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Comments on “Postures of listening” by Victor A. Stoichita and Bernd Brabec de Mori

Jérôme Dokic, Robert S. Hatten, Tim Ingold, Michel Kreutzer et Elizabeth Tolbert


The journal Terrain invited five distinguished scholars from various disciplines to give their opinion on the “Postures of listening“ proposal by Victor A. Stoichita and Bernd Brabec de Mori. This debate has been organized and edited by Emmanuel de Vienne.

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Jérôme Dokic

1In their fascinating article, Victor A. Stoichita and Bernd Brabec de Mori (henceforth the authors) distinguish between three postures of listening, which they suggest are universals of human experience. Setting the universality issue to one side, my comments will be threefold. While I have minor reservations about the way the first posture is framed, I will argue that the second posture does not correspond to a cognitive natural kind, and that the definition of the third posture involves a conceptual tension. These comments are not meant to jeopardize the potential empirical fruitfulness of the intended categories, but should help to clarify their cognitive and ontological commitments.

2Auditory perception has a default mode, which exploits the full range of cognitive features enabled by human auditory systems. In this mode, we listen to the real world around us. We can thereby attend to various kinds of events, such as the sound of a falling tree followed by the scream of a man in pain. We can usually locate these events in behavioural space. Therefore, the default mode is ecological because it enables us to gain knowledge about our immediate environment and take appropriate actions if needed. Hearing a falling tree nearby affords the action of backing up, and hearing a man screaming in pain affords helping behaviour.

3What the authors call “indexical listening” largely corresponds to the default mode of auditory perception. I have some reservations about their description of indexical listening as pointing to “non-auditory causes”, conceived as the material things (a tree, a man) that make or produce the sounds heard. Arguably, sounding things are also objects of auditory perception. Perhaps, as Berkeley once observed, there is a sense in which we hear the coach only by hearing the sound it makes, but it does not follow that the presence of the coach is “inferred” from its sound, or that we “form hypotheses” about the physical state of the world from the sounds we hear. At the phenomenological level, no such inference takes place. On the one hand, we immediately hear sounds as worldly events. On the other hand, even if auditory perception of material things is mediated, it need not be inferential (at least if the notion of inference concerns the subject him- or herself; if it refers to subpersonal inferences, then even our perception of sounds is inferential). To characterize our mediated auditory perception of things, Berkeley himself used the term “suggestion” rather than “inference”: our experience of the sound of the coach “suggests” the presence of the coach.

4Beyond the default mode, other modes of auditory perception are available, which either narrow down or augment the scope of what can be apprehended. Consider what psychologists call “categorical perception” (see Harnad 1987). Categorical perception abstracts away from the determinate qualities presented in the relevant sensory modality. Therefore, objects are perceived only as members of categories. Categorical perception has observable effects: for instance, it involves underestimating the phenomenal distance between two members of the same category, and exaggerating the phenomenal distance between members of different categories. A popular example of categorical perception is seeing a rainbow as having distinct colours (red, yellow, blue, and violet) while the rainbow itself varies continuously in terms of wavelengths of light. Auditory perception can be categorical. Speech perception is a case in point: it involves hearing sounds almost exclusively as members of auditory categories, namely phonemes.

  • 1 We discuss the relevance of spatial deafness for the theory of auditory perception in Casati & Dok (...)

5A quite different mode of auditory perception abstracts away from the spatial dimension of auditory perception. In this mode, sounds are experientially individuated by their temporal continuity and dynamic profile, rather than in terms of their ontological dependence on spatially extended things. The possibility of non-spatial auditory experience has been explored by various philosophers, such as Jean Nicod (1924) and Peter F. Strawson (1959), in the form of thought-experiments. It is also the permanent condition of persons with so-called “spatial deafness”, who are unable to perceive the spatial locations of sounds they can otherwise hear perfectly well.1

6Categorical and non-spatial auditory perception narrow down the scope of default auditory perception. The former involves a loss or diminution of auditory sensitivity to fine-grained qualitative features of sounds, and the latter cuts out a central dimension of ordinary auditory perception. Now the scope of ordinary perception can also be augmented by the addition of further cognitive abilities. Consider the notion of seeing-as in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953). We can see something as something else, which Wittgenstein describes as noticing an internal relation between what we see and what we do not see. In his use of the term, we do not see a cloud as a cloud but we may see the cloud as an elephant. Of course, the phenomenon is not specific to the visual modality. We can hear a sound as something else. An interesting case is when F in “hearing a sound as an F” does not belong to the auditory realm. This is what happens in some cases of synaesthesia, in which subjects report hearing a C-sharp as blue.

7The second posture of listening distinguished by the authors is what they call “structural listening”. Its main scope is “to abstract relevant patterns from auditory data”. The core example given in the article is language and linguistic communication. Speech perception, considered as an instance of categorical perception, clearly belongs to structural listening. Note, though, that such perception cannot be triggered at will by the subject. In many cases, we cannot help but hear sounds as belonging to given phonemes. Although categorical perception often depends on perceptual learning, it may not always be “an available option for the listener”.

  • 2 Christian von Ehrenfels (1890) used the example of musical transposition to introduce the notion o (...)

8Another example of structural listening concerns music and “the ability to consider that, say, a xylophone and a flute play ‘the same’ melody”. This phenomenon, which has been called “transposition” by the Gestalt psychologists, is arguably also an instance of categorical perception.2 It may be more attention-dependent than speech perception, but it is another way of hearing a sequence of sounds as a member of a category, which in this case involves many other sequences of sounds instantiating the same melody.

9What I find a bit objectionable is the authors’ willingness to detach structural listening from indexical listening. First, they describe structural listening as pointing to “non-sonic structures”. If by “non-sonic structures” they mean that the relevant structures cannot be heard, this is clearly false. One might argue that phonemes are both abstract and audible, and that the auditory Gestalt that survives transposition is a bona fide object of auditory perception (although Gestalt psychologists from the Berlin and the Graz schools disagreed in this respect). Second, the authors claim that in structural listening, “space is abolished altogether”. I do not see that their examples support this claim. If the aim of structural listening is to abstract patterns from sounds, it is compatible with the spatiality of the experience (although of course it can be non-spatial in some cases).

