RMA study day: Closing remarks (Jason Toynbee)

MarxClosing remarks: Music as Labour

Jason Toynbee (Open University)

Musicians who make music for the market, or are regularly employed, are workers. Can this apparently banal observation tell us anything about music as process? I draw on Marx, Arendt and MacIntyre among others to address this question, and examine some cases from popular and art music.

Jason Toynbee is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies in the Department of Sociology at The Open University. His research focuses on musical labour and creativity, and music and diaspora. Sometimes he examines these issues together, as in his books Bob Marley: Herald of a Postcolonial World? (Polity, 2007), and Migrating Music (co-edited with Byron Dueck, Routledge, 2011). 


[JB notes]

Jason began by reflecting how interestingly today’s papers have converged around common themes even though their objects of study are very different. 

RMA Study day session 2 – Laudan Nooshin, Joe Bennett, Nikki Moran

(Chair: Ruth Herbert, University of Oxford)

Laudan Nooshin (City University London)

Between a rock and a hard place: discourse, practice and the unbearable lightness of analysis. Methodological challenges in studying creative process in Iranian (classical) music

Since the late 1980s, an important strand of my research has sought to understand the underlying creative processes of Iranian classical music, a tradition where the performer plays a central creative role and which is therefore often described as ‘improvised’, both in the literature and – since the mid-20th century and drawing on concepts initially adopted from European music – by musicians themselves. Methodologically, perhaps the greatest challenge is tracing the relationships between musicians’ verbal discourses – usually taken by ethnomusicologists as evidence of cognitive processes – and what happens in practice. Of course, the relationship is a complex one and the dual ethnomusicological methods of (a) ethnography and (b) transcription and analysis don’t always tell the same story. In the case of my work, there was a disjuncture between musicians’ discourse of creative freedom, albeit underpinned by the central memorised repertoireknown as radif, and the analytical evidence which showed the music to be highly structured around a series of what could be termed ‘compositional procedures’, but which are not explicitly discussed by musicians.

Documenting Collaborative Songwriting

Today I’m at the Royal Musical Association study day at the University of Oxford, presenting a paper about the methodological challenges of observing and analysing collaborative songwriters’ creativity. For the convenience of those who are there today I’ve pasted the references at the bottom of this post. An academic paper with more detail will be published soon in the Journal on the Art of Record Production (Issue 8, December 2013).


Documenting collaborative songwriters’ creativity using Linear Event Analysis

It is a little-known fact that almost half of the hit songs in the USA of the last 60 years were written by collaborative teams[1]. Songs acquire immense cultural and economic value, and good songwriters are celebrated in the music industry, but collaborative songwriting practices remain largely unexplored by popular musicology or cognitive psychology. Psychologist John Sloboda[2] identified the methodological challenges in understanding the creative mind of a composer, and concluded that the best way of acquiring evidence of compositional decision-making was real-time reporting of composing as it occurs. Such ‘verbal protocol analysis’ into composers’ creativity has been attempted by a small number of researchers (e.g. Collins[3]) but such methods are necessarily interventionist and therefore risk subjecting the composer to the observation effect. Collaborative songwriting is immanently communicative, so some of the methodology problems identified by Sloboda can be solved through ‘linear event analysis’ – i.e. audio recordings of the songwriting process. This evidence base can be triangulated with computer-assisted generation of iterative documentation such as ‘track changes’ lyric edits and ‘save as’ audio files. These evidence bases can then be compared with the finished product – the song itself – and tentative conclusions about authorial intent and processes can be drawn. In this paper the author will describe his emergent research into observation methodologies for popular songwriting, and outline the techniques and systems he has used to try to answer the question ‘what do collaborative songwriters do’ in a musically meaningful way.

Keywords: songwriting, popular musicology, music psychology, creativity studies.

[1] T. F Pettijohn II and S. F Ahmed, “Songwriting Loafing or Creative Collaboration?: A Comparison of Individual and Team Written Billboard Hits in the USA,” Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis 7, no. 1 (2010): 2.
[2] John Sloboda, The Musical Mind : the Cognitive Psychology of Music (Oxford University Press, 1985).
[3] David Collins, “Real-time Tracking of the Creative Music Composition Process,” Digital Creativity 18, no. 4 (December 2007): 239–256, doi:10.1080/14626260701743234.


  • Bamberger, J., 2003. The Development of Intuitive Musical Understanding: A Natural Experiment. Psychology of Music, 31(1), pp.7–36.
  • Barnes, A., 2006. James Blunt goes to war with his mentor over royalties. The Independent on Sunday. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/james-blunt-goes-to-war-with-his-mentor-over-royalties-470496.html.
  • Bennett, Joe. Collaborative Songwriting – the Ontology of Negotiated Creativity in Popular Music Studio Practice. In Journal of the Art of Record Production, 2011.  Available from http://www.joebennett.net
  • Bently, L., 2009. Authorship of Popular Music in UK Copyright Law. Information, Communication & Society, 12(2), pp.179–204.
  • Bugg, J., 2012. Jake Bugg interview: “I’ve achieved what I wanted to’ – Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/rockandpopmusic/9718719/Jake-Bugg-interview-Ive-achieved-what-I-wanted-to.html.
  • Cantor, J.S., 2006. Fearless Innovation–Songwriting for Our Lives: Inspiring Learners with Arts-Based Practices that Support Creativity. Multicultural Education, 14(2), pp.57–64.
  • Collins, D., 2007. Real-time tracking of the creative music composition process. Digital Creativity, 18(4), pp.239–256.
  • Demers, J., 2006. Steal This Music – how intellectual property law affects musical creativity. University of Georgia Press.
  • Hayden, S. & Windsor, L., 2007. Collaboration and the composer: case studies from the end of the 20th century. Tempo, 61(240), p.28.
  • Hewson, J., 2009. Songbook: James Blunt. Available at: http://www.skyarts.co.uk/music/article/songbook.
  • McIntyre, P., 2001. The Domain of Songwriters: Towards defining the term “Song.” Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture, 5(3), pp.100–111.
  • Moore, A.F., 2012. Song means : analysing and interpreting recorded popular song. Ashgate.
  • Padgett, A., 2008. Rhetoric of Predictability: Reclaiming the Lay Ear in Music Copyright Infringement Litigation, The. Pierce L. Rev., 7, p.125.
  • Sloboda, J., 1985. The musical mind : the cognitive psychology of music, OUP.
  • Smart, G., 2007. Now Blunt goes back to war. The Sun. Available at: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/bizarre/article246437.ece.
  • Zollo, P., 1997. Songwriters on songwriting, Da Capo Press.