Programme: Music - PhD/MSc by Research

Start date: September 2013

Mode of study: Full time

Research title: “For the love of it?”: Amateurs and Unconventionalists in Icelandic Popular Music

Arnar completed his MMus degree in Musicology from the University of Edinburgh in autumn 2013, scrutinizing the notion of “Scottishness” in popular music in his Master’s thesis. Arnar’s field of expertise is popular music and he’s especially interested in how the sociological/new musicological research methods can be successfully applied to that field. His PhD research looks at the social dynamics of amateur musicians, using his native Iceland as a case study. The research builds on his thirteen year long career as a music journalist, making use of the experience, knowledge and connections he has already accumulated but historical documents, interviews and ethnomethodolocigal approaches will also form a substantial part of the study.

The focus is on the ill-defined sub-genre of popular music which is being made/practiced/performed by amateur/non-professional musicians that work outside of the mainstream music business. The difference between a professional and an amateur musician is far from clear cut, a problem that is addressed in the thesis, but the concern here is i.e. The 60 year old plumber which finally realised his dream of putting out a record; a rock-band of pensioners who practice every Sunday; a Shadows tribute band in a remote town, the Cajun band run by the practising dentist etc. A certain lack of awareness regarding the professional music world often steers the music endeavours of the aforementioned subjects, the music is being made for its own sake rather than for financial benefits, a stance that often conveys a sense of purity and authenticity in the artists outlook. The musical output can at times be unconventional, sometimes characterized by "beautiful imperfection”, even plain weirdness. The social reality of this musical sub-culture is interesting but the aesthetic value of the music itself evokes some interesting questions as well.

The research was initially inspired by Ruth Finnegan’s ground-breaking study of amateur musicians, found in the book “The Hidden Musicians: Music Making in an English Town”, but  important work by sociologists like Robert A. Stebbins and Antoine Hennion in this field have also been an influence.

Arnar has an extended career as a music journalist in his native Iceland that started in 1999 at the longstanding and respected Icelandic daily newspaper Morgunblaðið. Arnar headed its popular culture department at one time and still writes for the paper occasionally. Other Icelandic daily’s, music trade journals and academic journals have published his articles and his writings have also appeared in international article collections, books (“1001 albums you must hear before you die” for one) and on various music websites ( for instance). He has three books on Icelandic music to his name, has been a member of numerous boards and juries both at home and abroad and is currently a member of The Nordic Music Prize committee. He is a regular commentator on music in television and radio in his homeland and has also given lectures on musical topics in schools. He has also presented his own radio show and helmed his own webisodes, DJ'ed and organized some concert series (his concert series, “Coffee, cakes and rock’n’roll”, which ran in the years 2011 – 2012 in Reykjavik, was nominated for a societal award).

As of now, Arnar is working on two different book chapters. Along with Icelandic sociology professor and rock historian Gestur Guðmundsson, he’s carrying out an ethno-musical research which implements cultural theorist Paul Gilroy’s concept of the Black Atlantic diasporic culture. The study revolves around the popular Icelandic indie-rock band Retro Stefson which is led by two brothers of Angolan-Portuguese descend. He is also writing a chapter for a forthcoming edited collection on Icelandic music, shedding a light on the sociological importance of Iceland’s foremost Battle of the bands competition.