Everyday Music Listening: Absorption, Dissociation and Trancing - Ruth Herbert. Ashgate, 2011


By Marcel Cobussen


At one of its meetings in 2011, the editorial board of JSS decided that the main topic for the second issue should be ‘listening’. The most obvious reason for that choice was, of course, that any contact with our sonic environment begins with the capacity to listen; contact with the sounds that surround us usually takes place through our ears (although we should not forget that certain frequencies are not traceable by human hearing but enter and affect the body via different ways).

However, it is almost self-evident that listening to aural (im)pulses does not always automatically imply respectful attention or conscientious contemplation, as is usually assumed when listening to music in a concert setting, for example; on the contrary, listening and hearing often meet each other in a simultaneous bodily and mental activity which can be described as ‘registering’: consciously and unconsciously we register many sounds.

The theme’s accompanying Call for Papers more or less implicitly aimed at contributions dealing with listening in this extended sense of aural registering. In other words, the editors were specifically (though not exclusively) interested in reflections on listening that, first, exceeded listening to music. And second, they did not want to understand nor restrict listening to a structural or analytic listening, so widespread in certain discourses around (classical) music.

Taking all this into consideration, the JSS editors were very happy to receive an email from Ashgate in which Ruth Herbert’s book Everyday Music Listening: Absorption, Dissociation and Trancing was announced. The book seemed to be a perfect example of paying attention to a listening attitude that appears to be quite far removed from structural or autonomous listening. In any case, the UK is endowed with several scholars having an ear for more mundane contacts with music: Herbert’s book thus resonates with work done already by Tia DeNora (Music in Everyday Life, 2000), Michael Bull (Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience, 2007) Brandon LaBelle (Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life, 2010), and Katharine Norman (Sounding Art: Eight Literary Excursions through Electronic Music, 2004), to mention just a few.

This review is not able nor meant to summarize the richness of Herbert’s book. Instead it will concentrate on certain aspects which directly relate to the topic at issue, listening, and it will do so by distinguishing four stages that can be traced in the book, although it should be noted that Herbert does not explicitly use the same order and system of presenting them.

In the same period as when reading Herbert’s book, I was often driving alone between the city I live in and my parents’ place, some 100 km south-east. I became aware of how I often carefully selected the accompanying music according to quite specific criteria: weather conditions, my mood, and the time of the day were but a few parameters determining my choice of music. However, this list does not reveal the questions I needed to answer within the few moments of standing, choosing, in front of my CD and MP3 collection: Should the music fit, confirm, and perpetuate the mood I was in or should it, on the contrary, alter it? Does a dark, grey, and rainy day request ‘gloomy’ and ‘melancholic’ music or, by way of compensation, for cheerful dance music? And does driving in the dark ask for slower and softer music or, conversely, for up-tempo tunes? Another ‘problem’ that needed to be solved: which music ‘works’ in a car? Some variables here: the audio installation (the extremely soft experimental Japanese music I love to listen to at home had to be dropped) and the amount of time that can be spent on ‘attentive listening’ while driving (this excluded for me music with huge contrasts in volume).

AudioObject 1: driving the highway with music

Everyday listening versus concert-hall listening

In the first stage Herbert argues that everyday music listening is often regarded as a subordinate, scholarly uninteresting and unimportant, and even less respectful way of dealing with music: music easily becomes ‘sonic wallpaper’, ‘background noise’, ‘accompaniment’ or ‘soundtrack’, so the standard opinion runs. It thus stands opposite an attentive and concentrated concert-hall listening (188), a listening attitude already advocated by Theodor Adorno in his famous essay ‘Types of Musical Conduct’ from 1962. Herbert brings forward two main arguments to deconstruct this binary opposition: first, this so-called autonomous or concert-hall listening rarely, if ever, implies a fully concentrated attention lasting the course of the whole performance (an argument which is not really developed in the book); second, everyday listening experiences may be entirely functional and superficial but can be highly involving, with an autonomous focus on ‘the sounds themselves’ as well. The binary opposition between the two listening modes is sublated as soon as we concentrate on concrete listening experiences, on empirical research data instead of ideal types. Listening to music takes place on a continuum between a pure awareness of (audible) phenomena and moments of multiply directed attention (187). However, the latter does not have to signal inattention. Rather, this form of listening should be understood as a performative process: the listener actively draws music into relation with other things. In other words, the use of music in contexts where attention is divided between various activities or stimuli is not necessarily superficial, but yields experiences that are potentially richly involving (106).

