Being Musically Attuned: The Act of Listening to Music - Erik Wallrup. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2015


By Marcel Cobussen

Being Musically Attuned, written by the Swedish musicologist Erik Wallrup is a rich and well-informed book about how music tunes listeners “in a primordial way.” In other words, attunement is primordial in the act of listening. The musical world invades the listener; the world becomes musicalized (127). The listener is affected by the acoustical milieu; the music shapes the space and s/he becomes situated by the music (32).

Wallrup carefully stresses the important point that listening “in the attunemental mode” thus fundamentally differs from musical analysis: it is not tearing the music apart (135) and, therefore, should be regarded as a non-structural, non-technical way of listening (4). Attunement does not start with knowledge – it comes over the listener; one does not have to understand what one hears. Wallrup’s term “attunement” comes from the German word “Stimmung,” and the first part of the book gives an historical overview of the different meanings this word got from various authors (e.g. Kant, Herder, Wackenroder, Schumann, and, of course, Heidegger, who based a substantial part of his thinking on this concept: Dasein – let’s say the human subject – cannot not be “gestimmt”; Stimmung is constitutive for Dasein).

How music attunes its listeners and what kind of “Stimmung” listeners are brought into by music is elaborated throughout the book through many examples. Although Wallrup excuses himself for dealing only with Western “art music,” his examples at least cover a substantial part of the Western “classical” tradition from the early 18th till the late 20th century: Bach, Bruckner, Rihm, La Monte Young, and Nono are but a few composers whose music is analyzed by Wallrup in order to make clear how attunement “works.” The final chapter “Aftersong” concentrates mostly on Hindustani classical music and how attunement is hard to achieve once a listener cannot open her- or himself for these sounds, structures, and cultural world in general.

The amount of books on listening has been growing steadily during the past decades: authors such as Karin Bijsterveld, Jean-Luc Nancy, John Sloboda, Tia DeNora, Eric Clarke, and Ruth Herbert have all researched and published about listening, im- or explicitly criticizing an almost exclusive focus on structural listening in less recent musicological works. The question is if Wallrup fits into this list as well. Although he emphasizes the thesis that an attunemental listening mode has (almost) nothing in common with structural listening and analysis, his own descriptions of the musical examples show that he finds it rather difficult to leave behind or go beyond those fairly traditional ways of analyzing that involve a listening mode that presupposes a composition as an autonomous entity. Said differently, the road he takes to say something about the kind of “Stimmung” a certain composition might evoke is paved by an analytical methodology which he first needed to reject in order to open up a space for attunemental listening.

Furthermore, already on the first pages of the Introduction, Wallrup accentuates that his point of departure will be everyday musical experiences. However, the way he discusses the musical examples as well as the possibilities to become attuned seem to advocate an attentive listening attitude derived directly from a conventional classical concert setting, while most authors mentioned above have found out that people generally listen to music in a rather pragmatic and instrumental manner: as a means to achieving or transforming an emotional state, as a stimulus for bodily exercises, as a social facilitator, or simply to avoid uncomfortable silences (Clarke 2005: 144; DeNora 2000). In other words, the specific “Stimmung” is codetermined by the capacities and needs of the perceiver and the opportunities of the environment (Clarke 2005: 139). This more ecological approach is in sharp contrast to Wallrup’s attunement theory, which assumes a passive listening instead of an active attitude. Even though he sometimes speaks of a resonance between the listener and the musical work, Wallrup insists that a “reflective and productive” listening mode falls outside his concept of attunement: “the attunement comes over the listener […] the listener finds him- or herself wrapped up in something” (195). In my opinion, the idea of resonance – at least how it is used by Jean-Luc Nancy – indicates a more reciprocal relation between listener and music than Wallrup suggests. Attunement happens (or doesn’t happen) in the encounter between listener and music, and in this encounter both are active as well as passive.

In short, I do agree with Wallrup that attunement, a being-with and being-touched-by a musical work before analysis or the designation of structural elements, determines a listener’s relation to this work. I also consent that music has an enormous influence on how a subject experiences her or his environment: the sonic unquestionably affects the atmosphere of a specific space. However, simultaneously, music is also “situated” by a listener, which Wallrup also admits when he writes about how Bach’s Kunst der Fuge can be “used” by someone as a stimulant, e.g. for “mood-management” (147).

“Being musically attuned” is a concept that certainly deserves more attention, but I would like to read other authors taking it into directions differing from the ones proposed by Wallrup.