Gebrauchsmusik: on the utility of music

After the NFT money hype this past spring, we moved into a space that focused more on the utility an NFT can carry. Taking a cue from the world of gaming - with their skins and items - musicians began to experiment with digital collectibles. Not only does this idea of the collectible allow for good story-telling, it’s also a way to bring non-crypto minded fans into a Web3 environment. All of this seems beneficial to both artists, who can create connections with their fans, and Web3 enthusiasts, who see more people creating wallets and generally getting their feet wet in our blockchain ocean.

I’m personally also of the opinion that utility is an important factor in both the adoption of NFTs and in getting people to stop talking about NFTs and start talking about what the tech can do as a tool. That said, utility in music isn’t a new concept. So if we want to think about what the utility of music is, let’s talk about the framework those ideas sit in.


I tend to think that the primary utility of music is that it brings people together. But there is, of course, much more that music does. Music offers rhythm and groove, euphoria and celebration. Music can change a mood and reduce pain and anxiety. In other words, music has a physical, physiological, and mental impact on us. This is also immediately why it brings people together: it’s ingrained in us.

When we can share such experiences it creates a bond. I’m sure that all the people in that room with Bobby McFerrin still remember that moment. How we provide ways for those bonds to establish has changed over time due to the introduction of new technologies as well as through new ways to think about music.

Back in the 1920s in Germany an ideological divide shaped itself specifically around the utility of music. This happened both within academic thinking about music and within music practice itself. In the latter divide there was, on the one hand, the art for art’s sake music of Arnold Schoenberg and others. On the other hand, there was the Gebrauchsmusik - music for use - of Paul Hindemith and more popular composers like Kurt Weill. The academic divide, meanwhile, had its own protagonists: Heinrich Besseler, who pushed for an understanding of music as a practical form and including an actively listening, even participating, audience. Theodor Adorno was the man who confronted Besseler’s idea of Gebrauchsmusik, instead arguing that music held secrets that could only be penetrated by autonomous listening.

Dance, religion, community

One of the key factors of Gebrauchsmusik lies in its creators having a concrete need in mind when they compose their music. And while Besseler himself and his ideas of Gebrauchsmusik were sadly appropriated by the Nazis, the underlying philosophy of music-making and music-listening both requiring active participants still holds value. This is about musicians learning their craft and then monetizing that craft. It’s also about listeners - fans - who want to get actively involved with the music they’re listening to. Examples of Gebrauchsmusik in Besseler’s philosophy are the dance or music written for a religious ceremony. In dance music the listener participates by moving, while in religious ceremonies music has the function of bringing the listener into a different state of mind.

Now that we once again have a heavy focus on utility when it comes to music and Web3, we must ask ourselves what the concrete need is that music caters to. If that is indeed community, then we accept Besseler’s idea of Gebrauchsmusik. At the same time we reject Adorno’s idea that

“we will need to abandon the persistent illusion that through music the relationships between people can be changed in any fundamental sense.” (Adorno, 1967: 179)

What we’re seeing in current iterations of NFTs and broader token-based communities is that music is fundamentally about relationships. Specifically also beyond the concert hall; beyond where we allow music to bring us together as human bodies sharing a space. Moreover, in many instances the community is made up exactly of musicians.

There’s more than one pyramid

As the number of people who have access to digital music-making tools grows so do the number of ways these people can play music together. One example is Bandlab, where people can make music through the app, play music together through the app, and share what they’ve made with others - looking for listeners - through the app. Very few of the millions of songs created through Bandlab each month will find larger audiences. And that’s totally okay. We need a large base of amateur musicians to sustain an ever-growing middle class of musicians. Again, this idea isn’t new. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, writing in the same period as Besseler and Adorno, talked about a pyramid showcasing this exact need.

“At the apex are the great and famous; below, in rank after rank, stand the general practitioners of our art, competent and enthusiastic … the musical salt of the earth, a great army of humble music makers … these are the foundations of the pyramid, sustaining those above them and at the same time depending upon them for strength and inspiration.” (Vaughan Williams, 1987: 239)

Compare that to Li Jin’s fan pyramid and you can see a similar support system appear. Without that broad base of casual fans there’s no system to support the super fans.

So new business models unlock new ways for people to create and share music. They also unlock new ways to access and monetize different strata of fans. All of these people, professional and amateur musician / superfan and casual listener, feel part of a community which connects through music.

What is community as utility?

Is that the same form of community that Besseler and other adherents of Gebrauchsmusik idealized? Probably not specifically, because a lot of it happens online nowadays, which is simply a form of being together that didn’t exist in the 1920s. Because of its often asynchronous and definitely displaced nature, digital-first communities require a reconceptualization of the ‘playing together in the same time and space’ ideal underpinning Gebrauchsmusik. But therein lies the exact utility of music that comes to the fore in Web3-first communities.

Take Wobblebug [disclaimer: I own a Wobblebug], an NFT project but mainly a digital artist where the holders of the NFTs get a say in the music, remixes, performances, etc. All the music created for Wobblebug exists solely to push the project forward. There is no specific Adorno-esque need to contemplate autonomously about the music. This isn’t music for music’s sake, this is music for the community’s sake. It is, specifically, about the relationships that will come through the music: artist collabs, community members throwing a party in the hyperverse, etc. It’s no coincidence that Wobblebug makes bass-driven music. Dance has long been a great utility of music, and the lineage from ‘wob’ to techno to ragtime and further back is strong in its power to get people to move together in unity.

Wobblebug #343
Wobblebug #343

Music is utility

Besseler struggled to come up with a positive definition of Gebrauchsmusik. Instead he often relied on what it wasn’t: as a type of music that specifically lacked the concert-type characteristics of enjoying something sat down and by yourself, preferably in your own head. Now, around a 100 years after Besseler put forward his theory, we have a positive definition of Gebrauchsmusik, of music as utility: the point of music is to create participation, to foster cooperation, to establish relationships, and to allow the individual to submerge itself into a collective.

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