The Act of Listening

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The role of the audience in a musical performance is often imagined as a passive one. The composers and performers (and I guess the arrangers and impresarios and stage managers – all the people implicated in getting a performance to happen) assemble all the ingredients and cook them up into a musical repast that they then spoonfeed to the listeners, who just turn up and sit there.

There’s something to this idea of course – it takes more effort and attention to practise a piece of music up to performance standard than to purchase a concert ticket, and it makes a bigger difference if a performer loses concentration during a performance than if a listener does. So in that sense, the audience is the consumer of the musicians’ efforts.

But the act of eating, upon which this metaphor is based, is hardly passive. Anyone who has done actual spoonfeeding with a baby (rather than just figurative spoonfeeding in the classroom or concert hall) will know that the baby is very much in control of the process. Whether to accept the spoon in their mouth or turn their head away to collect a smear of puree across their cheek, whether to swallow the food or dribble it down their chin, are decisions that parents attempt to influence but cannot control.

The listener is likewise entirely in command of their own attention and willingness to engage. And how mature listeners engage with music has far more in common with adult eating habits than spoonfeeding. There’s the sense of directing attention to parts in combination as well as the whole, of switching between sybaritic enjoyment and critical judgement, and of making sense of the experience in the context of genre expectations developed from both previous encounters with the style and from culturally- acquired knowledge.

And it is in the process of making sense that the listener’s role emerges as fully active. It’s easy to think of the musical structures that sounds in the air having sense in themselves independent from and prior to the listener’s apprehension of them. But I had a listening experience a few months ago that reminded me quite vividly that while our ears pick up sounds, it takes our brains to render those sounds as music.

The occasion was a short concert of adult amateur musicians. The players were generally not especially skilled in terms of technical fluency, but were experienced enough to offer their performances with a sense of poise and control. The audience didn’t have to feel worried on their behalf, so we could enjoy the performances in the spirit and at the level they were offered.

The offering that gave me my penny-drop moment was a flute and cello duo. The performance was largely in tune with a reliable if slightly pedestrian tempo and some sense of shaping and phrasing. But it sounded throughout like two people playing at the same time rather than two people playing together. They were in time with each other, and the parts went together, but it sounded simultaneous rather than coordinated. I was really aware of having to listen through the surface to build the two parts into a single piece of music in my own head, since it seemed like neither of the two players were doing that in their own.

So I came away with a sense of music as a kind of trompe l’oreille effect that relies on the listener’s capacity to build mental gestalts in order to make sense. Skilled performers build the illusion sufficiently expertly that we’re not aware of this perceptual process. Indeed, you could define the quality of musicianship in performance as the capacity to perform this sleight of mind without your audience noticing the workings.

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