10Enchanted listening is probably the most complex posture discussed in the article. On the one hand, it involves apprehending sounds as belonging to an “autonomous realm”, which requires “a split between sounds and their physical causes”. On the other hand, it introduces properties of sounds that are lacking in the other postures of listening. In the authors’ description, sounds are somehow materialized into “sonic beings”, possibly endowed with intentionality. As I shall try to show in the remainder of this commentary, these two defining features of enchanted listening stand in conceptual tension.

11Consider the first feature. What does it mean to apprehend sounds as forming an autonomous ontological realm? Arguably it requires at least the ability to abstract away from the spatial dimension of auditory perception, as described above. In this way, sounds are experientially detached from the sounding things which they depend on. This is not enough, though. Spatially deaf persons have non-spatial auditory experiences, but they still perceive sounds as events in a world of sounding things. For them, auditory perception remains at least partly ecological. In my opinion, Strawson’s “No Space” thought experiment comes close to capturing the idea of experiencing sounds as forming an autonomous realm. In this thought experiment, Strawson (1959: ch. 2) tried to determine what criteria of individuation for sounds are available within a non-spatial auditory experience. He inquired whether a purely auditory analogue of space is possible at all.

12Now an interesting issue (at least in philosophy and psychology) is what properties of sounds are available within a purely auditory experience. In the philosopher’s jargon, the issue is about the admissible contents of auditory experience. The authors mention the relation of “virtual causality” between sounds. Is virtual causality an audible relational property? We certainly hear sounds, but can we hear, in approximately the same sense of “hear”, a sound or sequence of sounds causing or giving rise to another sound or sequence of sounds? Other relevant properties include hardness and softness, movement, and intentional properties such as heading (intentionally) there, or being angry.

13Of course, in all these cases, we can hear sounds as having the relevant properties, or as if sounds had them. Remember, though, that the variable F in the schema “S hears x as an F” may not be itself hearable. The point of the ability of hearing something as something else is to relate proper objects of auditory experiences to other entities that may not be auditory at all. As Wittgenstein (1953) pointed out, this requires imagination and not just perception. The issue at stake here is what properties belong to the proper ontology of auditory perception, in its modified, non-spatial form.

14In some cases, one can argue that the relevant properties are audible, but not as properties of sounds themselves. Consider movements. If sounds are events, they cannot move, since only entities with spatial parts can move (see Dretske 1967). We cannot hear sounds moving, but we can hear movements of things (as spatially extended entities), because some sounds are identical with physical movements. The authors endorse the claim that musical movement is a “truly perceptual phenomenon”, but it does not follow that movement can be truly heard as a property of sounds. Moreover, as Jerrold Levinson (2006) argued, the apprehension of music as involving intentional or emotional properties requires spatial imagination, since we often need to imagine virtual performers whose gestures and actions lie behind the sounds heard.

15In a nutshell, the concept of enchanted listening seems to me to involve a tension between the ideal of a “properly auditory ontology” and the fact that sounds are materialized into sonic beings endowed with properties such as hardness or softness, movement and intentionality. I suggest that enchanted listening be defined only in the latter way, which need not reflect the ontology of auditory perception. On this definition, enchanted listening may or may not have a spatial dimension, but it involves the ability to hear something as something else, which typically requires more than purely auditory or more generally perceptual abilities. The point of hearing-as is that it can superimpose a non-perceptual ontology onto the proper objects of auditory experience. Again, this does not amount to “experiencing a properly auditory ontology”. Moreover, the resulting ontology need not be internally coherent. For instance, one can construct a narrative according to which sounds are moving, even intentionally, but the narrative will be necessarily false. This does not prevent it from having many other values than truth, including cognitive values. As Aristotle observed, metaphors are often necessarily false, while they obviously have important cognitive values. Just like metaphors, enchanted listening may have a great impact on our cognitive systems.

Tim Ingold

16Does sound need ears to exist? Does light need eyes? Don’t blame anthropologists if the answers are confused. The confusions are already present in a physics of sound that deals with the properties of aerial pressure waves while calling itself “acoustics”, and a physics of light that deals with radiant energy while calling itself “optics”. Coming up with a satisfactory definition of what sound is has proved as elusive as coming up with a definition of light. It is no wonder, then, if the authors of this paper seem equally confused. They appear to be no surer of what they mean by sound than anyone else. They want to set aside the pressure waves to concentrate on “what people experience through their ears”. Fine! What people experience, as they will tell you, are sounds. This experience is entirely real, as is the experience of deafness for the aurally impaired. But then, when the authors come to the kinds of listening they call indexical and structural, it turns out that sounds are pressure waves after all. In indexical listening, these waves allow the identification of an energetic source; in structural listening, they reveal invariant patterns which allow for the communication of information. Only when it comes to what the authors call enchanted listening do sounds come into their own, as phenomena of experience.

17Let’s get one thing straight from the start. I do not agree, as the authors falsely assert, with the physicalist definition of sound. I have argued that sound should be compared to light (and not sight), precisely on the grounds that light, like sound, is also a phenomenon of experience (Ingold 2000). It is no more reducible than sound is to an energetic or vibratory impulse. Of course there could be no light without radiant energy and no sound without vibration in a material medium: these are necessary conditions for the experience of light and sound, respectively, but the experience itself is not reducible to its conditions. My argument, which owes much to the phenomenological investigations of vision by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964, 1968), and of hearing by Victor Zuckerkandl (1956), is that as light is another way of saying “I can see”, sound is another way of saying “I can hear”. As such, it is ontologically prior to the seeing or hearing of this or that. Thus neither light nor sound is an object of perception, it is what we see and hear in or with. Fundamental to both visual and aural perception, as Merleau-Ponty pointed out, is the way in which what we perceive “coils over” (1968: 140; Ingold 2015: 84–88), so as to enter actively into our very way of perceiving. It is in the coiling over, where sensing collides with the sensible, that the experiential phenomena of light and sound are generated.

18With some stretching of terms, what I have just described could – specifically for sound – be brought under the rubric of the enchanted mode, as the authors present it here. But before turning to this, let me first consider the indexical and structural modes. The authors’ argument for the indexical follows the well-worn cognitivist model of perception according to which every percept is in the nature of a hypothesis or conjecture regarding exterior objects or events, or the interior states of others, which the mind repeatedly tests against the data of sensory stimulation. According to this model, the ears are bombarded by pressure waves; these are translated into neural impulses to the brain, at which point they are turned over to the mind for interpretation. If we equate sound with the pressure waves, then it follows that what we hear are not sounds but the objects, events and states disclosed by them. “There’s a bird in the tree,” I say, “I can hear it.” But who said the bird exists as an object, separate from its sound? Certainly not the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, whose experience of bird-song was famously analysed by Steven Feld (1991). For them, every bird is its song. It is neither an object in the physical world, nor a conjecture in the mind, but an active and affective presence in which any barrier between mind and world is effectively dissolved.

19Now in structural listening, according to the authors, the sound again seems to vanish at the moment it enters the doors of perception. What we hear are patterns in the sound, which encode the meanings in which we are primarily interested. This is particularly the case, but not exclusively so, in spoken language. The argument has often been made, for example by Don Ihde (1976), that speech does not draw attention to itself as sound, but rather delivers up the words we claim to hear from behind the sound. It is an argument that goes back to the famous lectures of Ferdinand de Saussure (1959). This is not an argument, however, that would make any sense to people unfamiliar with writing. As Walter Ong (1982) long ago pointed out, it is thanks to writing – or, more specifically, the technology of print – that we are inclined to regard the word as a silent object, separate from its vocal performance. Indeed without writing, according to Roy Harris (1980), the very idea of language, as a structured system of differences given independently and in advance of its realisation in speech, would be inconceivable. It seems to me, therefore, that structural listening, far from being as universal as language, is rather as historically specific as the theorisation of language, by Saussure and his followers, that presumes the written, printed word by default.

20All of which takes us to enchantment. This is the only modality of listening, claim the authors, in which “auditory objects stand by themselves”. I am inclined to think, in their terms, that all listening is enchanted. For both the indexical and the structural modes seem to be artefacts of analytical moves that the authors make themselves. If we reduce sound to pressure waves, and the world to objects, events and states, then how could listening be other than indexical? If we imagine, again, that what we perceive are not the physical impulses themselves but the patterns they create, then how can it be other than structural? Enchantment, at last, allows sound to exist as a phenomenon of experience in its own right. Yet I found the authors’ account hard if not impossible to fathom. The source of the difficulty, I think, lies in their a priori appeal to the theorisations of Alfred Gell (1998). Literally, of course, the chant is a song, and to be enchanted is to enter with the singer into the song, even to the point of being unable to tear your attention away from it. You are drawn inexorably along the same auditory path. Gell’s account of enchantment, however, goes off the rails from the start, insofar as he treats it as the particular force of attraction exerted by objects of our regard.

21For the song is not an object. It is not left behind, precipitated from the flow of its production. Nothing is left behind. The song exists only for as long as it is carried on, continually swelling in its advance while simultaneously fading on the retreat. This, and not by displacement of an object from point to point, is how sound moves. It is a movement that is every bit as real as the bodily gestures that both produce it and respond to it. For to sound, like to listen, is a verb. For the Kaluli, for example, the bird is its singing; it is not an object that sings. And the human is his or her listening, not a subject who listens. It follows that the relation between the listener and sound is not – as Gell would have it, and after him, the authors of this paper – between an agentive subject and an auditory object, as though you could draw a line connecting the two. It is rather the affective correspondence of concurrent and ongoing movements, that of the listener’s auditory attention, and that of things resounding. Listener and sound literally go along together, caught up in each other’s resonance, and in a direction orthogonal to the connection between them – just as the river flows orthogonally to the connection between its banks. In this affective correspondence, surely, and not in the relation between agent and object, lies the real meaning of enchantment, and the genesis of sound.

Robert S. Hatten

22As a music theorist focusing on Western art music, I have devoted my speculative theorizing to questions of expressive meaning in music in ways that go beyond the structural approaches of theorists such as Heinrich Schenker. My contributions (1994, 2004) have focused on semiotic meanings for stylistically competent (culturally entrained, historically informed) listeners in the Western tradition, ranging from the role of markedness in musical oppositions; musical topics and intertextual relationships; emergent musical troping; expressive genres and dramatic trajectories, with their implications for narrativity; musical gestures; and, most recently, virtual agency (Hatten 2018). Thus, I am already highly sympathetic to the concerns that are raised in this paper regarding the limits of certain ontologies of listening, especially those that do not make room for “semiotic facts” that reflect actual listeners’ meaningful experiences in musicking (however music may be defined). Although hearing (or being filled by) divine or supernatural agencies is also a part of Western music’s inheritance, this kind of agency has been channeled rather differently through the influence of the Christian Church. Since I am not as well versed in the range of ethnomusicological case studies (an exception being Steven Feld’s eloquent Sound and Sentiment, 1990), perhaps the most helpful response I can offer here is a series of suggestions for nuancing the authors’ thought-provoking categories, concepts, and positions in a way that bridges to my own study of Western modes of listening and engagement.

