Algorithms and Earworms: Viral Musicking and How We Got to TikTok

13 October 2020, 4.30 PM - 13 October 2020, 6.00 PM

Paula Harper, Washington University Chair: Justin Williams



In recent years, the video-sharing platform TikTok has become a site for the promotion and dramatic elevation of otherwise unknown music. Lip syncing and dance challenges that heavily populate the application have been responsible for launching particular pieces of music, choreography - and, of course, a small number of persistent and lucky content creators - to massive popular renown through digital repetition. On TikTok, short clips of music and sound function as fundamental components of contagion and spread: each video's sound file is visible as a metadata hyperlink, and when clicked, the file assembles an archive of all other videos using it. With a single tap, a user can contribute to that  archive with a video accompaniment of their own. Participation on the platform thus condenses around sound as a vehicle for both sensorial and algorithmic captivation.

In this talk, I frame TikTok's centering of the microsoundtrack as a culmination of longer histories of digital virality. In my previous work on music, sound, and the internet, I have developed the concept of "viral musicking" to argue that digital viral participation (creation, circulation, and consumption of viral content) is a significant modes of 21st-century musical practice. Further, I suggest that digital virality itself is musical. In this suggestion I push back against the perception of digital and meme culture as exclusively (or even primarily) visual, instead drawing together:

  1. Longer histories of music's understood "infectious" potential
  2. Analyses of digital media structures that encourage loops, repetition, and disciplines of "listening" for virality within noisy social media feeds.

I show how platforms have adapted to promulgate and amplify digital viral phenomena, as a means of corralling the transmutable commodities of user attention and participatory engagement.

Ultimately, then, my argument situates TikTok as a somewhat-inevitable incarnation borne of decades-long accelerating internet and social media trends, in which sound and music have been widely instrumentalized to render surveillance, advertising, and the mechanics of digital platform capitalism more palatable.

Speaker Biography

Dr Paula Harper is a musicologist who specializes in music, sound, and the internet. She received her PhD from Columbia University in 2019, and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Washington University, where she teaches courses on American Popular Music, Listening in Digital Culture, and Women in Music Videos. Her work has been published in the journals Popular Music and Society, Sound Studies, and The Soundtrack, as well as in the Summer 2020 special issue of American Music, for which she also served as a co-editor. Recently, Paula co-organized the virtual colloquium Music Scholarship at a Distance, and she is currently at work on a book project entitled Viral Musicking and the Rise of Noisy Platforms. Her talk today comes from that book project.

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