Skip to main content Accessibility help

Do Musical Works Contain an Implied Listener? Towards a Theory of Musical Listening

  • John Butt


This study presents the sketch of a theory of musical listening based on historical considerations of the role of music in Western culture. A universal element of musical listening might lie in the notion that all music is the product of a fundamental human capacity to hear, harnessed in countless ways by diverse cultures. Secondly, there is the type of music, covering very broad historical and cultural boundaries, that presupposes attentive listening or even a participating audience; this is perhaps the simplest and most familiar category, at least in the West. Finally, there is the range of music that might contain an ‘implied listener’, something which I suggest is much more elusive, with specific historical and cultural boundaries within Western modernity. While this sense of the implied listener – someone developing the sense of a consistent and unitary self over time – is understandable today and might well still be employed in a broad range of new music, I would suggest that it now reflects only one way of being human among an alarmingly broad array of choices.



Hide All

1 The recent literature on the ‘work-concept’, and the degree to which it is a historically conditioned category, is extensive. Seminal contributions include Carl Dahlhaus, Grundlagen der Musikgeschichte (Cologne, 1977), trans. J. B. Robinson as Foundations of Music History (Cambridge, 1983); Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford, 1992); eadem, ‘“On the Problems of Dating” or “Looking Backward and Forward with Strohm”’, The Musical Work: Reality or Invention?, ed. Michael Talbot (Liverpool, 2000), 231–46; Heinz von Loesch, Der Werkbegriff in der protestantischen Musiktheorie des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts: Ein Mißverständnis (Hildesheim, 2001); Harold S. Powers, ‘A Canonical Museum of Imaginary Music’, Current Musicology, 60–1 (1996), 5–25; Reinhard Strohm, ‘Looking Back at Ourselves: The Problem with the Musical Work-Concept’, The Musical Work, ed. Talbot, 128–52; Walter Wiora, Das musikalische Kunstwerk (Tutzing, 1983).

2 The notion of an ‘implied listener’ has an obvious affinity with the ‘implied reader’ of literature, as developed by Wolfgang Iser and others. But it is important to distinguish the implied listener (however much this might be inferred from reading notation) from the more specialist implied reader associated with the discipline of music analysis; this sort of ‘implied reader’ could well merit a study in its own right.

3 See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen, 1960), trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall as Truth and Method (London and New York, 1989), esp. p. 328.

4 See Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (Princeton, NJ, 1987), esp. pp. 46–59. Wollheim introduced this concept in the second edition of Art and its Objects (New York, 1980), in which he developed ‘seeing-in’ as a departure from his original adoption of Wittgenstein's concept of ‘seeing-as’.

5 Something along these lines was explored by the American composer Roger Sessions in The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener (Princeton, NJ, 1950).

6 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris, 1945), trans. Colin Smith as Phenomenology of Perception (London and New York, 1962; repr. 2002), 215.

7 Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie, trans. Smith, 405.

8 Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ, 1991), 29.

9 Daniel K. L. Chua, ‘Vincenzo Galilei, Modernity and the Division of Nature’, Music Theory and Natural Order from the Renaissance to the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Suzannah Clark and Alexander Rehding (Cambridge, 2001), 17–29; Karol Berger, Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2007), 19–42.

10 ‘Io la musica son ch'ai dolci accenti so far tranquillo ogni turbato core […]. Io su cetera d'or cantando soglio mortal orecchio lusingar ta l'hora e in questa guisa a l'armonia sonora de la lira del ciel piu l'alme invoglio.’ Translation from the King's Music edition, ed. Clifford Bartlett (Huntingdon, 1984; repr. 1990).

11 A similar point is implied by Berger, Bach's Cycle, 40–2, when he suggests that the conclusion in Monteverdi's revised version of the original text represents a triumph of the prima over the seconda prattica, a confidence in harmony as something that transcends the passions.

12 See King's Music edition, 123.

13 See Eric Chafe, Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J. S. Bach (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991), 287–300.

14 Edmund Husserl, Zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewußtseins (1893–1917), trans. John Barnett Brough as On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (Dordrecht, 1991).

15 Edmund Husserl, Zur Phänomenologie des inneren Zeitbewußtseins (1893–1917), trans. John Barnett Brough as On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (Dordrecht, 1991). 345–6.

16 Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge, MA, 1995), 166; Lawrence Kramer, Music as Cultural Practice, 1800–1900 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990), 190–203; Karol Berger, A Theory of Art (Oxford and New York, 2000), 179.

17 See Berger, A Theory of Art, 181–2, for the suggestion that, like paintings, music can have an internal frame, thus separating its discourse into one outside and one inside the frame.

Do Musical Works Contain an Implied Listener? Towards a Theory of Musical Listening

  • John Butt


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed