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Journal of the Royal Musical Association

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Towards the Third Way: Interdisciplinary Attitudes to the History and

Practice of Listening
William Lockhart

Online publication date: 19 February 2010

To cite this Article Lockhart, William(2010) 'Towards the Third Way: Interdisciplinary Attitudes to the History and
Practice of Listening', Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 135: 1, 109 118
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/02690400903414889


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Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 135, Special Issue no. 1, 109118

Towards the Third Way: Interdisciplinary

Attitudes to the History and Practice
of Listening
Report of Discussions

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IT is hardly surprising that the proceedings of the Royal Musical Association

conference Listening: Interdisciplinary Perspectives should end with a report of the
discussions to which, following each paper and its response or partner, conference
delegates had listened. The purpose of this report is to capture both the spirit and the
content of these discussions. Perhaps the most obvious initial observation such an
attempt should make is that while the investigation of listening is emerging as one of
the most stimulating issues of the moment, it is also one of the most contentious,
sparking debate around topics as diverse as the relationship between biological and
cultural responses to music, the uses and values of source types as varied as religious
texts and phonographs, and the definition of the distinction between musical hearing
and listening. This report will attempt to do justice to the heterogeneity of opinions
presented during these discussions, while at the same time focusing on the
fundamental issue which drove them  what does it mean to listen?
The conference opened with John Butts paper, Do Musical Works Contain an
Implied Listener? Towards a Theory of Musical Listening, and discussions began by
pressing at the nature of the distinction Butt drew between hearing and listening. If,
it was asked, the sense of the implied listener is characteristic of [ . . .] that time
when the development of individual subjectivity was at a premium (p. 15), is it not
the case that these moments of subjective engagement actually involve memory,
thought and understanding more readily  or at least more pervasively  than they do
musical listening?1
Butt replied by first addressing the distinction he had made between hearing and
listening. For Butt, listening can be divided into three interlocking categories.
The first exemplifies the general hearer-orientated nature of virtually all music and
the second the many types of music that are specifically listener-orientated, while

Page references to this special issue of this journal are contained in parentheses in the text.

ISSN 0269-0403 print/ISSN 1471-6933 online

# The Royal Musical Association
DOI: 10.1080/02690400903414889

the third relates to the type of listener who creates a specific sense of self over the
duration of the listening experience (p. 8). For Butt, then, the difference between the
hearer and the listener is that all music contains an implied hearer  otherwise there
would be no reason, unless very obscure, to create it (p. 6)  while only some specific
musics either orientate themselves to the listener or actually contain an implied
With Butts distinction between listening and hearing clarified, he moved on to
discuss the relationship between the implied listener and understanding. Here, Butt
reiterated the fact that he was trying to draw a subtle distinction between several
modalities of listening. Hence, while roller-coaster listening is most likely when
music has become a commodity and where listeners expect to get something out of
it (p. 9), music which contains an implicit listener conjures up the idea of a listener
present over a prolonged span (p. 12). The latter type of listener does understand
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more than the former  indeed, it is on these grounds that the two are different
at all  but necessarily and primarily consists of a listener who lies implicit in the
This distinction between Butts second and third categories of listening was again
invoked in his response to the next question put to him. To what extent, it was
asked, does his practice of tracing the implied listener differ from that of more
traditional and recognizable analytical practices? How far is it possible to differentiate
the implied listener from the figure of musical appreciation which is typically
invoked (and required) by twentieth-century analytical methodologies?2
Butts implied listener does appear to be little different from the idealized (and
recently much-maligned) listener implicit within the discourses of twentieth-century
structural analysis. For instance, if the implied listener is evidenced by the apparent
protention and retention of momentary musical consciousness, this protention and
retention are themselves exemplified by what seem to be traditional structural
musico-analytical claims. For example,

The chorus Wir durfen niemand toten is itself an immediate reworking of the first
chorus of Part 2 (Ware dieser nicht ein Ubeltater), but ends with the harmonic sequence
from Jesum von Nazareth. Thus there are two levels of recollection working
simultaneously, that of the chorus just past, which is then coupled with that of the
very first pair of choruses. (p. 13)

Reworkings, harmonic patterning, recollection of events past, layers and levels of

meaning  these all seem to be harnessed towards an all-too-familiar end: the defence
of the holistic organicism of the work such that from this organic unity an implied
listener with the same qualities of wholeness and organicism can be abstracted. How

See, for instance, Fred Everett Maus, The Disciplined Subject of Musical Analysis, Beyond Structural
Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing , ed. Andrew DellAntonio (Berkeley, CA, 2004), 1343.

