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Tracing Conceptual Structures in Listener Response Studies

Listener response studies offer an opportunity to further our understanding of the ways in which listeners construct a relationship with a work of electroacoustic music. Focusing on conceptual structures anchoring the relationship between listener and work, a listening survey using original excerpts of electroacoustic music was constructed and disseminated to listeners of various levels of familiarity with electroacoustic music. A cognitive linguistic-inspired analysis methodology allowed the gleaning of several conceptual structures through examination of language used in listener responses. Several structures relating to subject positioning, place-images, movement, ecological signification and bodily responses are identified below.

Listener Responses Studies and the Liminality of the “Work”

At their best and most necessary form, listener responses studies attempt to uncover features of the relationship created between listeners and a composed work of music. In this sense, listener response studies may (somewhat controversially) invert the political relationship between the composer-as-producer and listener-as-consumer: that is, the responsibility of “understanding” a given work (whatever that may mean) is placed squarely on the listener, encouraging a sense of self-determining enactment of a musical work, rather than the mere “reading” of it.

The study of responses resulting from listener response studies may advance our understanding of the activity of listening: the ways in which individual subjective responses emerge, as well as manners of understanding common to all listeners. This focus seems particularly pertinent to electroacoustic music, a form of contemporary music often reported as strange and unsettling to unfamiliar listeners (cf. McCartney 1999). Listener response studies, however, need not be viewed as attempts to justify or vilify particular artistic practices. Rather, they are attempts at understanding ways of listening, with each composer choosing whether or not this understanding informs artistic practice. In manners of æsthetic choices, however, I would suggest that awareness seems preferable to blissful ignorance.

Unfortunately, listener response studies are far and few between. Electroacoustic music scholarship offers two widely recognized, fully-developed listener response studies: Andra McCartney’s examination of listener responses to the works of Hildegard Westerkamp (McCartney 1999) and Landy and Weale’s aptly named Intention / Reception Project (Weale 2006, Landy 2007). In the former study, listener responses were analyzed to uncover issues relating to gender and cultural constitution, as well as perceptions of narrative, while the latter examines issues of accessibility in relation to traces of the composer’s intentions, communicated primarily through programme notes and contextual information.

Both studies provide interesting conclusions to composers and researchers working in the electroacoustic medium, especially those concerned with compositions utilizing recognizable, real-world sound materials. However, despite their strengths, both studies cited above focus on high-level features of the relationship between listener, work and composer: for instance, the recognizability and meaning of sound sources, the perception of narrative and the overall notion of accessibility. These high-level features tend to exhibit a great variety of subjective variability, differing wildly from person to person. As such, the resulting body of responses is difficult to treat systematically. In fact, it is difficult to learn much about the activity of listening other than to ascertain that it is highly subjective. In contrast to the aforementioned studies’ focus on specific individual responses, the listener response study described in this paper aims to examine the underlying conceptual structures from which specific responses emerge. As such, I am more concerned with the processes through which listeners construct a relationship between themselves and the work than with the particular relationship reported by a singular listener.

My approach to listener response studies thus re-casts the relationship between a listener and an electroacoustic composition as one of mutual construction. That is, the experience of an electroacoustic work is co-produced collaboratively by both listener and composer. Any electroacoustic composition (but in particular, compositions using recognizable real-world sounds) creates a liminal space for listeners to reinterpret sounds “in relation to their prior experience” (McCartney 1999, 356). This view of listening as an active, participatory and performative act destabilizes the notion of fixity often attributed to works of electroacoustic music as well as the role of the composer as “transmitter” of information. Rather, I propose a re-conception of an electroacoustic work, from a collection of fixed sound events signifying composer intent, to a liminal space, a virtuality: a world, the nature of which is negotiated actively and dynamically by the listener.

Listening, in this sense, is an activity of engagement with the virtual world offered by the composition, an apprehension of the familiar unfamiliar. Viewed in this manner, listener response studies thus offer the opportunity to ask how do listeners of various backgrounds construct a relationship with a work of electroacoustic music? How do listeners orient themselves towards the composition-as-world? And finally, what are the common and differing conceptual structures anchoring this relationship?

