Solidarity in EDM Sonic Communities

In my research I am exploring various aspects of electronic dance music (EDM), and how they contribute to the strong sense of solidarity and communal unity often reported the genre’s listeners. These fans often mention feeling an affinity towards complete strangers in the nightclubs, festivals, and partys where this kind of music is being played. Altered states of consciousness coming from some combination of the musical characteristics, the setting, and at times for many, the drugs, are also common within this community. Among other things, our group is focusing on the creation of unity amongst members of a group through their use of sound—Buddhist monks collectively achieve trance states through meditation and chanting; many martial arts utilize sound to coordinate fluidity, discipline, and coordination in their movements and forms; seeing the developing fetus for the first time, via technology which employs high frequency sound waves, brings families together over the shared excitement of an expecting mother and her unborn child.

Many elements present in this video are supportive of the research I’ve been finding, shown on a gigantic scale. There has been recent explosion in popularity of EDM, with massive festivals like Tomorrowland being the result. This simply further supports the idea that EDM creates a community amongst its listeners. The music is also ever-changing, morphing, and being modified, yet the basic sonic signatures that mark the style have remained quite similar throughout EDMs history. This video shows the variety of musical styles within the broader EDM catagory, the crowd energy and participation, the psychedelic nature of the experience, but most importantly from our group’s perspective, the tendency this sonic community has towards amassing enormous crowds of like-minded, freely participating, energetic individuals.

Research Proposal:

An Exploration Into the Culture of Electronic Dance Music, the Source of its Allure, and the Role of Drugs Within the Genre         

            I will be investigating the genre of music widely referred to as EDM, and the sonic community or communities that accompany this style of music. EDM stands for Electronic Dance Music, and it is an umbrella term used to describe the category in which many different sub-genres of electronic club music fall; is broadly accepted the club-based dance music that came after disco, and is still widely listened to today. I plan to focus on three elements of EDM that, through my limited research to date, have shown themselves to be of elemental importance to the EDM community, and influential to the development of the music itself.

The effects drugs and drug culture are inextricably linked to EDM, and I will attempt to show that the use of drugs by both artists and listeners has affected the style of music, the cohesiveness of the community, and the general status EDM has held publicly throughout its history. I want to find out what effect the use of drugs within this subgroup of sonic communities has had on the kind of sounds that are used, and the style of live performance they have created. It is impossible to say whether or not EDM would exist if it weren’t for certain mind-altering substances that are strongly associated with this music, but it is the case that this music would not be the same if it weren’t for these drugs. A more answerable question to look into is how these drugs have altered the preferences of both those attending EDM shows and those producing and creating the music. What elements of current EDM styles are the result of the preferences and influences of altered brain chemistry?

In conjunction with developing an understanding of the effects drug taking have had on the sonic characteristics of EDM, I will also attempt to understand, define, and otherwise explain what sonic elements are present in EDM. Though I realize that the many different facets of this genre each carry their own unique flavors, variations, and sound profiles, there are also many common threads of shared soundscaping that EDM DJs and producers utilize. In my research I hope to identify these common elements, and in doing so, identify what sets EDM apart from other forms of electronic music, non-EDM music that might be danced to, and any other non-EDM genres.

Another element of the EDM culture that seems apparent is the sense of community and belonging that is often associated with EDM partygoers—this has been a key element to the cohesive, tight-nit nature EDM communities have had through the history of the genre. For many of the early years, this style of music existed as an underground, fringe genre. In the last twenty years or so, however, EDM has enjoyed varying degrees of pop-culture acceptance—popularity has swelled and receded in different parts of the world, but it is safe to say that since the early ‘90s EDM has enjoyed wide-spread recognition, acceptance, or at the very least acknowledgment as a genre capable of amassing massive, high-energy crowds. So what elements have given EDM—in its different permutations and varying levels of popularity—the ability to form such solidarity amongst its fans? There are different theories out there, and my hope is that in exploring these concepts I might better illuminate those seemingly intangible elements of EDM that keep people coming back for more of the experience. EDMs wide adoption by many youth (and adult, to a lesser degree) cultures around the world shows the power that this form wields, and in my research I hope to uncover some of the features which facilitate the ever-growing acceptance, use, and enjoyment of electronic dance music and its associated culture.


