Music as Social Processes in McMaster Concert Band and Cybernetic Orchestra

Below is an ethnographic study I conducted on musicians in two contrasting environments: a wind orchestra and a laptop orchestra.


I formally discovered music in an educational context, back in fourth grade, when students were required to learn to play the recorder, a small flute instrument with a whistle-mouthpiece. In sixth grade music class, I was exposed to a larger group of wind instruments, including flutes, clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, euphoniums and tubas, as well as percussion. By a combination of randomization, and not enough people choosing it, I ended up with the trombone.

I had never had an immense amount of formal music education outside of elementary school, nor were my parents especially inclined in music themselves. Thus, my personal introduction to learning music was through elementary school, in an academic context, and throughout my high school education. My music teachers in elementary and high school, as well as my peers also involved in music, were my main influences in continuing to pursue music year after year. After picking up the trombone in sixth grade, I ventured outside of classroom musical activities, finding myself involved in extra-curricular concert band after school, which I would end up doing for the next seven or so years in my life. I became highly committed to playing in concert bands, investing hundreds of hours of my time into practicing before and after school hours, and becoming immersed into the culture of musical ensembles. In both my elementary and high school graduations, I won the Music Achievement awards out of my graduating classes and had recognized my aptitude for music—but unfortunately decided to go into university for more “practical studies.”

Despite finally becoming too busy for my second and third years of university, I found myself returning to McMaster Concert Band in my last term, nostalgic and afraid this could be my last time playing in a musical ensemble. At the same time, a friend from my Multimedia program would convince me to join the Cybernetic Orchestra, McMaster University’s little-known laptop orchestra, where live coders come together to make music using computer algorithms on their laptops. Interestingly, weekly practices for the McMaster Concert Band and Cybernetic Orchestra would both fall on Thursdays, allowing me to become immersed into both ensembles while making music in completely different contexts, within the same day of every week. Since January 2017, I have been conducting an ethnography of both ensembles as a participant observer—specifically as a second-chair trombone player in the Concert Band and a live coder in the Cybernetic Orchestra. Throughout my ethnography, I have learned much about the specific cultures of both the McMaster Concert Band and the Cybernetic Orchestra, using methods such as participant observation, informal conversations and qualitative interviews with 5 musicians, in both contexts. In this paper, I will compare and contrast the ways in which musicians conceive of and operate within these two contrasting contexts, as well as draw from my previous experiences as an extra-curricular musician of ten years to give additional context. I will ultimately argue that music is not simply a neutral entity, but instead a wider social process which involves social organization or stratification, collaboration, and the creation of symbols and meaning.

The Social Organization of an Ensemble

One of the most important aspects of playing in a musical ensemble is the physical organization of space—specifically where musicians sit in relation to each other and the leader of the group. Dennis Young (1982) argues that the organization of musical ensembles reflects attributes of productivity, coordination and control and technical innovation that can be applied to other societal organizations, like public policy and management. Thus, the seating arrangement or plan of a musical ensemble is extremely important in understanding social hierarchies of and relationships between musicians within an ensemble; it also reflects the unique values and musical preferences of an ensemble, for instance, how the ensemble wants their overall sound to be perceived by the audience.

Social organization in McMaster Concert Band. In the McMaster Concert Band, there are actually members of the Band Council—coined Stage Managers—whom are in charge of setting up the playing area every week, including the maneuvering of chairs and music stands. There is a master plan of where musicians sit (which theoretically stays the same every week) and is used by the Concert Band director to easily conduct an attendance check of who shows up every practice. In a wind ensemble context, musicians are seated in a semi-circular manner, facing the audience (Figure 1). Musicians are always grouped with others who are either playing the same instrument; if the musician is playing a unique instrument in the band, they are seated in proximity to musicians with similar instruments. In Row 1 are First Flutes, Piccolo, Oboe, First Clarinets; in Row 2 are Second Flutes, Bassoon, French Horns, Second Clarinets; in Row 3 are Euphoniums, Tenor Saxes, First and Second Alto Saxes, Third Clarinets; in Row 4 are Tubas, String Bass, Baritone Saxes, Trombones, Trumpets; finally, in the back section are all Percussion. The conductor, who does not play an instrument, stands elevated in the front and centre of the band, with her back to the audience while conducting; she is the master controller of the ensemble, controlling its tempo (playing speed) and any other dynamics or expressions of songs being played.

Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     1      : The seating arrangement for McMaster Concert Band, with the conductor on the center podium. Note the four rows of instrumentalists, as well as the Percussion section in the back. Photo by Mrs. Sideris.

Figure 1: The seating arrangement for McMaster Concert Band, with the conductor on the center podium. Note the four rows of instrumentalists, as well as the Percussion section in the back. Photo by Mrs. Sideris.

Additionally, individual instrument groups are mostly internally stratified by different numerical levels, coordinating the playing of different versions of sheet music for a song. In high school, such stratification occasionally caused slight dramas between musicians competing for the highest qualification—but a mature musician understands that in the context of the ensemble every part is important. A leader of the instrument group is also categorized as “first chair,” meaning that they would play the “first” versions of sheet music; these versions tend to be slightly more difficult to play, sometimes including higher notes or more complex notation. However, the leader of an instrumental section is not simply based on what part they play, but also their leadership qualities. This semester, our trombone section had two first trombonists, Amy and Joel, but Amy was considered our section leader based on her maturity and leadership qualities. When I spoke to the Concert Band director about joining the ensemble in January, one of the first questions she asked me was what instrument I played; upon telling her I was proficient in the trombone, she suggested that I play “second trombone,” meaning that I would play the second version of sheet music, along with my section-mates Beth and Zach. Such internal organizational stratification of instrument groups in orchestras is argued by (Young 1982:265) to reflect a challenge system, where players within sections will actively monitor their peers to ensure that they are not “free riding” off the work of their productive peers:

The challenge system causes players in a large, otherwise undifferentiated section of the orchestra to monitor one another and to strive for individualized status, a fact that tends to compensate for the weakness in the conductor's capacity to monitor each player.

Interestingly, I have experienced this challenge system at play during Concert Band rehearsals; Beth, who sits to my left and plays the same sheet music as me, often hears my botched notes, and I am in turn pressured to fix those mistakes the next time around. While all of this is happening, our conductor would not have been able to monitor such a mistake in the first place.

In the larger context of a wind ensemble, there is also a particular way in which the entire band is encouraged to play, in order to perfect the overall balance of sound in the group. Specifically, a balanced orchestra ideally has a higher bass volume than tenor, than alto, than soprano volume. This hierarchy is called the pyramid of sound (Figure 2), where instruments of higher and more audible pitches, such as piccolos and flutes, should ideally play at a lower volume; conversely, instruments with lower pitches, such as tubas and the baritone saxophone, should ideally play louder, to compensate for their less audible pitches.

Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     2      : An example of the Sound Pyramid, with several Concert Band instruments. (Diagram from

Figure 2: An example of the Sound Pyramid, with several Concert Band instruments. (Diagram from

Social Organization in Cybernetic Orchestra. Compared to the Concert Band, the primary difference in the social organization within the Cybernetic Orchestra is that there are only about nine individuals, as opposed to the approximately 55 musicians in Concert Band. As a result, the social structure here is more egalitarian and less stratified; there are no internal departments or instrument groups, or any hierarchies of first-chair, second-chair or such positions. Instead, live coders sit in one single row, facing the front of the room, where the conductor is stationed (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The organization of Cybernetic Orchestra, with the conductor in the front of the room (facing away). Notice the projected screen on the right, which is visible to all members. Photo by Daven Bigelow.

There is also no set seating plan where live coder musicians are required to sit every week, meaning live coders are free to move around in different positions every practice. Additionally, while every live coder sits in front of their personal speaker, they have the option of actually projecting their music (panning) into others’ speakers around the room, giving a sense of agency and flexibility in the organization of the ensemble. Although the leader of the Cybernetic Orchestra positions himself at the front of the room, assuming the position of a quasi-conductor of the group, an important difference compared to the Concert Band conductor is that the Cybernetic Orchestra leader participates in the music-making himself, just like all of the live coders in the group. He is thus not simply a leader, but also a participant. Using a type of coding language called Tidal, all live coders enter their individual code into their own entry box, on a webpage with numerous entry boxes; there is little to no social stratification whatsoever between boxes, as all boxes and live coders are equally important in creating music using their own code.

Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     4      : The organization of live coders (“hacker names” on the first line of every box) during a Tidal performance in Cybernetic Orchestra. The conductor, d0kt0r0, controls the overall tempo of the ensemble using the code “cps (104/60/4)”. Photo by Daven Bigelow.

Figure 4: The organization of live coders (“hacker names” on the first line of every box) during a Tidal performance in Cybernetic Orchestra. The conductor, d0kt0r0, controls the overall tempo of the ensemble using the code “cps (104/60/4)”. Photo by Daven Bigelow.

Music as Collaboration

Despite any social stratification that may be present, in both the Concert Band and the Cybernetic Orchestra, music is still made in a collaborative context, meaning that both ensembles produce music in a group setting—playing at a set time, and generally in the same space. The only exception I learned of about the latter is that the Cybernetic Orchestra has the capability to still “jam together” even with members who weren’t physically present, thanks to the digital connectivity of the Internet. Conversely, in the Concert Band, physical attendance is the only way in which the ensemble can practice and perform as a group. Nevertheless, physical attendance was required and highly enforced in both ensembles, in order to develop and improve the in-person collaborative practices of music-making. Directors of both ensembles often become upset if a musician fails to show up for practice, arrives late, or when they are mentally distracted by mobile technologies during practices.

It is important to note that, due to the collaborative nature of musicianship in both the Concert Band and Cybernetic Orchestra, the overall production of sound as a group is almost always more important than that of a single individual. As R. Keith Sawyer (2006:148) defines, collaborative creativity and music-making “cannot be associated with any one person. All members contribute and their interactional dynamics result in the performance.” Moreover, music-making is also a social activity that emerges from “cooperative interpersonal interaction,” with the end goal of musical expression (Cunha and Lorenzino 2012:80). On some occasions, my Concert Band conductor has called this collaborative music-making as “a conversation” between instruments. Namely, musicians are encouraged to “draw out of themselves” and listen “beyond [themselves]” and to others’ music, even while they are playing. There are musical calls and responses, pushes and pulls, and swells and dips of sound. Consequently, musicians must “blend in” or “fit in” with the rest of the group, and know when to stand out or back down, in order for the ensemble to sound its best. Sometimes this includes the individual tuning of instruments to ensure that it is literally in tune with the rest of the ensemble, but it also means that musicians must adjust accordingly as they play to ensure that the quality of their sound blends smoothly with everyone else. Beth and Amy both tell me that Concert Band allows diverse groups of musicians from different places, ages and faculties to “come together to have the same goal, and all be interested in the same thing.” Similarly, Zach describes the strong sense of unity and collaboration needed for the diverse musicians to succeed collectively in the Concert Band:

[We are] working with all of these people from different faculties and different [walks of] life, but we're all achieving this one goal together. There's kind of a unison [or unity] to it. If we're not all in sync, then it won't sound as good as it can be. So, it's important for us to each take our role seriously.

Sonia, a fellow live coder, violinist and vocalist, describes to me her observation of the sense of collaboration in her experiences in countless musical ensembles, despite the varying skill levels of different musicians. She actually sees this as a strength of an ensemble, as it avoids the oversaturation of only “advanced’ voices:

There's always a huge range of sounds; there are the newcomers [who] don't do a lot. [Their] rhythms are much more basic, which [actually] works to [their] advantage, [because] there's more of an emergent texture to our sound. If everybody was advanced, and had a billion things going on at the same time, that would just be a ‘neutral grey,’ because everyone is too vibrant in their own direction. But there is a sort of technicolour that I think is bred from a situation like this, when there is a range of skillsets, and it's the same in any orchestra really, right? … There's a space to hear each part, and a synergy that happens. [It’s the] same in a-cappella music. We can't all solo; we can't all be Whitney Houston. … Music is a collaborative thing; it’s more than just one thing. Even if it’s made by more than one person, it’s a multi-layer phenomenon. Music takes a group of people, even if one of the musicians is the producer.

