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JMM 6, Spring 2008, section 7 — JMM book review

Clarke, Eric F. Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning. Oxford University Press 2005. 237 pages. ISBN: 139780195151947.

(Reviewed by Ole Kühl)

7.1. Ecological Perception

Gibson’s theory of Ecological Perception (EP) was originally developed from an extensive study of visual perception. Emerging in the late 60’s/early 70’s, the days of protest marches and the desire to overhaul the “establishment,” it was, among other things, intended as a break with the behavioristic stimulus-response paradigm of cognitive psychology, which saw people as information-processing systems. Therefore, Gibson is often considered as one of the forerunners of the second cognitive revolution of the 1980s, and his name is found in the bibliographies of many works by writers who are sometimes - perhaps misleadingly - referred to as “post-cognitivist,” and for whom he was the inspiration with regard to theories of embodied cognition, connectionism, autopoïesis, etc. In his book from 2005, Ways of Listening, An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning, Eric Clarke examines the ways in which Gibson’s work “affords” a theory of musical listening.

With a background in neurobiology, Professor of Music at the University of Sheffield Eric F. Clarke is in an eminent position to develop Gibson’s theories from the visual to the auditory domain. Since it is undoubtedly the most radical of a number of theories that approach perception from an ecological perspective, EP is not easily mediated in a musicological setting; the task, however, affords the writer with the opportunity for a number of penetrating discussions of core musicological topics, something Clarke utilizes to his best advantage. In fact, he keeps the reader in suspense as to what his true purpose in writing the book really is until p. 128, where he states clearly that “the overriding aim of this book is to consider music from a perceptual perspective.” In other words, he argues for a “perceptual analysis” of music (p. 187), as opposed to what he calls “structural analysis.”

One of the things that kept this reader on his toes during most of the book is the notion of “perceptual meaning,” already introduced in the title itself. Can meaning be perceived? Well, in everyday language it obviously can be, as expressions such as “I see what you mean” and ”He perceived the sense [thrust?] of the argument” seem to indicate. From a traditionalist cognitive perspective, however, such a thing as subjective meaning is merely the response of brain maps and primary emotions to outer stimuli; and, from the standpoint of semiotics, cognitive semantics and many other schools of thinking, meaning is a higher-order phenomenon, a product of cognition, not of perception in the narrow sense.

Notice this distinction between cognition and perception. For Gibson it does not seem to exist. According to his perspective, all mental activity is seen as perceptual. One of his radical claims is that meaning is specified in the environment itself, ready to be perceived by an organism that is biologically adapted to this mode of perception. (Clarke tries to introduce a distinction between what he calls perceptual cognition and symbolic cognition, the latter relating to knowledge structures, but it does not really bear on the problem at hand). So, what is the meaning of “perception of musical meaning,” the phrase with which the title of the book presents us? Before we try to answer this question, let us take an overview of the book itself.

7.2. The Book

Ways of Listening unfolds as an ongoing argumentation, where one chapter builds on the preceding chapter and leads up to the next. Chapter one sets forth Gibson’s theory, which has briefly been commented upon above. As the reader will perceive (pardon the expression) the theory is difficult to come to terms with, not only because of its complexity, but also because some of its notions are so radically different from everyday thinking, that they are hard to conceptualize (to use a competing term). A central idea is that of invariants in the environment, which lends itself easily to a musical interpretation, as musicologists often look to the unfolding relation between stability and change in their musical analyses.

The notion of invariants leads directly to the famous Gibsonian concept of affordances. According to this idea, an organism perceives objects and events in its environment in terms of the interaction possibilities that they afford. A tree is perceived as a possibility for climbing by a monkey; for nesting by a bird; and perhaps for cutting down by a human being. Clarke develops the concept of affordances in musical perception during the book in terms of the “meaning” possibilities that a musical event affords to the individual listener, and we shall return to it below.

Chapter two demonstrates the musical possibilities of EP in an analysis of Hendrix’ famous Woodstock-version of Star Spangled Banner, but in a manner that specifies (another Gibsonian term) the limitations of the approach and raises more questions than it answers. Without much ado, Clarke sets out to engage in the discussions that follow.

In chapter three he develops his notion of perceptual meaning as an online experience tied to the perception-action cycle. The sense of virtual motion in a virtual environment, one’s own or someone else’s, becomes the central paradigm in this discussion. This idea is a “hot topic” in several research communities, and could therefore warrant a broader set of references; Clarke’s argumentation is, however, both knowledgeable and forceful. In conclusion, he points out that ‘the sense of motion or self-motion raises intriguing questions of agency […]. Who or what is moving […]?’ This is a particularly pertinent question in a musicological community, where metaphors of motion in music are common in analyses, but where this simple question is seldom asked.