Analysis Methodology

My analysis methodology is guided by the notion that listening is not a neutral, passive activity; like all perceptual modalities, it is both made possible and constrained by “conceptual understanding across a multitude of cognitive domains” (Varela 1999, 16). Since listener responses are articulated either verbally or in text, it is fair to suggest that at least some of these underlying conceptual structuring processes can be gleaned from a critical examination of the language found in a listener’s reported experience of electroacoustic music.

Language, according to the experientialist approach, emerges from “the structured nature of bodily experience and… our capacity to imaginatively project [structured bodily experience] to abstract conceptual structures” (Lakoff 1988, 121). In this sense, “most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 454). In turn, the syntax of language can be regarded as both providing and manifesting “semantic and functional motivations,” as well as “indicating… relationships based both on form and on meaning” (Lakoff 1988, 122). Consider, for example, the extension of “in” and “out” metaphors from our bodily experience as “containers with an inside and outside” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 477): as the physical metaphor is extended to non-physical contexts — for instance, being in love (Ibid.) — it is imbued with metaphorical meaning that is both guided by physical experience and traceable through the linguistic use of extended physical metaphor.

Since everyday language emerges from our experience of the world, perhaps we can reverse engineer this process, tracing the manner in which listeners experience the virtual world of an electroacoustic composition through the language used to describe it. A linguistic investigation of a listener’s reported experience — an examination of personal pronouns, nouns, tenses, metaphors and sentence structures — can thus reveal some of the ways in which the experience itself has been cognitively structured, the manner in which listening was enacted. In turn, a partial revealing of the cognitive structures governing a listening experience may allow a greater understanding of the processes which comprise the listener’s negotiation of meaning.

Throughout my analysis of the language used in listener responses to particular electroacoustic source material, I will emphasise the tracing of structural tendencies, rather than the exploration of specific individual responses. Furthermore, attention will be placed on differences and similarities of structural tendencies which may be attributed to various degrees of familiarity with the electroacoustic medium.

Survey Methodology

In order to examine the language of listener responses to electroacoustic music, I constructed an online listener-response survey in Fall 2010. In contrast to the use of existing works of electroacoustic music in listener response studies by McCartney (1999) and Landy and Weale (2006; 2007), I decided to create a series of short excerpts of electroacoustic music designed specifically for this study. This decision was taken partially in order to maintain focus on the listener’s response to the work rather than their relation to a particular compositional intent.

Compositional excerpts were created using a mixture of recognizable, real-world field recordings, processed recordings and synthetic pitched materials. Several excerpts exhibit phonographic approaches, while others involve sound-image transformations (i.e. sonic transmutation between two recognizable sounds) or interplay between synthetic pitched materials and concrète materials. The excerpts contained some repeating sounds — for instance, the sound of footsteps — while other sounds appeared only once.

Seven excerpts were selected for inclusion in the survey (see below for excerpts). All selected excerpts ranged were relatively short in duration, ranging between 30 seconds and three and a half minutes. Short excerpt lengths were implemented in order to accommodate unfamiliar listeners who may be unaccustomed to longer periods of listening, and would thus exhibit negative bias against longer excerpts. The selected excerpts were integrated and embedded in an online survey. Each embedded excerpt was followed by an open response section in which listeners could write their impressions before moving on to the subsequent excerpt. Excerpts were arranged by order of complexity: shorter excerpts utilizing mostly phonographic sound materials were placed previous to longer excerpts utilizing a wider range of sound materials.

Before the start of the survey, subjects in the study were given instructions to listen to each excerpt and describe affective, imaginal or other responses to these sonic excerpts. Listeners were instructed to write their answers in prose, point-form or poetic means, as they felt appropriate. These minimal instructions were designed to allow unfamiliar listeners (who lack training in electroacoustic or contemporary music and therefore a known descriptive vocabulary) to respond in their own language, using their own expertise; that is, allowing them to answer in their own voice without privileging analytical-musical responses as an “appropriate” language to discuss the compositional excerpts. The use of pseudonyms for self-identification of listeners was similarly implemented as a design feature to encourage honest, personal responses without personal or professional implications. In addition to identification via pseudonym, responders were asked to identify their age, profession, relevant education and personal familiarity with electroacoustic music.

