Rituals and routines

back view of an audience at a gig, the view of the performers onstage is obscured by a dramatic light show

© iStockphoto.com/Simon Podgorsek

Music scenes revolve around rituals and routines, repeated events that reveal shared patterns of musical behaviour and collective ideas about music.

These rituals and routines take many different forms. They may involve daily music rehearsals, weekly visits to a dance club, or annual music business conventions. Whatever form they take they are governed by social conventions, in other words the taken-for-granted, often hidden sets of beliefs or rules that inform our understanding of how music should or shouldn't be made and listened to, how it should sound etc.

Performance rituals help to illustrate these points. Within the rock scenes of Liverpool and other places live performances (gigs) of bands involve familiar patterns of behaviour, from the way the musicians structure their performance to the way that audiences respond to it. Members of the audience usually stand and engage in other activities during the performance, such as drinking, talking to each other or shouting at the musicians. The musicians do not read the music as they perform but may follow a 'set' list of songs (often written by the members of the band) that they prepared beforehand, and they do not usually pause for a break or interval in the middle of the performance. Performances of western classical music (concerts) are usually quite different. The audience remains seated and quiet for the duration of the performance. The musicians usually read from sheet music or have memorised it, perform music that they have not composed themselves and there is usually a formal interval.

These taken-for-granted rules do not exist in isolation from music scenes but are created and recreated or enforced through the activities of the people involved in them. These scene participants do not have to stick to these rules but must nevertheless pay attention to them. Musicians, for example, need to know what they are supposed to do and how things ought to sound even if they intend to challenge or resist these rules (Finnegan, 1989).

During the 1940s jazz musicians in Chicago wanted to play jazz for an audience of like-minded peers but had to make their living performing popular dance standards for more general or mainstream audiences. The sociologist Howard Becker (1963) describes how the musicians dealt with this situation by developing rituals and routines through which they could present themselves as 'hip' and in doing so distinguish themselves from the 'squares' in their audience. They constructed physical barriers between themselves and their audience members, for example, and avoided eye contact with members of the audience. In these and other ways the jazz musicians separated themselves from their audiences and made themselves seem like outsiders who deviated from the mainstream or norm.

Becker's study of the jazz scene was published in a book entitled 'Outsiders' (1963). The book influenced later studies of music, deviance and British youth subcultures, including teds, mods, skinheads and other subcultures engaged in forms of 'resistance through rituals' (Hall and Jefferson, 1976).