In early 2011 the British Broadcasting Corporation ran two short feature items about a London-based vinyl listening club called “Classic Album Sundays,” one on BBC Radio 4 (Sillito 2011a)and one on BBC breakfast TV (Sillito 2011b). The club, initiated by DJ Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, was formed to provide a platform for uninterrupted, communal 'active listening' to complete classic albums (such as Stevie Wonder's (1973) 'Innervisions') on high fidelity equipment. Individuals are invited, in Murphy's words, to 'sit down, stop multitasking, open your ears and do some heavy listening.' The primary stated aim is to offer an alternative to solitary “byte-size” listening to single tracks via mobile technologies (e.g. iPods) employing low resolution music files and consequently compromised audio quality.


On her blog Murphy bemoans the loss of the “art of listening” and observes that


Listening to entire classic albums on a great sound system with a group of people can be a very moving experience [...] Because of the audiophile nature of the sound system, people can hear ‘deeper’ and they often say they have heard things they have never heard before. Many people have been moved to tears as they have emotionally engaged with the music in a way in which they have never had the opportunity to do before. (Murphy 2011)


The inception of “Classic Album Sundays” (henceforth CAS) constituted a reaction against the perceived use of music as a lifestyle accessory. Somewhat ironically, media publicity catapulted the club itself from concept to commodity with its own branding (see Fig. 1), a series of appearances, (billed by Murphy as “sonic oases”) at music festivals during 2011, plus planned events for 2012, including a multisensory series entitled “Soundbites”, combining the (mindful) consumption of music and food.

Although fascinating in its own right as a case study of one form of contemporary listening practice, what is particularly notable about the CAS phenomenon is the high level of interest the BBC coverage of the club prompted, as evidenced by journalistic commentary across a range of UK print media, including national broadsheet and tabloid newspapers, electronic journals and glossy magazines, which in turn triggered an unprecedented vox populi response via associated electronic forums. E-forums revealed music listening to be a 'hot topic' of interest, something individuals of varied ages from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and occupations valued, reflected upon and consciously planned. Forums also highlighted the existence of a network of vinyl clubs across the UK, together with a desire for more to be created. Interestingly, e-discussions of listening preferences developed into a broader debate concerning the ways in which music was used and experienced, as illustrated by the four e-forum posts below - responses to a Guardian music blog item on CAS (Naylor 2011):


When I visit my parents [...] we all go out for a walk every evening through a nearby forest, which is not unusual, but all of us bring our iPods and listen separately to our own music while we walk. I often in these moments listen to Sibelius, who was inspired by forests in Finland, and somehow paying attention to both the walk and his music helps each reinforce the other. Wolfgang Voigt's Gas albums [techno/ambient fusion](1) also are great for these forest walks for the same reasons.

iTunes DJ is for the lazy and indecisive.

I depend on it. OK, I use iTunes DJ when working, hi-fi when reading and entertaining but for a proper music experience it's got to be the car hasn’t it?

[...] sitting quietly with wonderful, wonderful speakers, I am overjoyed to play them [albums] through in their entirety whilst barely drawing breath. Isn't this mind-set why people still go to the cinema?


I mostly listen to music when travelling and I like to experience a range of emotions rather than the feelings I get from one artist or genre of music. However, this can lead to a bit of track skipping when some songs are out of my emotional range for the day [...] I feel like I really ‘get’ music when I’m driving by myself or with headphones on doing nothing or menial tasks.


Given the variety of real-world scenarios in which music is currently heard, it should come as no surprise that the ways in which it is subjectively experienced are likely to be similarly diverse. As yet, however, study of the phenomenology of everyday music listening is in its early stages (Juslin and Sloboda 2010; Lamont and Eerola 2011).

(1) Comments within square brackets are inserted by the author.

                 Modes of Music Listening

and Modes of Subjectivity in Everyday Life

Ruth Herbert

Studying the subjective experience of listening to music in daily life

Although the first studies of music and emotion date back to the late 19th century (when psychology became a discipline distinct from phenomenology), the field of affective science has only reached maturity in the last decade or so (Juslin and Sloboda 2010: 4), following previous emphases in mainstream psychology first on observable behavior (as opposed to the contents of consciousness), then on cognitive processes (e.g. memory and perception). “Affect” is an umbrella term which includes all “valenced” (positive and negative) states. Musical affect “comprises anything from music preference, mood and emotion to aesthetic and even spiritual experiences” (Juslin and Sloboda 2010: 9). Much research has focused on establishing the biological basis of affect, exploring the neurological correlates of emotion as opposed to tapping the perceived subjective feel of unfolding experience. This body of work, largely laboratory-based, includes studies of the physiology of engagement, e.g. the correlation between pleasurable music listening experiences and psychophysiological emotional arousal (Menon and Levitin 2005; Salimpoor, Benovoy, Longo, Cooperstock and Zatorre 2009), in addition to the phenomenon of musically induced “frisson” also referred to as “chills” (e.g. Blood and Zatorre 2001; Grewe, Nagel, Kopiez and Altenmuller 2007) or “thrills” (e.g. Goldstein 1980). Useful overviews/reviews of cognitive neuroscience literature relating to music can be found in Levitin and Tirovolas (2009) and Peretz (2010). 


