I recently wrote an essay about listening from a social point of view [1]. This focus may have seemed odd to anyone who knows me as a musician. It certainly surprised me. But actually I never meant the discussion to end there. What follows is the continuation, and in many ways the more crucial part of this train of thought.

Why is an examination of listening on purely social terms bound to be incomplete? Because as humans, it is not only other humans we listen to. And by extension, it is not only other humans we neglect to listen to. In the previous essay, I talked about how a desire for familiarity and perceptual "closure" might inhibit a person's ability to really listen to (and facilitate) the expressions of others. But this desire for closure is not only at play in our relationships with human-beings; it affects the way we engage with all manner of beings, including sound.

In the same way we might ask ourselves what of human expression we miss in the attempt to find closure in the familiar, we could also ask what of sound's manifestation we are missing due to exactly the same instinct.

A psychological experiment conducted by Bruner and Postman in 1949 [2] exposed several subjects to images of playing cards in sequences containing certain anomalies (a red six of spades, a black three of hearts, etc.). Although many subjects ultimately identified all cards correctly, it was found the anomalous cards were consistently not recognized as such until exposure times were increased significantly above that of the normal cards [3]. In some cases, the anomalous cards were not identified at all, and were seen simply as normal, even after considerable exposure [4].


This experiment demonstrates a tendency of ours to find within new stimuli confirmation of already known concepts and structures, even in instances where such concepts and structures are not present in the encountered material. The desire to simply see the anticipated pattern is so strong that we seem to resist registering data that is incongruous with it: "for as long as possible and by whatever means available, the organism will ward off the perception of the unexpected" [5]. This is sometimes called "selective perception," although given the subject's ability to actively contribute data (as well as "select" from present data), it might be more helpful to recall Carolyn M Bloomer's term "perceptual prejudice" [6].

"Perceptual prejudices" can be seen at work within Bruner and Postman's subjects, as well as within the listener invoked in my last essay, who rushes to organize a speaker's expression immediately into terms familiar and comfortable to him.

My particular interest in this essay is how perceptual prejudices might affect our perception of sound. Let us suppose for a second that sound was an anomalous deck of cards. Do you think we could claim total openness to the red six of spades, and the black three of hearts? I suspect maybe not.

In daily life we hear sound, but only insofar as it confirms the bus on the street, a man talking, this composer, that violin—the media through which sound filters. Like Bruner and Postman's subjects, we are reluctant to take in information that might shake or disturb these familiar shapes, structures and concepts, even though truthfully we are being presented with such information all the time.

A trite way of wording this might be to say we do not hear sound "in itself." But this is a little off the mark, given the necessity of sound to always "speak" through some sort of media. It would be more accurate to say that by finding "closure" in these media, we are missing the countless further depths which sound may have to reveal. Indeed, such depths are continually available to us, but we tune them out in the name of preserving the habitually detected shape.

Perhaps then it is not that we do not hear sound in itself (since all sounds are examples of "sound in itself"), but that we do not engage with it, if "sound in itself" could be considered an endless source of possibility.

But are we really able to make such an engagement? If perceptual closure is instinctual, is getting around it even possible?

We glossed over an important aspect of the Bruner-Postman experiment before: that is, the fact that after sufficient exposure most participants were indeed able to overcome the desire for closure and assimilate the incongruities they initially tuned out [7]. It is not simply the case that we are inextricably bound by our preconceived notions, and are destined always to project them blindly upon newly perceived stimuli. True, our commitment to such notions is powerful, but we are not totally at their mercy. Clearly, given certain conditions we are quite able and willing to accept information which violates the anticipated pattern, and which even demands a deconstruction of the pattern.

It is for this reason I suggest the desire for familiarity and closure—in sound as much as in the general stimuli of daily life—is not instinctual, but habitual. I would further venture to say habits may be broken. The question is thus not whether we can engage with sound, but how we can engage with sound. What conditions are needed in order for us to break with our perceptual habits? The answer is precisely demonstrated by Bruner and Postman: extended exposure.

In the experiment, anomalous cards viewed for a short period of time were commonly seen simply as part of a regular deck of cards. That is to say, viewers' interpretations conformed to standard roles within the expected framework. And, indeed, why would a brief presentation prompt any other interpretation? Repeated and extended exposure however allowed for a different level of attentiveness, insofar as these habitual strategies could be exhausted, and a space created for the assimilation of extra (initially overlooked) information.

Sounds, similarly, have certain roles within established frameworks of reference, and these frameworks are obviously our first recourse in the interpretation of new sonic information (especially in cases where the organization of sounds is drawn from the frameworks to begin with). In most scenarios, sounds—like the quickly-exposed cards—rush past our consciousness with such speed and direction, that we are simply unable to get to the "different level of attentiveness" many of Bruner and Postman's subjects ultimately got to. In other words, common audio scenarios provide little opportunity for us to really hear sounds, except in terms of the roles we expect them to fulfill. The "extra information" is there in front of us, but we are obliged to tune it out.

We might now wonder what types of audio scenarios parallel the extended exposure of Bruner and Postman's experiment. Obviously, we are not talking about simply listening to the same music for longer, in the same way Bruner and Postman do not simply show their subjects longer sequences of quickly-exposed cards. In order to really initiate a break with our habitual perceptions of a stimulus, it seems we require extended exposure to specific examples of that stimulus. Without this type of directed focus—and therefore the opportunity for "exhaustion"—the sway of the framework is too powerful.

