Listening intentions part 1: It is all about attitude

Nameless sounds
In the last post I promise to talk a little bit about listening intentions. The background for this term is found in the development of the electroacoustic music in the late 1940s. With the electroacoustic music composers and musicians were faced with a brand-new sound-world, the world of recorded sounds, which, for the time being, lacked a terminology.

In order to talk about music you need words to name the different parts of it. In traditional music there is a wealth of terminology for elements such as pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamics and tone which can all be used in order to put our experience of the music into words. But what happens when you are suddenly given a new set of toys which gives you the possibility to create sounds that does not fit into the previous models of what we consider “music”? What terms do you use for the sound of ice being crunched under a boot? Or a keychain hitting a sement floor? Or the drumming of train wheels hitting iron rails?

Have a try yourself: what words would you use to describe what you have just heard?

The clip you have (maybe) just heard were made by Pierre Schaeffer, creator of the phenomenon Musique Concrete, you can read more about that here .P schaeffer In addition to composing with recorded sounds Schaeffer also sought a way to analyze and talk about this strange new sound-world. The noise-loving Composer s approach to the music was a typical phenomenological one, meaning that he sought to describe and reflect upon the sound-experiences rather than to explain them. The main focus was: how to name the new nameless sounds within the music. In Norway this approach was continued within the Aural Sonology Project at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo led by the two composers Lasse Thoresen (a great Norwegian composer whom I was lucky enough to have as my mentor when I wrote my Master thesis at the conservatory) and Olav Anton Thommesen.

The Frenchman François Delalande took this research a step further. While Schaeffer’s main interest was the musical objects themselves and how to name them, Delalande was more interested in music appreciation in general. Through interviews with listeners he identified six types of reception behaviour or what we might call listening intentions. Through his research he found evidence that a listener might favour a specific listening intention regardless of the type of music he or she listens to. At the same time through experiments it became obvious that a person’s listening intentions might be “open for negotiations”, in other words: we ourselves have the ability to change them.

So what is needed in order to make a conscious choice in the way we listen?

Change your perception – change your world
Two things.

One: that we have knowledge of the fact that there are different listening intentions available,
and two: that we are able to make a specific change in our everyday way of perception. Now this change is concerned with how we perceive things in general, not only music.

Every day we experience the world through our senses, from the touch of a door handle and the sight of a view to the scent of a flower. These experiences are a natural result of having functional senses and living in the world of today. We respond to these experiences in different ways: speaking of them, acting or reacting upon them. They might trigger emotional responses of different kinds in us (some things might appear attractive, others things repellent) and the reasons for these different responses might be more or less subconscious.

Within the subject of phenomenology this way of perception is called the Natural Attitude. It might seem strange that this natural way of experiencing the world might be called an “attitude” but the reason is that there exists another way, another “attitude” towards reality.

As humans we have the possibility of not only having a sensory experience, but at the same time to take a “step back” and watch ourselves have the experience and reflect upon how the experience affects us. Instead of simply smelling the flower I observe myself smelling the flower and at the same time I observe how “I” react to the smell.blomster This is called the Phenomenological Attitude and when moving into this attitude we become philosophers and mystics reflecting upon everything that presents itself to us instead of merely acting upon it (be it the smell of a flower, our own stream of thoughts during meditation or a piece of music).


Yes, but I don’t like that kind of music
A subject´s way of listening is a highly personal and individual matter. 100 people might be listening to the same performance and each of them might experience a unique reaction towards what they have just heard. Each of these experiences are equally valid and important to the person experiencing it.

The point of listening intentions is not to enable us to give the “correct” interpretation of a piece of music but rather to open up different routes into the music. Either consciously or subconsciously a lot of people might have a tendency to think: “the music has to be in a particular way for me to be able to enjoy it“. A more uncommon idea is that maybe “I” as a listener have to listen in a certain way in order to be able to fully experience music of this particular kind.

As I mentioned earlier: listening is not a natural gift that follows the ability to hear, but rather an acquired skill that must be honed in order to be developed. So, as we have just talked about: what is needed is the right attitude (the phenomenological one) and a wee bit of knowledge concerning listening intentions. So here goes:

Selected listening intentions according to Delalande
Lastly in this blog post we are going to look at one of Mr Delalande’s listening intentions. The others will follow in a later post. I’m going to present you with a specific type of listening intention that is very common among musicians.

#Taxonomic listening
Taxonomic listening is concerned with form and analysis. In this type of listening intention we focus on the abstract music itself and the architecture within it. For musicians the knowledge of musical form (i.e. the structure or plan along which a piece of music is constructed) is essential both in analysis and in performance.