Research in the field of cognitive psychology has addressed the perception of emotional expression in musical performance (e.g. Bhatara, Anjali, Tirovolas, Duan, Levy and Levitin 2011), the phenomenon of expectation (e.g. Levitin and Menon 2005; Levitin 2006) and personality type and musical preferences (e.g. Levitin 2007; Rentfrow and Macdonald 2010). Cognitive neuroscientific findings concerning cortical and subcortical emotional neural pathways have informed theorizing in the field of cognitive psychology, notably: a) Huron’s (2006) psychological theory of expectation - where music-induced 'frisson' is hypothesized to arise when an initial subcortical negative (reactive) response is contradicted by a neutral or positive cortical (appraisal) response; b) Juslin's proposition of seven psychological mechanisms (types of information processing) underlying the evocation of emotion (Juslin 2009; Juslin, Liljeström, Västfjäll, Barradas and Silva 2008; Juslin, Liljeström, Västfjäll and Lundqvist 2010), theorized to have evolved in sequence and, accordingly, to reflect 'lower' and 'higher' levels of brain functioning. 


Juslin's theory is of particular interest for two reasons. First, the proposed mechanisms implicitly suggest particular types of subjective engagement. The mechanisms are as follows: brainstem reflex (marked by a focus on acoustic attributes), rhythmic entrainment, evaluative conditioning (where two stimuli become associated), emotional contagion (mimicry), visual imagery, episodic memory (where music provides an emotional anchor to past experience), and musical expectancy (where emotion is generated by the violation of expectation). The first four mechanisms are considered to induce general arousal and so-called “basic emotions” (e.g., anger, happiness, fear), visual imagery and episodic memory to induce “all possible emotions” and musical expectancy to induce a selective range of emotions, including awe and “thrills” (Juslin et al. 2010: 626). Second, Juslin et al. (2008) tested the validity of this schema via an experience sampling study of emotions reactions in everyday situations with and without music. The most commonly reported mechanisms were emotional contagion, brain-stem response and episodic memory. 


The development of social psychology in the late 1980s and early 1990s encouraged a move towards the examination of musical experience outside laboratory contexts, i.e. “applied” psychology. The established lab-based 'bottom-up' study of the perception of musical elements (e.g., pitch or rhythm, cognition of form, tonality, etc.), was complimented by a “top-down” study of the totality of experience and listening behaviors in situ in real-world contexts. Socio-psychological studies of music in daily life have tended to focus either on music as functional resource, adopted to increase enjoyment levels, pass the time, or create an atmosphere (e.g. North, Hargreaves & Hargreaves 2004) while travelling, engaging in active leisure, relaxation, personal maintenance routines, work or study tasks (Sloboda, O'Neill and Ivaldi 2001; Bull 2003, 2007; North et al. 2004; Greasley and Lamont 2011; Heye and Lamont 2010) or as means of representing or inducing emotion (e.g. Juslin et al. 2008). Outside the academy, radio listening has been the subject of a series of marketing-based studies, some of which offer tantalizing glimpses of modes of subjective experience. For example, one survey study of 200 listeners, commissioned by the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), a marketing body funded by the UK commercial radio industry, and designed to assess the relative “share of ear” of radio and mobile technologies, concluded that individuals used the radio primarily as a means of engagement and iPod/mp3 players as a means of escape (RAB 2006). Reasons given by listeners for using different technologies are summarized in table 1.


I use radio because ...




Led by outside world

About me in a group

Mainly in the room



I use iPod/mp3 player because...

Music I want (or wanted)

No Interruptions

Select by mood

Led by me

About me

Mainly in my earphones



                       Table 1: Main reasons for using different technologies (adapted from RAB 2006: 9)

As stated, a good proportion of everyday music listening studies are naturalistic in character, sometimes using Experience Sampling Method (ESM) methodologies (Csikszentmihalyi and Larson 1987), where participants complete experience response forms following random electronic alerts received via mobile phones. Nevertheless, because such forms are frequently highly structured, sometimes containing “forced choice” responses, they cannot tap the idiosyncratic details of subjective experience. 


