Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good

university of Michigan press (2016)



Just Vibrations bends our collective ears toward the vitality and precarity of optimism, dependence, and reparative agendas in academia and in daily life. The book calls for a radical embrace of interpersonal care as a potential core—as opposed to merely extracurricular—component of intellectual labors. In the event we break, who will rush to criticize and who will stop to offer aid? Should our voices crack, who may take pains to listen all the more closely? Traversing the resonant archives of reindeer games, personal impairment, scholarly strife, queer hope, musical violence, and accessible soundscapes, this book advocates for care work as a barometer of better worlds.

Foreword by Susan McClary

Cover art by Jess Landau



Just Vibrations is an extremely interesting book written by an exceptionally talented musician. The reflections are far-reaching and a source of much illumination about the function and value of work, hope, determination, realism, and interpersonal care. It is hard to write such a book, but it is very rewarding to read.


Harvard University, Nobel Laureate in Economics and author of The Idea of Justice

Just Vibrations is about unrelenting illness and accommodation to it; about music, politics, and theory, and the thereness of the opportunity they offer to repair diverse kinds of pain. It’s a book of queer struggle, attachment, thought, and love, its face bent toward the sun—and the question mark.


University of Chicago, author of Cruel Optimism

Just Vibrations is a passionate and personal plea for a reparative musicology, for a field that favors empathy, compassion, and care. Cheng made me think in deep and not always comfortable ways about my work and my life as a scholar. A beautiful and moving book.


CUNY Graduate Center, author of Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music

Just Vibrations is without question a groundbreaking book, both accessible to a wide readership (including undergraduate students) and theoretically nuanced. Cheng elegantly balances clarity of explanation with scholarly depth and breadth. All this is accomplished through a writing style that is eminently readable, even poetic at times.


University of Texas at Austin, author of Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy



There were a few times during my three years of grad school when my personal life or biological needs became overwhelming and I sought care from my professors. One of them always responded to this in a supportive manner. My clearest memories of those three years are the times I sat in her office, crying or yelling or generally raging against the dying of my own light. We remain the very best of friends—actually, chosen family. I was less than ten pages into the 100 pages of William Cheng's Just Vibrations when I texted that professor to say she needs to read this book immediately. Cheng's work poses the only essential question left unanswered by the academy and the secret of its truly massive failure: an absence of any instinct to repair.


With the hope of building kinder, gentler communities, William Cheng’s monograph employs elegant prose, vulnerable insights drawn from personal stories, and meticulous interdisciplinary research to invite musicologists to begin collaborative conversations. His narrative engages the scholarship of care ethics, gender studies, queer theory, disability studies, and the slow movement to examine possibilities of caring for people in our musical communities, especially those who feel unheard, often those from groups who have traditionally been relegated to the periphery of US culture.

JOHN SPILKER, Journal of the Society for American Music

While some might read Cheng’s work as overly idealistic, or others perhaps as tangential or immaterial, he makes a case for reparative musicology as an essential component to the future of scholarship in general, and musicology in particular. Just Vibrations should be required reading for every scholar.

SAMANTHA BASSLER, Journal of Musicological Research

The interdisciplinary scope of Cheng’s book makes it accessible and of interest to scholars active in a range of fields including musicology, ethnomusicology, sound studies, communication studies, disability studies, Deaf studies, gender and sexual diversity studies, and critical race studies. The book is also a testament to the value of accessibility in humanities scholarship, not simply in content, but in form and output as well. Its open-access publishing allows for text-to-voice dictation, supplies alt-text for image descriptions, and is compatible with e-readers.

JESSICA HOLMES, Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal

Just Vibrations is useful for researching strategies of doing reparative work, disability policy advocacy, and the distant yet colorful horizons of cultivating interpersonal hospitality among intellectuals. For religious scholars who need a new take on trauma and grace discourses in theology and emerging considerations surrounding theologies of liberation, this book offers a fresh perspective. The ideal audience for Just Vibrations includes music researchers, performers, and people dealing with chronic illness and their loved ones. This book is also a great resource for pastoral counselors sifting through relevant care strategies for scholars, especially artist- scholars, where performing a connection between the head, heart, and hands is essential to their livelihood. I foresee ethicists, activists, survivors, lobbyists and legislators who are involved in policies regarding military torture and police brutality benefitting from Cheng’s insights as well.

ALISHA LOLA JONES, Journal of Disability and Religion

Serving as a much-needed musicological call to action, William Cheng’s monograph addresses the need of care pedagogy and the creation of more humane environments within academic communities. To illustrate our responsibilities beyond disseminators of content, Cheng cites an account at the 1988 meeting of the American Musicological Society where a male professor “suggested that it wasn’t his problem if his female students couldn’t work late in the library because they feared walking across campus late at night” (6). Cheng goes on to ask, “What institutional and intellectual alibis could lead a scholar (or any person) to voice a disregard for students’ safety?” (6) He advocates that while musicology is not the study of well-being, the three areas of care, compassion, and interpersonal concerns should be integral parts of that study and its pedgaogy.


”This is not musicology.” So says an internet troll, disparaging William Cheng’s Just Vibrations in a post on Slipped Disc (the self-proclaimed “most read cultural website”). The post is unintentionally ironic and incongruous: Cheng’s core tenet is that musicology is as musicology does, while his core message is that musicology could do more to help repair our broken world if it were to champion an ethics of care as much as its more usual scholarly priorities. … So I agree: Just Vibrations is not mainstream musicology. But it is part of what any future musicology worth practising could and should be.

KYLE DEVINE, Music & Letters

William Cheng’s most recent monograph, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good, is an optimistic book for an audience of students and scholars grappling with the ethical concerns of academic life in both the discipline of musicology and its relatives as well as on a larger institutional and political level.

LAURON KEHRER, Women & Music: A Journal of Gender and CulturE


Note on Open Access

Just Vibrations has been published in both print and Open Access. The goal of digital OA is to reach as many readers as possible, especially those who might otherwise be unable to afford or access this text. By harmonizing the book’s medium and message (of care, outreach, accessibility), OA offers an electronic file that accommodates convenient text searches, text-to-voice dictation, and transportability via e-readers. For readers with additional visual needs, Alt-Text is available in the digital version for all illustrations in this book. Print copies of the book can be purchased via University of Michigan Press, Amazon, and other sellers.