The three “postures”


23This listening posture addresses what I would call our basic evolutionary response to any sound, which leads us from perception to inferred agency – in the most primitive sense, tracking the source for the force. As the authors note, this involves inferences of location and type of entity, but they go further to address what we also infer upon recognizing animate or specifically human sources – namely, their affective states. In my theory, basic inferences for music’s energies lead progressively to an actant that acts “in” the music, through the powerful inference of virtualizing. Once that leap occurs, listeners hear virtual causation in music (Scruton 1997), although I prefer a more agential interpretation of causation, substituting motivated action or reactions. Virtualizing is also how we perceive musical movement (what Scruton considers a presupposition for hearing any sounds as music); the authors address musical movement in this way a bit later, referencing Eric Clarke (2001). My work also addresses how virtual agents act within virtual environments (prior to fictional worlds), as constrained by tonality and meter. I then consider ways in which we further embody a virtual agent. But already with the concept of virtualizing, I include here what the authors appear to reserve for their “enchanted” posture.


24This posture is akin to the most formalist modes of Western listening, but I would suggest that even for Schenker, the “will of tones” metaphor is strong, suggesting a degree of virtual agency in the way he heard music – even if he did not explicitly theorize it in that way. I would go further in claiming that most Western musical structures are expressively motivated, and that the history of musical styles in Western music is best understood as a series of attempts by composers to do more with what is virtually possible in music. These include, among other means, the dramatization of form and the creation of a musical discourse by developing variation of themes or motives.

25Whether or not any listener actually listens according to the authors’ strict structural posture seems dubious to me. Thus, while the authors logically conclude that “if the listener adopts the structural hearing posture, the cognitive result is, by definition, entirely abstract,” I disagree with the premise. My theory of musical gesture (Hatten 2004) provides many counterexamples, while noting that the thematization of gesture also permits its compositional structuring without loss of its concrete specificity (nuance). Western listeners interpret nuanced gestures all the time, perhaps more often than they recognize “abstract” musical structures, and I would imagine that non-Western cultures with inherited systems (e.g., Indian ragas) are no less capable of blending structure with gesture (and, by extension, expression) in a single listening mode.


26Though arising from Gell’s broader category, the “technology of enchantment,” this term appears heaven-sent for anthropologists and ethnomusicologists who want (as the authors conclude) to “give a positive empirical status to the enchanted things and beings that appear” in the “auditory experiences” of those listeners whom they have studied in the field, where impressive identifications with divine or supernatural beings are often found in the experience of listening. I recognize, of course, that “listening” is part of a larger cultural experience that involves ritual, myth, and other aspects of a more integrated cosmogony for cultures that do not carve out a separate aesthetic sphere for “music” along the lines of Western art music. But as an ontological category of listening, I wonder whether “enchanted” might be better addressed by an extended theory of virtual agency that encompasses both indexical and structural listening.

27I would also recommend a consideration of varying modes of listener engagement with virtual agency. In my own work, I distinguish among (1) identification with, (2) empathy beside, (3) sympathy for, and (4) lack of sympathy (against), as at least four modes of emotional engagement that can be distinguished from (5) mere recognition of that which is expressed by virtual agents. These various degrees and qualities of engagement can lead to appreciably different emotional states or experiences, including even non-emotional (but still thoughtful) reactions, for Western listeners. I also discuss ways in which virtual agents become virtual actors, and how virtual subjectivity can lead to more profound reflections as listeners allegorize and spiritualize the kinds of virtual conflicts and dramas they infer.

28This latter potential for Western music is addressed by the authors in their reference to a passage from Proust in which an imaginative listener floats a subjective story of his vision of a woman, as shaped to some degree by the expressive character and dramatic swerves of a musical phrase. Such examples speak to the deep interaction of personal subjectivity with those levels of virtual agency and subjectivity one may or may not be experiencing in the music. However, the fictive Swann moves fantastically beyond what I would consider to be either intersubjectively or stylistically warranted musical meaning. If this example is to serve as a model for enchanted listening to Western music, then I would want another level to capture the ways a Western listener can hear and engage with those expressive experiences of virtual agencies that are more explicitly staged by a composer, or stylistically inferable from the music.

Attention and awareness

29I like this distinction, and the acknowledgment that even at a basic level of attending, cultural preferences can “mediate” what we attend to. One might expand these ideas fruitfully to link with studies of entrainment and enculturation – to explore just how individuals learn to hear in certain ways.

Language vs. music

30I applaud the authors’ acknowledgement of differences amid the similarities between these two competencies, but I would note that language as speech (comparable to music as performance) is not processed entirely structurally. Consider the importance of intonational and other non-verbal aspects of speech communication that can account for so much of a listener’s inferences, through both witting and unwitting semiotic behavior by the speaker. The study of word–music interaction may also prove enlightening: for example, Monteverdi referred to the poetic texts he used for his madrigals not as text (testo) but as oratione: “rhetorically, the text-as-performed – speech – not the text in the sense of a written product to then be ‘set’ to music” (Calcagno 2012: 48). Poetic language was thus considered to be musical in some degree, and this is not lost even when later composers put their music first. I have noted the importance of a poem’s own music when interpreting what Schubert may have lost (or enhanced) when appropriating two lyrics by Goethe for lieder settings (Hatten 2008).


31This is an important reminder of Husserl’s temporal continuum; the authors helpful apply the model to listening, as influenced by the past and projecting into the future. It also promotes the study of process over object (product), as the authors emphasize later.


32The authors caution that we can be deceived in our indexical interpretations of sound. This may also remind us that, as Umberto Eco observed, the lie is evidence of semiosis: “semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie” (Eco 1976: 7).

Reductive vs. augmented

33I certainly agree that listening to music “for itself” need not be reductive, as Pierre Schaeffer claimed, but rather augmented by social realities, as the authors claim for their “enchanted” listening posture. In my own work, I talk about distilling (rather than abstracting) virtual agential meaning from purely instrumental music (thereby preserving the concreteness of the musical gesture/event), and I also emphasize the emergence of such meanings from the affordances of music’s structures (Hatten 2018: 68–69 and 151, respectively). Although listeners often add value to heard sounds, they do so as mediated by their culture, as the authors recognize.

