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A unified approach to perceiving sound in current experimental music genres

Riccardo Wanke
janvier 2019



Cet article étudie comment les auditeurs perçoivent différentes pièces de musique dans une sélection de genres expérimentaux contemporains. Les auditeurs formés et non formés doivent évaluer de brefs extraits musicaux de compositions allant du post-spectralisme jusqu’à la musique électronique et au glitch. Tous les extraits présentés dans l’enquête relèvent d’une perspective esthétique commune fondée sur le fait d’appréhender le son comme une compréhension particulière de la substance matérielle, compréhension qui traverse des genres éloignés de musique expérimentale.
Cette étude utilise des enquêtes perceptives pour réfléchir à la capacité des participants à classer les extraits musicaux, à exprimer les critères de sélection, à reconnaître les caractéristiques sonores communes et à dépasser les pratiques typiques à chaque genre. L’article traite des difficultés à exprimer notre perception de ces styles de musique et propose trois modes d’écoute différents qui entrent en jeu dans la perception de certaines œuvres de musique expérimentale. Cette recherche montre comment un cadre esthétique cohérent favorise la création de nouvelles clés d’interprétation et de nouvelles conduites, et fournit aux auditeurs de nouveaux outils de comparaison et d’évaluation en les rendant capables de se concentrer sur les aspects structurels et intrinsèques du matériau sonore. Cette stratégie peut conduire à de nouvelles convergences dans le monde de la musique expérimentale contemporaine.


This paper enquires into the ways in which listeners perceive different pieces of music from a range of current experimental genres. Trained and untrained listeners were given a survey, which asked them to evaluate short musical excerpts ranging from post-spectral and contemporary compositions to glitch and electronic music. All excerpts presented in the survey, it is proposed, belong to a common aesthetic outlook based on considering sound as a particular understanding of material substance that can be seen to hold for various pieces from quite distant genres of experimental music.
This study uses perceptual surveys to reflect on the ability of participants to classify audio samples, express selection criteria, recognize common sonic characteristics, and go beyond existing genre-specific practices. The article addresses the difficulties in conveying our perception of these styles of music and proposes three different modes of listening that are employed in perceiving certain works from genres within experimental music. This research shows how a coherent aesthetic framework favours the creation of new keys of interpretations, provides listeners with new tools of comparison and assessment, and empowers them to focus on the structural and intrinsic aspects of sonic material. This strategy may lead to new convergences within the world of contemporary experimental music.


Index de mots-clés : etudes comparatives (cross-genres studies); perception du son; musique expérimentale; glitch; modes d'écoute,

Texte intégral   

1. Introduction

1Today’s experimental music scene contains an immense series of genres, styles and practices that belong to different cultural and social environments1. Within this range, several currents of classical contemporary music, post-spectralism, minimalism, electroacoustic music, glitch and IDM’s2 offshoots can be seen to share a similar perspective in approaching sound, despite the distance between their contexts3. In a recent analysis of this material4 certain pieces were brought together by focusing on sound-in-itself rather than on any pre-existing theoretical framework specific to any individual genre (i.e. compositional techniques, culturally specific practices). In these compositions sound is considered as if it were a tangible substance to be sculpted; it is manipulated from within its spectrum and excites a profound perceptual experience. These pieces can be considered under a common perspective in which sound possesses tactile qualities, volume, density and grain. This outlook on sound sees it as disclosing components from physical and temporal dimensions as well as basic formal configurations that give music a quasi-objective and material presence. A common aesthetic emerges, then, from very different contexts (concert hall, club) and media (classical orchestra, electroacoustic ensemble, electronic emission), issuing from a similar approach that perceives and reveals a material trace in sound5. This study focuses on this cross-genre sonic perspective and examines pieces coming from these styles, assessing different listeners’ responses to this selection through the use of perceptual surveys.

2. The experimental music blind spot in studies on musical perception

2The perceptual aspect of sound has been the subject of an immense range of studies in the cognitive sciences from psychology6 to neuroscience7, and concerns human reactions to simple stimuli all the way to complex feelings and emotions8. The majority of these studies make use of several types of listening surveys (e.g. semantic differential, multidimensional scaling), moving between two approaches: on the one hand, analytical assessments tend to explore sonic qualities and timbre9, using adjectives from different semantic classes to define simple often uniform sounds (i.e. single tones or noises) in order to promote consistency in the responses to the surveys. On the other hand, certain studies have more to do with philosophy, semiology and psychology, and focus on formalist, cognitivist and emotivist positions10. This perspective is traditionally associated with the philosophical debate about the meaning of music and conventionally refers to western classical repertoire and 20th century popular music11.
However, within this large group of studies on music perception, only a small number deal with the contemporary experimental scene12. This lack seems paradoxical as many genres of experimental music are themselves concerned with these very questions of sonic perception. The interest in the perception of new music seems to have shifted from scholars to the composers themselves. When these two figures coincide, we find exciting debates: for instance, the intense literary production within the electroacoustic community is an example of how profound the interest in the listening to, the appreciation and the cognition of current music is amongst both composers and scholars13. A significant number of books that deal with the world of experimental music focus more on philosophical and aesthetic aspects than on perceptual surveys, fieldwork and analyses14. Nevertheless, certain publications suggest original outlooks that aspire to expand the horizons of these themes15. A more animated discussion about today’s exploratory music by neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers would support and fortify both the artistic and theoretical contexts and promote unexpected reverberations.

3. Aims of this study

3This study strives to find ways to investigate a listener’s appreciation of specific currents in contemporary experimental music. Even given the proposed common aesthetic perspective based on a particular understanding of the materiality of sound, how should such a diverse selection of pieces from composers such as Georg Friedrich Haas and Bernhard Lang, and electronic performers such as Pan Sonic and Raime be presented and evaluated side by side?
These pieces do not use a standard set of techniques, such as conventional tonal constructions, traditional narrative structures or linear time perception, but rather contain, variously, noises as well as real-world, acoustic, electronic and manipulated sounds within non-linear structures. In considering the two approaches to perceptual studies mentioned above, these pieces have little to do with simple sounds made of single tones or pure sine waves and little to benefit from a detailed comparison of the emotional effect of compositions that belong to dissimilar genres of music.
This study places itself midway between a timbric assessment and a conceptual appraisal. It investigates the perception of the complex internal sonic characteristics of the pieces and aims to connect the way a listener articulates his perception of sound with the specific theoretical and aesthetic bases on which the survey was founded. This then allows reflection on possible new convergences between sonic practices and listening approaches.
In providing participants with a common aesthetic framework for many different genres of music, established through presenting specific audio samples and analytical tools as part of the survey itself, this study investigates the potential of cross-genre keys of interpretation in extending the appreciation of contemporary experimental repertoire beyond restricted and specialized contexts. In this way, this work is best regarded as an effort to find feasible ways to put in contact some of the different facets of experimental music with new audiences using a targeted perceptual method.

4. Method

4.1 Procedure

4The majority of participants (75 in total, average age mid-thirties) reported a prior professional (or semiprofessional) link to music (89%) through being students of music or musicology (53%), musicians (69%) and scholars (17%).
The survey itself consists of a listening session combined with a questionnaire and was carried out both through a web-based platform (i.e. via personal and academic contacts, and social networks) as well as physically attended survey events (i.e. within academic contexts). The beginning of the survey aims to establish a profile of the listener (age, link to music, musical preferences, and familiarity with the audio samples following the first playback of the selection). Following this, the perceptual evaluation    is structured into two parts: first (Perceptual Evaluation 1, PE1), participants are invited to freely sort the audio samples into groups and to indicate which criteria they applied in creating these groups; second (Perceptual Evaluation 2, PE2), they are asked to associate each extract with up to five descriptors from a given list (Table 1), starting with the most fitting.
The final section includes questions about the listener’s opinion of the questionnaire itself in order to obtain insights about the level of interest of the participant for the present investigation and possible suggestions for improvements.

4.2 Semantic Descriptors

5While the first task (PE1) is designed to encourage an autonomous classification of audio samples, the second task (PE2) forces participants to focus their listening on musical elements rather than on any other aspect the music might evoke. For this reason, the second task benefits from a set list of targeted adjectives to describe musical episodes in order to guide the listening focus of the participant.
The musical works considered for this study (Section 3.3 Audio Samples) contain elaborate sonic constructions, and consequently the use of simple semantic descriptors, such as sharp or dull, to define the material in a composition for 24 instruments (e.g. G. F. Haas – in vain) would be too vague to be useful. These pieces may include complex sounds and structured textures that could be categorized simultaneously assharp and dull.
Semantic descriptors are at times used without careful clarification of their qualities. However, recent studies in systematic musicology16 propose new applications for musical descriptors and, as suggested by Lesaffre17, an important distinction between affective/emotive and structural descriptors has to be established. The affective/emotive descriptors encourage emotional expression (e.g. happy, joyous or tender) whether arising from an emotion recognized in the music or induced by the music. In contrast, the structural descriptors challenge the listener to focus their attention on a sound’s qualities, be they related to its nature (e.g. continuous, scattered) or behaviour (ascending, fluctuating)18. These descriptors define intrinsic sonic characteristics and refer to concrete features of music more precisely than other adjectives. Moreover, due to its morphological and spatial characteristics, contemporary and experimental music is accurately reflected by adjectives that belong to senses other than hearing (e.g. tactile, corporeal, visual19): their use empowers the listener to give a name to any virtual image they might have conceptualized.
In order to provide listeners with a useful set of tools for expressing their perception, a list of structural descriptors has been prepared by starting from the results of a previous analysis of the same selection of pieces20. This analysis resulted in a set of nine musical attributes that are common to all pieces (though not all attributes are applicable for all portions of each piece). These attributes (Table 1) cover a range of musical practices that comprise: (i) an extended spectral vocabulary; (ii) a clear use of repetitive musical units for specific purposes; and (iii) a particular idea of time and space within the sound material itself. These attributes are structural qualities of music and function as semantic structural descriptors.


