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Sophia Maalsen on the Social Life of Music

In this article Sophia Maalsen, author of The Social Life of Sound, discusses the agency and ‘multibiographical’ life of music.

As an undergraduate in anthropology, one of the key lessons that stuck with me was Appadurai’s (1986) and Kopytoff’s (1986) arguments that things and not just people, can have social lives and biographies. To quote Appadurai directly, “This argument,…, justifies the critique that commodities, like persons, have social lives” (1986, p.3). As someone who had always attributed things with perhaps more agency than was normal, this was an approach that I could get behind but which also didn’t make me feel crazy.

The concept of object biographies can be traced to Kopytoff’s seminal (1986) article in which he stressed the value of regarding the entire life cycle of the object through production, exchange and consumption, to understanding the object and the networks in which it was involved. Objects were seen not only as in an ever occurring process of negotiation but as being able to accumulate a variety of histories so that the present significance of an object is a product of the people and events to which it is connected (Gosden & Marshall, 1999; Kopytoff, 1986). Thus they had births, deaths and potential rebirths, to which Moreland (1999, p. 209) more recently adds the possibility of “premeditated murder”. Knappett has extended this concept to propose a “cognitive life of things” something he sees as a corrective to counteract the “prevailing assumption that only humans have cognitive lives, or agency” (2010, p. 81).

Music has always been social and part of people’s social lives, but what of the social life of music itself? In my research, I use the concept of object biographies and social lives to bring to light the agency of music and problematise Western notions of personhood. The digital has accelerated the production and consumption of music, enabling reuse, reissue and reinterpretation, sometimes bringing contested claims of ownership with it. In Western systems of property, notions of artistic authorship are primarily based on the idea of the possessive individual but rarely is a musical work the product of one author. And if things can have agency, then it a musical work is also not the sole product of humans.

I contend that things – sounds, samples, and recorded music – and people are co-constituted. Music can distribute personhood and carry the biography of the various people it has encountered through its reuses and reinterpretations. Music itself, becomes ‘multibiographical’ carrying its own biography and that of other people, music, and materialities, with it through each life stage. By showing that music has a social life, we can problematise individual ownership.

One example is Gotye’s aka Wally De Backer’s, “Somebody That I Used to Know” featuring Kimbra, which samples Luiz Bonfá’s “Seville” from Luiz Bonfá Plays Great Songs. The track earned Gotye a Grammy but also lead to some complex copyright negotiations which ended up in 50 percent of royalties going to the Bonfá estate. Here, we have the agency of both Gotye and Bonfá emerging in the track but the track’s popularity — it topped the charts in multiple countries, reaching the coveted number one position in the US charts and Billboard top 100, as well as selling over 13 million copies — encouraged a plethora of interpretations and cover versions posted on YouTube of which De Backer downloaded 300 and remixed into “Gotye - Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra”. The mashup is the epitome of multibiographical sound that has moved beyond the control of the possessive individual. “Somebodies” is multibiographical sound, but the mashup offered more than an opportunity for De Backer to acknowledge the creative appropriations of his material (and by extension Bonfá) by others.  He reflected on how he became to feel ‘controlled’ by the track, and that process of making the mashup was partly him releasing himself from its grasp, enabling him to move through to make new music. The track’s own agency and lively social life had material effects.

When trying to understand music renewal and ownership, biographical approaches make salient the significant relationships in a sound’s social circle that have claim to ownership. By focusing on the engagement between people and things, this perspective acknowledges that it is not only humans who exert influence, but that the music has a role and rights too.


Appadurai, A 1986, The Social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Gosden, C & Marshall, Y 1999, 'The cultural biography of objects', World Archaeology, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 169-178.
Knappett, C 2006, 'Beyond Skin: Layering and Networking in Art and Archaeology', Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 16, no. 02, pp. 239-251.
Kopytoff, I 1986, 'The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process', in A Appadurai (ed.), The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 64-91.
Moreland, J 1999, 'The world(s) of the cross', World Archaeology, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 194-213.


Gotye, 2011, Making Mirrors, Eleven: a Music Company.
Gotye, 2012, Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra, available at, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opg4VGvyi3M.
Louiz Bonfa, 1967, Louiz Bonfa Plays Great Songs, Dot Records.

Sophia Maalsen is a lecturer in urbanism at the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. She specializes in the digital reconfiguration of the everyday across the fields of music, urbanism, material culture, housing and gender.