Following the completion of the compositional excerpts and the design of the online survey, I disseminated the survey through the <cec-conference> email listserv, which has an almost 700-strong international membership. Additionally, I disseminated the survey to several instructors of first-year electroacoustic courses at Concordia University (Montréal QC) and Simon Fraser University (Vancouver BC). Finally, the survey was disseminated to a dozen personal contacts who were mostly unfamiliar with electroacoustic music.

The survey remained online for a period of ten days in November 2010. During this relatively short period, 21 responses were received. While responses were received from various locations around the world, a significant number (9 of 21) were received from Montréal. Overall, responders were primarily male (19 of 21) professionals or students, many of whom (14 of 21) are working or studying in the field of electroacoustics. Most responders were relatively young, between 20 and 30 (10 of 21) or between 31 and 40 (8 of 21). Listeners reviewed excerpts exclusively through headphones or small speakers in their homes or offices. Since a third of responders (7 of 21) were either somewhat familiar or not at all familiar with electroacoustic music, comparison between the listening habits of familiar and unfamiliar listener groups is possible.

Following the collection of listener surveys, the body of responses was analyzed for structural tendencies in the use of personal pronouns and tenses, repeated keywords and ideas, as well as the use of metaphors. Following an initial analysis, structural tendencies in responses were reviewed and pursued in a second round of analysis. The subsequent use of quotations from listener responses are purposely unedited, with spelling and grammatical maintained to reflect the personal “voice” of the responder, as well as maintaining clues as to the background, language proficiency and cultural background of responders (akin to the maintaining of paralinguistic signifiers in analysis of recorded responses). In the interest of clarity, emphasis is occasionally added by the author to highlight relevant features in the response.

Audio Excerpts Used in the Study

Audio 1 (0:36). Compositional excerpt #1 from the author’s listener response study.
Audio 2 (0:47). Compositional excerpt #2 from the author’s listener response study.
Audio 3 (0:50). Compositional excerpt #3 from the author’s listener response study.
Audio 4 (1:05). Compositional excerpt #4 from the author’s listener response study.
Audio 5 (1:30). Compositional excerpt #5 from the author’s listener response study.
Audio 6 (1:01). Compositional excerpt #6 from the author’s listener response study.
Audio 7 (3:37). Compositional excerpt #7 from the author’s listener response study.

Conceptual Structures in Listener Responses

Throughout my analysis of listener responses, I have identified several underlying conceptual structures common to most, if not all, listeners. I have ordered them below based on the degree of influence and constraint exerted on subsequent structures or subsequent subjective responses. That is, the most influential deep-seated structures precede higher-level structures.

Subject Positioning

The primary conceptual structure found in all listener responses involves the positioning of the listening-self in relation to the sonic media: that is, the subject positioning from which “a person inevitably sees the world… in terms [of] particular images, metaphors, storylines and concepts” (Davies and Harré 1990, 46). Any resulting process of meaning creation depends on the listener’s subject positioning, the perspective from which they view “a series of ongoing related meaning events in which one’s world stands forth” (Johnson 1987, 175). In an inversion of Descartes maxim, subject positioning of the listening-self can be framed through the question “I listen, therefore who am I?”

Subject positioning can be gleaned from a listener’s written response through an examination of the personal pronouns utilized. Throughout my analysis I have uncovered three main types of subject positioning: external, internal and double external.

Most listeners established an external subject position in relation to the media and the “sonic actors” (sounds of human and non-human agency) within it. That is, listeners position themselves as external agents who are observing or listening to a world in which they do not directly participate. Ray Cathode (64 years old, male, sound art practitioner, living in Toronto) describes the experience as “like watching a movie without seeing it.” Likewise, Leif (37, male, unfamiliar listener, Montréal) describes “a feeling of being outside, watching it happen, while being an ‘insider’ enough to see ‘backstage’.”

Although analytical listening skills are of great importance to practitioners, the consistent double externalization of subject positioning — and the lack of self-awareness concerning this habit — raises questions with regards to the culture of listening created by such pedagogical practice.

