Monkey hear…

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The process of communication – whether verbal, nonverbal or musical - is typically theorised with a model based on the postal system. The originator (speaker, composer) writes a letter that they deposit into the postbox of the relevant communication system (spoken utterance for conversation, performing ensemble for music) so that it can be delivered to the addressee (listener, audience).

It’s a model that’s useful for thinking about such things as intentionality of communication, and the dangers of transmission error and misreading. But there are whole other aspects of communication it ignores.

Gesture theorist David McNeill develops a concept of communication that is much more participative. (It also integrates verbal and nonverbal communication rather than separating them out into distinct ‘channels’.) He uses the word ‘inhabitance’ to express the way a conversational group works as an ensemble, creating a world of meaning that they cooperate to maintain and develop.

The process he describes resonates immediately with anyone who has participated in a musical ensemble. But I think it is also a useful way to think about the way an audience experiences musical meaning.

The concert habits of Western Art Music (upon which most traditional theorising of musical meaning is based) have tended to suppress our awareness of listener participation, because the audience is required to sit still and quiet, and only applaud at specified times. But that doesn’t mean listeners are passive. Indeed, the Romantic aesthetic that encouraged this mode of listening sought to place the listener in a quasi-religious state of rapt contemplation (as opposed to chatting and playing cards throughout the performance).

But this is an essentially adult state, and one available only to the initiated. It internalises and formalises the ensemble relationship between performers and audience into a very subtle and highly-charged interaction perceptible only to connoisseurs. Children fidget in classical concerts; adults unfamiliar with the code get bored.

If you want to know what’s going on inside audience members listening to musical performances, you need to watch children at events where they’re not pinned down to their seats. Quite simply, they join in.

The photo at the top of the page was taken at an open-air gig last year. The three children pictured started off running about and playing around the edges of the event, but gradually became more and more interested in the musical performances, until they spent pretty much all of the band’s second set miming along. The two boys mostly stuck to air guitar and drums, while the girl tended to switch between guitar and saxophone depending what was happening in the music.

Arnie Cox introduced the world of musicology to the function of mirror neurons in the brain, and suggested that musical meaning was generated by a process of ‘covert mimicry’. I think that if he had spent more time at open air gigs watching children and less in the classical concert hall, he’d have placed less emphasis on the word ‘covert’ and more on the real-time interaction of inhabitance.

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