Studies incorporating open response questionnaires or interviews have been able to offer more nuanced accounts of music listening experiences. DeNora, for example, has highlighted music's role as a resource for self-regulation, the construction of self-identity, “emotional work” and as a “technology” of health (DeNora 2000, 2003, 2005, 2010) drawing on findings from a series of in-depth interviews and ethnographic studies of musical interaction in everyday life. Particularly detailed is her account of how music configures shifts of consciousness via emotional and physical entrainment during the different stages of an aerobics class. Other research has focused on psychological qualities of strong experiences with music (SEM), mostly experienced in live listening contexts (Gabrielsson 2011; Lamont 2011). Gabrielsson's research established a detailed phenomenological framework for SEM, including characteristics of physical and quasi-physical reactions, perception and cognition in addition to feelings/emotions. However, the framework has not yet been applied to very recently occurring listening experiences. Research in this area relies a good deal on retrospective self-report to access experiences (some of which had taken place over half a century earlier in the case of Gabrielsson's sample), meaning that memories may be subject to alteration through reflection. Another research focus has been on adolescent experiences of listening to music. For example, in a study of the role of music in adolescents' mood regulation (Saarikallio and Erkkilä 2007), the authors identified seven “regulatory strategies” informing the subjective “feel” of listening episodes, including revival, strong sensation, diversion, discharge and solace. Semi-structured interviews yielded useful insights regarding participant's previous experiences, but qualitative detail concerning recently occurring experiences (via experience report forms, to be completed immediately after the experience had occurred) was restricted because forms were structured, so prescribing responses to an extent, e.g. being asked to describe “the affective experience in terms of pleasantness and energy level” (Saarikallio and Erkkilä 2007: 91).


The phenomenology of music experience was one of a recurrent number of themes  identified as a 'top priority' for future research by contributors to the fairly recently published Oxford Handbook of Music and Emotion (Juslin and Sloboda 2010). Acknowledging that a number of music experiences “do not clearly fall within the category of emotional responses' the editors suggested that 'the field of music and emotion may eventually be subsumed under the far broader heading of ‘music experience” (Juslin and Sloboda 2010: 941).(2)

(2) The philosopher Don Ihde's (1976) first-hand investigation of auditory experience (music, language, environmental sounds, etc.) remains a landmark text in the phenomenology of listening field. 

Common conceptualizations of music listening

Autonomy and heteronomy: the directed and distracted listening dichotomy

Different ways of conceptualizing the activity of listening to music reflect not only different modes of experience, but, inevitably, also cultural attitudes towards music listening. In other words, all listening is not only temporally and spatially, but also culturally situated. Ethnomusicologist Judith Becker has observed that “even more than modes of looking, modes of listening implicate structures of knowledge and beliefs, and intimate notions of personhood and identity” (Becker 2010: 129). She has usefully applied Pierre Bourdieu's term habitus to music listening behavior: 


Habitus is an embodied pattern of action and reaction, in which we are not fully conscious of why we do what we do... Our habitus of listening is tacit, unexamined, seemingly completely 'natural' [...] A habitus of listening suggests [...] an inclination, a disposition to listen with a particular kind of focus. (Becker 2010: 130)


Because a significant proportion of music scholars have a background in Western Classical music, it is not uncommon to find attitudes to listening framed in terms of the traditional concert model. In musicological literature, this mode of listening is often characterized as consisting of a conscious (effortful), concentrated focus on music, i.e. music is described as being the main or sole focus of attention, and listening is autonomous (“about” the music), as opposed to heteronomous (“about” music and other things). “In depth” or “heavy” listening occupies the “foreground” of consciousness (metaphors concerned with space or mass abound when verbalizing modes of listening) and experiences are, at their most vivid, described as “profound”. As I've observed elsewhere (Herbert 2011b) this way of conceptualizing music listening suggests that two main listening modes exist: directed listening (“in depth”, “heavy”, “profound”) and undirected or “distracted” listening (“casual”, “lightweight”, “superficial”). This viewpoint has informed a significant number of studies of music listening, albeit often as a tacit assumption. Two examples will suffice: 


  1. Reviewing conclusions from their large-scale survey of everyday listening, North et al. (2004: 73) ask why people state that they listen to music “for mundane reasons such as habit and passing the time, rather than [as] an attempt to achieve more profound and rewarding experiences.”
  2. In a discussion of emotions experienced whilst listening to music in daily life, Sloboda (2010) states that music heard may possess “everyday” qualities (e.g. clear emotional codes, brevity, and simplicity) that encourage “surface hearing” or that art music may be heard in a superficial way (Sloboda 2010: 503). Experiential focus is on “factors external to music” (511), and motivation for listening is likely to be goal achievement rather than aesthetic pleasure (510). The “two modes of listening” model thus informs listening literature via “a series of binarisms on the theme of ‘special’ and ‘everyday’ musical interaction: aesthetic pleasure or functional resource; complex or basic emotions; music- focused or listener-focused experience” (Herbert 2011b: 2).