Musical Attributes21

Structural Descriptors


Expanded Spectrum

Rich / Heterogeneous


Microtonal Variations

Compact / Fluctuating


Systematic Glissandi

Descending / Ascending


Rhythmic Developments

Rhythmic / Pulsating


Static Masses

Static / Continuous


Repetitive Clusters

Repetitive / Periodic


Dynamic Contrasts

Contrasting / Scattered


Hypnotic Reiterations

Hypnotic / Enveloping


A Plastic and Sculptural Arrangement of Sound

Sculptural / Spatial

Table 1. Correspondence between musical attributes and structural descriptors.

6In this way, the list of descriptors provided to participants works as a sort of sonic map of the selected pieces and, even if it integrates diverse types of structural descriptors (of nature, behaviour and sound effect), it is provided to prompt listeners to reflect on musical forms and actions.
A linguistic adjustment21 to these attributes has been carried out (Table 1) in order to offer a more accessible list of adjectives and favour the participation of untrained listeners who may be unfamiliar with the meaning of certain words such as spectrum, glissandi or idiomatic expressions, e.g. “repetitive musical clusters”.
This array is not provided to test for statistical preferences within a set group of known sound properties, rather its purpose is to study how listeners respond to verbal expressions which are targeted at particular sonic morphologies and are part of a unique aesthetic framework.

4.3 Audio Samples

7The selection of audio extracts is entered in Table 2 and is based upon a previous analysis22. The compositions belong to specific styles of experimental music, namely post-spectralism and minimalism (Haas and Lang), electroacoustic and mixed music (Verrando), electronic-glitch music (Pan Sonic) and basic channel style (Raime). The selection of extracts has been made to emphasize the proposed common sonic aestheticism whilst trying to avoid homogenizing all genres into one without misrepresenting, or as little as possible, the nature of each piece in its entirety (e.g. two fragments of Lang’s DW7 have been selected and account for different musical episodes with identical instrumentation, Table 2). Where the original piece lasts longer than thirty minutes and consists of very slow evolutions, audio fragments in which instrumentations and styles are recognizable have been selected. In this way the selection process does not aim to eliminate contextual musical elements, and including these components might allow listeners to discover unconventional practices within recognized and familiar contexts. This collection of audio excerpts accurately portrays the shared view on the potential of sound to be a mirror of material substance, whilst bringing together works of vastly different practices, means, and expectations.
Concerning PE2, each extract has been chosen to display a range of attributes (Table 2 middle column): some of these are easily discernible (primal attributes) while others are secondary. Crucially, each extract has been selected to lack a couple of attributes. Samples #6 and #9 (i.e. Verrando – Dulle Griet andRaime – Told and Collapsed) represent special cases: they exhibit more pronounced characteristics (i.e. sample #6 is harsh, noisy and sparse while #9 possesses a fast and regular rhythm). These samples are chosen to allow a more straightforward sonic recognition and to help those listeners lacking experience to gain increased confidence in their own judgments.
Presenting many short extracts instead of a few longer audio samples aids in the effective comparison of many genres without the listener becoming too expectant towards genre-specific musical evolution that longer extracts may provoke. Moreover, this aspect affords a straightforward test for the participants that lasts thirty minutes in total.

Author – Piece23[time]


Short Description

1) Lang – DW 7


(p) F H E B D; (s) A I; (a) C G

Regular interventions of strings and wind instruments are made of complex inner textures in which sustained tones overlap and interact with one another. These interventions outline a systematic and uniform sequence of events.

2) Pan Sonic  Rafter


(p) A E C H B;

(s) F I; (a) G, D

Continuous electronic sounds form a complex structure. They oscillate in opposite directions creating a specular profile that periodically increases and decreases. In the end, the sound increases in volume and distortion: high frequencies start to loom out over the global density of musical flow.

3) Lang –  DW7


(p) D E G H; (s) A F B; (a) C I

Linear orchestral sonic flow of repeated and mechanical fragments proceeds in ostinato mode. Instruments overlap creating sparse polyrhythmic structures.

4) Haas – in vain


(p) G F D C; (s) A I B; (a) E H

Similar to previous sample, a progressive texture of orchestral profiles moves in the background with slow glissandi, while percussive sounds (i.e. tam-tam) appear in the foreground with a great dynamic and timbric contrast.

5) Lang – DW17


(p) E H B; (s) I A; (a) C G F D

Quiet orchestral episode with sustained sounds: continuous high tones of orchestral instruments and soft interventions of bass electronic tones. These sonic contours are woven together affecting one another and creating a dense surface of layers.

6) Verrando – Dulle Griet [05’00”–05’50”]

(p) G A I; (s) D E; (a) F C H B

Loud and harsh interpositions of distorted elements (acoustic and electronic) create irregular and interrupted clusters of sound that abruptly stop, leaving a very soft and continuous stream of string instruments.

7) Raime – Passed Over Trail [01’43”–02’46”]

(p) F H I; (s) A D B E; (a) C G

A complex loop of synthesized sound (acoustic and electronic), with vibrating interventions, sirens, echoing voices, overlaps, and cyclical changes becoming more and more elaborated but maintaining a sort of slow regular metric.

