Music matters to social movements and in a number of ways, but can we use it to advance our understanding of emotions and the body?

By Ugo Corte

Music is culture, and “music is an incredibly powerful (emotional) force” (Garofalo 2011: 727). But how does music matter to social movements? What do we know? And what else should we research and why? Danaher (2010) recently provided a review of the topic that I won’t reproduce here. Instead with the space at my disposal, I partially—and therefore selectively—tackle these questions below while mentioning a few key well-known readings to social movement scholars, including a few others they should check, and one in particular. The latter could be useful to advance our understanding of music in social movements, and especially the connection between emotions and the body—“the physical dynamics of emotion”—discussed in this on-line publication by Summers-Effler (2012).

While only a few years ago one could have written that research on art—and with this I include music— and social movements was a relatively neglected area (Adams 2002), we now have a growing library of studies focusing on this topic. Likewise, while contemporary sociology seems to have rediscovered culture within the last ten years (Eyerman 2002), research on emotions—and emotions in social movements— is a much more recent rediscovery (Goodwin et al. 2000; Jasper 2010; Summers-Effler 2012), and one of the most promising.

We have analyses on how music can be produced by social movements to generate a number of outcomes, as well as being played by musicians who claim an affiliation with a movement, cause, or general political stand—think of the use of celebrity as a moral resource described by Lahusen (1996). Music can also be taken out of context and co-opted by political actors who distort its original message for their own purposes through a sort of frame extension (Snow and Benford 1988)—think of Bing Cosby’s White Christmas, or 80s punk band Black Flag’s White Minority; both songs have been claimed by white power activists as their own. Or take punk music in the 1970s in Britain, which according to Frith (1980), was opportunistically embraced by the Left. Or a little later and in the same place, the National Front—the Right wing party at the time, that initially claimed an affiliation with the entire skinhead subculture, and then fostered the development of its own rock music scene: white power music (Corte and Edwards 2008).

What else do we know? We know that music is an organizing device. Arguably, young people in particular would much rather go to a festival where music is the overarching activity than go listen to a political speech. Organizers know this well too.

We now have accounts of how music festivals can provide safe havens where extreme politics can be lived openly and loudly (Futrell et al. 2006) while in the world outside it may be highly stigmatized. Then, we have great pieces on how music helps activists feel emotionally connected—we call it collective identity (Melucci 1989)—and feel energized—we call that collective effervescence (Durkheim 1965).

We have research on how music can be publicized to appeal to different target audiences, and then be used to derive material resources such as money, which can subsequently be transferred to finance other political projects (Corte and Edwards 2008).

We even have studies on how music can function as a guideline for individualized participation in diffused, non-institutional contexts instead of movement organizations (Haenfler 2004). Furthermore, both Roscigno and Danaher (2004) and Eyerman and Jamison (1998), have emphasized that music can provide a free space where grievances can be shared and new forms of knowledge derived. Additionally, Eyerman and Jamison (1998) also detailed how music can become “shared history” holding political power even when the movement has ceased to exist.

But apart from what I may be forgetting or have decided not to put into here, what are we missing? I think that Summers-Effler (2012) is correct saying that the body, and bodily lived experiences are missing from the social movement literature, and music is probably no complete exception, and also a place where I think this avenue could be valuably undertaken.

Within these last few years there have been a number of papers calling for a corrective towards the hyper-specialized, highly fragmented, and some would say, quite unoriginal state of much of North American sociology. There is a clear risk of over-generalizing here, but sometimes—as I have been told—one has to be bold or even sound a little extreme, to move things forward even just a little. These papers—whether explicitly or implicitly—often refer to some kind of synthesis work, or theoretical development through extension (Snow et al. 2003[see for example, Frickel and Gross 2005; S. Baumann 2007; Fligstein and McAdam 2012; Parker and Hackett 2012; Owens et al. 2013; Corte 2012, 2013]).

This critique also applies to the study of social movements. According to McAdam’s forceful plenary address at the ASA congress in Las Vegas in 2011, social movement studies have become overly focused on movements—to the neglect of what’s around them, like the State, and limited to social movement scholarship in sociology—to the dismissal of much valuable work done within other fields, or outside the North American context. While disputably accurate, but I hope consequential, this is not surprising: originality is an outcome of creativity and it’s partially the result of looking at things from different vantage points, and then carving out a novel way to see old problems afresh. The study of social movements in North American sociology has over the last thirty-five years grown to become a distinct and large subfield with its own journals and audience. In McAdam’s view this means that we can practically rely on principally talking to one another, while earlier this would have been impossible. Those who started this field had to look for one another, and matters of academic affiliation and conventions were either secondary, or did not yet exist. Any subculture, if you would allow me the comparison, operates in a similar way. The pioneering phase is typically one of the most exciting and “free.”