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In and Out of Listening

In completing this assignment, I tried to think of what aural elements of a typical day I wanted to portray. I was thus forced to open my ears, and try to objectively hear my surroundings in a way that I don’t always do. I won’t claim to have listened critically for the whole time that I was making recordings, but I did stop and consciously listen more carefully on many occasions. One thing that I became more conscious of, was how often I chose to put on my headphones in my commute between classes. When and where I would take my headphones off and switch from an isolated, immersive, musical experience, to the ambient sounds around me, became a focus of my interest on this assignment. In the past month or so, I’ve been using a new pair of headphones, and in many ways there ability to isolate sound so effectively has changed my soundscape significantly on the days I choose to bring them with me. I tried to portray the jarring nature of going between a few songs that I might listen to throughout the day, and the sounds I hear when I don’t have them on.

Having the frequent juxtaposition between absence of ambient noise, and then the sounds I hear upon removing my headphones—at times a bombardment of external, ‘random,’ sounds—can be bit jarring at times, but it also provides insight towards the different nature of the two sound types. It often takes a fraction of a second to readjust to the wider soundscape provided in the real world around me, one that headphones fail to simulate effectively. I think the move from a single recorded sound source—played in an enclosed circumaural acoustic environment—to the array of different sound sources going on in most areas of campus during the day, takes a brief adjusting to. I am reminded of both the Chion and Horowitz articles; on the one hand because of the kind of listening I am practicing, and on the other because of the potential impact my choice to listen to electronic music through much of the day may have on my overall ability to discern and pick apart different elements of the ‘natural’ sounds around me.

Depending on when, where, or why I choose to take off my headphones, I am most likely moving from reduced listening of the recording to causal, and/or semantic listening of my surroundings. As the muffs come off, I begin to consider the location of whatever it is that I’m hearing first. If there’s talking, I simultaneously process what is being said, whether it relates to me or not, and discern meaning from the words. When I’m listening to music, it is typically in the realm of reduced listening, though at times it is a combination of reduced and semantic if there are lyrics that I’m focusing on. Interestingly, Chion says that “reduced listening is an enterprise that is new, fruitful, and hardly natural. It disrupts established lazy habits and opens up a world of previously unimagined questions for those who try it” (Chion, pg. 51). This contradicts, to some extent, Horowitz’s assertion that “Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload” (Horowitz, pg. 2), because I am, in affect, able to more closely listen to certain sounds because of the technology I own. Let me explain this further in the context of the recordings.

The first sound that plays in my playlist is that of me brushing my teeth, next you’ll hear the sound of the toilet flushing, and then the sound of the shower running. These sounds have become so routine, that it wasn’t until I listened to the recordings and could replay the sounds, that I could start to hear them more objectively. It is the recording capability itself that allows me to focus “…on the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning. Reduced listening takes the sound—verbal, played on an instrument, noises, or whatever—as itself the object to be observed instead of as a vehicle for something else” (Chion, pg. 50). The tin sound of the water hitting the drain grate of the sink, the almost metallic nature of the toilet flush, and the subtle change in sound as I closed the shower curtain all became apparent to me after my initial listening. After showering I get dressed (which I didn’t record), and head outside with my headphones (I simply uploaded a portion of a track I might listen to on any given day to re-create the affect). The next sound after that is of my first Tuesday class convening—before the teacher has begun the lecture. After sitting down, the instant I take my headphones off I actually feel that I am more in tune with what I’m hearing. After having been so focused on the music, and so isolated from the sounds of my surrounding, the sudden confrontation with those sounds forces me to consider more of their elements than I might have if I weren’t fluctuating between ambient and electronically sourced listening. After my class, I went to the library, and the first sound I heard upon taking my headphones off briefly while on the third floor was that of someone highlighting a paper on a desk near me. I could almost feel the felt tip grazing against the tooth of the paper. This took almost no time for my brain to locate, identify, and then imagine. I looked over the edge of the desk, and sure enough—a highlighter on paper. This is another example of the causal listening Chion was talking about, however it wasn’t until I listened to the recording again that I could analyze why my mind knew it was the highlighter on paper. This was very interesting to me, because though I knew what it was, I couldn’t articulate the reason(s) why, until I had given the sound a reduced listen.