Categories of everyday listening

Having thus justified the choice for a research on everyday listening experiences, Herbert, in the second stage, discusses several of these experiences, based on concrete evidences. The categorization of these experiences appears not to be discrete or mutually exclusive; rather, it offers various possibilities of approaching these experiences.

First, as stated above already, experiences do fluctuate in attentional focus: music may be at times the prime object of attentional focus, while at others barely received (55). Second, listeners may experience multi-sensory merging or a heightened awareness. Everyday listening often takes place in conjunction with other activities, blending together aural and visual, olfactory, gustatory, or kinaesthetic elements, thereby constructing ‘multisensory listening episodes’ (57). As such, music may also incite a highly selective, heightened awareness and (thus) a change of orientation to reality. Third, everyday listening is sometimes a kind of ‘visual listening’, which implies that music might give a filmic quality to the environment: music becomes a soundtrack to the mundane and makes one experience the surroundings differently (59–60). Fourth, listening to music can also lead to ‘changes of thought’ or ‘reduced thought experiences’: music can be used to block out thought, either positively, as for example in meditation, or negatively, as a defense against concerns and critical thought processes (62–6). This category also encompasses the use of music as an aid for concentration on both physical and mental tasks, to entrain processes of mind or body movements (67). Related to these changes of thought provoked by music is a phenomenon called ‘imagery’, the production, through music, of a dreamlike mental state, an inwardly focused absorption offering an escape from mundane concerns (68–72). Imagination and music thus work together to shut out displeasing aspects of the external world. A further important facet of everyday music listening experiences is the fact that music provides a platform for associations and reminiscences, as is well-known among marketing experts. Finally, one of the most commonly declared intentional everyday uses of music is to ‘pass the time’, as for example in situations of automatic task completion or waiting for public transport (76–9).

With this enumeration of several listening attitudes or possibilities, Herbert makes convincingly clear that everyday listening experiences have a heterogeneous character. This heterogeneity can partly be explained through the interaction between music and ‘other things’. In general, one could say that music’s contribution to everyday experiences is sometimes quite restricted (music as background or accompaniment) while at other times it interacts with other components of experience, mediating, focusing, coloring, and integrating them.

Listening and/as trancing

Herbert, however, does not merely describe, list, and sort these everyday listening experiences. Her main aim, which may form the third stage, is to prove that these mundane, individual, lived experiences of music induce certain changes in a listener’s consciousness, hence the rather loaded subtitle Absorption, Dissociation and Trancing. Although these terms seem to indicate radical and profound psychological alterations, Herbert states that they also aptly describe more subtle shifts of the self, occurring many times a day, although often passing unnoticed or remarked upon. This common everyday trancing can be described as ‘a decreased orientation to consensual reality, a decreased critical faculty, a selective internal or external focus, together with a changed sensory awareness, and – potentially – a changed sense of self’ (50). Well-known examples of activities that might lead to trance states are daydreaming, gardening, washing up, but also appreciating art, and watching live sport (117).

Trancing, generally regarded as functioning on automatic pilot or being absorbed in an activity, is presented by Herbert as a normal psychological mechanism: different states of consciousness prevail at different times for different reasons.

The point she wants to make is that these subtle alterations of consciousness, although easily forgotten, often occur in combination with listening to music. They emerge as an intrinsic effect of everyday listening episodes, sometimes simply because music is listened to when already in subtly altered states (between sleeping and waking, under the influence of alcohol, during or after physical and/or mental exercise, etc.).