34A history of virtual agency for Western music can also document the ongoing exploration by composers of specific means of staging virtual agential effects in their music, which in turn helps direct listeners toward particular modes of engagement. Unfortunately, such a history of, or even a record of individual contributions to, a non-Western culture’s music may not be possible to retrieve. However, a robust intertextuality (or “interprocessuality,” to coin a term) may well be in evidence, helping to ground musicking in the past while spurring the creative imagination for the future – regardless of the degree of creative or ritual participation that is involved.


35Overall, the authors’ speculations on listening postures are part of an important reorientation in the study of music, one that provides for what listeners/participants actually hear in the music of their culture. In dealing with what present-day listeners experience, they have access to evidence not available to those, such as myself, attempting to reconstruct historical competencies. But where we find common ground is in exploring how various musics can imply virtual actions and reactions, virtual emotions as expressed or endured, virtual stories within fictional worlds, and a virtual subjectivity with (or through) which listeners can engage with their own subjectivity – whether reflecting on their own or others’ lives – in a meaningful combination of the psychological, existential, spiritual, religious, supernatural, or transcendent.

36When that culture is relatively unified, as is increasingly rare, investigators have a clearer path for reconstructing living practices from the evidence of their participants. They can thus determine more definitely what agencies are heard in, or evoked by, those experiences that involve “music” as part of their amalgamation. The problem may then be how to tease out the specifically aural contribution to that synthetic experience. For listeners to the pluralistic styles available in the West (including, now, many indigenous peoples with access to technology), the problems might appear insurmountable, involving such intersecting issues as the listening and performative reconstruction of historical style competencies (my principal area of research), the postmodern proliferation of musical styles (including some intentionally postmodern styles), and the multimedial and technological complexities that are foregrounded in studies of popular music. Clearly, ideas and methods from all vantage points can contribute to our individual studies, and I thank the authors and the editor of Terrain for inviting me to participate in this discussion.

Elizabeth Tolbert

37Stoichita and Brabec (hereafter S and B) make an admirable foray into proposing a new paradigm for listening, and I am in sympathy with their broader aims. However, I am not convinced of its relevance for reconfiguring the anthropology of sound studies without a further working out of the details.

  • 3 Cuddon explains Derrida’s concept of the relationship between phonocentrism and the unmediatedness (...)

38S and B want to focus on the listening process rather than the content of what is heard, taking a phenomenological approach. They start by problematizing “sound” as something that seems related to perception and knowledge in a way that is quite different from how information about the physical world is apprehended through other senses, such as vision. They rightly point out that “light” would be the parallel to sound in the realm of vision, but sound seems to be the “content” of what we hear whereas light is the medium that allows us to see visual content. Thus sound seems to be “unmediated,” a thing in itself, and not a medium. This has landed us squarely in the realm of a problematic phonocentrism, famously alluded to by Derrida (1976), as a philosophical entrapment of the West. Derrida proposed that the bias towards hearing subjective presence in sound, to hear sound as unmediated, is an entailment of privileging speech over writing, and is part of his larger critique of logocentrism.3 In previous work (Tolbert 2001, 2002), I have posited that this phonocentrism is actually an evolved predisposition for human communication, and may be a way into understanding bio-cultural universals of such communication. But S and B take another tack, dismissing phonocentrism as a philosophical mistake rather than a biological given, perhaps even an artifact of Anglophone terminology!

39Although S and B do attempt to problematize “sound,” and note that it is prone to the same pitfalls as “music,” perhaps they need an even more radical intervention. They want to look at the processes of listening, and to examine the ontologies of the “sound objects” created by different “postures” of listening. They also claim that this will revolutionize the anthropology of sound studies; it seems that they want to look at universal processes that will play out differently in different cultural contexts. The effort to reconcile music’s universality with its diversity is commendable, and especially compelling is the focus on how people create meaning through engagement with music in terms of virtual social interaction. Furthermore, the desire to ground their theory in empirical work on awareness and attention is both promising and original.

40However, the reification of “sound” as that to be “listened to” remains squarely within an ethnocentric aesthetic that perhaps unintentionally undercuts the attempt to radically re-imagine “listening.” Although they do not say so explicitly, the emphasis on sound objects not only seems to rely on an unacknowledged phonocentrism, but also owes a debt to Western philosophical concepts such as Langer’s “forms of feeling” (1953) or Hanslick’s “sonically moving forms” (1986 [1891]), complete with their attendant problems of transcendence, sonic immediacy, dichotomy between form and content, and universalist aesthetics.

41In this short commentary, I hope to bring an evolutionary approach into conversation with S and B’s ideas. I believe that such an approach has the potential to be congruent with S and B’s efforts to ground their theories in work on music cognition and in animal communication. However, in so doing, I have along the way noticed some disconcerting inconsistencies in their conceptualization of listening postures.

42S and B posit three postures of listening, which they characterize as modes of awareness, thus focusing on the conscious experience of listening and the role of attention in the construction of such experience. In their scheme, indexical listening is the default mode, which gives us information about sources of sound. Structural listening is about apprehending pure difference in sound, and is thus an abstraction of pattern. Enchanted listening is an understanding of sounds as virtual sonic beings; S and B theorize that enchanted listening occurs in all cultures and is the way in which what we term “music” becomes culturally meaningful.

43I am especially in agreement with this latter point, and have myself theorized that music is a means for exemplifying and instantiating virtual social relationships (Tolbert 2001, 2002). However, the experiential reality of distinct indexical and structural listening postures is not convincing to this reader, as I will elaborate below.

44First of all, there are tensions between S and B’s phenomenological approach and an underlying naturalist epistemology that are not explicitly acknowledged in the paper (see Cross & Tolbert in press for a discussion of music epistemologies). Why do they use the particular empirical work that they do to support their points? For example, the use of auditory scene analysis (ASA) as an auditory primitive and as that which underlies a type of “hearing” that is prior to “listening” seemingly requires that S and B claim an unmediated perception of essentialized “sound,” despite explicit disavowals of phonocentrism (see Trainor 2015 for potentially more relevant applications of ASA). S and B seem to be saying that “hearing” but not “listening” is a biological given. I would counter that we do have a biological predisposition to understand sounds that we deem social as unmediated and directly meaningful, which is a result of the way vocal communication evolved in both non-human and human animals, an evolved phonocentrism, if you will. However, in S and B’s terms, this evolved phonocentrism would most likely be in the realm of “listening,” yet I cannot even imagine what “hearing” would be without the affordances to create meaning. Why would such a thing have evolved in the first place?