does Butts implied listener differ, then, from the listener imputed by more familiar
structural analysis?
Butt began his discussion of the differences between his implied listener and the
structural analytical listener by explaining that of course there are similarities between
the two. However, he went on to distinguish between them by observing that his
third type of listener  the implied listener  occurs only at that time when the
development of individual subjectivity [is] at a premium (p. 15). This is not the case
with the ideal listener sought by structural analysis, who can be imputed to any
historical period. For instance, as Butt explains, incipient musical modernism might
continue to play upon listeners expectations [. . .] (and indeed to set up levels of
conscious recollection)  the structural listener may still be present, in other words 
but more often than not, much of the ultimate effect is towards the alienation rather
than the cultivation of the listener (p. 16). The structural listener can be implied by
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modernist works while the implied listener is absent because, although the former
seeks structural unity, only the latter requires it.
For Butt, the key distinction between the listener imputed by structural analysis
and his notion of the implied listener is that while the structural listener requires
structural unity, the implied listener requires unity of a subjective kind. Butt argues
that this subjective unity is achieved through the retention and protention of musical
consciousness. Significantly, the protention and retention of future and past events
respectively are key features of Theodor Adornos understanding of subjective unity.
However, for Adorno, the divisibility of past, present and future is dialectically both
the means by which the ego is able to emerge and the temporal prison in which it is
destined to languish:

The tide of what has been has receded from the rock of the present, and the future lies
veiled in cloud on the horizon [. . .]. The tripartite division is intended to liberate
the present moment from the power of the past by banishing the latter beyond
the absolute boundary of the irrecoverable and placing it, as usable knowledge, in the service
of the present [. . .]. The temptation to be rid of the ego has always gone hand-in-hand with
the blind determination to preserve it.3

This contention arises during Adornos and Max Horkheimers analysis of Odysseus.
All three individuals had significant roles to play both in William Fitzgeralds paper
and in the discussion which followed it.
After Fitzgeralds paper, Listening, Ancient and Modern, conference delegates
focused on appending further sources and authors to the already impressive list that
Fitzgerald had cited, as well as debating the significance of these new items within
that pantheon. One source of particular note raised during the discussion was

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments , ed.
Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA, 2002), 256.

Boethius, the sixth-century Christian philosopher whose tripartite division of the

musical world makes him a particularly interesting figure to attempt to locate within
Fitzgeralds canon. Gratitude was expressed to Fitzgerald for drawing out so precisely
the subtle differences, as well as the historically invariant themes, in such a disparate
range of sources. Finally, there was also discussion of the hegemonic relationship
between listening and hearing that Fitzgerald had invoked. This quickly turned to
focus on the implications of Ben Etheringtons claim that listening potentially relays
reflective and sensual cognition in the same moment (p. 42). For Etherington, there
exists a contradiction between the ancient and modern understandings of listening.
Where Nietzsche contends that in order fully to enter the present we need to be able
to forget the past, Plato argues against a truth that is present-bound because it
unthinkingly imports a past it could never fully know (ibid.). It is the dialectical
overcoming of this contradiction that, Etherington argues, forms the process of
sounds cognition (ibid.).
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Fitzgeralds paper ends by asking when and how listening emerged as an activity
at all; when, that is, it began to demand that we respond. Etheringtons response
ends by reconceptualizing the way in which sound is created and transmitted in the
relationship between composer, performer and listener, and proposing that sound
cognition  listening  is itself a reflexive and dialectic act. What the mechanics of
sound transmission can teach us about the cognition of sound and our response to it
is, of course, a major theme of Daniel Leech-Wilkinsons paper, Listening and
Responding to the Evidence of Early Twentieth-Century Performance. Leech-
Wilkinson believes that the nature of our response to recordings made in the early
period of sound-recording demonstrates that our musico-perceptive abilities are
determined by an evolutionary imperative. The first member of the audience to
respond to the paper sought to suggest a more typically aesthetic foundation for our
dismissal of the early recordings of Galvany and Gerhardt. Could it not be the case, it
was asked, that we find Galvanys recording threatening because of its invocation of
the mechanical? That is that, thanks to her performances incredible accelerando,
breathless height and spinning-wheel regularity, Galvany stops being a human
performer and becomes instead a human inhabited by the technological? Surely
there, locked within the half human, half machine, lies her threat?
Leech-Wilkinson accepted that there was a strong element of the mechanical in
Galvanys performance. However, he did not accept that this was grounds for
suggesting that evolutionary paradigms are any less suitable for explaining aesthetic
phenomena. In this case, even if the performance is mechanical, the reason that we
find its mechanism threatening is again coded for by an evolutionary paradigm.
Galvany is not simply a machine, but rather a human masquerading as a machine for
the duration of her performance. We find this sinister (or, at the very least,
unstimulating) for two evolutionarily determined reasons. First, in social groups of
early hominids (p. 51), creative partners were favoured on the grounds that they
were capable of generating the behavioural novelty required to maintain the long