Several listeners adopted an internal subject positioning, placing themselves “within” the sonic world. However, this subject positioning was relatively unstable and tended to shift to external positioning throughout their responses. For instance, clipitar (28, male, somewhat familiar non-practitioner, Montréal) describes his experience in an early excerpt as “i’m in an airport and I hear my name uninterestingly called on the speakerphones” [emphasis added by author]; the use of personal pronouns support the image of immersion in a sonic world. However, responding to a later excerpt, clipitar shifts to an external subject positioning: “The lonely pianist walking away from its concert solo People are talking, but nobody notices him.” That is, the sounds clipitar self-identified with as the traces of his own activity within the sonic world (footsteps) are externalised, becoming the traces of a third party which clipitar — as an external observer — may attend to. Similarly, Fran (34, male, practitioner, Spain) exhibits internal subject positioning before shifting to an external subject position within a single excerpt response: “i’m [sic] in an empty museum… a door closes in the corridor. he keeps on walking in the same cold empty museum… they all are there hidden in his feet” [emphasis added to highlight the shift in subject positioning]. Internal subject positioning did not correlate to listening situation (i.e. use of headphones) or level of familiarity with the medium of electroacoustics.

Several practitioners of electroacoustic music exhibited a double externalization of subject positioning. That is, these listener responses exhibited not only an external positioning with regards to the sonic world they were describing, but in addition, an external position to the very activity of listening: a third-person awareness of their own listening. AndyReeman (22, male, student, UK) externalized not only the sonic world, but also the listening perspective, first as a technical apparatus — “our reference point is static but the sound is moving,” followed by descriptions of watching / listening through “our camera / microphone” — and later anthropomorphizing the technical apparatus: “our observer is above the person” [emphasis by author]. Similarly, Logan (22, male, student, Vancouver) externalizes the very act of listening, referring to his listening-self in the third person: “Upon repeated listenings… there is a sense of ‘moving toward’ the listener… you are ‘alone’ with whomever is generating the footsteps” [emphasis by author].

It is noteworthy that the two responders adopting a double externalization of subject positioning were students of electroacoustic music and that both provided detailed and thoughtful responses to the survey. It is likely that the double externalization of subject positioning is directly correlated to the practice of analytical listening encouraged in academic musical practice. Although analytical listening skills are of great importance to practitioners, the consistent double externalization of subject positioning — and the lack of self-awareness concerning this habit — raises questions with regards to the culture of listening created by such pedagogical practice. At the very least, this type of subject positioning highlights the manner in which the activity of listening is influenced by both intentionality and ideology; our listening is limited in relation to our listening intentions.

Place Images and Movement Metaphors

Following the listener’s establishment of subject position in relation to the electroacoustic media, the newly formed listening-subject must be placed in a virtual location. All listeners exhibited descriptions of “place images” (McCartney 1999, 322) in the selected excerpts. Often, these place images were motivated by spatial cues such as reverberation and equalization. Spatially motivated place images were highly correlated between both familiar and unfamiliar listeners. Larger, reverberant spaces were described varyingly as an “empty hall”, “underpass?”, “concert hall through a narrow corridor”, “hallway”, “cold empty museum”, “empty train station”, “airport” or a “subway tunnel”. Smaller, intimate and less reverberant spaces were not as prominent in descriptions, but were referred to by some listeners using place images such as a “log cabin” or “office”.

Other place images were motivated by specific sound-images, rather than spatial cues. For instance, the sound-image transformation of footsteps to the clapping of a large crowd in excerpt 3 resulted in the reporting of several sports-related sound images. The subsequent place-images described by listeners were highly motivated by this sports-related theme, and included descriptions of a “Colloseum,” [sic] “football match,” “basketball stadium,” and a “sports field… empty arena.” Such descriptions are striking given the singular motivating sound-source (crowds clapping), and the manner in which the protagonist “character” (embodied by footsteps) was “re-cast” as an athlete or gladiator, corresponding to the thematic place-images. In contrast to place-images motivated by spatial cues, which may change through real-time response to acoustic features, place images motivated by sound-images are “sticky”: despite the singular occurrence of the motivating sound-image, once established, a place image “sticks” in the memory of the subject and influences his or her description of subsequent audio excerpts.

