On listening (as a creative task in musical performances)

Lionello Balestrieri "Listening to Beethoven"
Lionello Balestrieri “Beethoven” (1900)

What can happen when we listen to music sitting quietly? What can be the effect of music during a concert that takes place in a condition of “worshipful silence” [1], as it has been established in Western culture since the 19th century? With the recent increase of interest in the act of listening in several artistic and scientific fields, these questions are addressed focusing on its role and significance on music-making and audience engagement.

The audience’s silence is not static or passive but an intensive way of participation. The listener becomes an additional and arguably equally contributing performer where, as composer Alvin Lucier suggests, “Careful listening is more important than making sounds happen” [2]. Listening is a creative and active act, necessary to bring the musical work into existence. Audiences in concerts are not merely passive consumers but, as additional performers of the work, they become co-creators who give meaning and shape to it [3]. But where does this participatory listening lead to? What can be its purpose and potential?

In her book Deep Listeners [4] Judith Becker, a scholar and researcher of musical and religious studies, suggests that listening outside a religious context can, nonetheless, create a religious emotion, mainly that of a connection with a divine power. She argues that people who submerge into deep emotional experiences while listening to music can share similar characteristics with those who fall into trance and reach higher states of consciousness during a ritual with religious context. She links the secular listeners, the “deep listeners” as she calls them, to the “ecstatics”, the participants of sacred rituals, claiming that both groups are potential “trancers” (another term coined by Becker) who respond strongly to the stimuli of music by experiencing an intense arousal of emotions. This emotional response is “characterized by focus, by duration, by limiting the sense of self, and by the surety of special knowledge – the gnosis of trancing” [5]. After relevant scientific research Becker concludes that the brains of both groups of people, Deep Listeners and Ecstatics, produce similar neurochemical reactions. Secular listening provides access to hidden worlds, invisible and intangible, like the spirits summoned in religious rituals. In both cases, music “invokes a realm of unseen power and limitless extension” [6].

The connection between religious profoundness and listening to music is widely discussed among scholars and practitioners. Music making in Western culture takes place, at least partly, in concert halls which author and musicologist Christopher Small compares to churches and describes both as “ritual buildings” [7]. In a similar manner, psychologist Anthony Storr reminds us that Nietzsche considered the concert hall a place where the divine can be encountered [8]. Additionally, percussionist and improvising musician Eddie Prévost claims that the shaman and the priest have been substituted by the conductor and the soloist and the donation box by the ticket office. Furthermore, he describes the origin of the concert as a “sublime moment of primal consciousness” [9].

In consequence, the importance of a musical performance can shift from what we hear, or how we generate and organize sound, to how we listen. Listening thus becomes a task, a challenge that can provide a way of entering deeper realms of perception. Moreover, it is a tool for transformation, of expanding consciousness to a higher state and reaching the sublime. It is a way of exploring the invisible, of creating and entering a spirit world. Therefore, the value of the musical work emerges from its use, the listening process, and not from its production as a fixed object. In a similar manner, the concert is transfigured from simply a platform of presenting works into an opportunity for profound intellectual and emotional experience.

Refocusing on the importance of listening might aid in clarifying what contemporary music aims to communicate and therefore identify the “why” of the work [10]. This has great significance especially since nowadays music often appears to drown into inaccessible self-referential realms. The silent listening of the Western concert can provide the condition to disregard the current cultural cynicism and the frenzied overflow of information and instead discover and express archetypical emotions and metaphysical concerns. Concertgoers are indeed trancers (a word that originates from the Latin word transire) in the sense that they pass through to other worlds. These ghostly worlds can be created, reached and appreciated intellectually and physically and hopefully become an intimate part of our reality.

Yiorgis Sakellariou
London, June 2016

References and notes

  1. The term is used by David Hendy in his book Noise – a human history of sound and listening (London: Profile Books, 2013) p. 236.
  2. Lucier’s quote was found in C. Cox & D. Warner’s Audio Culture – Readings in modern music. (New York & London: Continuum, 2004) p. 63.
  3. This is not new in Western culture. As author and theologian Bruce Ellis Benson notes, this approach was already essential in baroque music performance (The improvisation of musical dialogue – A phenomenology of music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 23.
  4. Becker Deep listeners – Music, emotion and trancing (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2004)
  5. Ibid p. 68.
  6. Ibid p. 106.
  7. Small Musicking – The meanings and performance of music (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1998) p. 108.
  8. Storr Music and the mind (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992) p. 155.
  9. Prévost The first concert – An adaptive appraisal of a Meta Music (Essex: Copula, 2011) p. 5.
  10. I am mainly referring to the so-called “art” music – for a lack of a better term – which perhaps can include any music that requires worshipful silence to be performed.


Yiorgis Sakellariou

Sound artist, manager of the Echomusic label.