Clarke develops his discussion in chapter four, where he introduces the topic of subject-position in music. Avoiding the tricky question of how a “subject” can be introduced in a Gibsonian framework, he begins by showing how song texts afford various subjects positions (also called viewpoints in literary theory). The question of how a similar analysis can be made with instrumental music, based on direct perception and subjective emotional reactions, is addressed, but the matter is not brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Instead, Clarke pursues his discussion until it runs into one of the most basic tenets of musicology, that of autonomy. He points out that the idea of the autonomous work implies ‘a radical separation of object from subject’ (p. 129), and that such a separation is directly opposed to the theory of ecological perception: “Within the framework of ecology, autonomy is therefore an impossible state: organisms and environments are always in a state of mutual dependence” (p. 132). Nevertheless, he insists on the fruitfulness of discussing autonomy and its accompanying notion of absolute music in the light of EP, proposing that music affords a virtual world, in which several listening strategies are possible, including one that sees music as an autonomous object. The basic tenet of his approach is to ground listening strategies and analytical approaches in auditory perception.

Chapter six offers a practical case, in the form of an analysis of the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. Here, Clarke discusses structural analysis vs. perceptual analysis, commenting on - and partly basing his own argumentation on – Hatten’s and Agawu’s semiotically based analytical theories. He concludes that “the supposed autonomy of this music is as perceptually illusory as it is theoretically unsustainable” (p. 188).

7.3. Discussion

Ways of Listening is an important book. Clarke is one of the most highly respected and influential thinkers in musicology today. His book should be seen at the same time as an attempt to reinstate the music itself as the central object of musicology, following a long period of sociologically inspired discourse on extra-musical matters at a highly strung intellectual level, and as a denouncement of the analytical approaches to the musical object that dominated the times before “new musicology.” Personally, I am very sympathetic to Clarke’s views, as they run along the same lines as my own work (Kühl 2007). I do believe, however, as Clarke himself seems to do, that many of the discussions that he initiates can be developed further, so I would like to add a few comments to that effect.

Regarding the concept of meaning, Clarke sees it as ‘closely tied to perception and action’ (p. 7). “When people perceive what is happening around them, they are trying to understand, and adapt to, what is going on” (p. 6). More precisely: “to hear a sound and recognize what it is […] is to understand its perceptual meaning” (p. 7). And, stated blatantly: “the experience of musical meaning is fundamentally – though not exclusively – a perceptual experience” (p. 8). Clarke is arguing against the information-processing approach of traditional cognitivism, in order to highlight the perceptual and experiential dimensions of musical meaning. So far, so good.

Throughout the book, however, Clarke’s argumentation against cognitivism is really directed against what I would call radical cognitivism. The second cognitive revolution and its sub-disciplines of cognitive semantics, cognitive linguistics, and - later - cognitive semiotics, are much closer to Clarke’s point of view than he seems to realize, and I believe he could find allies in many of his views in some of the quarters that he, rather uncompromisingly, refers to as being cognitivist. EP is not the sole property of Gibson; other, less radical, approaches are possible, as for instance Varela et al. point out (1991, p. 203-204). Many of these approaches share Gibson’s criticism of rigid, mechanistic cognitivism, as, in fact, they are inspired by it. It might even be argued that the ecological principle, for which Gibson and Clarke are standard-bearers, is contradicted by their attempt to build an ecological theory of perception entirely from the side of the environment' (Varela et al. 1991, p. 204). Ecology to me presumes a degree of mutuality, which is ruled out when meaning is specified a priori by the environment.

The concept of affordances is a case in point. That we perceive objects in the environment as ordered wholes (or gestalts) rather than as the sum of individual sense properties was already proposed by Gestalt psychology in the 1920s (Köhler 1929). It may also be interesting to note that Heidegger’s notion of Zuhandenheit has strong similarities with Gibson’s affordances, although it points to a phenomenological level in perception, which Gibson (with the cognitivists!) wants to avoid (Heidegger 1927). A look at biosemiotics and von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt could serve to further perspectivize the theory of ecological perception (von Uexküll 1909). Finally, the study of mirror neurons (which Clarke mentions in passing) has led to a remarkable theory of “simulated potential goal-directed action,” which could almost be viewed as a neurobiological parallel to the concept of affordances (Gallese and Lakoff, 2005). Let me stress, however, that it is not my aim here to accuse Gibson of plagiarism. I merely wish to point out the potential fruitfulness of an interdisciplinary approach to this whole area.

These few comments aside, the book affords delightful reading, written as it is in a clear and lucid rhetorical style, with many examples and displaying a vast knowledge of music and its literature. I can strongly recommend it as an important document pointing towards new approaches to the study of musical meaning.





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JMM: The Journal of Music and Meaning

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