8) Lang –DW15 song 2


(p) H B E F; (s) A D; (a) C G I

A simple microtonal line of one acoustic string instrument delineates a foreground recurring profile that stays on top of a continuous and oscillating stream of bass electronic sound that progressively enhances the sonic space.

9) Raime – Told and Collapsed


(p) D I H; (s) F E B A; (a) C G

Flows of percussive, sparse and continuous sounds develop in a clear rhythmic evolution that extends over a large portion of spectrum creating a series of virtual planes of sounds.

Table 2. Audio Samples considered in this study.

5. Results and Discussion

8The questionnaire was carried out both via web-based and direct means. The Internet setting gave participants the possibility to complete the survey in their own private environment, allowing them to listen to the music in a calm context and to repeat the audio samples, if desired. The direct survey offered the opportunity for more explanations. After a separate analysis of each approach, the results of both proceedings turned out to be comparable and were combined in order to form a global evaluation.

5.1 Perceptual Evaluation 1 (PE1)

9The first part of the perceptual evaluation (PE1) invites listeners to sort the samples into groups of their own choosing and to specify the criteria of the classification they used.  Despite the variety of verbal expressions, a significant number of participants used similar criteria and based their categorization on instrumentation and style. Others indicated criteria mostly related to aural sensations and sound descriptions. Certain criteria indicated by untrained participants appear to rely more on the musical effect (e.g.oneiric”, “cinematic”): these include intuitive explanations (e.g.Here I perceived more melodic and clear sounds, even if they are complex and structured”) and genre statements (e.g. historic, experimentation of modern music; […] symphonic contemporary music…”).
Figure 1 illustrates the global response for groups of two samples: the thicker the connecting lines are between two samples, the higher the number of participants who associate them together. Interesting relationships are visible for couples #1/#4, #1/#5, #2/#3, #3/#4 and #2/#5.


Figure 1. Sorting for groups of two samples: the thicker the connecting line is, the higher number of participants associates the respective pieces together.

10While the links between samples #1/#4 and #1/#5 concern their common instrumentation (i.e. “orchestral music”), the frequent association between extracts #2/#3 (i.e. Pan Sonic Rafter and B. Lang DW7) and the rare link between #1/#3 (i.e. two extracts of the same piece) show how –in these cases– musical evolution appears more important from a perceptual point of view than instrumentation. Samples #2 and #3, in fact, do not share a common instrumentation but exhibit a similar use of repeated figures creating static sonic layers, whereas the two extracts from Bernhard Lang’s DW7 (i.e. samples #1/#3) substantially differ in musical form.
More general observations confirm the idea that a significant experience in this field of music enables trained participants (or those more familiar with the repertoire) to identify nuances despite the complexity of the audio samples. This becomes evident in the range of descriptions and multiple classifications (i.e. the inclusion of a sample within different groups) used by trained participants, while untrained participants tend to group the samples progressively (i.e. first groups often contain opening extracts) within fewer multiple classifications.
Looking at the whole PE1 exercise, there is a positive and interesting result. If one considers that this task solely requests grouping a list of audio excerpts with no restriction as to the number of groups, criteria used, or other parameters, a significant number of participants (80%) were able to group all the samples, find multiple associations and classifications, and articulate their sorting criteria. The response of unskilled participants was informative, though less organized and more related to sporadic sensations than to elaborated thoughts. In contrast, experienced listeners were inclined to assume an analytic stance, finding some difficulty in setting their appreciation free. Overall, given that the group of extracts were chosen to fit a theoretical perspective, the fact that the majority of participants found rich and spontaneous criteria to handle audio samples belonging to complex and unconventional styles of today’s musical panorama may indicate the coherence of the theoretical approach; if this coherence had been absent, we might have expected more unsuccessful results, poor classifications and articulations (see 6. Modes of Listening).

5.2 Perceptual Evaluation 2 (PE2)

11In the second step of the evaluation (PE2), participants are provided with the list of descriptors (Table 1) and asked to indicate which descriptors are more appropriate for each sample, starting in each case with the most relevant descriptor.
Globally, descriptors were distributed in accordance with the theoretical analysis (Table 2, column Attributes). In some cases (i.e. samples #2 and #4) the discrepancy between a listener’s response and the theoretical results most likely lies in the proper understanding of the semantic descriptors, the modality of listening or the participants’ background.
The specialized nature of the questionnaire25 enables the observation of some global trends within the group of musicians and students of music:
(i) There was a general reduction in the use of the descriptor H (i.e. hypnotic / enveloping) when we considermusicians (including musical students). This result indicates that adjectives that belong to a large and flexible semantic area, and go beyond pure aural description, such as hypnotic, may be more comprehensible for non-musicians. Therefore, when an audio extract exhibits characteristics such as the repetition of musical elements or the presence of continuous and regular profiles, trained participants are able to identify these features within the list of adjectives (being descriptors E, static / continuous, or F, repetitive / periodic, respectively), whereas untrained listeners associate these elements with the effect that they produce (i.e. “hypnotic”).
(ii) The descriptor I, sculptural / spatial, was preferred among musicians in comparison with the global response. The adjective sculptural is not immediately associated with a piece of music. Even if terms from other sensory spheres are well-suited to describe experimental music, the metaphorical link between a sound and this adjective belonging to the visual domain and accounts for practices and unfolding structures might not be obvious: the interpretation of a piece of music as sculptural implies a capacity to identify a process rather than a simple quality. Experienced participants were able to differentiate virtual planes of sonic evolution that form a spatially structured environment.
In general, PE2 provides useful information about the specificity of the descriptor: its intelligibility, accessibility and its potential when connected to the field of contemporary experimental music (e.g. how an adjective works, where and how it should be applied…). Untrained participants prefer more general descriptors (“static”, “rhythmic”) as well as those that relate to the effect of music (“hypnotic”), whereas trained ones usually handle descriptors concerning nature and behaviour of sound better (“descending”, “contrasting”, “sculptural”).

