Chapter 4. Thickening Something: Music, Affect, and the Sense of the Social

Detroit Electronic Music Festival, 2010

Detroit Electronic Music Festival, 2010

Okay. It’s been nearly three months since my dissertation defense, two months since my graduation, and two weeks since I moved to Berlin. Things have been crazy busy, but I’m still determined to finish this series of chapter summaries. It’s a surprising amount of work to summarize this gigantic, sprawling thing as a series of “plain English” blog posts. Anyway, here comes the affect!

(NOTE: This is the seventh installment of a series where I summarize my dissertation through blog posts. You can find the inaugural post here.)

This chapter is about tracing the connections between intensity and togetherness. The full version of this chapter wades into a fair bit of theory, but I’ll try to keep things streamlined here. Essentially, this is how I go about tracing the connections:

  1. I start by looking closely at a set of interviews, where people told me stories of a particular party or music event “coming together,” usually around a moment of heightened affect.
  2. Noting the central role of music in these narratives of intensity, I examine how both scholars and my interviewees understand music to shape and articulate affect.
  3. Starting from research on “emotional contagion,” I consider some different theories on how affect can spread through a crowd and bind it together.
  4. I argue that this binding-together through intense affect feels like emergent sociality—it gives the feeling that there is something developing between people, and this vague sense of a “something that binds us together” supports the liquidarity (fluid solidarity) I described in the last chapter.

You’ve probably noticed that affect is an important term in all of these steps. This is a term that can have a slippery set of meanings depending on what field of research you’re in and what kind of intellectual work you want to do with it. I‘m mostly inspired by the philosophical concept of affect as a variation of a body’s capacity to act and be acted upon, which I get from Spinoza as well as Gilles Deleuze. But for the purposes of this chapter, you can understand affect as being similar to feeling, somewhere between sensation and emotion. Like sensation, affect is completely corporeal. It provides the experiential basis for emotions, but it doesn’t belong to any emotional category (e.g., fear, love, hate, happiness, and so on). Instead, affect is more like an electrical charge: it’s about fluctuations in intensity, impact, and bodily responses to stimuli.

(For a compact overview of the differences between emotion, feeling, and affect, see Eric Shouse’s article in M/C Journal. For a similarly compact overview of the various streams of “affect theory,” see Nigel Thrift’s Non-Representational Theory, particularly Chapter 8, “Spatialities of Feeling.”)

Narratives of Intensity

There’s this really great opening montage Maja Classen’s documentary about the early-2000s Berlin techno scene, Feiern (2006, see also the German Wikipedia page). Before even identifying her various interviewees by name, she records each of them telling the story of their first time at a techno event, and then she spliced them together into one composite first-time narrative. The fact that she was able to cut-and-paste several people’s anecdotes into one story already suggests that there are certain elements common to everyone’s stories about Electronic Dance Music (EDM) events. Notably, the whole thing is a string of affective spikes: gasps, doors opening to a dramatic “reveal,” friends propelling each other into the fray, pounding bass, emotional music, glitter falling from the ceiling, feeling overwhelmed, scenes of collective excitement, and so on.

This pattern repeated itself in my interviews. I asked them, “Tell me a story of a party where you felt that everyone really came together.” The storytelling that ensued always focused on moments of affective intensity, usually tied to the music in some way. For example, my friend Lola spoke of the afterparty that we both attended two years ago, where the DJ, Seuil, put on the downtempo song “Bakerman” (Laid Back, 1989) in the middle of an intense minimal-house set. Later that next year, Soul Clap would come out with a dub edit of that track, as it became widely popular at EDM events. For Lola (and for a lot of people at that party), this was a moment of musical and emotional convergence, where everything and everyone seemed to come together for a moment.

The Musical Articulation of Affect

Everyone that I interviewed kept coming back to the importance of music for bringing people together. Sure, some of it had to do with creating a community of shared taste (see the previous chapter, on “taste communities,” but in many cases people where claiming that the mere fact of sharing the experience of listening and dancing to music was enough to create bonds between people, and that much of this had to do with affect, feelings, emotions, whatever you want to call it. People gave lots of brief examples, such as everybody throwing their hands in the air and cheering at a moment of musical climax, or recognizing a track that you love and turning to the stranger next to you and exchanging glances and smiles as you see that s/he has recognized it, too. Just this last weekend at Panorama Bar, Dixon dropped a newer remix of an old 90s house classic, “Horny (Radio Slave and Thomas Gandy Just 17 Mix)” by Mousse T. As soon as the vocals started—pitched down into a male register—people started recognizing the track and turning to each other in disbelief and excitement. I turned to friends around me, said something to the effect of, “Holy shit, is this what I think it is?” and made eye contact with several people around me, with an expression that said, ”Can you believe this?”. I certainly wasn’t alone.

This section focused primarily on how music shapes affect. In particular, I looked to both interviews and music-theoretical scholarship for accounts of how EDM can make a whole roomful of people feel something. Even if that “something” that they feel is not the same, the fact that they’re getting a rush of excitement from the same music at the same time seems to create these moments of coming-together on the dancefloor.

There are lots of takes on this. Some of my interviewees talked about the “vibe” of a party or a crowd, and then connected that to the vibrations of music. Some scholars make comparisons between the philosophical concept of affect and the impacting force of sound waves. Some scholars focus on how certain DJ tricks (like cutting the bass drum kick and then bringing it back again) create structures of anticipation/release that elicit responses from the audience. Many partygoers and DJs talk about these same tricks and also point to the DJs ability to choose “the right track,” which suits the mood of the crowd but also takes it somewhere.