When we adopt a taxonomic listening intention we recognise and subtract parts of the music, we compare it to other parts and we look for an overall shape or logical form.

How do you convey meaning through music? In the beginning the meaning of music was mainly conveyed through its text but from around 1700 instrumental music had developed to a great degree and musical forms was beginning to replace text as the meaning conveyor. The concert audiences at this time in history were mainly from the upper classes of European society as concerts at this time were not yet a public spectacle. People from the upper classes were often given a general tuition by house-teachers which consisted among other things of knowledge of literature and music.

Today taxonomic listening is not that normal among listeners except by those who have had a musical education. During the classical period however, (a musical period primarily associated with the names of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) the taxonomic listening perspective was somewhat of a standard as audiences discussed and took delight in discovering and observing a comprehensible musical landscape organised according to general musical forms; forms which were recognised by everybody at the time who listened seriously to music.

Natural limits
Of course, in order for this type of listening to be possible it is often necessary that the music fulfil certain criteria. The composer Arnold Schoenberg once said:

“To be concerned with form is taking into account man’s limited powers of understanding; as he is unable to keep in mind very long time stretches, the musical discourse must be subdivided into manageable segments. However, these shorter segments must again be joined to the others in such a way that one segment presupposes the other and vice versa (…).”

For those of you who got stuck in the part about “man’s limited powers of understanding” no, this is not meant as an insult, it merely points to the fact that all of us are in the possession of a short-term memory which, being short-term, has certain limitations: it has an upper limit of 7 objects at a time, give or take a few (this is why we always memorize 0ur phone number like this: 122 33 455 instead of like this: 1 2 2 3 3 4 5 5 ).

When using a taxonomic listening intention our short-term memory is actively at work. In the standard diagram of the sonata form shown above the principal subject is repeated in the recapitulation. In order for me to experience that I need to be able to remember the principal subject, and it is the composer’s responsibility to make sure that I do. How does he do this? By making sure that it is, in the words of Schoenberg, “manageable” (i.e. short enough) and by repeating it.

Just look at the beginning of Beethoves 5th Symphony and you get the picture. That motif and that theme sticks


It is however are also possible to use a taxonomic listening intention in the encounter of more modern music.

In the 1960s composers like Penderecki and Ligeti came up with a kind of music unlike anything ever heard before. This was music as mass, as process, as development. All ideas of motif and themes were discarded in favour of gigantic constructions of sound, often built by adding layer upon layer of voices a quarter tone apart.

But still, even if we don’t have any recognisable themes or motifs it is still possible to listen to this kind of music with a taxonomic intention. We will take a quick tour through this great and terrible piece of music. Keep an eye on the timer and look at the points below:

  • From the beginning at 00:07 – a static layer is developed by adding more and more voices.
  • At 00:23 the intensity receides and the layer is given a more flexible and moving texture as the strings start playing tremolos instead of repeated static pitches.
  • At 00:43 there is a sharp break as the middle part of the mass is drawn back and we are left with a thin sliver of sound in the upper and lower register forming a shimmering frame.
  • Then, at 00:55 a new layer slowly developes within this frame, one whose texture is more chaotic, uneven and rough, consisting of percussive sounds and sliding. squeeking noises. Gradually these noises are increased by adding more and more voices from the thin static frames until they form a complete tapestry of writhing mass which increases until it abruptly ends at 01:57.
  • 01:57 Now we are left with a static ribbon of sound which is slowly streached in both directions like a piece of wet cloth before it recedes again.
  • At 02:08 a new ribbon is introduced, this one also spreading out like aquarell paint diluted in water. And so on and so on….

I do not know how this works in writing but I have used this sort of guided listening at lectures and it seemed to give people a sense of this kind of form-and-structure-listening that taxonomic listening intention is all about. Personally this is one of my favourite ways of listening but then I am a bit of a structure-maniac who always loved geometry in school…

Interested in more? The next post will be about Emphatic and Figurative listening intentions.

One thought on “Listening intentions part 1: It is all about attitude

  1. leelotchka44 says:

    “Change your perception – change your world
    Two things.”
    This is the very essence of so many spiritual traditions – and foremost “A Course in Miracles.” This text expands it for me, and I love the examples. I would love to attend one of your lectures.
    I also remember how in my education as an expressive Arts Therapist used improvisations with sounds like Pierre Schaeffer. We found a great way to expand the musical experience: we told stories that came to us as we listened – so there were no discussions, the expressive modality was expanded by wandering form one form to another.

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