As an example, let's consider the musical "fifth." This is the name we give to any two notes spaced apart by a distance equivalent to five degrees of the diatonic scale. This particular sound/relationship has come to fulfill many roles within various musical frameworks. It may be employed to serve the harmonic or syntactic logic of a musical statement, or the shaping of a composer's expression. To particular listeners, it may evoke specific emotions or memories. And its sheer prevalence in metal/rock music (for example) almost qualifies it as a harmonic distillation of the entire genre. It even has a name: "the power chord." In short, our frameworks have a lot invested in a "thing" such as the fifth.

Yet, when given the chance to listen to the fifth for an extended period of time, as in La Monte Young's "Composition 1960 #7" [8], we come to find none of these investments relevant at all. We forget about it as a harmony, a structural device, expressive tool, or association. Instead, we find it connected to a world of activity and life which bares no resemblance to the various frameworks it seemed to come from. We even hear notes within the fifth that defy the very definition we reserve for it [9].

La Monte Young's Composition 1960 #7

Strangely, despite this apparent transformation, the thing itself has not changed. The complex world we begin to access was always present within the fifth, even when it occurred in passing in this piano piece, or in the sound of that power drill. So why did we miss it? Because we were never really listening to the thing itself. We were listening to a sign in a framework of reference.

This breakthrough could be considered the aural equivalent of seeing the red six of spades; it also closely parallels the idea of hearing a speaker express something we did not anticipate. But what comes from this new level of attentiveness? Some sort of veneration of the newly perceived object? Paradoxically, no. Despite the concentration of our focus on the object, we arrive only at a clearer recognition of its conditionality. We are drawn not further into the frame of the object, but back toward the endless backdrop of potential, against which the transparency (and possibility) of all objects is revealed.

This is not just a personal breakthrough; it goes to the very heart of our inherited cultural systems. In the same way the attentive social listener must eventually confront the inadequacy of his/her normally relied-upon frameworks to fully encapsulate a speaker's expression, attentive musical listeners cannot help but question their own accepted frameworks and investments, as they begin to observe complexities such frameworks cannot accommodate.

To further illustrate, consider for a second the sorts of questions we would need answered should we really accept an object such as the red six of spades in real life. What would happen to the established rules of those card games in which the black six of spades' colour is essential? Does a red spade still count in a spade flush in poker? Should any concessions be made to counter the deck’s new red-card bias? No matter how effectively we answer these questions, the fact remains: no game designed with the old deck in mind can be transposed directly onto the new deck. In light of the newly observed data, the established rules cease to be relevant. The framework experiences a crisis [10].

It is exactly this type of crisis which musical rules and systems are liable to experience should listeners be willing to accept the countless metaphorical "anomalous cards" in sound. Attentive listening cannot help but uncover such "cards," and if we as listeners take them seriously, we cannot help but also confront the possibility that "the established rules are no longer relevant."

Of course, similar crises have occurred continually throughout history. Yet somehow the real opportunity presented by such occurrences has continually been missed. Instead of inspiring a move forward to a more careful, dynamic treatment of the rule-framework, the crises seem only to have inspired a reinforcing and updating of the framework, leading merely to a different set of familiarities, and in turn a different form of closure.

Perhaps if listening became more attentive, we would begin to question not just established frameworks, but the idea of the framework's dominance altogether. In this scenario, we would be concerned less with a framework's specific "distinction," and more with preserving its vital transparency against the endless backdrop of potential. Perhaps at this point we would be no longer practicing "music," but instead facilitating the process of sound's expression.

© Alex Carpenter, February 2010


[1] Alex Carpenter, "On Listening and Expression," Music of Transparent Means, 2009. <http://transparentmeans.net/listening.html>.

[2] Jerome S. Bruner and Leo Postman, "On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm," Journal of Personality 18 (1949): 206-223. For web reference, see Christopher D. Green, Ed., "Bruner & Postman (1949)," Classics in the History of Psychology, N.D. <http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Bruner/Cards/>.

[3] Bruner and Postman 210.

[4] Bruner and Postman 221.

[5] Bruner and Postman 208.

[6] Carolyn M. Bloomer, Principles of Visual Perception (New York: Van Nostrand-Reinhold, 1976) 63.

[7] Bruner and Postman 210.

[8] This piece consists of a notated B-F# fifth, with the instruction "to be held for a long time." For more information, see Diapason Gallery, "La Monte Young: Composition 1960 #7," Diapason, N.D. <http://www.diapasongallery.org/archive/01_06_20.html>.

[9] For an interesting performer-commentary on a particular performance of this piece, see TomBillings, "Compositions 1960 No.7 [sic]," YouTube, 28 October 2006. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vZfP0ou6tQ>. Typical statements in the commentary include: "as I went on... there was a lot of odd experiences [and] sound varieties," "[it] really has to be experienced to be believed," "you get a lot of weird sounds and melodies," and "the noise seemed more surreal as we went on."

[10] Readers may argue at this point that there is no inherent reason as to why the new card should automatically be included in the standard deck. It should be noted, however, that the playing cards were utilized in the experiment as a microcosm of all observable data in the world. Thus, when we talk about accepting the red six of spades, we are really talking about newly identifying a real thing or event in the world that in some way violates those patterns (and "rules") we have in our expectation.