Works Cited

Horowitz, Seth. “The Science and Art of Listening.” The New York Times, 11 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

Chion, Michael. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Songs used in the order they appear (artist, then song title):

Barika. Good Morning

Lupe Fiasco. Daydreamin’ (feat. Jill Scoot).

Black Keys. I’m not the one.

Gramatik. Don’t Let Me Down

A Sonic Prologue to the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

If a historical drama were to retell the life of Frederick Douglass, with any appropriate level of respect to the man and his story, then it would have to start from the very beginning. Though not enumerated with any great detail by Douglass, for lack of the necessary recollection, a dramatic piece would be incomplete without somehow portraying the incredible injustice of the way in which young Frederick was separated from his mother. Thus, in describing the auditory characteristics of a moment in my imagined interpretation of the retelling of Frederick’s narrative, I will choose to portray but one scene, that which seems to be the earliest grand infraction upon Frederick’s freedom. In doing so, the movie would open with a shocking blow to the viewers senses—watching a mother be torn from her baby, though maybe not the most gruesome of events that took place during slavery, is one of the most emotionally difficult concepts for the modern viewer. The opening scene that follows, will chronicle Douglass’ first real encounter with the abysmal cruelty of slavery—coming before he can even remember being.

I picture it happening something like this: The first shimmering rays of twilight are just peaking over the horizon—casting just enough light to see the silhouette of a cabin. As the camera moves towards the door of the cabin, all you can hear are roosters in the distance, the odd bark of a dog, and the sounds of birds chirping. As the camera enters the door, there is almost complete darkness, yet even before the camera adjusts to the faint light in the cabin—you hear the sounds of people waking up, of the door opening and closing, as men and women leave the house. Just after the door closes for the last time, the sound of marching feet, and the beginnings of a low, chanting, downbeat song fade off into the distance as they head to the fields. As the sounds of the group trail off into the distance, all that’s left is the sounds of an attentive mother humming a soothing melody—along with the comforting sounds of a content suckling. The faint form of woman slowly swaying to the subtle lilt of her song, a swaddled baby pressed to her breast, begins to be visible as the camera adjusts to the faint morning light cresting the sill of the one window in the cabin. Now an old woman can be just barely seen lying on the floor, sleeping, but just as the viewer begins to understand the scene in front of them, the soundscape begins to change as well.

About a minute after the slaves have left the cabin, a faint rumbling of a horse starts to enter the soundscape from somewhere behind, and to one side of the listener. As the horse approaches the cabin, a pounding crescendo of hoof beats drowns out the sounds of the singing, and then baby Frederick begins to sob. The old woman bolts up, fear in her eyes. The deafening hoofs come to an abrupt halt accompanied by the snort of a horse, the clink of hastily dismounted stirrups, and the dull thud boots striking hard dirt. Seconds later, the front door bursts open to reveal a “savage monster” (pg. 3) of a man. The man drunkenly barks about his having come to take Frederick’s mother away, she is to be sent to a plantation twelve miles away, and will likely never to see her child again. He swiftly crosses the room, straight for the baby. I imagine a pitiful struggle ensuing in which she tries to hold the baby tight to her breast as the nasty slave driver slaps her pulling the bundle out of her reach. At this point, the baby is screaming, his mother is pleading and sobbing, and the old woman is trembling in the corner of the cabin. After securing the baby with his left hand, a cowhide strap in his right, and a sadistic grin across his face, he slashes the mother across her open chest with one sickening blow, and across her face with his next. He hands the screaming baby to the old woman, who is left stunned in the corner of the room, and pulls the mother toward the door. As the door slams, and the two stumble outside, the baby’s screams are muffled, and the sounds of the mother’s pure agony intensify. He binds her hands, fastens a leash to her neck and mounts his horse. As the scene fades, the overseer and his horse trot away from the cabin as a woman blindly stumbles after the horse, screaming, sobbing, and bleeding from her chest and face.