45The problem continues with S and B’s assertion that the postures are a result of a conscious focus of attention, and that each posture is thus experientially distinct from the others. If you attend one way you cannot attend another way. Jones & Boltz (1989) have shown that certain features of sound can afford certain kinds of attending, while S and B seem to say that certain kinds of attending afford certain kinds of understanding. I would counter that the important point is the interaction between the way in which sounds afford attention, and the ways in which attention affords the creation of meaning. In other words, both bottom-up and top-down processes synergistically interact with one another.

46I would further contend that what S and B term enchanted listening – that is, socially meaningful listening – is a kind of listening that requires symbolic thought in the Peircean sense, and is only possible if it is built upon simultaneous “iconic” and “indexical” listening, and that it is a result of the evolution of meaning in animal communication systems. I am using these terms somewhat differently than S and B, and will elaborate below.

47S and B state that distinct listening postures create distinct sonic objects. However, in my reading, the objects as theorized by S and B are not sound objects per se, but are referents of sonic signs. If I understand S and B correctly, they would agree that in indexical listening the cry of a bird refers to something about the identity, location, or internal state of the bird; in structural listening dichotomous sounds reference a conventionalized code; and in enchanted listening sounds refer to the movement, subjectivity, and intention of a virtual being. None of these referents are sonic. Although S and B do not say so explicitly, the insistence on enchanted listening as purely sonic seems to rely heavily on Western aesthetic concepts reminiscent of Langer and Hanslick, as mentioned above, and goes back to the idea of sound as inherently meaningful and unmediated, rather than as a medium to convey non-sonic referents.

48The nature of these non-sonic referents has additional implications for the supposed experiential distinctness of the listening postures. As S and B note in their discussion of indexical listening, sonic signs have the potential to refer iconically and indexically as well as symbolically. For example, in their discussion of “icons of crying” in lament traditions, they state that lamenters try to imitate crying exactly, but I would counter that the important point is that everyone knows that the lament is specifically not an instance of crying, rather it is an iconic performance of crying (Tolbert 2007; see Deacon 1997: 69–101 for a discussion of the evolution of symbolic thought from a Peircean perspective). Furthermore, to understand that an icon of crying is similar to but is not actually “real” crying requires what S and B term structural listening, the ability to extract formal similarities. And to know that the crying is not “real” requires enchanted, symbolic listening as well; specifically, it requires understanding and sharing intentions with others (see Tomasello et al. 2005). Thus, in the lament example, I would suggest that we have a theoretical muddle of Peircean iconic, indexical, and symbolic listening intertwined with S and B’s indexical, structural, and enchanted listening all at once!

49Perhaps a better tack would be to get rid of sound objects altogether, and think about music as behavior, “musicking” to use Small’s term (2011). And rather than think about what sound objects refer to, or attribute to them the ontological status of sonic beings, it might be helpful to think of them as traces of behavior, the simplest form of “meaning,” in Millikan’s (2004) biosemantic terms (also see Harms 2004). If human vocal communication evolved, as it indeed it must have, it necessarily has continuities with the communication systems of other animals (see Huron 2015; Owings & Morton 1998), and by asking “what do people do with sound,” S and B’s theory has the potential to be consilient with an evolutionary approach. When they suggest that enchanted listening affords a particular interactional salience, I could not agree more, but I am not yet convinced that indexical and structural listening postures are a necessary part of the story.


50Many thanks to the members of the Music and Science Seminar at the University of Cambridge, June 2016, for a stimulating discussion of these issues, especially
Alexis Deighton MacIntyre, Juan Pablo Robledo del Canto, and Ian Cross.

Michel Kreutzer

51This theoretical piece sees the authors define three distinct categories of listening in humans, while setting out the principles on which each is based and by which each is distinguished from the others, thereby lending a heuristic quality to this typology. Their approach leans towards cultural causes to explain the origins of different modes of listening. Their line of argument, in asking to be refuted where possible, has the advantage of opening a debate.

52I myself am not an anthropologist but an ethologist studying acoustic communication in animals, namely songbirds. As a result, my reading and analysis of this article has been shaped by the similarities and differences I have found between the authors’ hypotheses and my own ethological understanding. The following remarks also question the continuities and discontinuities that exist between humans and animals, and thus fall under the scope of comparative psychology.

53The first two paragraphs of the article, “Listening as an anthropological issue” and “From hearing to listening”, lay out two major principles on which listening may be based: that (a) sound is considered as a “perceived” event rather than as a physical or physiological phenomenon; and that (b) this perception rests on attention. These principles allow listening to be presented as something that is intimately linked to the experiences of individuals within their cultures. And in being so distinguished from biological and nervous processes, or from “physical and sound matter”, these conceptions have the advantage of highlighting mental processes that are subject to cultural influences.

54Indeed, the authors tell us that cultural conditioning occurs from the very first stages of listening. In their view, the “segregation and processing of auditory streams” depend on processes of attention, and “the allocation of attention is probably the earliest stage where perception can be modulated by cultural preferences”.

55These statements lead me to make a few choice remarks. It is well known that, in humans, any kind of sensory stimulation – be it auditory, visual, or olfactory – is accompanied by heightened vigilance, a process predicated on attention. This article’s lack of consideration of sensory nervous processes allows its authors to focus their analysis on attention alone, without having to concern themselves with the underlying phenomena of vigilance that may yet still be independent of culture.