The notion that autonomous listening constitutes the dominant mode of receiving music in the Western art music concert context is something of a modern myth. Prior to the 19th century, before the onset of Romanticism, with its fascination with individualism, genius and the supernatural/otherworldliness, and alongside the establishment of a Europe-wide practice of dimming lights in auditoria during performances (Carnegy 2006: 75), music listening was primarily multimodal and iconic (Johnson 1996). Of course, one reason for the continued preoccupation with autonomous listening as a kind of desirable baseline measure by those within the academy, is that individuals who are highly involved in music - as players or listeners - will be more likely to engage in close focused listening, partly because of a fascination with musical attributes (sounds themselves and the way they are structured) and partly because they have been trained to do so. In this way, as music theorist Nicholas Cook notes, institutions can be seen to “construct and naturalize musical culture” making it “increasingly difficult to conceive that music might work in other ways, or to hear it properly if it does” (Cook 1998: 104).


The insidious influence of autonomy has also informed theories of auditory event perception (e.g. Gaver 1993), which distinguish between “everyday” (listening to sounds primarily in terms of the sources they specify) and “musical” listening (a focus on acoustic attributes). Dibben has argued that, rather than being modes of listening that map onto everyday and musical sounds respectively, “these may be two kinds of listening which operate simultaneously but which the listener privileges in different ways according to his or her needs or preoccupations” (Dibben 2001: 162). In the case of music, then, so-called “extra-musical” references, including personal and cultural associations, may form an intrinsic part of the listening experience: for example, associating a piece of music with a scene from a film or television program (Dibben 2001: 182).


“Listeners and Hearers”: an early empirical study of directed and distracted music listening

Autonomous and heteronomous music listening experiences were the subject of an intriguing and now all but forgotten empirical study by the British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935). In the first decade of the twentieth century Lee gathered data from c. 150 individuals, using a 26 item questionnaire which appeared in three languages (English, French, German). Topics referenced on the questionnaire included background listening (predominantly related to live music heard in concert and home contexts), the representation or induction of emotion and mood, perceived meaning, associations and memories. Descriptions of listening experiences related to live performances (no reference was made to recording technologies such as the phonograph), at concerts or, frequently, within the home. Findings from the study were initially published in 1917 and consequently integrated into a book (1933) entitled Music and its Lovers: An Empirical Study of Emotional and Imaginative Responses to Music.


Lee identified two types of music listener, which she termed “listeners” and “hearers”. “Listeners” demonstrated a primarily autonomous approach to listening and were highly attentive to musical detail. They were also aware that their attention could wander, but “these lapses were regarded by them as irrelevancies and interruptions” (Lee 1933: 30). By contrast, “hearers” clearly demonstrated a heteronomous approach to listening, and appeared unaware of attentional lapses:


[...] moments of concentrated and active attention to the musical shapes are like islands continually washed over by the shallow tide of other thoughts: memories, associations, suggestions, visual images and emotional states... they coalesce, forming a homogenous and special contemplative condition [...] musical phrases, non-musical images and emotions are all welded into the same musical daydream. (Lee 1933: 32)


Particularly common amongst “hearers” were descriptions of listening episodes in which music triggered an imaginative narrative or series of images:


Listening to [...] a symphony by Glazonow [sic] I had the inner vision of an unknown landscape, a wild northern bay [...] against this background and as upon a stage, moving to the music I beheld the strangest apparitions [...] crowds of people dressed in red, also white horses, but also terrifying mythological beasts, things out of a fairy story, in the air.