5.3 General Remarks

12While in-person surveys took place in academic contexts with the presence of music and musicology students and scholars (this explains the high percentage of experienced participants), the web-based inquiry could, in principle, extend participation to a larger and more varied group, although this platformhad the disadvantage that it was easy to abandon and leave the questionnaire incomplete. Some feedback has confirmed that untrained listeners often left the questionnaire when they started to listen to the musical extracts. They stated feeling “incompetent and unsuited for the type of music” and became reluctant to participate.
The responses to the extracts do allow some conclusions to be drawn:
(1) There is a mutual correspondence between musical preferences, familiarity with the audio samples and the questionnaire evaluation26, thus indicating that, even though this work extends across various genres of contemporary music, the group of genres as a whole is still considered as a niche: a limited and isolated branch of today’s music.
(2) More generally, participants with a professional background in music showed a greater ability to: (i) distinguish styles and genres; (ii) identify the nature and the source of different sounds; (iii) deal with semantic descriptors from different spheres of sensation other than hearing.
(3) The PE2 was completed more successfully than PE1: it seems to be more demanding to verbally express one's own musical decisions (PE1) than apply given designations (PE2).

6. Modes of Listening

13The sorting task (PE1) reveals that the main tendency was to categorize pieces based on a sort of analytic listening that allowed the listener to identify contextual elements (i.e. styles and instrumentation), whilst a second set of sorting criteria relied on personal associations resulting from aural stimuli (affective listening, Table 3). A significant number of participantsused a combination of these in classifying the audio samples. In the absence of established rules and canons on which participants could rely during listening, the perceptual response to a diverse collection of abstract and experimental music would naturally draw on rational aspects from a listener’s background (analytic listening: sound source and genre identification, dependent on a listener’s particular background) and description of personal sonic sensation (affective listening: description of emotive associations).
But a third tendency emerged (immanent listening): a small number of participants, those with a higher familiarity with the audio samples27, took an interesting approach to sorting that appeared more like an effort to describe music through an act of direct apprehension of musical forms and shapes, sound morphologies and evolutions. This mode of listening does not transcend sonic experience to arrive at external causes or derivative associations; rather it appears to be free of genre conventions and source identifications, and to be based on a person’s own active judgement, demonstrating that participants are finding their own formulations and approaches. This listening mode focuses on the immanent aspect of sound using concepts drawn from the natural tendency to organise sensorial data according to how it informs us about the physical world: its shapes (“punctual pulsations...”), its temporal evolution (“pulses repeated periodically...”), its spatial dimension (“in a figure/background relationship”) and general descriptions (simple or complex).



h:56%; p:95%28

electronic, oscillators”; “acoustic instruments treated electronically”; “experimental electronic, contemporary classical”; “sound synthesis and manipulation of previously recorded sound”; “acousmatic music produced only by electronics processed through plug-in or laptop



h:33%; p:55%

sensation of suspended state and anxiety”; “dark and mysterious atmosphere”; “mostly distorted atmosphere”; “melodic and distorted, oneiric”; “concrete, tense, hybrid”; “more pensive, melancholic”; “aggressive”; “quiet”     

Mixed Analytic + Affective combination (18%)



h:90%; p:99%

punctual pulsations superimposed on a continuous development in a figure/background relationship”; “pulses repeated periodically, in order to create discontinuity within a continuity”; “complex rhythms, multilayered, based on repetition