56We know that, in birds, an individual’s attention is stimulated when it hears another of its kind emitting a varying rather than monotonous cry (Hartshorne 1956). Thus, the structure of this sound message solicits the individual’s attention to a greater or lesser degree (Kreutzer et al. 1994), regardless of its past experience. This observation allows us to counter the authors’ ideas with some of our own. There are, however, other observations that highlight the importance of a bird’s own experiences: we know, for example, that the kind of attention that an individual will afford a “stranger’s” song is different to that given to a “neighbour” (Brooks & Falls 1975).

57Furthermore, it has been generally proven that birds must learn their songs; these are not “innate”. During this learning phase, the “sound stream” of the songs they hear is mentally deconstructed into sequences or “chunks”. Hultsch and Todt studied this process of song-learning in young nightingales that had been placed in acoustic isolation, hearing only songs played to them through speakers. They observed how the birds learned the received messages by breaking them down into these chunks. The authors inferred from these results that “package formation reflects basic properties of the nightingales’ song-type memories, which – through segmentation of serially presented learning stimuli – may facilitate the acquisition of large signal repertoires” (Hultsch & Todt 1989: 197).

58In this article, Victor Stoichita and Bernd Babec de Mori go on to ask: “Beyond the general ability to pay attention to sounds, are all modes of listening culturally variable? Or are there some modes which are shared by all human beings?” This touches upon a central question in human and animal psychology: either (a) individuals (or even groups) are singular, particular, meaning that everything should be viewed as unique or cultural – this is the usual position taken by so-called clinical (or even differential) psychology; or (b) all individuals share similar processes, from which we can conclude that a general psychology exists, based on the notion that, beneath an infinite variety of differences, there exist some fundamental general mechanisms. In this case, it is contingencies that direct each individual’s experiences and cause the variability that manifests superficially.

59Ethological studies on the development of song in birds have shown that there do exist some general processes, common to all individuals of a single species, even multiple species, as well as some particular processes that are unique to a single individual or to a group of individuals that inhabit the same area. Singular and general should not therefore be seen as mutually exclusive and opposing categories.

60The authors then propose their three modes of listening: (a) indexical listening, (b) structural listening, and (c) enchanted listening. “We define alternatives of listening as distinct ways of using a given item a sensory information by the same being to construct different kinds of listening objects. … As their name implies, alternatives yield incompatible results: the same auditory field can be apprehended in one way or another, but probably not in two ways at the same time.”

61In animals, like in humans, we know that the nervous and cognitive systems analyse the “messages” that come to them in parallel and separate circuits. But in order to gain some meaning, and be useful, these messages need to be compared to those stored in the memory, as well as life experiences associated with them. For in animals, like in humans, recognition is a construct that requires multiple types of analysis to be interwoven. This is why I cannot accept the authors’ view that these three modes of listening should be exclusive to one another. Let us take a human example: when a message is humorous, the tone of voice often contradicts the verbal content. And yet these two aspects – semantic content, on the one hand, and “musical” intonation, on the other – are not analysed by the same nervous structures. Thus, in order to understand the message, we should not exclude one of these two modes of listening, but combine them instead.

Alternative A: Indexical listening

62I find myself surprised by the heterogeneity of this category. Indeed, within “indexical listening” we find “attributions of states” to both the inanimate (cf. a waterfall) and animate (cf. the subjectivity of a fellow individual) world. Yet in the first case, indexation requires an understanding of one’s physical environment; and in the second, empathy with another, which would in itself presuppose what psychologists call a theory of mind. By focusing on linguistic principles, the authors are forced to categorize together certain processes of listening that are in fact quite different at the cognitive level.

63The authors also state: “One of the reasons why acoustic indexes are hard to fake is because the listener’s inferences are very sensitive to infinitesimal variations.” If this is the case, then what about the art of deception that makes us believe an actor’s performance both on screen and on stage? The power of illusion, which is so common, rests precisely on our difficulty in detecting imitation.

Alternative B: Structural listening

64This is a particularly interesting category for an ethologist, since it allows us to compare bird-song to human language, and observe the significant differences between the two.

65To clarify our position: every ornithologist can easily recognize the presence of a species in the wild by listening to its songs, even if, within a single species, from one bird to another, and from one area to another, there do exist notable variations. In the last fifty years, ethologists have been able to manipulate the structure of these songs thanks to advances in acoustic technologies. They have modified the discrete units that constitute the notes of a song, and rearranged and combined them to form a melody; this has required them to borrow the notions of syntax and phonology from linguistics. They have then played these synthetic songs to birds in the wild to see if they would recognize them, and react to them. From these experiments, we have been able to draw multiple conclusions (I will only refer to studies on males here, since those on females yield different results).

66A bird can implement a number of different strategies for recognizing songs. If the phonology of the notes is altered too much, it will rely on their syntax; if the syntax is modified, it will rely on the phonology. But in modifying the syntax, the meaning of the signals is not altered; there are certain arrangements that carry particular significance. Bird-song is not language. Yet in birds, there exists a form of “structural listening” that allows them to accept or refuse a given song as belonging either to a member of its species or to a rival (Kreutzer 2014).

Alternative C: Enchanted listening

67The authors state: “We have distinguished indexical listening, which relates the sounds to their physical causes, and structural listening, which searches them for abstract patterns. Humans have at least one more way of directing their consciousness to sounds. It is characterized by a split between sounds and their physical causes. When listening in this way, sounds seem to form an autonomous realm.” I suspect that this third mode of listening, so defined, may not be completely alien to songbirds.

68Of course, we know that acoustic signals exchanged between animals are not intended to be understood in the sense that we ascribe to our semiotic understanding of a text, for example. Animals do not possess language. These signals must therefore engage particular representations in the individual animal that hears them or listens to them that drive it to act.

69Moreover, listening also produces states of wellbeing or unease in the perceiver that translate into emotions. As a result, the individual’s perception of the world and others of its kind may have either a worrying or calming effect. It would take too long to demonstrate this here, but I maintain that, in birds, listening to songs can generate both tensions and relaxations. From this, we may deduce that the successive patterns of song that an individual produces are assembled into some sort of proto-narrative envelope.