Lee also discussed occasions when visual and aural stimuli combined to produce what she termed “immersion in an ambience” (Lee 1933: 147):


Yesterday afternoon I went into the [Westminster] Abbey at Poet's Corner, towards the end of the service [...] the sounds (of an organ) the half lights, the height, etc., change one's condition toto caelo like going into the open air from a cellar [...] or being plunged into a bath. (Lee 1933: 147)


The experience is clearly multimodal (a typical feature of experiences in ritualistic contexts). What is heard blends with what is seen and attention is distributed. The accounts of Lee's listeners give a fascinating glimpse into the subjective reception of Western classical music in the early 20th century. At the same time, Music and its Lovers reveals an ambivalent attitude towards the listening modes it identifies; autonomous listening is promoted as “proper” listening that is “distinctly musical” (Lee 1933: 32), and yet the book's main focus of interest is on extra-musical aspects of experience. What Lee describes, but does not explicitly identify, is a performative approach to sense-making, thus moving away from a notion of music as stimulus possessing immanent qualities that are simply transmitted to the listener. The notion of musical engagement as an active rather than passive process is central to a number of alternative ways of conceptualizing the music listening process, as explored below.

Alternative perspectives on music listening

1. An ecological approach to listening

No experience of music is entirely autonomous. As anthropologist Georgina Born puts it, the listener is “entangled in a musical assemblage” (Born 2010: 88). That is to say experience is the sum of a network of interactions, including environment, sound, acquired patterns of response, current mood, prior knowledge, etc. This accords with an ecological approach to perception (based on the work of J.J. Gibson (Gibson 1979), in which the interplay between objective stimulus attributes and capacities and needs of the experiencer give rise to what are termed “affordances”: “The uses, functions, or values of an object – the opportunities that it affords to a perceiver” (Clarke 2003: 117), which may specify different types of meaning at different times, and – correspondingly – different types of experience. This way of theorizing music listening experiences has rapidly gained acceptance (Clarke 2005; Windsor 2000; DeNora 2000), clearly acknowledging that experiences of listening to music are inevitably personal, relational and situational. Listening is identified as a performative, reflexive process where “the listener is indeed also a composer/performer; she is like the craftsperson who ‘finishes off’ an object or a picture framer/hanger or arts curator who situates a musical item” (Bergh and DeNora 2009: 106). Viewed from an ecological perspective, heteronomous music listening, far from being necessarily careless, superficial or distracted, is re-framed as potentially richly polysemic and perceptually inevitable. Such multimodal listening is an extremely widespread way of experiencing music in early 21st century daily life, one function of which is to constitute and reflect subjectivity. Yet the significance and value of this way of listening is too often underplayed by music scholars. 


2. Multisensory, multimodal, diffused listening 


Aesthetic experiences in everyday life are frequently multisensory, a phenomenon that has been recognized by sonic studies theorists. As Thibaud (2011: 1) notes “the aesthetics of everyday life implies employing the whole human sensorium, making it difficult to artificially separate the information received from the individual senses from each other.” 

The phenomenon of “ubiquitous listening”, where source-less (recorded) and omnipresent music may pose “as a quality of the environment” (Kassabian 2001) is a familiar one. However, to describe music's experiential role in daily life as necessarily that of sonic wallpaper or background accompaniment as several studies have done, is to undervalue the potential nature of much multimodal listening and to underestimate its richness. Yet such experiences are frequently evanescent, easily forgotten, and as such are not available for conscious reflection. These factors were (in part) the catalyst for my own research concerning the subjective experience of music in everyday life.


Since 2005 I have run a series of empirical studies designed to tap musical (and non-musical) involvement. The first three studies concentrated on the listening practices of a small sample of 20 UK listeners ranging in age from 15 to 85 years old with diverse social backgrounds and musical tastes (details may be found in Herbert 2011: x). In the first two studies, purposive sampling via informal interview was used to recruit individuals highly involved in music, both as listeners and players. The aim was to document the psychological processes of solitary, real-world, mainly technologically-mediated experiences of listening to music and to compare the subjective 'feel' of these experiences with experiential engagement across a range of work and leisure activities (Herbert 2009). Individuals were interviewed about their listening practices before recording their experiences of music (and in the third study, musical and non-musical experiences) for 14 days. The unstructured diary method (Robson 2003: 258) was selected to facilitate generation of rich data and to enable experiences to be logged soon after they occurred. 

I am currently running the first stage of a project focused on the music listening experiences of young people aged between circa 10 and 18. As before, interview and diary methods are used. However, in addition to identifying modes of listening, the aims are to establish whether and how ways of listening alter during the transition from pre-pubescence to early and later adolescence as well as to assess the effects of digital technologies on ways in which music is experienced. Participants are invited to share experiences via a multi-authored blog.

