Friday, 19 February 1999

Nicholas Cook: Music, Imagination and Culture (1992)

Edition: Clarendon, 1992
Review number: 214

The focus of this work of musical aesthetics is on the difference between normal and musicological listening. (The latter is defined to mean listening with attention focused on particular aspects of the music, usually structural, rather than letting the music flow over you.) There is a third listening mode, with music as a sort of background hum, as muzak in a supermarket, but Cook does not consider this at length.

Part of the problem with any attempt to understand these types of listening is that the characteristics of normal listening are remarkably hard to determine: just to be told we are taking part in an experiment will change the level of attention that we pay to a piece of music played to us. This is possible to check by experiment, to some extent: Cook relates an experiment where music students were played parts of movements from works in sonata form, and were then asked to say at which point in the form they stopped. When they were not told in advance what they were to be asked, they only performed as well as they would have done if they had been guessing. Given a second try, they answered perfectly. Even though they knew in advance that they would be asked about the music, they had not taken in the structure until they knew the particular type of question they were going to be asked. (This refutes a commonly held view in musical philosophy, which basically says that the difference between the two types of listening considered here is to do with the musical education of the listener - you have to know how to listen properly to get the most out of music.)

All of this, while interesting, says more about how we listen when we're listening abnormally. In the end, this is a book which doesn't answer the questions it raises; instead, it clears away some of the standard, old fashioned ideas about how we listen to music. The field is open for new paradigms to be suggested.

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