The Practice of Roulette at Cybernetic Orchestra. Roulette is a collaborative group activity practiced in the Cybernetic Orchestra almost every practice, where live coders take turns to augment one single piece of computer code. It is important to note that only one computer is used in this activity, with the code projected on a screen for the rest of the group, and all members take turns walking up to the computer in the front of the room to make incremental changes to said single piece of code on the screen. The purpose of this activity is to help live coders understand what their individual changes of code sound like, witness the changes of other live coders in real time, learn from each other, and to create a continuous string of modifications. If one live coder makes a mistake, it is also up to the next live coder to remedy it accordingly. The product of a Roulette is a piece of music that is essentially a co-creation. Blackwell et al. (2013:131) argue that live coding actively uses collaboration between individuals to “steer the process toward mutual success.” Moreover, live coding demonstrates this in a captivating way—with “simple tools, a short time frame, but still allowing improvisational collaboration between performers and audiences” (Blackwell et al. 2013:131). More importantly, it means that the entire ensemble is collaborating on one single piece of music, which the leader has coined to be a “subtly powerful” strategy by copying and learning from each other. This practice contrasts quite drastically from Concert Band, where sheet music is expected to played as it is without any changes—Roulette is thus about collaborative creation and modification, rather than collaboratively following pre-established musical notations. Daven, a returning live coder, explains:

That's what makes it fun—just the fact that you're there with other [live coders]. It's not just a solo thing; I've never soloed and I don't know if I ever could. Because it helps to have someone else just to put out an idea, to put something there for you to react to, and it becomes sort of like a game, especially the Roulette—which is literally a game.

Music as Symbolic and Meaningful

Even though music itself is a powerful art form which holds a plethora of meaning for various individuals, the instrument itself is also an site of meaning as well as a symbol of unique life stories and histories. Edward Arthur Lippman (1953:554) argues that symbolism is result of two related experiences, with “one pointing to the other.” In music, symbolism can be highly subjective, and thoroughly personal with private meanings and special significances (Lippman 1953:554). Therefore, music and instruments themselves are all often given special symbolic meaning by musicians, which varies depending on life histories, childhood upbringings, or other interactions that the musician may have encountered with the instrument or while making music. For instance, Sonia has, on many occasions, allowed me to play with her odd, triangular ukulele, which was a gift to her from her violin teacher. More than being a uniquely shaped ukulele, it is ultimately a precious memento and symbol of her respect, admiration and close relationship with someone whom she considered a selfless man, and someone whom went above and beyond to instil in her the passion of music.

Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     5      : The Six String Nation guitar.

Figure 5: The Six String Nation guitar.

The Six String Nation Project. The Six String Nation is a project by Jowi Taylor, featuring an “all-Canadian guitar,” that has been physically made from numerous historical and symbolic pieces of Canadian artefacts from across the country, including: Canadian hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s stick, an Asahi baseball team jersey, and even a piece of a Residential School (Figure 5). In essence, this guitar is a material symbol of our country’s narrative, as well as a completely functional musical instrument. I actually came across this unique project when my university sent out an email to all undergraduate students, informing us that the famous guitar was currently making its way across the country on a tour, and making a stop on campus in early March. Consequently, they were seeking guitar players and singers from the student community who could represent the university by performing with the Six Nation Guitar at a special event. Here is an excerpt from my field notes:

About two weeks ago, I had received an email from my university’s alumni organization about this event; I thought about Sonia immediately. And not surprisingly, that evening in the computer lab, I caught Sonia there getting ready to record her video submission to the “contest,” in hopes of getting a chance to perform on stage with this highly esteemed guitar. She goes into a classroom with her friend to record snippets of her playing a song by Canadian artist, Lights, which she had been introducing me to, while explaining her story as a musician. A couple days later in the computer lab, Sonia tells me some news: she has won the contest along with another McMaster student.