Data from all these studies(3) indicates that individuals frequently use music to mediate perception of their surroundings, as in the blog entry by Phoebe (age 16)

Such visual listening serves in effect to “aestheticize” the environment by “sound tracking” it, confirming the findings of Bull (2003, 2007), as illustrated by the following diary excerpt from one of my participants relating to a car journey: 

Steve Reich Music for 18 musicians. A few light-headed moments when the approaching cars at junctions look simply choreographed in slow motion. Whilst on the motorway I observe a tendency to experience the traffic as a kind of rhythmic dance [...] the 'driving' rhythms seem to match the tempo of driving [...] as I swoop up on the hill by Sevenoaks and down with vistas of fields lit by winter sunshine [...] I am caught by the repetitive 'spell' of the music [...] struck by the marvelous filigree patterns of the bare trees against the pale winter morning sky. Something very delicate and fine - like patterns on a Persian miniature, very precise and yet flowery and wild. 


Music is appropriated, but, in accordance with an ecological model of listening, its effect is not entirely relative or idiosyncratic. Qualities of the minimalist musical style (e.g. use of repetition and complex, detailed textures, rhythmic motifs) impact upon perception (traffic is experienced as “choreographed” patterns of cars, the detail of tree branches reflects musical detail, the feeling arises that music has a spell-like quality that alters attention), and surroundings correspondingly assume a mildly preternatural quality. Especially for the younger participants in my study (aged between circa 15 and 35), visual listening emerged as a primary mode of musical engagement. They were less likely than older individuals to have encountered “music alone”, instead commonly experiencing it as part of a multimedia experience (e.g. music channels on TV, YouTube videos, computer games). As one participant (Gary, aged 33) put it, when discussing his experience of attending a classical concert: “you're supposed to be paying attention, but what am I paying attention to? You know, it's a sound thing [...] there's nothing to look at, is there really?”


Although the most common sensory fusion in everyday music listening experiences was that between audition and sight, participants in my studies also described occasions where auditory, visual, gustatory, olfactory and kinesthetic qualities of experience interacted:


Clearly etched sensory memory. Cooking curries etc. [...] friend is playing fragments of a composition for guitar ensemble and tabla [...] the texture and color of a coconut-based dish, the thick almost liquoricey taste of lentil, spinach and potato with strong cumin and lemon laced into it [...] mixed with the muted fragments of guitar ensemble music and a showy exciting tapping sequence when the guitar becomes a drum. 


Music enhances sensory awareness; attention is distributed between music, sight, touch, taste (and no doubt smell). The experience is not primarily about music, yet it would be incorrect to describe music's role within it as superficial.

Alternate subjectivities, alternate virtual worlds

Aesthetic objects (including music) contain a limited amount of sensory information (e.g. paintings privilege vision, music privileges audition) and reception becomes a process of interpretation where the receiver “fills in the gaps” (Windsor 2000). This is particularly apparent in the case of acousmatic listening. Although some individuals may be more prone to demonstrate a single-pointed attentional focus on acoustic attributes of music when sound is isolated from its source, so 'reducing' an experience of music to what is heard, others may be equally likely to imagine extra-musical references, for example, to supply a range of “virtual”, sometimes idiosyncratic sources in the absence of “real-world” information. Thus, music listening experiences may be multimodal (sensory, cognitive and affective) as well as multisensory in nature, marked by an attentional move inwards as music prompts a series of thoughts, associations or fantasies - what the psychologist Josephine Hilgard (1979b) has referred to as a process of “imaginative involvement”:


I definitely use music to day dream. Quite a lot [...] in certain music [by Basshunter] I will imagine myself doing some weird super power thing [...] I just see myself floating in the air, moving stuff with my mind [...] controlling the weather, that sort of thing [...] And as the music progresses it's sort of a bit like a sci-fi movie. The actions and the drama get more intense as the music gets to its climax and then it would sort of dwindle. 


Early choral music […] seems to conjure up a series of images and it seems to take me into a relaxed sort of state thinking about particular churches and cathedrals […] looking at a candle in a beautiful cathedral and hearing that strange kind of acoustic that there is there.


In the first excerpt, music is used to facilitate a fantasy concerning an idealized self-concept. The extract is derived from an interview with a seventeen year old boy and reflects the widely recognized tendency of adolescents to use music as a medium to experiment with aspects of personhood and identity (North and Hargreaves 2008; Clarke, Dibben and Pitts 2011). By contrast, the other excerpt, from an interview with a 57 year old male, is not autobiographical in nature. Instead it is concerned more with general associations and memories, reflecting an accumulated way of responding to music acquired via repeated encounters with a specific genre of music in a particular context, plus received cultural associations linking music and place. 


