Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan was in some respects a typical scholar in that “he wrote in his diary that he would never become an academic. He was learning in spite of his professors, but he would become a professor of English in spite of himself” (Gordon 2002). McLuhan thrived during the 1960s, studying popular culture, specifically the beginnings of radio and television. He was known for his work in media theory, in which he made popular the expression, “the medium is the message.”

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man:
First released by McLuhan in 1964, this book is his most well known work that has generated interest and controversy. The book seeks to dive into the defining what the exact influence of mass media is on popular culture. McLuhan was interested in branching out from the traditional methods of studying media. Instead of focusing on the specific content of a book or a television advertisement, he focused on the characteristics and patterns we can derive from how media functions as substantial, stand-alone object.

Defining “Medium”
According to McLuhan, medium is a broad term that defines a lot more than just written or spoken word. “Medium” can refer to a movie, telegraph, printed word (typography), speech, radio, telephone, television, but also can include mechanization, electricity, railways and air transportation. Anything that can deliver content or provide something useful for society can be interpreted as a medium. McLuhan believed we should focus on these things, and not the messages they deliver.

Media Hot and Cold
In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan claims there are two ways in which we can classify media: hot and cold. He makes the distinction between the two by explaining that “hot media” is very active in delivering its message. There is very little effort required on the part of the audience to receive the content. On the other hand, cold media requires a more involved audience to have any meaning whatsoever. According to McLuhan:
“A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition." A cartoon is "low definition," simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has very different effects on the user from a cool medium like the telephone.” (McLuhan 22)

The Medium is the Massage (1967):
Shortly after publishing Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan worked and released a project titled The Medium is the Massage. I call it a project because I am at a loss of words to describe what the thing really is. In fact, it is a mix with short explanations or thoughts from the stream of consciousness of McLuhan himself. The author(s) of the book blend different styles of displaying text with images in order to create what I can imagine is a representation of the many ways in which media influences every aspect of our being and society as a whole. The best interpretation of this work would be that McLuhan is commenting on the human responsibilities that come with new electronic technologies. This reading of the text is better confirmed when he states, "the personal and social consequences of any medium - that is, of any extension of ourselves - result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology."

McLuhan’s work is reminiscent of Wagner’s Gesammtkunstwerk, in that our focus is directed to the interconnectedness of art forms or media forms and how the composition of multiple pieces (of art or media) creates an effect greater than just the sum of the parts. To add to the novelty of McLuhan’s project, I should also note that the title of the book is meant to read, “Medium is the Massage.” This originated as a typo when the book was first published but due to the nature of the book, McLuhan decided that it added value to the message he was trying to convey. The title was from then on changed to The Medium is the Massage.

"The Global Village"
Marshall McLuhan’s theory of “The Global Village,” first discussed in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), relates to the idea of the world having become a village-type community due to the speed and ease of electronic technology and communication. This theory came before the invention/popularization of the Internet, and is even more relevant today. In discussing the Global Village, McLuhan writes that ‘“Time’ has ceased, 'space' has vanished. We now live in a global village... a simultaneous happening” (The Medium is the Massage, 3).

While McLuhan discusses the great benefits provided by this Global Village, such as increased human awareness of the world and the easy spread of information, he also stresses the negative aspects that come with it. One concern of his is that “electric technology... would seem to render individualism obsolete and... corporate interdependence mandatory’ (The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, 1). McLuhan also warns of the disunity of information that comes with such rapid acquisition of knowledge – important information can be misconstrued, misinterpreted, or simply misunderstood, and the consequences can be dire.

In relation to our class, the ideas of “the medium is the message” and “The Global Village” come into play with the various genres and adaptations that occur with literature and music. For instance, Merimee’s Carmen comes to us in the medium of the novel, whereas Georges Bizet’s Carmen comes as an opera. The medium of choice is important in our interpretation of the story, as well as the availability of the story to the Global Village. For instance, Bizet’s Carmen becomes more available to the Global Village at first by opera, then by film versions of the opera, adaptations of the opera, and so on.

