I turn over the vinyl and place it back on my mini-record player, the bass echoes behind me as I amble back to my desk. Emails and Sleaford Mods. That’s been the pattern of recent days. Their grungy loops seem to fit into the locked rhythms of laptop-mediated remoteness. As the next Zoom call kicks in I realise that I’m still nodding along to side B.
In the current circumstances, where writing is proving so difficult, music is a kind of emotional crutch. But I’ve found that it is nearly always present in my work. Music is an endless source of inspiration and acts as a sparky companion to thinking, writing and research. I tried to capture some of that in my book Punk Sociology, which reflected on how a punk ethos could be used to fire the sociological imagination.
Beyond what I said there, music can inform practice in lots of different ways. Academic publications themselves can even be reimagined as music formats. In the past I’ve suggested the following:
Journal articles = singles
Books = LPs or Eps
Blog posts = demos
Edited books/journal special issues = mixtapes
Book chapters = B sides and rarities
I’ve long worked with this comparison in mind. Admittedly, it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but there is something motivating about thinking of writing formats in this way. Starting with the format, the parallels start to work their way through into the writing, content and approach. The claim tapped into something, and I ended up recording a long radio interview about the above comparisons. The main point was that imagining academic writing as music is a good motivator, but it also helps to think about how to engage in writing and how to adapt it and rethink it.
Extending this, I sometimes think of structuring writing in the same way a musician might arrange their music. Intros, outros, codas, middle-eights, verses, choruses, loops, timbre, samples, sequences, fall-out, riffs and so on – those sorts of thoughts sometimes cross my mind. When writing I also occasionally take inspiration – directly or indirectly – from particular songs or albums. The album might influence the ordering of the content, or it might be that I draw on a phrase or lyrical idea, or that I try to replicate the tone or feel of the song in the writing. Other times it is less tangible, I just try to let the music rub-off on me as I write.
At the heart of this is a desire to see what I do as being in some way like the practice of a musician. From the content through to imagining the book cover is a record sleeve, this takes lots of forms. Creativity is a strange and elusive thing. It’s hard to grasp and even harder to predict and manage. When I was recently writing about Georg Simmel’s late writings, I was struck by the powerful role that Rembrandt’s art played in helping Simmel to think through the questions he was asking. This art allowed Simmel to gain the perspective on life that he was trying to develop. He drew on Rembrandt’s paintings to think about how the individual can be depicted, how ageing and individuality can be understood, through to using the art to develop an understanding of questions around fate, mobility, mortality and social connections. On the page, you could almost see Simmel finding a new writing angle in the portraits he was looking at.
Over the last couple of years the influence of music has reasserted itself in my working practices. About two years ago I started actively writing about music as a side project. I still write occasional reviews and features for an online music magazine. I do that for fun, but the result has been a renewed engagement with music – and an immersion in lots of new sounds and ideas. I’ve listened to lots of different things as I’ve dug around for interesting artists to write about.
I’ve started to wonder if the pursuit of inspiration for my writing is now actually starting to feed backwards into my music consumption – I’m now actively looking for music that might get me thinking anew about my writing. Inspiration, I’d suggest, is something that we can actively pursue.
Above all else, in both its conduct and its communication, social research is about ideas. It requires thought and ingenuity to be effective and engaging. Ideas need sources and they need to be nurtured. The question is where we get our ideas from and how we cultivate them. Looking closely at academic texts and the data we gather might be enough, but there is always scope to look outside and to find stimulus elsewhere. These provocations might be found in surprising and unpredictable places – that is one of the messages of Howard Becker’s classic Telling About Society.
One option is to approach music as a sonic accompaniment to thinking and as a soundtrack to ideas. If nothing else, using music as a source of inspiration acts as a reminder that social research should be a creative endeavour. Echoing the beats of life, it should be about expression, artfulness and imagination. One way to fuel ideas is to sound them out.
Click. Time to change the record.
David Beer is Professor of Sociology at the University of York. He writes a regular newsletter on technology, media and culture. His most recent book is The Quirks of Digital Culture and he is currently working on a new book for Bristol University Press.
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