Creating Meaning in Unfamiliar Places: How we listen to Unfamiliar Music
In this paper I will be looking at the question of how an audience processes unfamiliar, foreign music. For example, how does a Western audience perceive unfamiliar non-Western music - or conversely? In particular, I will look at a study that compares Western and Balinese melodies as heard by both Western and Balinese audiences. More fundamentally, is it possible to hear sound as such or does the very act of listening already entail creating meaning?
At a basic level, all of the members of an audiences exposed to the same music would be hearing the same sounds. However, assuming that they are unfamiliar with the musical style and culture that they are being exposed to, their experience of this music, their listening, would be radically different.
In Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain defines hearing as a basic auditory processing that is "entirely unconscious at this level" (p. 245). Jourdain highlights the difference between hearing and listening through an example. In extreme cases, it is possible to "hear" something without having any awareness of it, as in the case of patients that can take sounds in through the brainstem but have no conscious awareness of the sound. This kind of auditory blind-sight is particularly interesting because it highlights the way in which the very act of listening is already active - allowing us to see the separation of perception and consciousness of perception.
Turning then to the question of listening, we see that the very act of listening is already inherently that of trying to attribute meaning. Jourdain talks of listening thus: while passive hearing happens in our brainstems, active listening, which uses the cerebral cortex, searches for "familiar devices and patterns in music" (246).
Indeed, Jourdain makes a very interesting epistemological point: assuming that we have a healthy adult with no brain damage, there is no being conscious of the phenomena of sound as such. The very act of being conscious of sound is already that of finding patterns, seeing relations, of creating meaning.
Jourdain argues that listening is done largely through anticipation. As a simple example, if a phrase is set up in a composition as an antecedent phrase, we might expect a related phrase that functions as an answer. We are very satisfied musically and intellectually when, in highly symmetric music, this is precisely that happens. Thus, anticipation and consequently inherently listening has to do with a familiarity of the rules of the music one is exposed to - with the "semantic memory" of its structures (p. 246).
What happens when we are exposed to music that is outside of these familiar structures, using different semantics? For example, if a Western audience were to be exposed to totally unfamiliar, non-Western music, how would their perception differ from that of an audience for whom this was their familiar music? One such study uses Western subjects and Balinese subjects, and compares their reactions to both Western and Balinese music, as discussed below.
In, Tonal Schemata in the Perception of Music in Bali and in the West, Kessler et al. look at cross-cultural music perception through how Western and Balinese subjects perceive both Western and Balinese melodies. The Western subjects were picked so as to not have any familiarity with Balinese music. The Balinese subjects were in two categories: one were from a conservatory where students were familiar with Western music as well as Balinese music, and the second category were from an extremely remote village where the subjects had no familiarity with Western music.
The method employed in this study is the Probe-Tone Method, first introduced by Krumhansl and Shepard in 1979. The Probe-Tone Method is a technique by which the listener's musical experience can be assessed. First, the listener is presented with a musical context: a short musical melody or several chords. Following this, a single tone is played and the listener is asked to judge if the tone 'fits' with the preceding musical context. The musical context is then repeated and a different 'probe-tone' is presented.
The question of the parameters of "fitting" is left open to the listener. Because of the vagueness of the question, there are multiple strategies that one can employ. For example, one could be presented with a melody that clearly establishes a particular tonality. A Western audience member with a musical background would score the tonic of that scale as the probe-tone that is most "fitting" and the dominant as the next closest "fitting" note. Another strategy is pitch height, a strategy employed frequently by Western listeners with less musical training, or the number of times the probe-tone appears in the preceding musical context.
In this study, Kessler et al. found that both Western and Balinese listeners "used similar response strategies, but tended to demonstrate an internalization of tonal schemata most often in response to music of their own culture" (p. 131). For example, for a Western listener, "a context based on the Western diatonic scale establishes a tonal schema for the corresponding musical key with a resulting conferral of unique tonal functions (called tonic, dominant, mediant, subdominant, leading tone, etc." (p. 132). In other words, the hierarchy of tonality is deeply imbedded in the Western audiences' perception of sound.
Not surprisingly, there was little variation within either group when presented with musical contexts based on music from their own culture. There were variations within both Western and Balinese groups corresponding to unfamiliar musical contexts, "indicating that cultural learning also has an appreciable effect" (p. 163) - as in the case of Western listeners with less musical training using pitch-height rather than tonal-center to determine whether a probe-tone fits.
As expected, when any group was presented with unfamiliar music, there was "increased variability in responses to less familiar contexts," which Kessler et al. attribute to a lack of familiarity with the musical scale "underlying the [musical] context and an absence of the internalized cognitive structures required to represent and process the music" (p. 149). In general, when presented with unfamiliar music, the pitch-height strategy increased, including for Balinese listeners with the least exposure to Western music (p. 163)
More surprisingly, they found that tonal hierarchy, "when it arose in response to Balinese as well as to Western contexts, exhibited essentially the same pattern for listeners from each of the cultures" (p. 163). Eleven of the Balinese village listeners gave answers that suggested an awareness of Western music's tonal hierarchies, suggesting that "such tonal hierarchies may reflect a human cognitive universal" (p. 163).
Thus we see that the very act of listening, even to sounds that are previously foreign, is never a passive process of listening to sounds as such. Listening is already an active process that is inseparable from trying to create meaning based on our own musical memories. And as the study of Balinese participants suggests, it opens the possibiltiy to deeper, universal cognitive roots of how we create such meaning.
Kessler, E, Hansen, C and Shepard, R. Tonal Schemata in the Perception of Music in Bali and in the West. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, Winter, 1984, pp. 131-165
Krumhansl, C. L., & Shepard, R. N. Quantification of the hierarchy of tonal functions within a diatonic context. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 1979, 579-594.
Jurdain, Robert. Music, the brain, and ecstasy : How music captures our imagination, 1st ed. New York: W. Morrow, 1997.