Sensing Music: Hearing, Listening, and Not-So-Deep Listening

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

Despite the fact that we have five distinct senses, human society relies mostly on visual stimuli. So much so that the only art form to develop from one of the other senses is music, and even the development of music in industrialized and later technologically-developed societies has been the result of sight-based phenomena: music notation, conductors, etc. Even our language betrays a visual bias when we talk about music, e.g. “I saw a great concert last night.” For that matter, everything else: “I’ll see you next week” also implies “I’ll hear you next week.”

Part of the reason for the dominance of sight is that until the 20th century, it was only possible to archive and preserve the visual aspects of objects. We have paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts dating back centuries but we really don’t have any contemporaneous music, just some visual directions explaining what that music should be. For this reason, we will never really know the exact performance practice of music before the 20th century despite the tireless efforts of musicologists. The ability to record and store sound, developed at the dawn of the 20th century, has forever tipped the scales a little bit toward aural expression. And the recent development of the digital transmission of aural files over the Internet at the dawn of the 21st century will probably tip the scales a little bit more…

But listening is still a woefully underdeveloped sense compared to sight. (Taste, smell and touch, of course, lag even further behind among human beings but that’s another whole discussion.) And the extent to which someone’s listening abilities are developed has a great impact on the music he or she chooses and enjoys. Someone with more developed listening skills might favor music of longer durations or music with a more complicated structural design, perhaps music with a wider melodic and/or harmonic palette. Someone with less developed listening skills might never be fully listening to music. This is not a value judgment, because everyone (except, sadly, people who are hearing impaired) has a great capacity to listen.

For the December 2000 issue of NewMusicBox, we have chosen to examine listening from a variety of perspectives. I spoke with Pauline Oliveros, who has spent her entire career integrating the realms of composing, performing and listening. She explained the differences between hearing and listening, and described her theory of Deep Listening, which allows for background sonic stimuli to become part of a more inclusive foreground. It has been six years since the publication of Joseph Lanza’s book, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak™, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong, a volume which forever changed the way I think about music. To counterbalance Deep Listening, I asked Lanza to write about not-so-deep listening. Lanza decries the disappearance of Muzak™ from supermarkets and questions the distinctions of background and foreground listening. Since nowadays there are so many different avenues by which listeners might first encounter new music, we asked Miguel del Aguila, Benjamin Lees, Augusta Read Thomas, and George Walker to suggest the ideal way for audiences to listen to their music. We ask you to comment on your own listening habits. Do you listen to live music or recorded music more frequently? How much music do you listen to on a regular basis? What other activities are you engaged in while you’re listening?