerhoff's (2007) explorations in narrative ethnography.

Music may offer a range of experiences in which to participate including experiences of beauty, escape, stimulation, provocation, and connection. So we may ask, could we think of music as equipment for living too? The seven pieces in this issue of the Voices journal may indeed be read as explorations of this question.

Music could be thought of as "narrative technology," Viggo Krüger argues in an essay informed by cultural theories exploring relationships between people, things, practices, and meanings. "Would you like to write your own song?," Oonagh Dwyer asks in a piece describing how song writing could address the paradox of emerging capabilities and diminishing possibilities experienced by an adolescent with muscular dystrophy. "In your own time" music could be negotiated between clients, a music therapist, and a group of symphony orchestra musicians, Clare Kildea suggests in a report on a collaborative project. Multicultural music therapy could be an "instrument for leadership," Guylaine Vaillancourt suggests, reminding us about the etymology of the term "instrument" which she relates to acts such as "to inform" and "to equip with tools."

Tools may be used for different purposes and, as Burke reminds us, the dynamic force in almost any story is trouble, which he understands as some imbalance in the relationships between actors, actions, goals, scenes, and instruments. Two texts in this issue of Voices focus upon some specific "troubles": Carol Lotter discusses the "De la Rey Phenomenon," referring to current controversies in South Africa where a song expressing Afrikaner identity has been experienced as highly offensive by some and given the status of a "National Anthem" by others. In a very different tone and context, Setsu Inoue explores how the interest in community music therapy in Japan has been troubled by translation problems, since there is no obvious Japanese equivalent to the English term "community" while there is still a strong tradition of human relatedness in Japanese culture.

In the International Archives Section of this issue, Katrina McFerran and Tony Wigram compile the opinions of nine music therapists who were interviewed regarding the ways in which music therapy group improvisations represent the dynamics of a group over time. In this article, creativity and intuition are highlighted as vital components of music therapy work, and the music therapists' ability to listen musically is detailed.

Creativity, intuition, and listening skills are celebrated qualities in music therapy, while phrases such as music as technology and equipment for living may sound somewhat more alien to many. The texts included in this issue of Voices are indeed different concerning genre, context, and tradition of writing, but they share a concern for mediated processes where people use and produce physical as well as symbolic tools in order to order, explore, change, and master their worlds.

Central terms used in the texts of this issue of the journal, such as "technology" and "instrument," may initially lead some of us to think of utilitarian functionality. But it is probably much more accurate to suggest that these texts in various ways illuminate music as social practice, that is, as collaborative and situated practice producing and using various forms of goods, including songs and symphonies and other forms of equipment for living. As Burke would have it, humans are symbol using and producing animals (which implies that they are symbol misusing animals too) separated from any "natural condition" by instruments of their own making. The non-natural is therefore the natural condition, and creativity an interactive process where physical and symbolical tools are combined and used in new ways.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said that print gives words wings (Jansen, 2002). Some music therapists would have it that synths make sounds sing, while others would disagree strongly and stick to acoustic instruments or concentrate on song and movement. The difference is one of degree, with emphasis upon more or less contemporary forms of mediation. The texts in this issue of Voices thematize the mediated nature of human interaction and therefore also of human knowledge.


Brummett, Barry (1985). Electric literature as equipment for living: Haunted House Films. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 2(3), 247-261.

Bruner, Jerome (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jansen, Sue Curry (2002). Critical Communication Theory. Power, Media, gender, and technology. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Myerhoff, Barbara (2007). Stories as equipment for living: Last talks and tales of Barbara Myerhoff (edited by Marc Kaminsky, Deena Metzger & Mark Weiss). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

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