Technologically mediated solitary listening now constitutes the prevalent mode of musical engagement in the Industrialized West. Music is heard in a variety of real-world contexts, and qualities of subjective experience might similarly be expected to be wide-ranging. Yet though much is known about function (music as a behavioral resource) less research has focused on ways in which music mediates consciousness. This essay critiques conceptualizations of music listening in extant literature and explores how listening to music in daily life both informs and reflects subjectivity.
Psychological and musicological literature on music listening commonly distinguishes between autonomous and heteronomous ways of listening, associating the former with unusual and the latter with mundane, habitual listening scenarios. Empirical findings from my research, which used ethnographic methods to tap qualities of subjective experience, indicate that attentive and diffused listening do not map neatly onto 'special' and 'ordinary' contexts and that a distributed, fluctuating attentional awareness and multimodal focus are central to many experiences of hearing music.