Roughly, Herbert distinguishes between two possibilities of everyday trancing. The first one is an effortless, non-volitional quality of deep involvement, an often spontaneous mode of engagement or immersion – a state of mind she calls absorption. The second one is a non-pathological, temporary escape from constraints of reality and internal or external concerns, a relief from normal preoccupations, the blocking out of unwanted thought, or a sense of being taken somewhere else; this is what Herbert means with the term dissociation.

Herbert’s statement is that in both of these forms of everyday trancing, music often plays an important role. On the one hand, noticing certain elements of external surroundings while listening to music and having all kinds of associations and memories in connection to the music may result in a rich, multi-modal, yet unpremeditated sense of absorption (89). On the other hand, music can be used to dissociate from a particular activity, allowing it to proceed automatically (96).

Does the above apply to all music? According to Herbert, in principle, quite dissimilar musics can lead to similar experiences of trancing, absorption, or dissociation. Conversely, the same piece of music can elicit varying experiences on different occasions. (Somehow, this resembles the findings of Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan who contend in Dark Side of the Tune: Popular Music and Violence that essentially every piece of music can generate violence.) Nevertheless, Herbert is a bit hesitant to accept this conclusion. She seems to sympathize with the idea that certain musical features are better equipped to support (not to cause!) trancing: ‘accelerations in tempo, volume increase, repetition and simple variation and slow rate of change and, occasionally, a complex, polyphonic texture’ (157). However, these features never guarantee trancing. The question raised thus remains more or less unanswered.

Why is it that music seems to be so suitable for accompanying or producing these everyday trancing states? For Herbert, a possible explanation can be found in the idea that music lacks prescriptive content: ‘Because it is not a prime means of communication, but a semantically malleable, embedded, portable and literally invisible medium, music is easily customized, and therefore intimately connected with notions of mental self-regulation’ (196). In other words, music is easily heard in particular ways according to the listener’s needs and preoccupations. It may merely be a habitually adopted, ritualistic accessory to imaginative involvement. But music can also interact in more managed and precise ways with certain activities. In the latter case, carefully chosen, familiar music may act to reduce critical awareness, induce an inward focus, specify mood, setting and character (147).

Friday morning, 11:15h … I enter the Gym … The first thing I (consciously) hear is the soothing buzz of the central heating system … On top of this drone I hear some MOR music that I do not recognize. Voices of other visitors enter the soundscape: unclear conversations, laughter, some gasping, as the cardio equipment is nearby … I dislike the music but I never use my portable music set … I dislike the music even though I would not be able to say afterwards what kind of music was playing … I dislike it in advance, and I sometimes wonder if it will harm my brains, my mood, my mental capacities …

AudioObject 2: the gym

Friday afternoon, 14:35 … I am at home alone. I like the relative silence of our house. I like to listen to it. Nevertheless, I turn on the radio after having decided to do some dish washing. There it is: a classic rock station. Although it is not really the music I like to listen to at that moment, I am too lazy to try another one. While cleaning some plates and cups, I suddenly hear myself whistling along with the tune that is played. Strange … paying closer attention to the music, I do not recognize the song. How, then, can I whistle along? I stop, embarrassed, puzzled …

AudioObject 3: listening to the radio while washing dishes

Music’s biological necessity

Although Herbert emphasizes throughout the book that music often plays an important role in alterations of consciousness, she readily admits that these alterations are of course not specific to experiencing music or the arts in general. Monotonous, repetitive, or automatic activities such as long-distance driving, washing up, or working out can encourage a selective, restricted focus and a narrowed awareness that may lead to a changed orientation to reality without music being involved in this process (150). Thus, the question becomes relevant as to why music came into existence and still exists if there is no real difference between trancing with and without it (164).