An important concept that comes out a lot of this theorizing is the notion of entrainment. “Entrainment” is a technical term that appears in several different scientific fields, but it generally describes the phenomenon of things becoming “in sync” or “phase-locking” with each other. Most often, people use the term to talk about people (and other organisms) falling into synchronisation with an external rhythm-source, which might be another organism or an oscillating object in the environment. (There’s also a more abstract version of this in physics, where two oscillating systems come into alignment, such as two pendulums). Music-cognition scholars often talk about rhythmic entrainment to music (see, e.g., Justin London’s classic book, Hearing in Time), which studies how humans align their movements to the rhythms of music (e.g., foot-tapping, finger-tapping, head-bobbing, dancing).

Rhythmic entrainment tends to encourage absorption, in the sense that a listener who gets entrained to the beat of a particular musical source becomes attentive and responsive to that music (even if only subconsciously). In other words, falling into rhythmic sync with music is a way for your consciousness to get caught up in the flow of the music, which means that fluctuations in tempo, volume, pitch, sound-color, etc. will affect you as well. And so, many of the musical tricks and techniques that my interviewees described involve entraining a dancing crowd to rhythms but also to affects, intensities, feelings.

Detroit Electronic Music Festival, 2010

Thickening the Social

But what about emotional entrainment—or, as it is more commonly termed, emotional contagion? Emotional contagion is a one theoretical model for how empathy works between people and in groups. If you’re thinking in terms of one person’s emotions radiating out and shifting the moods of those around her/him, then you’ll probably talk about emotional contagion; but if you’re thinking in terms of a multitude of different people’s emotions converging and coming into alignment in some way, you’re more properly talking about emotional entrainment.

In either case, the transmission of emotion between humans has been studied in a few human-behavior experiments studying group mood, especially in the workplace and other organizations (see Kelly & Barsade‘s early review article, as well as a more recent theoretical article that replaces “emotion” with “affect”). Most of the experiments showed that, when someone went into a meeting or group work session with a strong emotion (negative or positive), the mood of the rest of the group tended to shift in that direction. Furthermore, groups tended to work better and feel more unified when all of the members had similar or compatible moods.

Much of this transmission of affect happens unconsciously, automatically, and perhaps instinctively. The prevailing theory for how this work is “afferent feedback.” Essentially, humans have a tendency to mentally and sometimes physically mirror the actions of other humans in their field of perception (see mirror neurons). So, when people have a face-to-face interaction with other people, they unconsciously mirror the expressive micro-gestures of the people around them (facial expressions, hand gestures, posture, etc.), and this creates a feedback-effect, where their bodies feel the phsyical disposition of an emotion, which elicits the conscious experience of that emotion. So, for example, when you see someone looking devastatingly sad, you unconsciously mirror some of that persons‘s expressions and gestures, which prime your body-consciousness to feel sad as well. Generally speaking, there is usually an attenuation of transmitted affect, which means that you rarely will feel the affect as strongly as the person you observed. And furthermore, whatever affective feedback you get from this person mixes with your own prior affective state, which is also probably influencing that other person. This back-and-forth of affective transmission is how you can understand emotional entrainment to work.

What we can take from this is that the affective experience of listening and dancing to music brings people into sync with each other affectively, not only because the music entrains them together, but also because sharing a dancefloor space with other expressive bodies means that members of the crowd entrain each other affectively. In other words, people’s emotions tend to converge as they interact with each other, and this is especially true in a crowd of excited, moving, expressive bodies.

But another thing that we can get from these studies of group mood in the workplace is that coming into affective alignment fosters a sense of togetherness in a group. This means that music and its intensification/articulation of affect contributes to a sense of social cohesion in a crowd. It thickens the sense of the social fabric—or, rather, it gives the sense that the social fabric in a crowd is thicker than it really is. In other words, music and climaxes and strong feelings and exchanged glances and smiles and all of the stuff creates a sense of a social body in a crowd of strangers. In the absence of pre-determined social bonds (friend, sibling, lover, co-worker, etc.), strangers come to feel bonded by the intensity of the experience itself.


This kind of thing happens all the time. It’s a kind of experiment that starts with sheer intensity and then tries to find routes into a “we” that is not yet there but maybe could be.
(Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 2007: 116)

The articulation, intensification, and entrainment of affect on the dancefloor of EDM parties engenders a sense of a something that isn’t there yet, but could be. It can feel like an emergent, potential “we”—a yet-to-be-determined social bond. But, much like liquidarity from the previous chapter, the efficacy of this emergent something to bring a crowd together is directly dependent on its vagueness, its inchoateness, its virtuality, its non-specificity. If people on the dancefloor were to think and talk explicitly about what this means, they might find that they have incompatible views and irreconcilable differences. They might be disappointed to find who is included or excluded; they might feel overburdened by the expectations of labels like “community” or “society”; they might reject each other’s utopian visions of togetherness.

And so, this something needs to remain just a something for stranger-intimacy on the dancefloor to work. This doesn’t mean that people who go to EDM events don’t also have friends, kinship networks, scenes, and communities, but rather that “something” stands in for all of these forms of belonging (and more) when strangers share the dancefloor. And, much like liquidarity, this sense of incipient sociality is fragile: much effort goes into sustaining and protecting that sense of a “we” that’s not there yet, but maybe could be.

Previous in series: Chapter 3. Liquidarity: Vague Belonging on the Dancefloor

Coming up next: Chapter 5. Smooth Experience/Rough Experience: Coming Undone and the “Night Out”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s