Human Music Interaction
August 3, 2015
Andrew Dubber in HMI, Industry, Innovation, Media, Music Research, brainwaves, technology

In my now part-time day job as a professor at Birmingham City University, I wrote an article on the research centre’s blog, in which I referred to a new field of research that I’m helping develop. It bridges computer science, cultural studies, media theory, musicology, medicine, psychology, sociology and more. That probably takes a little explaining. Interdisciplinarity is not, in itself, a field of research.

When it comes to studies of music and culture, I tend to start with Christopher Small’s idea of ‘musicking’ – that music is a human activity and not an artefact or acoustic phenomenon. It’s a useful idea and a step in the right direction, but it is far from the whole story.

What Human Music Interaction (HMI) investigates is the notion that music is a human activity that operates at the point of connection with technologies – and that those technologies are themselves human creations. Marshall McLuhan said “We shape our tools and they, in turn, shape us” – and people tend to read quite a bit of technological determinism into that line, but they’re overlooking the first part of that provocation: WE shape our tools.

Those technologies may be as simple as a stretched animal skin or as complex as an installation involving EEG brainwave pattern recognitionto generate sound and manipulate the movement of water. The study of HMI is interested in that point of connection – where human beings interact with the technologies of music – how they create, experience, interpret and interact with music. How we do that, why we do that, what happens when we do that, and how should we then behave?

It’s as interested in the practice of collecting 7″ records from the 1950s as it is in the use of music for the treatment of depression. It is certainly interested in the technologies themselves – how they work, how we develop them and how we can create better ones – but it is interested in those things in the context of how people use them, how the use of those tools create and inform culture, and how meaning is generated from them.

HMI is both deep and broad and its interest in interdisciplinarity is contingent upon those disciplines being explored to their full extent. This is not the interdisciplinarity in which scholars from one field dabble in another. HMI regards a single object of inquiry from a number of different angles – like a ball suspended in the air, each scholar shining a light from their own well-developed research specialism, illuminating more of the ball.

My own specialism, in this respect, is Music Industry Innovation. By “industry”, it’s worth making the point that I am less interested in Patrik Wikström’s definition of the Industry (capital I) as one of Recordings, Publishing and Live Music (what I would term ‘industrialised’ music), and more interested in ‘industriousness’: people making, connecting and in many, though by no means all cases, earning a living from music. I include musical instrument manufacture, music education, projects that use music as a tool for social change, playlist-making mobile applications and a lot more besides.

I am interested in music economies (particular those of the independent music sectors with a bit of a weighting toward jazz, though not as much as people appear to think), but economics is not the end game of music for me. For me, that’s culture. As culture is, broadly, whatever people say, make and do – economics is therefore necessarily a subset of culture.

The innovation research that I do is primarily practice-based and is concerned with the idea of music technologies and the technological ecosystem they inhabit providing ‘affordances’ that we can make use of if we are aware of them. To complicate matters, as well as affordances, technological ecosystems also have restrictions. Those are interesting too.

For me, locating the affordances and restrictions of a particular technological context is about kicking at the edges of what’s possible. Finding alternative ways in which musical tools and the broader technological environment (for the sake of argument, let’s just say ‘digital technologies and the internet’ – but there’s a lot more to it than that) can provide new and innovative ways for people to make things, connect with them and create meaning from music.

The ‘capital I’ industry of music tends to be a place of gradual, incremental and often very pedestrian innovation – much of which serves to reinforce existing power relations and benefit the incumbents of that industrialised sector. It’s the kind of innovation that corporate budgets can buy – bearing in mind that corporate budgets are far more concerned with preserving the status quo than they are in innovation, unless necessity dictates otherwise.

I am more interested in the phenomenon of disruptive innovation – and there is very little of that (far less than is reported as such). For that reason, most of my research these days revolves around the music hacker community, music hackathons, sonic art, theoretical computer science, medicine and social work. These are places where genuine experimentation takes place. Not always, but frequently enough to be interesting.

Now, it’s worth saying that I am not a hacker. I am not an artist. I am certainly not a doctor or a social worker. Nor am I a computer scientist or musicologist. I am a media ecologist. I happen to think that media ecology has a contribution to make to the understanding of these sorts of innovations. But in order to properly research disruptive innovation and approach anything like a holistic understanding or contribute significantly to new knowledge in the field, I need to work with people who are good at being hackers, artists, doctors and, of course, musicians.

Genuine disruptive innovation requires unintended consequences and unexpected discoveries. Unexpected discoveries require experimentation. Experimentation has an increased richness and opportunity for surprising results when you put more than one ingredient into the pot.

HMI is the umbrella field that uses this idea as a starting point. We do not expect to become experts in each other’s fields. We expect that the combination of deep and well-understood critical frameworks applied to both practical and theoretical experimentation at the nexus of human interaction with music technologies will provide the catalyst for new understanding, new experiences, new forms of musical expression and new music industry opportunities.

Even for the Music Industry with a capital I.

Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (
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