Transitions between spatial settings, place images or transformations between sound-images were consistently rationalized through the use of movement metaphors. Yo (33, male, practitioner, Montréal) exhibits the use of physical movement metaphors in his description of a particular sound which “gives a feeling of a souvenir, of going back in time, looking backwards… and after that it’s like going flying rapidly” [emphasis by author]. Other descriptions of movement were highly metaphoric: “strong movement towards some kind of interior… move from exterior space to internal “mind’” (TonyDanza, 25, female, somewhat familiar non-practitioner, Montréal). In general, the use of movement metaphors to account for change in sonic materials is consistent with Lakoff and Johnson’s “location event-structure” metaphor scheme (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 179).

Ecological and Cultural References

Most listener responses utilized some form of ecological (or cultural-ecological) references to negotiate meaning of particular sonic events and general sonic ambiences. Ecological and cultural references are afforded (in the Gibsonian sense) through musical listening since “[all listeners have] coevolved with a structured environment… [and are thus] especially sensitive to invariants that specify familiar environmental events” (Windsor 2000, 20). Given that most listeners in this study have coevolved in a Western, technological media environment, many of the resulting affordances extend themselves to the techno-cultural realm.

The most common affordance revolved around the metaphor of cinematic experience, often in conjunction with the affirmation of an external subject positioning. Some listeners attributed certain sound events to technological apparatus (for instance, a radio), or to electronic phenomena such as electromagnetic waves. Many listeners used broad cultural descriptors such as science-fiction movies, or the musical genre of “glitch,” while others compared sounds to specific cultural signifiers, such as “The X-Files” and existing musical acts. One listener negotiated the meaning of the entire œuvre of excerpts through the dual cultural reference “the future as imagined from the 1950s” (clipitar, 28, male, somewhat familiar non-practitioner, Montréal).

One particular cultural-ecological reference reported by listeners of all background pertains to the negotiated meaning of pitched sounds. In general, both familiar, musically trained and unfamiliar, untrained listeners attributed meaning to synthetic pitched sounds in one of two ways. Several listeners reported synthetic pitched sounds as musical and emotional carriers (at times anthropomorphised as quasi-human entities or actors) which stand in opposition to concrète or phonographic sounds. However, most listeners reported synthetic pitched sounds as providing an underlying emotional tone, re-casting the meaning of concrète sounds: “the synth made it feel more conceptual, buffering the emotional content” (caca, 23, male, somewhat familiar student, Montréal). Both negotiations of pitched sound (as anthropomorphised entity or as emotional backdrop) correspond to the use of musical material as leitmotifs or emotional signifiers in cinematic sound design: that is, the ecology of cinematic audiovisual practice is utilized to negotiate meaning in the (potentially) unfamiliar medium of electroacoustic music.

Two practitioners of electroacoustic music — plinky planky (44, male, practitioner, Norway) and Logan (22, male, student, Vancouver) — described an enhancement of affective responses due to the inclusion of pitched synthetic drones: “I certainly find the level of abstraction or coloring introduced by the synthetic sound to create a much richer and more interesting atmosphere” (plinky planky); “I feel that the excerpts accompanied by ambience and more æsthetic qualities, i.e. drones, had more affective responses” (Logan). While this sentiment was only articulated by practitioners of electroacoustic music, it is likely shared by unfamiliar listeners, who did tend to include a greater number of affective observations in excerpts which included pitched sounds.

Bodily Responses and Analytical Listening

While listeners of all backgrounds engaged in meaning-negotiation using the aforementioned underlying conceptual structures (subject positioning, place images and movement, and cultural-ecological affordances), only listeners who were unfamiliar with (and untrained in) electroacoustic music reported bodily affect in relation to the excerpts. For instance [emphasis in the following comments added by the author], abcd1234 (29, male, somewhat familiar non-practitioner, Montréal) “Felt very warm, a warm type of feeling… then like I was being slapped as it got sharp, like being snapped out of a dream claustrophobia.” Likewise, ferg (23, female, unfamiliar listener, Montréal) describes “my eyes go side to side, following the sound… my toes tap along… Listening to it makes me feel nervous and my heart quickens… I feel relaxed, my nervousness ebbs.” The negative bodily associations of certain sounds are echoed by Leif (37, male, unfamiliar listener, Montréal): “hollow welling in my chest, mild constriction of my throat, though no images came to mind, my body reacted.”

