2. Sound Waves and Texture


If we were to consider an organism such as a bat that listens as a means of echolocation, then indeed, listening would be a mode of ecological perception analogous to vision in Gibson’s framework. But we do not rely on the qualities of a sound and its reverberant properties solely to reveal the existence of surfaces in the environment. In general, when analyzing music – and often when simply listening to it – such cues are routinely factored out. For example, we note how a Mass might have been composed as a site-specific work, designed to take full advantage of the reverberant properties of the cathedral as performance space. At a concert performance of the same Mass in a different location, a sound mixer may choose to mix reverb into the channels of sound projected into the hall to supplement what might be perceived as a deficiency in the venue’s acoustics. Such an action is concerned with the presentation of a work and is typically considered extraneous to the composition itself.


Nina Sun Eidsheim explains how the extra-notational acoustic dimensions of music – “which may be simply described as the length of the reverb and the sense of clarity” (2015: 61) – play an important role in the activity of listening. We don’t necessarily listen for reverberation, yet if the reverberation times are outside the norm, the music sounds “wrong” (2015: 69). Thus, these compositionally unspecified features of the music’s sound are crucial to our ability to hear music – allowing us to attune ourselves to the elements of musical expression in a work. (A similar act of discernment was necessary to hear music recorded on early phonograph cylinders. Jonathan Sterne describes how listeners became accustomed to hearing through pops and cracks and the medium’s limited dynamic range and frequency response in order to hear “natural” sound [Sterne 2003]). When acoustic conventions are broken, we become conscious of them, leading us to attribute meaning to the non-normative elements (Eidsheim 2015: 61). 

Like light in the air, we normally consider sound to be exceptionally uniform in its distribution throughout a given listening area, reliably decreasing in amplitude as it travels in accordance with the inverse square law. However, when we encounter a musical sound that appears or disappears with a slight movement of the head – or a step in one direction or another – the effect can be surreal and disorienting. Not only are the ordinary listening conventions of concert music broken, but the rapid change in the music challenges our understanding of how sounds behave and even how we hear. Such music forges a link between movement and listening and solicits a participatory, gestural, and peripatetic mode of engagement.