Table 3. Modes of listening and selected comments

14The criteria exemplifying immanent listening consist, in fact, of natural schemes of recognition (“Music is structured in distinct events with a continuous pad in background”) or originate in the appreciation of simple elements despite their being expressed in technical language (“Complex spectra, with periodicity”), therefore it seems reasonable to expect that this approach could be readily adopted by listeners from a wide range of backgrounds. However, participants who manifested an immanent listening in this survey had a high familiarity with the samples and a professional link to music.
Why does it seem as if the ability to describe generic sonic characteristics correlates with a high level of awareness of these pieces? Why are simple and seemingly almost universal musical figures identified only by practiced listeners? There could be several explanations for this (e.g. the length or number of samples, the type of extracts, external circumstances…), but the higher education in music may not be the key to the immanent listening attitude. Data in Table 3 seems to suggest that it is not so much the higher musical training but more the familiarity with styles of music that typifies participants of the immanent listening group29. Musical training is mainly cultivated in institutional contexts which tend to separate communities, styles and perspectives providing students, musicians and researchers with genre-specific tools for recognition. In contrast, curious listeners, experimental performers and open-minded composers with a versatile understanding of different styles in the current musical panorama, when faced with a cross-genre selection of pieces, might more easily discern sonic elements (e.g. musical forms, contours and evolutions) from those aspects typical of each genre30 (e.g. media, contexts, sources).
Traditional musical culture has for years constructed the conviction of there being a correct approach to high-art music and this might be a reason why untrained listeners opt instead to express themselves in terms of feelings rather than to attempt to formulate verbal descriptions of sound in which they might be considered unsuccessful or wrong.
Moreover the use of the analytic attitude by a large number of respondents might also depend on the type of enquiry itself (i.e. categorisation): with respect to the other two modes of listening that deal more with a personal sphere, the analytic attitude might be seen as the most secure sorting criterion, and so a participant may choose that one even if they perceive an extract according to an affective (or immanent) attitude as well.
Globally the three modes of listening (i.e. analytic, affective and immanent) accurately outline a listener’s approach towards experimental music. Listening practices relating to other types of music (e.g. western classical repertoire, rock, folk31) show similar characteristics, but there the presence of pre-acquired structures, such as refrain, chorus, theme, exposition, or counterpoint, facilitates direct description of musical passages. Experimental practices, lacking codified musical conventions, cause the listener to favour analytic and affective criteria. The presence of a genuine tendency to focus on listening to sonic material (i.e. immanent mode) rather than to its source, reference, or conventional structure is –within the world of experimental music– of great interest: supported by the proposed aesthetic framework, listeners employing the immanent approach grasp material aspects of sound in the form of profiles, shapes, or groups that unfold, expand or collapse (e.g. punctual pulsations superimposed over a continuous development”; “Distribution by sub-sequential peaks”). What gives these elements a coherence is that they are part of a specific understanding of the material world as potential: participants articulate their perception of sound in terms of traces, shadows and imprints of this potential material world.
Even if several traits of these listening modes might be met with parallels in previous theories (e.g. Schaeffer’s definition32), these modes are best seen as fluid and dynamic processes: participants often integrate several of these approaches. The results, when globally considered, confirm that these listening modes overlap in some ways, since all deal with how we relate to the external world through perception: that is in terms ofappearance, specific object origins or emotions associated with particular situations. Hence, the immanent level is not a self-contained stage,33 and it has little to do with reduced listening: given a set of works with a shared aesthetic framework that focuses on the immanent aspects of sound (i.e. those that push towards poietic and aesthetic levels), listeners use criteria that are derived from our apprehension of the material world and expand on spatial and temporal concepts, cultural factors, or more complex descriptions.
These modes of listening are important due to the individual nature of the responses to this layer, that is the richness and the variety of the concepts and details with which participants account for the music. They succeed in granting multiple groupings and diverse assessments an ability to move critically within what they recognize as a consistent aesthetic frame of reference. Based on this variety one may build new keys to aid recognition, highlight recurrent elements, and construct tools for comparison, so as to design more accessible paths for a diverse audience to appreciate genres and styles beyond their own musical background, and encourage listeners to break down the barriers between different contexts within experimental music.

7. Conclusions

15When we look at a painting (whether abstract or figurative) we can tell about the quality of the dye (e.g. dense, watercolour), the style (e.g. impressionist, symbolist) and the sensations it conveys (or that it seems to express); but we can also, very genuinely, describe it: talking about what appears in front or in the background, about its general structure or even explaining why one part of the painting is more captivating or why another one appears to be less clear. The same does not naturally happen for contemporary experimental music.
The difficulty of this type of music in reaching audiences beyond elitist contexts is largely known, and the strong insistence by specialists to restrict interpretations, separate styles and limit the accepted approaches to understanding new music is a common occurrence in our recent past34. For this reason, talking about our perception of experimental music without being either too technical or too trivial is a problem that involves researchers as well as educational, artistic and cultural platforms.
This study tackles the theme of perceptual evaluation in a non-conventional way since it sets up a questionnaire according to theoretical assumptions and examines feedback to estimate the value of a common aesthetic perspective.
The results of this study show to which musical aspects a participants’ attention is more drawn and what difficulties occur in approaching this type of music. The immanent approach to such a diverse selection may require effort and practice and is contingent on the presence of an appropriate aesthetic framework (i.e. the perspective on sound common to all the selected pieces). Yet, this approach allows to give coherence to works from distant genres of music and offer innovative connections.
It is not a question of defining new rules or taxonomies but rather of creating the situations, by building new forms of conducts and principles (e.g. didactic platforms, planning activities and music production, artistic and academic events), in which we, as listeners, are empowered to escape from the cliched treatment of exploratory music and establish new socio-cultural forms and convergences on sound.