In order to answer this tricky question, Herbert draws, in this fourth and last stage, on anthropology, evolutionary psychology, ethology, and evolutionary aesthetics. She concludes, albeit cautiously, that the first three scientific disciplines support the notion that humans are biologically predisposed to mundane trancing; these rest episodes are an example of natural and cultural ‘protective mechanisms’ that counteract the detrimental effects of information deprivations or overload (203). In terms of individual wellbeing, trance may promote psychophysiological renewal, innovative thought and imagination, together with insulation or relief from trauma and pain (184).

Imagination, innovative and creative thinking – the link with arts and music seems self-evident. Approvingly Herbert refers to the ethologist Ellen Dissanayake who is not primarily interested in the question of why people have art but, rather, why our ancestors intentionally began to regard things as special and extraordinary. According to Dissanayake, it was (and is) a psychological essential to experience something that is outside order and the ordinary (173). In other words, art arose to meet certain psychological needs. Interactions with the arts necessitate a move away from an ‘ordinary’ state of consciousness, and this move away may be considered a form of trancing (184). And, according to Herbert, the same can be applied to music: ‘from the beginning of history, music was used as a means to access alternate realities and effect consciousness change … [enabling] conceptualization of ways of being in and thinking about the world beyond the everyday’ (178).

Herbert comes full circle by quoting from the work of the South-African archeologist David Lewis-Williams. According to him, artistic creation arose from the act of fixing of imagery witnessed in the altered states of dreaming or ritual trancing. This idea, says Herbert, points towards an affinity between the arts, imagination, shifts of consciousness, as well as the REM stage of sleep, when dreaming is said to take place (180).

From the justification in the beginning of the book for studying subjectively perceived qualities of mundane musical experiences due to a lack of research on this subject, she has arrived at a much better argument: the necessity to study everyday listening experiences because there is a strong link between these and forms of trancing, which can be regarded as a psychobiological human need for brief periods of rest and recuperation.


History, philosophy, anthropology, medicine, biology, artistic research, and (cognitive) psychology – the past decades have shown an increasing interest in listening from a heterogeneous field of scholarly research. Serious attention to mundane listening experiences is an equally young field of research. The work on this subject that started around the beginning of the new millennium by people like Tia DeNora, John Sloboda, and Michael Bull in the UK, Jean-Paul Thibaud and Alain Corbin in France, and Karin Bijsterveld in The Netherlands, is continued with this book by Ruth Herbert. Continued and increased: more so than her predecessors, she describes many different listening attitudes in a systematic way and focuses on everyday music listening episodes as lived mental experiences. It is up to a next scholar to map the possibly (and probably) heterogeneous character of listening to music in settings that usually seem to require and presuppose full attention.

While putting the final strokes to this review, I was invited to give a short lecture based on a recently composed sound walk in Rotterdam. A common idea behind this art form is that walking through a city with headphones on, which provide you with audio information that somehow deviates from the information you would get without them, makes you more aware of the environment. My experience after having done many sound walks is that – especially right after the walk – you become more sensitive to the many and very diverse audible impulses that surround you: what once were habitual sounds, occurring almost unnoticed or only registered unconsciously, might become part of a fascinating musical composition with rich layers of timbre deserving aural scrutinizing and respectful attention. (Is this, trying to follow Herbert’s line of reasoning, a switch from everyday listening to concert-hall listening or is it a shift taking place within everyday listening experiences?)

As a result of these sound walks, my aural perceptivity has increased over the years; I simply seem to be hearing more and listening better.

During the sound walks, however, my attention shifts almost constantly between the sounds on the headphones and Herbert’s ‘other things’ such as environmental sounds, visual and tactile experiences, inner associations, tangential thought, and my corporeal state. (This might be Herbert’s dipping in and out mode of listening, a constant switch between an internal and external focus, between the sonic and the tactile, between the sonic and the visual.)

AudioObject 4: the sonic environment while doing the sound walk 

Marcel Cobussen is senior researcher and lecturer at the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Department of Humanities, Leiden University, the Netherlands. He is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Sonic Studies.