Emory Report
September 2, 2008
Volume 61, Number 2



Emory Report homepage  

2, 2008
Music sociology course a big hit

By Carol Clark

Would you rather listen to a lecture on the dynamics of industry, or to one on rock-and-roll?

Timothy Dowd, associate professor of sociology, can cover both topics in one swoop. “Music gives you a window into industry, markets, technology, culture — all kinds of things. It allows you to talk about important ideas in ways that are really engaging,” he says.

Dowd is an expert in the sociology of music, a field that has boomed in recent years. He teaches a course on the subject, which explores the social and cultural foundations of music, from the development of the musical system of notes and compositions up to the digital era.

The commercial recording industry began in the 1880s, shortly after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph — the first device to record and play back sound. The ensuing two big U.S. record companies — Victor and Columbia — were among the first major multi-national firms.

From the earliest molded-wax cylinder records and discs, from eight-track tapes and cassettes to CDs and MP3 players, the recording industry has undergone dramatic changes, and yet somehow stayed the same.
“The big record companies didn’t take radio seriously at first,” says Dowd, “just the way big record companies didn’t take online music seriously.”

The never-ending battles over patents, profits and technologies, mixed with divisions in culture, gender, race and class make music an intriguing sociological world for Dowd to explore. The subject also allows him to keep in touch with his first love: making music.

“I’m a keyboardist,” says Dowd, “but I played a lot more instruments when I was younger: violin, tuba and some percussion. And a little bit of harpsichord, piano and double-upright bass.”

Dowd spent his formative years in Arkansas. As a high school senior, he was selected to attend the Governor’s School, a program for gifted students founded by Bill Clinton in 1979. “It was a nerd school,” says Dowd, who was a member of the orchestra, and has fond memories of playing everything from Stravinsky to Aaron Copland on the tuba.

He loved the intensity of performing several concerts per week and briefly considered majoring in music in college. “I quickly realized that there are a lot of very, very good musicians who were very poor,” Dowd says.
As a sociology professor, he can enjoy a stable paycheck while studying esoteric topics such as the incomes of jazz musicians. (His research confirmed that he made the right career choice.)

Last fall, Dowd took a sabbatical in Rotterdam, Holland, to teach at Erasmus University — which tapped him to serve as Erasmus Chair for Humanities due to his groundbreaking work on the complex relationships between culture and society.

At Emory, Dowd’s course on the sociology of music delves into questions such as: Why are the works of Beethoven deemed “high culture” while rhythm and blues is classified as “popular” music? What type of environments foster musical diversity and innovation? How are iPods changing the way that people relate to music?

So what’s on Dowd’s iPod?

“I’ve been enjoying listening to the Swedish group Moon Safari — not to be confused with the album by that name,” he says. “Also, Porcupine Tree — the heirs to Pink Floyd — and Umphrey’s McGee, a Chicago jam band. I’m a huge Peter Gabriel fan,” Dowd adds. “He’s famous for being a perfectionist. He started working on his latest album, ‘Big Blue Ball,’ in the 1990s.”