PMAPS Colloquium with Professor Paula Harper 11/5

Paula Harper (assistant professor of Musicology in the Glenn Korff School of Music at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln) will present her Platforming Virality: TikTok and the Digital Arrangement of Musical Contagion at the next PMAPS ( Presentation Series) Colloquium. 


Platforming Virality: TikTok and the Digital Arrangement of Musical Contagion 

In recent years, the video-sharing platform TikTok has become a site for the promotion and dramatic elevation of otherwise unknown music. Lip synching 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 and 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 propagate 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.


Paula Clare Harper is an assistant professor of Musicology in the Glenn Korff School of Music at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Paula’s research centers around music and sound and the internet, with focuses on issues of circulation, sharing, sociality and social media, fandom, gender, and representation. 

Friday, Nov 5th 3 pm

In-person at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, Film Forum

and online via Zoom livestream - Register here:

Seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis. The event is free and open to the public. Campus visitors and members of the public must adhere to Cornell’s public health requirements for events, which include wearing masks while indoors and providing proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test.

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Photo of Professor Paula Harper