In all these cases, bodily response is utilized in order to evaluate unfamiliar media, or an altogether unfamiliar listening situation. That is, likely due to the absence of learned analytical listening skills, unfamiliar and untrained listeners utilize bodily affect as a means to appraise sounds and their potential meanings. The negative bodily affect generated by certain sounds — especially, transient sounds, sharp transitions and extreme processing of recognizable sounds — seem to present a particular challenge to the accessibility of acousmatic music, whose musical grammar relies to a great degree on such sounds. Although I am not suggesting the exclusion of such sounds from contemporary electroacoustic works based on listener responses, the awareness of the possible (or, in some cases, probable) reactions of unfamiliar listeners does seem of importance for (at least) some composers.

While bodily responses were reported solely by unfamiliar or untrained listeners, such descriptions were lacking in the responses of familiar, trained listeners. The omission of bodily affect in these responses is most likely due to their training in analytical listening. That is, familiar listeners and practitioners posses an analytical vocabulary of (genre-specific and cross-genre) musical schemas which may be used to evaluate familiar and unfamiliar sounds and sound structures. As well, it is likely that due to the privileging of analytical listening skills in formal musical training, such means of evaluation and meaning-construction are considered “better” or “more appropriate” by practitioners, further contributing to the lack of bodily affect reported by trained listeners.


The listener response study described throughout this paper has allowed the gleaning of several underlying conceptual structures which underpin the relationship between listeners of all backgrounds and a work of electroacoustic music. The negotiation of meaning carried through the activity of listening begins with the establishment of subject positioning (Davis and Harré 1990, 46) in relation to place images (McCartney 1999, 322). Each place image may be constructed through perception of acoustic cues, which change in real time, or through the recognition of specific sound-images, resulting in a “sticky” or temporally extended place image. Movement metaphors are used to account for changes between “place images” or sonic transformation between sound-images. The identity or semantic meaning of specific sounds and general ambiences are negotiated in relation to affordances of the listener’s cultural-ecological environment. Finally, unfamiliar listeners are more likely to evaluate sounds in relation to bodily affect, while practitioners are more likely to evaluate sounds in relation to analytical schemas.

While some of the conceptual structures mentioned seem obvious at first, they may be used to cast new light on listener response studies which concern themselves with higher-level features of the listener’s engagement with a work, such as accessibility, cultural modes of listening and narrative creation. For instance, since subject positioning will affect perception of narrative (or rather, the perspective from which narrative is enacted), we may discover that individual variations on narrative are in fact closer than they first appear due to similar subject positioning. Outside the potential use of these ideas in future listener response studies, I feel that additional engagement with the activity of listening from the perspective of the listener can contribute to a helpful and necessary self-reflection with regards to the medium of electroacoustic composition, our specific culture of listening, and our own performance of listening in both everyday and musical settings.


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Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Lakoff, George. “Cognitive Semantics.” In Meaning and Mental Representations. Edited by Umberto Eco, Marco Santambrogio and Patricia Violi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. “Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language.” Journal of Philosophy 77/8 (August 1980), pp. 453–486.

_____. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

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McCartney, Andra. “Sounding Places: Situated Conversations through the Soundscape Compositions of Hildegard Westerkamp.” Unpublished PhD Thesis. Toronto: York University, 1999.

Varela, Francisco J. Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Weale, Rob. “Discovering How Accessible Electroacoustic Music Can Be: The Intention / Reception Project.” Organised Sound 11/2 (August 2006) “Identity and Analysis,” pp. 189–200.

Windsor, Luke W. “Through and Around the Acousmatic: The Interpretation of electroacoustic sounds.” In Music, Electronic Media and Culture. Edited by Simon Emmerson. London: Ashgate, 2000.

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