70Ethologists study behaviour, which is the easy part. Cognitive sciences seek to understand the representations and processes of learning. And it must be said that objectivizing animal subjectivity is not easy. Today, now that it is possible to demonstrate the activities of the reward pathways, we can finally shed light on the workings of affects. For example, we know that an animal’s social life can be a source of both pleasure and displeasure. For one passerine bird, the zebra finch, males use “directed” songs to court females, but slightly different, “undirected” songs when they sing alone. Hessler and his team (Huang & Hessler 2008) have shown that a neural nucleus engaged in activities relating to reward and wellbeing is significantly more active during directed songs in the presence of other birds than it is when the individual is alone. I would even suggest that this third category of listening, which the authors believe to be particular to humans, is not so far removed from those we have described in songbirds.

71In conclusion, from my perspective as an ethologist, I would redefine the three modes of listening proposed by the authors as follows: during “indexical listening”, the subject interprets the origin, the source of a message; during “structural listening”, the individual analyses the sound elements and their arrangements within a stream; and finally “enchanted listening” corresponds to a form of listening where a subject is confronted with its own subjectivity, that is, its emotions and alterations in its states. I believe that these three modes, reformulated in this way, do exist in certain animals, and at the very least in songbirds.

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Pour Jérôme Dokic

“Some Varieties of Spatial Hearing”, in Matthew Nudds & Casey O’Callaghan (eds.), Sounds and Perception. New Philosophical Essays, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 97–110.

“Can Events Move?”, Mind no. 76, pp. 479–492

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Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell.

Pour Tim Ingold

Sound and Sentiment. Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [2nd ed.].

Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory, Oxford, Clarendon.

The Language-Makers, London, Duckworth.

IHDE DON, 1976.
Listening and Voice. A Phenomenology of Sound, Athens, Ohio University Press.

“Stop, Look and Listen! Vision, Hearing and Human Movement”, in The Perception of the Environment. Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London, Routledge, pp. 243–287.

–, 2015.
The Life of Lines, Abingdon, Routledge.

“Eye and Mind”, trans. Carleton Dallery, in The Primacy of Perception, and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, ed. James M. Edie, Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, pp. 159–190.

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Sound and Symbol. Music and the External World, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series XLIV, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Pour Robert Hatten

From Madrigal to Opera. Monteverdi’s Staging of the Self, Berkeley, University of California Press.

“Meaning and the Specification of Motion in Music”, Musicae Scientiae no. 5/2, pp. 213–234. DOI: 10.1177102986490100500205/

A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

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–, 2008.
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–, 2018.
A Theory of Virtual Agency for Western Art Music, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Pour Elisabeth Tolbert

“Music Epistemologies”, in Tomas McAuley, Jerrold Levinson & Nanette Neilsen (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Western Music and Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

CUDDON J.A., 2013.
A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell.

The Symbolic Species. The Co-evolution of Language and the Human Brain, New York, Norton.

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“Primitive Content, Translation and the Emergence of Meaning in Animal Communication”, in D. Kimbrough Oller & Ulrike Griebel (eds.), Evolution of Communication Systems. A Comparative Approach, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, pp. 31–48.

“Affect Induction Through Musical Sounds. An Ethological Perspective”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences no. 370/1664. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0098

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Feeling and Form. A Theory of Art, New York, Scribner.

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–, 2002.
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–, 2007.
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“The Origins of Music in Auditory Scene Analysis and the Roles of Evolution and Culture in Musical Creation”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences no. 370/1664. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2014.0089

Pour Michel Kreutzer

“Individual Recognition by Song in White-Throated Sparrows. I. Discrimination of Songs of Neighbors and Strangers”, Canadian Journal of Zoology no. 53, pp. 879–888.

“The Monotony-Threshold in Singing Birds”, The Auk no. 73/2, pp. 176–192. DOI: 10.2307/4081470

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Memorization and Reproduction of Songs in Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos). Evidence for Package Formation”, Journal of Comparative Physiology A no. 165/2, pp. 197–203.

Un demi siècle de chants d’oiseaux”, in Martine Clouzot & Corinne Beck (eds.), Les oiseaux chanteurs. Sciences, pratiques sociales et représentations dans les sociétés et le temps long, Dijon, Éditions universitaires de Dijon, pp. 25–45.

“Sexual Responsiveness of Female Canaries to Song Bout Organization”, Behaviour no. 129/3–4, pp. 293–305.

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1 We discuss the relevance of spatial deafness for the theory of auditory perception in Casati & Dokic (2009).

2 Christian von Ehrenfels (1890) used the example of musical transposition to introduce the notion of perceptual Gestalt.

3 Cuddon explains Derrida’s concept of the relationship between phonocentrism and the unmediatedness of sound (and hence the impossibility of its status as a medium) as follows: “Logocentric means literally ‘centred on the word,’ but in Derrida’s usage logocentrism implies all forms of thought based on an authorizing foundation or centre or Logos. … [I]t is in the spoken Logos that language and reality ultimately coincide, in an identity that is invested with absolute authority, absolute origin and absolute purpose or teleology. (2013: 408) ‘Phonocentris’ is a subcategory of logocentrism, indicating an immediate coincidence of sound and meaning and the privileging of speech (where meaning is supposedly immediate) over writing. (2013: 534)”

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Jérôme Dokic, Robert S. Hatten, Tim Ingold, Michel Kreutzer et Elizabeth Tolbert, « Comments on “Postures of listening” by Victor A. Stoichita and Bernd Brabec de Mori »Terrain [En ligne], Lectures et débats, mis en ligne le 29 novembre 2018, consulté le 28 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Jérôme Dokic

École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Institut Jean Nicod

Robert S. Hatten

University of Texas at Austin

Tim Ingold

University of Aberdeen

Michel Kreutzer

Laboratoire Ethologie, Cognition, Développement, Université Paris Nanterre

Elizabeth Tolbert

Johns Hopkins University

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