This work was supported by the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT), Portugal under Grant [number SFRH/BD/102506/2014]. The author acknowledges Prof. Isabel Pires, Prof. Michael Clarke and Prof. Makis Solomos who made possible the realization of listening sessions at the Universities of Lisbon (UNL), Huddersfield and Paris8.


1  Christoph Cox, Daniel Warner (Eds.), Audio Culture. Readings in Modern Music. New York, Bloomsbury, 2004. Paul Griffiths, Modern Music and After (3rd Edition), New York, Oxford University Press, 2010.

2  IDM (intelligent dance music).

3  Makis Solomos, De La Musique Au Son. L’émergence du son dans la musique des XXe–XXIe siècles, Rennes, Presse Universitaires de Rennes, 2013.

4  Riccardo Wanke, “A Cross-genre Study of the (Ec)Static Perspective of Today’s Music”, in Organised Sound, vol. 20, 2015, p. 331–339. Piecesby G. F. Haas, B. Lang, G. Verrando, Pan Sonic, R. Ikeda and Raime.

5  Riccardo Wanke, “The Emergence of An Ecstatic-Materialist Perspective as A Cross-Genre Tendency In Experimental Music”, in Organised Sound, accepted for publication, 2017.

6  Patrick Susini, Guillaume Lemaitre, Stephen McAdams, “Psychological measurement for sound description and evaluation”, in Measurement with Persons: Theory, Methods, and Implementation Areas, New York, Psychology Press, 2011, p. 227–253.

7  Timothy D. Griffiths, Jason D. Warren, “What is an auditory object?”, in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol. 5, 2004, p. 887–892.

8  Patrick N. Juslin, “From everyday emotions to aesthetic emotions: Towards a unified theory of musical emotions”, Physics of Life Reviews, vol. 10, no 3, 2013, p. 235–266.

9  Bruno L. Giordano, Stephen McAdams, “Sound Source Mechanics and Musical Timbre Perception: Evidence from Previous Studies”, in Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 28, no 2, 2010, p. 155–168. John M. Grey, “Multidimensional perceptual scaling of musical timbres”, in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, vol. 61, no 5, 1977, p. 1270–1277.

10  Aaron Ridley, The Philosophy of Music: Theme and Variations, Edinburgh University Press, 2004. Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford University Press, 1999. Stephen Davies, Musical Meaning and Expression, Cornell University Press 1994. Peter Kivy, Music Alone: Philosophical Reflections on the Purely Musical Experience, Cornell University Press, 1991.

11  Hauke Egermann, Stephen McAdams, “Empathy and Emotional Contagion as a Link Between Recognized and Felt Emotions in Music Listening”, in Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 31, no 2, 2013, p. 139–156.

12  Gary S. Kendall, “The Feeling Blend: Feeling and emotion in electroacoustic art”, in Organised Sound, 19, 2014, p. 192–202. Pascal Terrien, “From Composition to Reception, Identicality of Meaning and Significance”. In Proceedings of the Electroacoustic Music Studies Network Conference Meaning and Meaningfulness in Electroacoustic Music. Stockholm, Sweden, 2012.

13  Simon Emmerson, Leigh Landy (Eds.), Expanding the Horizon of Electroacoustic Music Analysis. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

14  François J. Bonnet, Les mots et les sons : un archipel sonore,Paris, Éditions de l’éclat, 2012. Casey O’Callaghan, Sounds: A Philosophical Theory, Oxford University Press, 2010. Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards A Philosophy of Sound Art, New York, Continuum, 2010. Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear. Towards a non-cochlear sonic art, New York, Continuum, 2009.

15  Holger Schulze, “Corporeal Listening”, In Sound as Popular Culture: A Research Companion, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2016, p. 281–289. Aline Frey, et al., Pertinence cognitive des unités sémiotiques temporelles, in Musicae Scientiae, vol. XIII, no 2, 2009, p. 415–440. Marc Leman, Embodied Music Cognition and Mediation Technology, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2008. William L. Windsor, A Perceptual Approach to the Description and Analysis of Acousmatic Music. PhD Thesis, London, City University, 1995.

16  Marc Leman, op. cit., 2008.

17  Micheline Lesaffre, et al., “How potential users of music search and retrieval systems describe the semantic quality of music”, in Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, vol. 59, no 5, 2008, p. 695–707.

18  Asterios Zacharakis, Kostantinos Pastiadis, Joshua D. Reiss, “An Interlanguage Study of Musical Timbre Semantic Dimensions and Their Acoustic Correlates” in Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 31, no 4, 2014, p. 339–358.

19  see also Marc Leman, op. cit., 2008, p. 207.

20  Riccardo Wanke, op. cit., 2015.

21  This adjustment is related to the specific pieces selected and is not universally applicable: the use of microtonality, for instance, is encountered in sustained musical episodes and relates to the creation of static blocks of sound with aural fluctuations generated by acoustic binaural beats. In this way it has been possible to adapt the expression microtonal variation into the couple of adjectives compact / fluctuating.

