Is music perception special? An analysis of the varieties of auditory perception.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Philosophy


Listening to music is a paradigmatic kind of auditory perception. It also is one of the less explored areas
of philosophical study in the field of sensory perception. The focus of my thesis will be to develop an
account of the perception of music, and in particular to answer the question of whether music perception
is 'special': does listening to music involve a distinctive kind of auditory perception, or can it be
understood as continuous with everyday auditory perception?
Key to answering this question will be to understand the way in which listening to music, in contrast to
everyday listening, is a distinctive activity with distinctive goals; and to understand what is distinctive
about music as an object of musical listening in contrast to the bangs, crashes, squeaks and so on, that
are among the objects of everyday listening.
Traditionally, philosophers of perception have focused their attention nearly exclusively on vision. The
traditional debate on perception in philosophy is based on the paradigmatic case of sight. Recently,
however the scientific and philosophical interest in studying other sensory modalities and their
interaction (Macpherson 2011) has grown. In particular, auditory perception has become an important
field of research (Casati and Dokic 1994, O'Callaghan 2007, Nudds & O'Callaghan 2009).
In this context, listening to music is usually presented as one variety of auditory perception (O'Callaghan
2009, 2016). Nevertheless, no satisfactory explanation for this classification is available in literature, at
the moment.
Thus, the aim of my research is to defend the claim that the perception of music involves a distinctive or
special kind of perception distinct from auditory perception in general, thus providing a reason for
thinking of auditory perception as comprising at least two distinctive kinds of perception.
While the philosophy of music has generated a vast literature, the perception of music has remained
largely unexplored. Scruton (2009) and Hamilton (2009) stand out as exceptions. They provided two
accounts for music perception that are both based on the relation with the sound sources.
Granted the foregoing, neither view gives a complete explication of the specific features of musical
experience. I think that two points should be considered in order to understand the specificity of the
musical experience. First, this peculiarity would depend on the way listeners attend to musical pieces,
which seems distinct from that which is given to sounds in ordinary circumstances (e.g. to noises in the
street). Second, the specificity of the musical auditory case might be based on the characteristic of the
distinctive character of the objects of musical listening, namely the musical work or performance.
The research proposed here thus fills a gap in the philosophy of sensory perception, broadening and
deepening the understanding of hearing. In addition, it can also provide a new foundation for the
philosophy of music clarifying issues related to emotions and communicative aspects of music (Kania
2017), focusing on the syntax and the perceptual aspects of the groups of sounds. I also wish my work to
benefit musicians: making them aware of how audiences experience their performances, I hope to inspire
them to improve their technique in light of the relevant parts of my research.


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