So, at this point, how does one innovate? By looking back and around to move forward while trying to evade the structural constraints of the present built on established past ideas. Practically, innovation often derives from looking to other fields and areas, instead of inward, and this is what I am suggesting. Indeed, I think that this is part of McAdam’s address.

Following the critique (McAdam’s) and trend (synthesis work) touched upon above, I call for looking into the study of emotions in music elsewhere than the work done by “certified” social movement scholars. So, where should one look? The interdisciplinary journal Music and Arts in Action (MAiA) certainly provides a first reading spot, as well as a venue where to publish research that may not fit the specialized (sub-) discipline journals. Another one, which will take much more time to explore, but I think would lead to the most interesting leads, ideas, data and sources is the interdisciplinary Handbook of Music and Emotions by psychologists Patrik Juslin and John Sloboda (2010). One could begin with the chapters by Reebee Garofalo and Tia DeNora. Much of the volume’s focus is on contrasting views on how music affects us emotionally. Similarly, the authors have another—albeit less comprehensive—edited volume on this topic: Music and Emotion: Theory and Research (Juslin and Sloboda 2001).

A few years ago, Reebee Garofalo in a private e-mail communication commenting on the piece I wrote with Bob Edwards, asked us how the reinforcement of ideologies occurs through the interplay between the lyrics of the music, the sounds of the music itself, and the various signs and symbols that comprise the context for the music. In his opinion, all three elements should be part of the equation, but most research instead, and ours is an example, has mostly focused on lyrics while less studies have analyzed collective behavior at festivals, reinforcing Summers-Effler’ point (2012): “Where are the bodies? Where are the bodies in movement?” And what happens to the bodies when they are in these types of situations?

According to Randall Collins (Summers-Effler’s mentor) concerts and festivals are extremely powerful interactional rituals (Collins 2004)—intense face-to-face interactions. Those practices can supply members with social solidarity and emotional energy (Collins 1998) nurturing feelings of loyalty towards the group and its ideas, antipathy towards adversaries, and energizing them to persist. They are embodied phenomena that link the sociological, psychological, and physiological together because of the strong coalescences of symbols, face-to-face interactions, social and physical barriers to outsiders, and rhythmic entrainment. In this sense musical rituals can become some of the most intense forms of face-to-face interaction, harmonizing the emotions and ideas of participants, instilling them with high levels of energy to support their cause, and imbuing grievances with strong emotional significance (see also Parker and Hackett 2012, forthcoming who relate these concepts to creativity in scientific groups, and Summers-Effler 2010, who relates them to activism).

To improve the current state of social movement studies we should strive for synthesis while adopting cross-disciplinary approaches. Integration of psychological, social-psychological, and neuroscientific research on emotions and music, along with scholarship on subcultures (see Black Hawk and Lorr 2013), small group dynamics (Fine 2012; Corte 2013), and ritual interaction (Collins 2004; Summers-Effler 2010) could provide social movement scholars with fresh insights, theories, ideas and data for advancing this exciting area. Such cross-disciplinary pollination would also no doubt benefit our scientific colleagues researching in these complementary specialties.


Adams, Jacqueline. 2002. “Art in Social movements: Shantytown women’s Protest. Sociological Forum 17(1): 21-56.

Baumann, Shyon. 2007. “A general theory of artistic legitimation: How art worlds are like social movements.” Poetics 35(1): 47–65.

Black Hawk Hancock and Michael J. Lorr. 2013. “More Than Just a Soundtrack: Toward a Technology of the Collective in Hardcore Punk.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 42: 320-46.

Collins, Randal. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton University Press.

Corte, Ugo, and Bob Edwards. 2008. “White Power music and the mobilization of racist social movements.” Music and Arts in Action 1(1): 4–20.

Corte, Ugo. 2012. “Subcultures and Small Groups: A Social Movement Theory Approach.” PhD dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Uppsala, Sweden.

———. 2013. “A Refinement of Collaborative Circles Theory: Resource Mobilization and Innovation in an Emerging Sport.” Social Psychology Quarterly 76(1): 25-51.

Danaher, William F. 2010. “Music and Social Movements.” Sociology Compass 4(9): 811–23.

DeNora, Tia. 2010. “Emotion as social emergence: perspectives from music sociology.” Pp. 159-186 in Handbook of Music and Emotion, edited by P. N. Juslin, and J. Sloboda. Oxford University Press.

Durkheim, Emile. 1965. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Free Press.

Eyerman, Ron. 2002. “Music in Movement: Cultural Politics and Old and New Social Movements.” Qualitative Sociology 25(3): 443–58.

Eyerman, Ron, and Andrew Jamison. 1998. Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press.

Fine, Gary A. 2012. Tiny Publics: A Theory of Group Action and Culture. Russell Sage Foundation Publications.

