Sophie Whitehouse - Presenter Profile

From Vinyl to ‘Cloud Technology’: Highlighting the Visual Aspects of Music in a Digital Age

In this article, Sophie Whitehouse describes her research into the importance of the visual in how we experience music.

About My Research

How do you experience music?

A difficult question; to some, perhaps there lies a clear and straightforward answer. To others, it may spark deeper thought. Music means different things to different people. Whether it is background noise to accompany daily tasks, or something that requires focused attention, most of us encounter music on a frequent basis.

When we think about music, we tend to privilege sound. While sound may well be central to the overall experience, isn’t there more to it than this? When you go to a concert, the vibrations of the music physically move through your body; when you leaf through the well-thumbed pages of the small booklet encased in the sleeve of a CD/record, your eyes scan the lyrics, the images, the layout on the page; when you enter a record store and breathe in the thick smell of vintage vinyl which fills the air… The whole experience is multi-sensory, yet so often all other senses are forgotten in our conceptualisation of music.

One of the contributions of my thesis is to highlight an aspect of the overall experience of ‘listening to music’ that we take for granted: the visual. Think The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album artwork, or the prism from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Cover art plays a key role not just in marketing music as a product, but also in the overall experience. What makes this a timely subject to research is the uncertainty brought about by the digitization of music. Suddenly, the fate of album artwork is called into question, and many music lovers fear that what was once a prevalent feature of the physical musical product will be forever confined to small JPEGs on many of the large media libraries such as iTunes.

These feelings of nostalgia are what fuel my research.

My Research Approach

Over the last year I have been getting to know and become part of a small community of musicians, fans and producers in the Midlands, asking them to tell me about the cover art they love and hate, what it means to them and why it is important. Ultimately, I am trying to understand how these people experience music. Since I am interested in the move from music as a physical, tangible product, to its digital form – the MP3 audio file, my choice of music scene is crucially important. I would describe it as a group of people, musicians, fans, producers – and all three at once – who operate outside of the commercial music industry. They are independent, make very little (if any) profit, and have a strong ‘Do It Yourself’ ethos, which sees handmade record sleeves, music magazines and more often than not, homemade cakes. Within this community, the record is still alive and well, and the cassette never died. This community is known for innovating ahead of mainstream trends, and is an ideal site for exploring attitudes towards the visual aspects of music.

In focussing on the ‘visual’, I have had to draw a line as to what I consider falls into this bracket. For now, I am concentrating on single/extended play (EP)/album artwork, rather than casting my net to include merchandise, music magazines, and even the style and fashion within the scene.

Initial Findings and Future Work

From the interviews I have had with individuals so far, findings suport the idea that listening to music is multi-sensory. Participants have relished the opportunity to discuss their relationship with artwork and the role it plays in their experience of music, indicating that this is something worth discussing. Cover art is more than just packaging or a marketing tactic – it is artwork in its own right, and it is inextricably bound to the sound of the music. The general trend among those interviews I have analysed to date suggests that our listening habits have changed over time. We no longer listen to albums in their entireity as we would sit and watch a film; instead we opt for singles which we pick out from our digital playlists. Whether artwork is a cause or effect of this has yet to be revealed, but there is certainly something more complex underlying this transition and the way in which we engage with music.

My aims are to better our understanding of this everyday experience, and problematise the conceptualisation of music as just something we hear. While this research is rooted in marketing and consumption, it could equally have a home in a music, media and communications, art or sociology department. It brings together fields which do not normally ‘speak’ to one another, and in doing so makes a number of contributions. This knowledge could be of interest to anyone with a passion for music, marketers, designers and scholars alike. Ultimately, I hope to change the way we think about such a familiar experience.

About Sophie Whitehouse

Sophie Whitehouse is a PhD Student at the University of Leicester (2015)Sophie Whitehouse is a research student working towards completion of her doctoral degree in the School of Management. Sophie is supervised by Professor Jo Brewis and Professor Mike Saren.

Sophie will present her work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 6 July 2015 - see Sophie's Festival poster.

The Festival is open to all members of the University community and the public - book your place here.

Contact Sophie

School of Management

University of Leicester

University Road



Share this page: