This is a post by Giulia Lorenzi (Warwick), a speaker from our Spring 2021 Seminar Series. If you would like to attend a seminar, please sign up using this link. You can also download the full schedule here.
We tend to think that vision is the most important sense modality in our everyday life. Through vision, we are able to discover objects and their features, as shapes and colours, as well as to grasp spatial information that enables us to avoid obstacles. The rapidity of sight in furnishing us information about the world and the richness of details that it can provide make this sense modality the privileged channel of interaction with the reality that surrounds us. Consequently, many studies, both from philosophical and psychological perspectives, devote their efforts to explain mechanisms and features of sight. But, what about hearing?
Audition provides us with a large amount of information about the world that we fruitfully employ in our everyday life. For example, hearing the noise of an approaching car while crossing a street is useful to capture details of the scene we are in that help us in navigating the space. Through audition, indeed, we can discover something about the objects that produce sounds (sound sources) and the circumstances of this production. The philosophical literature on audition largely focuses its attention on this kind of case. However, auditory perception doesn’t only seem to have the function of putting us in touch with the objects that are the sources of sounds.
Our auditory capacities are what allow us to effectively communicate with other people. Indeed, perceiving human speech is one of the most common auditory experiences and it is surely the ground of our verbal communication. Listening to music is another extremely common auditory experience. It is rare that we spend an entire day without having the chance to hear a melody or a song. We hear music while we are shopping in a supermarket, or driving, or working in our offices and houses. Music is also present, and can play a substantive role, in movies and theatrical representations. There are also cases when we actually decide to devote some time to this specific activity: listening to music. It seems that there is something different that is going on in the cases of speech perception and listening to music and that is not present in the cases where auditory stimuli are useful in providing us with immediate information about objects in our environment. What is the distinctive element that characterizes these experiences? Can we explain these cases, that seem so complex, in the same ways in which we speak about the hearing of crashes, bangs and squeaks?
Music is an important part of our cultural and personal identity. It also plays a role in shaping our social life, and can constitute a mode of communication and expression. In pandemic times, we are now more aware than ever of how much we would enjoy a live concert where we could connect with other listeners and with the artists and so express our sense of belonging to a certain community. Furthermore, music can be a form of therapy, both in the case of its production and in merely perceptual circumstances. Finally, it is probably the most common and more easily accessible artistic experience that we entertain. Philosophers have studied ontological, expressive, cultural and conceptual aspects of it (Kania 2017). Some have also said that it is a distinctive perceptual phenomenon in the auditory realm. Given the impact that it can have in so many aspects of our lives, studying the perceptual aspects of it seems the best starting point to construct a well-founded account of this phenomenon. So, what makes the auditory experience of music a distinctive perceptual experience? Why is it special?
Among the few contributions present in the literature focusing on music perception, Scruton (1997) suggests that the distinctive character of the musical experience should be individuated in what he calls the acousmatic experience. He argues that the uniqueness of the musical case resides in the experience of perceiving sounds isolated from their sources. In his view, we can listen to Beethoven’s fifth symphony and perceive the famous first motif without experiencing the involvement of the instruments that actually produce it. This leads to the somehow strange consequence of the perception of the timbre as an auditory parameter independent from the physical reality that produced it. In other words, in Scruton’s theory, to perceive music as music, we do not need to perceive it as produced by a certain instrument or another. We do not listen to violins, cellos, or trumpets, we perceive sounds as independent from anything else present in the world. This way of tackling our question leads us back to a controversy present in the more general debate on audition about the possibility of directly (or indirectly) perceiving sound sources, namely objects or events that produce sounds. Is the creation of an account of the relation between sound and sound sources enough to furnish a complete answer to our initial questions on the uniqueness of music? – It seems hard to believe so. Indeed, even in the case of everyday life noises, we can be in the position to just perceive a crack or a bang and not attend to the source of that sound. O’Callaghan (2020) rightly suggests that we probably need to think more about the role of attention in relation to Scruton’s position.
What about the role of time? Surely the perception of a bang or a crush does not involve time perception in the same way that the experience of a sonata does. Also, what about the definition of the proper object of perception in this context? Do we perceive entire symphonies that can last for more than an hour? Can our perceptual capacities extend so far? Or do we perceive motifs and melodies and we just retrospectively reconnect them inside an overall picture thanks to memory? How can we be sure about the minimal entity grasped in the musical context? And again, why do we think that a trained musician can entertain a different perceptual experience than a naïve listener while we do not differentiate experiences of different listeners in ordinary cases? What is the nature of the experience of listening? Do we merely passively receive music? Does a certain characterisation of listening to music also leads to define the role of performers in a specific way?
The interesting case of the perception of music draws our attention to questions that lie at the intersection of metaphysics, philosophy of time and mind, music theory and psychology, many of which are only just starting to be explored.
About the Author
1. For an overview about the debates in philosophy of music see: Kania, Andrew, “The Philosophy of Music”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Fall 2017 Edition, URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/music/
2. Scruton, R., The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.
3. O’Callaghan, Casey, “Auditory Perception”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Summer 2020 Edition, URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/perception-auditory/