Charlotte Moorman, cellist pictured in McLuhan's Medium is the Massage. Performing while wearing a plastic bag.

"Marshall McLuhan and Meaning in Music"

In Jay Wilkey’s work, “Marshall McLuhan and Meaning in Music,” Wilkey dissects McLuhan’s theories about media, medium, and message in an effort to uncover McLuhan’s take on music and meaning.

Wilkey summarizes McLuhan’s theory in regard to medium and message and explains that “any new medium changes the environment, which in turn changes the nature of understanding.” He develops this point further by incorporating a quote from Kenneth Boulding, which states, “The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image.” Wilkey expands on Boulding’s idea by adding that the message can only be truly understood through the process of feedback or effect—which is achieved through interaction between individuals and the cultural context. He highlights that:

The cultural context greatly determines what portion of the articulated information can be understood and thereby become a

message…the cultural context may be an important aspect of the medium of communication itself…What is appropriate in one

context and might, therefore, stimulate change, could well be irrelevant and thereby meaningless (that is, without effect) within

another context. Likewise, a potentially good musical medium for some hearers might be meaningless for others who are

unprepared to hear it, whether because of emotional or physical immaturity or lack of basic intelligence or education. (Wilkey 54-56)

Once the importance of the connection between the medium and the context is established, Wilkey asks the big question:

“How can we think of music as medium and thus understand its way of sending messages or exerting control?”

Here is a simple breakdown:

1. The musical style can be the medium.

Explanation: “The development of musical style corresponds to the development of language…the world was divided and

subdivided as numerous languages, verbal and musical…The result has been that the very language one speaks—its particular

vocabulary and grammatical syntax—greatly influence how one thinks …the same is true with regard to musical style. The power of

style in determining the effect is recognized in the everyday language of lay criticism: “I like popular music.” “I hate rock ‘n’ roll.” “I l

ike Debussy.” “Modern music makes me nervous.” “I find Bach Boring.” The medium is the message”(Wilkey).

2. The performer can be the medium.

Explanation: “In Marshall McLuhan’s picture book The Medium is the Massage, the only musician pictured is Miss Charlotte

Moorman, the cellist who champions the music of Cage and other avant-gardists. She is pictured in her normal concert attire for a

particular Cage work, a clear plastic bag normally used to cover dry cleaning…The message of her performance is greatly affected

by her virtual nudity. The piece performed thus…is a different piece from that performed on NBC television, where she was fully

clothed…And the piece performed thus in the concert hall is a different piece from the same scenario performed on a burlesque

stage; or at least, a different message is communicated”(Wilkey).

Wilkey concludes that the performer is in fact the most critical in relation to musical media and therefore has the most influential message. This not only applies to the performer who shapes music to go with his individuality, but also to the performer who sees himself as an “instrumentality in the actualization of a composer’s original intentions”(Wilkey). But Wilkey exposes that when it comes to style as the medium, not every musician can produce meaning, only a “strong individuality—a powerful controlling medium—can authentically present messages in different musical styles"(Wilkey).

“The story of modern America begins With the discovery of the white man by The Indians.”
“With telephone and TV it is not so much the message as the send that is “sent.”
“When you are on the phone or on the air, you have no body.”
“All advertising advertises advertising.”
“A road is a flattened-out wheel, rolled up in the belly of an airplane.”
“News, far more than art, is artifact.”
*Note: If some of these leave you scratching your head, you’re not alone.

Video: Marshall McLuhan-The World is a Global Village

Works Cited
Gordon, Terrence. "Marshall Who?" MMXI – Celebrating 100 Years of McLuhan – Marshall McLuhan. Web. 13 May 2011. <>
McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.
McLuhan,Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1962. Print.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: First MIT Press, 1994. Print.
McLuh"McLuhanisms – MMXI – Marshall McLuhan." MMXI – Celebrating 100 Years of McLuhan – Marshall McLuhan. Web. 13 May 2011. <>.
Wilkey, Jay. “Marshall McLuhan and Meaning in Music.” Music Educators Journal.
Web. 11 May 2011.