22   Riccardo Wanke, op. cit., 2015.

23  Joe Andrews, Tom Halstead, “Told & Collapsed”, in Raime ‎– Hennail, UK: Blackest Ever Black, Vinyl, 2011. “Passed Over Trail”, in Raime – Quarter Turns Over A Living Line, UK: Blackest Ever Black, CD, 2012. Georg F. Haas, “in vain”, in Haas – Klangforum Wien, S. Cambreling ‎– In Vain , Austria: Kairos, CD, 2000. Bernhard Lang, “DW7”, in https://goo.gl/keW5F6 (part 1) / https://goo.gl/BoNnFi (part 2) / https://goo.gl/35RsA3 (part 3), Retrieved [07/2017]. “DW3, DW8, DW15 Songs/Preludes”, in DW8 / DW15 / DW3, Germany: Col legno, Bayerischer Rundfunk, CD, 2004. “DW 17: Doubles/Schatten”, in DW 17: Doubles/Schatten II, Germany: Col legno, CD, 2006. Mika Vainio, Ilpo Väisänen, “Rafter” inPan Sonic – Kesto, UK: Blast FirstCD, 2004. Giovanni Verrando, “Dulle Griet / Triptych#2”, in Mdi ensemble, RepertorioZero, France: AEON, CD, 2013.

24  Attributes from theoretical analysis: primal (p), secondary (s) and absent (a) (Table 1).

25  Even if 89% of participants reported a general expertise in music, only54% admitted to having a familiarity with the majority of audio samples.

26  Those who have appreciated the test have mostly reported a good familiarity with audio samples and a preference to those genres related to the selection of pieces, and vice-versa.

27  There is a weak correlation between modes of listening and familiarity with the audio sample (Table 3, χ2 = 12.92, df=4, p<.012, Cramer’s V=0.392).

28  h = relative % of high familiarity with audio sample; p = relative % of professional link to music.

29  Only 56% of the listeners who have assumed an analytic listening declared being highly familiar with the audio samples (Table 3).

30  A genre could be seen as a collection of works sharing a set of consolidated conventions (e.g. sonic, social and cultural) that when repeated create listening expectations and recognitions. Joanna Demers, Listening Through Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music. Oxford, University Press, 2010.

31  In ethnomusicology, for instance, Lomax’s Cantometrics taxonomy takes on an important role as a system of musical parameters.

32  Pierre Schaeffer, Traité des Objets Musicaux. Paris, du Seuil, 1966, pp. 103–128.

33  The language of immanent approach is at times borrowed from what we might expect to produce sound (e.g.pulses repeated periodically”, “multi-layered”) or what we might associate to sound (e.g.unpredictable contrasts”).

34   Landy, L. (2007). Understanding the Art of Sound Organization. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, pp. 23–26.


Riccardo Wanke, «A unified approach to perceiving sound in current experimental music genres», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], L'éthique de la musique et du son, Numéros de la revue, Hors-thème et compte rendu de lecture, mis à  jour le : 15/01/2019, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=879.


Quelques mots à propos de :  Riccardo Wanke

Riccardo Wanke (1977, Genova, IT) est actif, à partir de 1995, dans les arts (musique, installations) et en sciences (études universitaires). Il est porté vers la musique improvisée et exploratoire et il s’intéresse en particulier à la diffusion de l’art contemporain. Il est candidat au doctorat en musicologie et membre du Centre pour l’étude de la sociologie et de l’esthétique de la musique (CESEM) de l’Université Nova de Lisbonne (Portugal). Il participe également aux activités de l’équipe de recherche MUSIDANSE de l’Université Paris 8 (France) et du CeReNeM de l’Université Huddersfield (Grande Bretagne). Il effectue des recherches sur une définition transversale pouvant traiter des styles très différents de musique expérimentale. Il a publié récemment dans la revue Organized Sound et a présenté des articles dans plusieurs conférences (par exemple, à l’ICMC2016). En tant musicien, il s’intéresse particulièrement à la manipulation analogique du son et à son application dans des compositions musicales. Il est actif en tant que compositeur et performer (piano, guitares préparées et électronique), il a joué dans plusieurs pays et a publié de la musique pour des labels internationaux (USA, CH, IT, PT, MX). || rdwmusic.com ||
Riccardo Wanke (1977, Genova, IT), from 1995 active in arts (music, installations) and science (academic studies), his interest includes improvised and exploratory music and it is focused on diffusion of new and contemporary art. He is PhD candidate in Musicology and member of the Centre for the Study of Sociology and Aesthetics of Music (CESEM) at the University Nova of Lisbon (PT). He participates to the activities of MUSIDANSE research team at the Université Paris 8 (FR) and with CeReNeM at Huddersfield University (UK). Where he is investigating the definition of a cross-genres perspective to analyse unrelated styles of today’s music, he recently published in Organised Sound and presented papers in several conferences (e.g. ICMC2016). As performer, he is particularly interested in digital and analog manipulation of sound and its application into musical compositions. He is active as composers and performer (piano, prepared guitars and electronics) and he performed live worldwide and published music for international labels (USA, CH, IT, PT, MX). || rdwmusic.com ||