period of collaboration which child-rearing requires. Those who displayed mechan-

ism in their courtship behaviour were greeted with incredulity or disinterest  as
Galvany is here. Second, we find mechanical performance threatening not only
because musical practices of an alien group  in this case, the non-human  are
challenging (p. 51), but also because this non-human performance is masquerading
as human. It is, in that sense, doubly suspicious. The claim that Galvanys
performance is sinister because it invokes the mechanical actually provides evidence,
therefore, for the utility of evolutionary paradigms as tools for understanding music.
Although Leech-Wilkinsons point about the validity of using evolutionary
evidence to support claims about aesthetic objects had been made with regard to
the mechanical, another speaker wanted to know whether or not the work of Roland
Barthes could provide an explanation as compelling as Leech-Wilkinsons as to why
we find Galvany and Gerhardt threatening. Barthes argues that the singing voice is
not the breath, but indeed that materiality of the body emerging from the throat, a
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site where the phonic metal hardens and takes shape.4 The Barthesian voice emerges
at the intersection of body and discourse; it is the unconscious texture which
associates his body-as-site with his discourse: an active texture which reactualises, in
the subjects speech, the totality of his history.5 Is it not conceivable that the fear or
the humour which is engendered when we listen to the recordings of Galvany and
Gerhardt occurs as result of the fact that we know that the performers are dead?
Could it be that our knowledge of their death means that their voice is now not only
free to distance itself unnaturally from the materiality of the body emerging from the
throat but is also distanced from the discourse which gave their utterances meaning
in the first place?
In response, Leech-Wilkinson accepted that there might well be other reasons why
we find the Gerhardt and Galvany recordings either amusing or threatening.
However, he also indicated that if Barthess analysis of the origin of the spoken voice
did tell us something relevant about human communication, then that analysis did
not necessarily contradict his claim but, again, could support it. Barthes defines
listening according to a tripartite structure. While the description of the voice given
above occurs under the third of Barthess definitions, his first argues that listening is
orientated to indices and is the act by which we listen for the presence of sounds at
all. Listening, Barthes argues, is an act whereby we patrol our own territory; we can
intercept that which invades our space, either for defence or predation.6 This
resonates much more clearly with Leech-Wilkinsons understanding of the
evolutionary foundation of musical listening. Of course, while for Barthes this first
type of listening is relevant only inasmuch as it provides the ground on which the

Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation , trans.
Richard Howard (New York, 1985), 255.
Ibid .
Ibid ., 247.

third type, general signification, is allowed to emerge, he has to admit that, on the
grounds that man is an animal, this type of listening cannot be ignored.7 At stake in
Leech-Wilkinsons defence, then, is not whether that which he has to say about
listening and its evolutionary component is true or false, but rather whether it is
relevant any more: has general signification supplanted indexical listening, or can
we still learn about the one from the other?
The exploration of the grounds on which the evolutionarily determined elements
of listening can inform us about the more recent developments in our aural
capabilities was at the heart of the discussion following Ian Crosss paper, Listening
as Covert Performance. In his paper, Cross argues that musical listening can be
interpreted as containing residues of action and interaction (p. 77)  as, in other
words, covert performance  on the grounds that it actively stimulates neurological
and cognitive responses which undermine our belief in the overriding passivity of the
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human listener. It was put to Cross that neuroscientific, cognitive, behavioural and
evolutionary analyses of humans as organisms are not able to explain meaningfully to
us the workings of human culture because, to use Barthesian terms, listening which
seeks general signification has finally supplanted the evolutionarily prior indexical
Crosss response to this question consisted of two arguments. In the first, Cross
observed that there are several flaws with close cultural analysis when it is carried
out with disregard to transcultural and biological perspectives (p. 69). For instance,
close analysis which remains firmly internal to the cultural system at large runs the
risk of never quite escaping the clutches of mere description because, bound by the
cultural terms prevalent at that temporal moment, it only ever has the ability to
translate, and not to explain. Conversely, the consideration of universal aspects of
culture  or indeed, the study of the human capacity for culture  is able to escape
the bounds of the particular and thus to shed light meaningfully on it (ibid.). Since
the capacity for culture seems universally generalizable amongst humans, science can
not only tell us about it, but can tell us even more than cultural analysis, bound to
the laws of the particular, would be able to.
The second argument which Cross put forward in defence of his view was that,
unlike the questioner, he did not believe that one method of listening analysis had to
supplant another. As Cross, speaking about listening as covert interaction, puts it at
the end of his paper,