Fligstein, Neil, and Doug McAdam. 2012. A Theory of Fields. Oxford University Press.

Frickel, Scott, and Neil Gross. 2005. “A general theory of scientific/intellectual movements.” American Sociological Review 70(2): 204–32.

Frith, Simon. 1980. “Formalism, realism and leisure: The case of punk.” Pp. 163-174 in Ken Gelder & Sarah Thornton (Eds.), The subcultures reader. London: Routledge.

Futrell, Robert, Pete Simi, and Simon Gottschalk. 2006. “Understanding Music in Movements: The White Power Music Scene.” Sociological Quarterly 47(2): 275–304.

Garofalo, Reebee. 2010. “Politics, Mediation, Social Context, and Public Use.” Pp.725-54 in Handbook of Music and Emotion, edited by P. N. Juslin, and J. Sloboda. Oxford University Press.

Goodwin, Jeff, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta.  2000. “The Return of the Repressed: The Rise and Fall of Emotions in Social Movement Theory.” Mobilization 5: 65–83.

Haenfler, Ross. 2004. “Collective Identity in the Straight Edge Movement:” Sociological Quarterly 45(4): 785–805.

Jasper, James M. 2011. “Emotions and Social Movements: Twenty Years of Theory and Research.” Annual Review of Sociology 37: 285-303.

Juslin, Patrik, and John A. Sloboda, eds. 2001. Music and Emotion: Theory and Research. 1st ed. Oxford University Press, USA.

———. eds. 2010. Handbook of Music and Emotion. Oxford University Press.

Lahusen, Christian. 1996. The Rhetoric of Moral Protest: Public Campaigns, Celebrity Endorsement, and Political Mobilization. Walter de Gruyter.

McAdam, Doug. 2011. “‘Honey, I Shrunk the Field’: On the Plotemaic Perils of Movement-Centric Scholarship,” presented at the 106th American Sociological Association congress in Las Vegas, NV.

Melucci, Alberto. 1989. Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society. Temple University Press.

Owens, Peter B., Yang Su, and David A. Snow. 2013. “Social Scientific Inquiry Into Genocide and Mass Killing: From Unitary Outcome to Complex Processes.” Annual Review of Sociology 39(1).

Parker, John N., and Hackett, Edward J. 2012. “Hot Spots and Hot Moments in Scientific Collaborations and Social Movements.” American Sociological Review 77(1): 21-44.

———. (forthcoming). “Science and Emotions” in The Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions, Jonathan H. Turner and Jan Stets, Eds.

Roscigno, Vincent J., and William F. Danaher. 2004. The voice of southern labor: radio, music, and textile strikes, 1929-1934. University of Minnesota Press.

Snow, David A., and Robert D. Benford. 1988. “Ideology, frame resonance, and participant mobilization.” International Social Movement Research 1(1): 197–217.

Snow, David A., Calvin Morrill, and Leon Anderson. 2003. “Elaborating Analytic Ethnography.” Ethnography 4(2): 181–200.

Summers Effler, Erika. 2010. Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes: Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 2012. “Bringing the Body [Back] in: Where the Action Really” on Mobilizing Ideas,


Filed under Art, Music, and Movements, Essay Dialogues

11 responses to “Music matters to social movements and in a number of ways, but can we use it to advance our understanding of emotions and the body?

  1. Pingback: Music matters to social movements and in a number of ways, but can we use it to advance our understanding of emotions and the body? | OccuWorld

  2. Reblogged this on For Another Critique of the Pyramid and commented:
    A brief essay on art (specifically music), emotion, and social movements by Ugo Corte. The bibliography will be of interest to researchers, and the essay is gracefully written.

  3. Great topic, well written, and a serious overlap with a lot of what I’m working on. You would find Nichola Wood’s work on emotions in live music settings and nationalism particularly enlightening here, if you haven’t come across it already.

  4. Pingback: Random Saturday » Duck of Minerva

  5. Ugo Corte

    Nicholas and Tyler: I appreciate your feedback. Tyler, no, I did not know the work of Nichola Wood. Thank you for telling me about it.

  6. an interesting topic indeed. i am working on a similar topic, bt rather role of music in a wage protest. my focus on analysis of music. any suggestions?

  7. Ugo Corte

    Roy, William G (2010). Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States. Princeton University Press.

    Roscigno, Vincent J. and William F. Danaher (2004). The Voice of Southern Labor: Radio, Music, and Textile Strikes, 1929-1934. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  8. Pingback: Music Matters Essay | Music Document

  9. Milo mi czytac Twoje posty. Dodaja mi humoru.

  10. Pingback: May 18, 2015 | Contemporarities

  11. Music appeals to a variety of people. It can lift you up or bring you down. I would like to see more studies done on its overall impact. Perhaps one day we will learn about more ways that it can help us heal our body and souls. Great article to read. It is very informative.

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