3. Absorbed and Dissociated Listening

Music itself is a multifaceted but non-prescriptive, malleable and ambiguous stimulus. Because of this, compared to other art forms (or indeed everyday phenomena which may afford aesthetic involvement), music provides an especially diverse range of routes to cognitive, perceptual and affective engagement. Attention may focus on acoustic attributes, physical entrainment, emotion (as represented or induced) or associations and memories (i.e. the sources specified by music). As I stated earlier, the experience of listening to music has most frequently been conceptualized in terms of emotion. This accords with an established tradition, traceable to the ancient Greek notion of catharsis, of writing about musical meaning and affect in terms of emotion (Cook and Dibben 2010: 46-7). An alternative approach is to map experience in terms of phenomenological characteristics. 


My own empirical studies of music listening in everyday life have employed Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to tap the details of subjective experience. IPA is a qualitative methodological approach developed by the psychologist Jonathan A. Smith that focuses on the lived experience of individuals. It is commonly used by UK researchers in health and social science fields. Iterative in nature, it involves repeated readings of diary/interview data in order to gather emergent themes.(4) IPA allows for the detailed study of a small, not necessarily homogenous sample and is idiographic in emphasis, i.e. it focuses on the detailed examination of individual cases before attempting to compare them. Thus, there is no claim that specific results are necessarily generalizable to broad populations.


Taken together, findings from my research support a model of consciousness during music listening as fluctuating and continuous (as opposed to comprising discrete “states”), functioning as a dynamic system made up of a series of interacting variables. These include fluctuations in attentional focus (inwards and outwards, multi-distributed); awareness (narrow, broad, equanimous); multisensory blending and heightened awareness; visual listening and filmic narrative; changes in thought (reduction of thought, relaxation of critical faculty, analytical thought, concentration); imagery (filmic influences, associations, reminiscence, daydreams); perceptions of temporal compression or stasis. A significant number of individuals have also reported perceived subtle shifts of consciousness during which subjective experience appeared to have altered from a baseline personal “norm”. In particular, the combined effect of changes in individual parameters of consciousness - the “bundling together” of different threads of experience as it were - manifest in music listening episodes characterized primarily by either an absorbed or dissociated emphasis, occurring spontaneously or volitionally. Such experiences are the subject of extensive discussion in my recent book and elsewhere (Herbert 2011a; Herbert 2011b; Herbert 2012), and as such receive only brief mention here, illustrated by the following two diary extracts which refer to the processes of absorption (effortless involvement) and non-pathological/normative dissociation (detachment from self, activity or surroundings) respectively: 


Carry on writing email and jump like electric shock as the Goldberg variations start. Am filled with memories of Mum: it's inescapable. Mum loved the Goldbergs more than anything [...] I played the aria at her funeral 2 years ago. The memories absolutely fuse with the music [...] major key, poised, arcing perfect phrases. I think the abstract beauty of the music allows room for the emotional memories to coexist. Swing between that, and wonder at Schiff's [pianist] crystalline sound and virtuosity.


The walk into the town center is only a short one, but I aim to plug in and tune out anyway. The sounds consist of very little more than looped string sections, which are layered to allow for slow and quite subtle thematic shifts […] this allows me to drift into the comfortable non-state […] the whole point is to be as unaware of my physical self as is realistically possible – the music allows for gradual and deeper dislocation.


In the first excerpt, absorption occurs spontaneously, and the experience is multimodal. Frances (aged 54) responds both to musical characteristics and extra-musical associations and memories, demonstrating both an autonomous and heteronomous focus on music. The episode is also marked by a fluctuating attentional focus, which “swings” from an “inescapable” preoccupation with emotional memories to an analytical appreciation of the pianist's technical control.


The listening episode referred to in the second excerpt occurred after a domestic argument. Gary describes apparently familiar, well-practiced methods of using music to facilitate a reduction in thought and lowered state of emotional arousal. Musical attributes (repetition, slow rate of change) seem to act as an aural mandala, enabling him to stand outside physical consciousness, assuming an onlooker mentality. In effect, he enters what Bull (2003, 2007) has termed an “auditory bubble”. Bull's metaphor constitutes an extremely effective shorthand description of dissociation. Music here does not provide a complete barrier to experience (bubbles are transparent) but places the experiencer in a changed or unusual relationship with self and surroundings, evidenced by a series of de-associations.