When that interaction is taken back into the world of cultural representations in symbolic
form, then [. . .] the processes of that active engagement can re-enter the musical discourse
in critical and creative forms  which is where I am happy to hand the problem of musical
listening back over to the worlds of historical and critical musicology. (p. 77)

Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms , 245.

Crosss approach, then, mirrors that of Barthes, but with the emphasis shifted; while
both Barthes and Cross believe that the evolutionary and animalistic aspects of
listening are the grounds on which meaningful signification is based, Barthes believes
that there is more at stake in the latter, while Cross contends that it is the universal
which tells us more about being human. What seems to be an insurmountable
obstacle lying between the cultural historian and the musical scientist, then, is
spirited away to reveal little more than a difference in emphasis.
The second question put to Cross veered away from the contentious issue of the
relationship between musicology and the scientific study of music to focus
specifically on one piece of evidence which he used to justify the claim that listening
was a covertly performative activity. Cross argues that entrainment, the process of
pulse abstraction and dynamic attentional modulation is grounded in expectations
of interaction with others who are capable of entraining to pulse streams in the
human range (p. 75). However, if that is the case, then how could Cross explain the
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appropriation of oriental rhythmic techniques by the Darmstadt school in the 1950s

and 1960s? As Stockhausen explains,

When I was in Japan for the first time and experienced the No theater, the sumo fight,
gagaku music, or the shomyo temple music, I became aware that the Japanese have a
completely different time than we Europeans have. The Japanese have a far larger
time scale at the bottom, which means they have much slower and longer events than we
ever would admit; wed call them boring or wouldnt experience them for any length
[ . . .]. But at the very fast and the very slow regions they have more octaves, so to speak,
than we do.8

Putting aside, for a moment, the complicated question of whether or not Japanese
culture does in fact possess this attitude to rhythm and time, it is certainly the case
that this perception led to the composition of much slower and faster musical
events  along with the rapid see-sawing between them  than had ever before been
heard in Western music. We can hear such rhythmic events in works like Boulezs
First Piano Sonata or Stockhausens Telemusik. The latter makes consistent
use of one of Stockhausens most famous rhythmic techniques, itself derived
from his perception of Japanese time: moment form, where a moment lasts not
just an instant  according to our time system a fraction of a second or a few
seconds  but it can last an eternity if it isnt changing.9 How can the wild
extremes of tempo in these works be accounted for in terms of the theory
of entrainment?
Crosss defence of the theory of entrainment under such extremes of tempo
adopted a similar tack to that of Leech-Wilkinsons responses to the aesthetic

Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jonathan Cott, Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer (London,
1974), 30.
Ibid ., 31.

analyses of the Gerhardt and Galvany recordings  rather than providing evidence to
counter the claim in hand, they present evidence in its favour. Cross cited
Stockhausens belief that moments with incredibly slow  or even non-existent 
rhythmic scaffoldings seem to continue for ever as evidence of the power of
entrainment: that is, that without the framework provided by the cognitive functions
of the brain, time itself seems to stop. Similarly, when a rhythmic pulse moves
extremely fast, the brain simply refuses to acknowledge that time in that medium is
passing. Cross acknowledged that separate research would have to be done into the
experience of music which manipulates these extremes, but that it was doubtful that
listeners to Stockhausen and Boulez were any less active than they were when
listening to other types of music because, if nothing else, they would still be engaged
in the active (albeit futile) pursuit of seeking out the temporal scaffolding on which
entrainment can hang. Stockhausens and Boulezs work, then, serves to demonstrate
that the principle of entrainment is active in determining the way we experience
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music, for it is the exploration, exploitation or deliberate frustration of this very