When I skip Concert Band practice to attend the event about a week later, I arrive to find a small crowd sitting around a stage, where the creator of the Six Nation Guitar, Jowi Taylor, stands, speaking about the story of this particular musical instrument. He speaks of the Canadian identity, namely, the stories of our country and its people all across the country, also recounting the stories and narratives about the construction of this guitar. The Six String Nation guitar also symbolizes the process of music as a collaborative endeavour, as Taylor had to work with many individuals to construct such an instrument in the first place. In a sense, the Six String Nation guitar is a loaded symbol in itself—a musical instrument which represents much more than just the Canadian identity, but the stories of everyone who has come to engage or perform with the guitar. When Sonia performs an original song of hers on stage with the guitar, she imbues the instrument with her own story, and adds to the symbolism of the guitar in telling the stories of Canadians all across the country; she also creates meaning through performing her song, specifically linking it to her past with an ex-boyfriend and achieving closure through her performance. After the performances, almost all members of the audience queued for their photograph with the guitar. Thus, it can be seen that musical instruments, such as the Six String Nation guitar, have the power to communicate larger messages and act as a meaningful symbol, as well as bring people together under a common or shared interest or passion for music.

Music as a meaningful experience. Musical experiences are also made meaningful through connecting or juxtaposing various life histories and experiences of musicians. Sometimes, these meanings also intersect with other realms of life such as future careers, hobbies or other families and friends. For instance, Sonia, also a creative writer in her free time, tries to explain music as similar to writing and documenting, acknowledging the highly subjective nature of defining music:

You know how writers write? When I write, it is to document a certain frame of mind—a certain thought space that I can come back to later. Music is also a way to do that. Because there are some things you can't really document with words, and it takes music to do that. So it's almost like a journal, or a diary entry, except nobody else understands it, or they might understand something else from it.

Amy, from Concert Band, was the only actual music student whom I had interviewed, and as such, she expressed a unique meaning of music to her life, as well as her dreams of becoming a high school music teacher:

For me—I love music—but it will always be more than just music. It will always [be about the] people; I think music has always been the easiest avenue to connect with people. It's one of the first things that come up in conversations when I meet someone: Do you like music? What do you listen to? Do you play instruments? For me, I want to work in a high school in a music program, and I guess the reason why is just—you know—when you're a teen, it's just hard enough to be a teen. To have [a] person in your life to speak life and encourage passion, to encourage a gift—music is ultimately a gift for us to have, to use. It's not ours to keep forever. To be able to use that as an avenue to connect with youth, to connect with peers my age—that's the reason why I want to teach music, because it's just a connecting tool, ultimately, for people.

However, pursuing music as a career is not the only outcome of a great passion for music. Zach and Beth, from Concert Band, both find playing music as a pure hobby—and keeping it away from the realm of work—helps them “release” negative emotions they may experience in their everyday lives:

Zach: When I start playing the guitar, it's like a release—you do it when any strong emotion comes out. You can play [the] guitar, you can work through it and figure out what the heck is going on in your mind. You can relax too; learning a new song is relaxing.

Beth: I've never really thought of [music] as something I'd want to go into for work, because I always thought it was a fun thing, and something I spent a lot of time passionate about. I like it in a special place, where I can just go up to the cottage and play guitar with my friends—and that's where it stays. 


Through this ethnographic study, I have attended about a dozen rehearsals at the McMaster Concert Band and the Cybernetic (Laptop) Orchestra, and gained a wealth of insight into the social organization, collaborative nature and the role of symbolism and meaning-making in music. My findings about musical practices and perspectives have largely confirmed and correlated with much of existing work by other researchers, although limitations exist by only featuring two types of ensembles. All in all, my findings emphasize that music should no longer be seen as an entity, but instead a complex and culturally specific social process, whereas musicians are constantly negotiating or navigating their position in the social organization of ensembles, actively collaborating with each other through various practices, as well as creating symbols and meaning as they continue to engage with music in their everyday lives.