4. Music Listening and kinds of consciousness

As well as thinking of the subjective “feel” of music listening experiences in terms of types of conscious experience (e.g. “absorption”, “dissociation” or “altered states of consciousness”), it is possible to conceptualize music listening episodes in terms of the kinds of generic consciousness they might involve, drawing on theoretical conceptualizations of consciousness informed by philosophical reasoning or empirical evidence. The field of music and consciousness studies is at an early stage in its development, the first edited volume to give an overview of the territory appearing just last year (Clarke and Clarke 2011). Neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio (1999) has proposed a distinction between core (present-centered) and extended (self-conscious, autobiographical) awareness, a distinction which is paralleled by biologist Gerald Edelman's (1989) notions of primary and higher order forms of consciousness. Obviously, any retrospective account of experience will reference both, but music listening experiences themselves most commonly demonstrate a fluctuation between the two, as in the following example where Max (aged 46) describes his experience of hearing music in the shower before going to work:  


Radio is sucker-stuck to tiles by shower. Classic FM is on and loud. Today is Mozart piano sonata No.16. Sunny day. Spring is in air and music is fresh and appropriate. Mozart goes some way to slow process of Monday morning wake up.In groggy mode it's a backdrop as opposed to a foreground thing demanding conscious attention [...] tunes stick easier and seem more likely to recur later in day usually as pleasant memory [...] background slowly becomes foreground as brain wakes and engages with it. After gut emotional response which lingers ad infinitum, I try to work out what it's called, who wrote it, past associations of music to me [...] what starts as a background blur comes into focus as music asserts itself into proper consciousness [...] showering very automatic once music starts to fill thoughts. Amazed and amused by simplicity of music. A long series of questions and answers. Right hand then left hand [...] Go in groggy, come out sparky. Tunes still buzzing in head for a while. Love simple chord structures and phrasing. Am reminded of movie Amadeus and childlike madness of character and 18th-century men in wigs. Aware I hear a lot of music and relate it to films.



A primary/core awareness of music is represented by Max's direct perceptual engagement with qualities of sounds themselves and “gut emotional response” (particularly evident when in a half-awake state). This contrasts with a higher-order/extended awareness marked by the influence of prior knowledge (style and musical techniques) and the processes of imagination and reflection.

(3) All interview excerpts from this point are extracted from written free descriptions supplied by participants who have taken part in my research, past and ongoing.

(4) A full explanation of IPA, including its debt to Husserl, may be found in Smith, Flower and Larkin 2009.

Coda: Music as a technology of subjectivity

Music is a particularly effective mediator of subjective experience. Its polysemic potential and portability (in recorded form) enable individuals to configure not only the environments they inhabit but also ways of experiencing those environments. The process of listening to music provides one way in which individuals may locate themselves in the world, shaping the manner in which they receive and respond to it. In this way music can be conceptualized, as Tia DeNora (2000: 46-74) has theorized, as a prosthetic technology of the self, a type of external “sonic scaffolding” that facilitates the exploration of self, identity, self-regulation, and mood modulation. In a sense then, music serves to “choreograph” consciousness, altering the impact of separate elements of experience, fusing elements of internal and external perception, highlighting perception of particular stimuli, dampening the perception of others, for example. Crucially, music “is an endlessly ‘multiple’ environment in which to perceive and act [...] recordings draw listeners into all kinds of different worlds with their own particular affordances - moving/dancing, structure-following, emotional responding, close listening, reminiscing, visualizing” (Clarke 2011: 206). Acousmatic listening offers a series of vantage points upon subject positions within lived mental experience. This is, of course, a function of all art-forms, a function which evolutionary psychologists have asserted provides support for the adaptive value of the arts - particularly narrative (e.g. Pinker 1997; Carroll 2004). But music's polyvalent quality, the fact that it can afford non-verbal meaning, the manner in which it interweaves and blends with other stimuli perceived by listeners suggests that it may have a notably “transparent” or close relationship to consciousness (Clarke and Clarke 2011: xx). 


In my recent book Everyday Listening, I have advocated studying the subjective experience of music in an inclusive way that does not frame experience primarily in terms of emotion, however widely that term is defined within the field of affective science (e.g. Sloboda and Juslin 2011: 10). Different ways of conceptualizing listening have the potential to construct or diminish as well as reflect diverse modes of experiencing music. Each theoretical frame inevitably privileges particular experiential characteristics/ways in which music may mean above others. While free phenomenological report cannot access the totality of experience (most obviously because it is circumscribed by the limits of verbal language and retrospective recall) and is necessarily selective and partial, it can yield fine-grained detail that can provide the basis for the inductive exploration of the subjective experience of music in all its idiosyncratic richness. 



The act of listening to music may function as an auditory cocoon, sheltering the listener from personal preoccupations, limitations and the vicissitudes of life. At best, though, it can afford intersubjective understanding, so providing temporary release from the “splendid isolation” of self (a phenomenon highlighted by modern Western preoccupations with individualism, personhood and identity) enabling listeners to access alternative experiential vantage points, virtual realities and ways of being. In this way, music might be conceptualized as a prosthetic technology of mind. 


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