principle that, in part at least, makes the extremes of tempo in their music successful.
Stockhausen and Boulez, in short, were not simply reinvigorating Western notions of
rhythm in music; rather, they were attempting to expose and transform the limits of
human perception.
While certain works by Stockhausen and Boulez adopt a transformational
programme, Bernd Wannenwetschs paper, Take Heed What Ye Hear:
Listening as a Moral, Transcendental and Sacramental Act, argues for the
transformative power of listening through submission to the alterity of the
vibrating scripture. Wannenwetsch argues that one of the grounds on which
listening possesses a transformative theological power beyond that of sight is that
listening overcomes the Wittgensteinian hermeneutics of suspicion, that distance
between saying and meaning which is amplified by the strategic potential of
seeing (p. 97). This is because the Word of Jewish and Christian worship is a
performative word that does what it says (ibid.), rather than saying what our
eyes believe that it should. One speaker questioned, however, the extent to
which it was meaningful to speak of a hermeneutics of suspicion with reference
to music and listening. Given that all music is necessarily representation and
thus, by the terms of the Wittgensteinian hermeneutic, deception, does it make
sense to think of music as possessing a true meaning from which its representation
Wannenwetsch accepted that the transformation of the hermeneutics of suspicion
from linguistic into aural, and particularly musical, terms was not without difficulty.
However, he also observed that while it did not seem to make immediate sense to
seek the truth of a musical statement outside its representation, musical
representations (that is, musical works) were often accused of falsehood. This type
of falsehood is frequently linked to the performance venue and time: Plato argues, for
example, that music in the Lydian, Mixolydian or Ionian modes induces the

inappropriate  wrong  feelings in soldiers about to go into battle.10 In fact,

Wannenwetsch argued, to make the observation that music can in some way be
wrong is to observe the bifurcation between the moral, transcendent promise of
music and its sensual, materialistic (and thus potentially corrupting) realization. This
bifurcation has existed since at least the time of Plato, and remains a potent aesthetic
principle at least as late as the work of Schenker and Schoenberg, whose theories of
analysis are founded upon an understanding of the work as possessing both spiritual
essence and material realization. Wannenwetsch even speculated that it might be
because of this suspicion of musics sensual realization that we needed to theorize
what it was to listen in the first place. Could it be, he asked, that listening is the
name given to our attempt to overcome what we feel is an untrustworthy disparity
between musics essence and materiality?
Discussion at the end of Wannenwetschs paper closed by gesturing outwards
towards foundational questions about what it means to listen. It was questions such
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as these that were to prove integral to the panel discussion which closed the
conference. The discussion made active contributors of many, the exchanges were
frenetic, and the topics touched upon manifold  factors which, of course, contribute
to the impossibility of as full a reconstruction as the discussion really warrants.
However, what emerged most strongly from the session was that there is a strong
sense in which the study of listening necessitates an interdisciplinary approach,
possessing as it does such a large number of possible entry points for the researcher.
Historical studies, ethnography, sociology, philosophy, neurology, evolutionary
biology and no doubt countless other disciplines all have their role to play in
elucidating what listening is and exactly how it works. For many, this discussion was
an opportunity to observe at first hand the sheer number of attitudes with which this
topic is being approached. Given this disciplinary catholicism, it should come as no
surprise that the final questions touched on by the discussion asked how we should
draw together the disparate strands of research in this field. How, for example, can
histories of listening be brought to bear on neurological or evolutionary accounts of
its processes? No easy solution to this question presented itself.
Ultimately, the conference convenors ambition for a third way that overcomes
the fundamental differences that define the field (p. 3) was of course not met. 150
years (if we follow Bacht by placing Helmholtz at its head) of the disciplinary
segregation of listening research can hardly be rethought in a day. Moreover, there
might remain a scepticism that this disciplinary divide can ever be overcome: trying
to go beyond science and history by questioning both sciences drive towards
universalization and historys drive towards historicization is an attempt to deny
each their apparently essential characteristic (p. 2). On the other hand, it does
remain tempting to observe that listening  combining functions of the ears

See Plato, The Republic , ed. Giovanni R. F. Ferrari, trans. Tom Griffith (Cambridge, 2002), 398c

physiology with observations of cultural manifestation  is a phenomenon perfectly

suited to the exploration of potential ways in which this apparent bifurcation might
be rethought. With this temptation in mind, it appeared that all who attended the
conference were resolved in their desire to call for stronger interdisciplinary links
among practitioners in this field. If the third way has not yet been found, this
conference and special issue of the Journal of the Royal Musical Association certainly
set the ball rolling (p. 3) in the quest for it.
Contributions to the discussions following the papers presented at the Royal Musical
Association conference Listening: Interdisciplinary Perspectives held at Kings College,
Cambridge, on 2425 November 2006 were particularly animated. This paper attempts to
capture in outline the main exchanges of the question-and-answer sessions, while at the same
time doing justice to the broad interdisciplinary spirit that characterized the event.
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