Journal of the Society for American Music

A Sale You Can Dance To: Entrainment, Flexibility, and Improvisation in the Metric Practice of the American Auctioneer



Although most auctioneers do not self-identify as musicians, the practice of auctioneering in the United States reveals a sophisticated musical approach to metric improvisation based on the establishment of musical expectation and the strategic thwarting of that expectation through flexible treatment of meter. Auctioneers establish a “referential” meter wherein a consistent organization of the pulse returns repeatedly, alternating with expansions or contractions of that primary meter. Listeners are entrained to expect musical consistency, but through disruptions of familiar musical patterns, the auctioneer focuses bidder attention on the chant rather than the realities of the economic transaction in progress. Thus, meter is employed as an improvisational tool that unites the listening and bidding audience within a musical space and plays with expectations just enough to keep bidders alert and engaged.

Nikki Malley is Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Knox College where she teaches courses in Music of the African Diaspora, Jazz History, and 20th-Century Music, and directs the jazz ensemble and jazz combos. Her 2012 doctoral dissertation in musicology from the University of Iowa explores the improvisatory and participatory practices of auctioneering. She is Artistic Director of the Knox-Rootabaga Jazz Festival and performs regularly as a jazz vibraphonist.