The Sonic Audience in Music


The significance of music to human culture is indisputable. Across recorded history, every society has produced, consumed, and valued music. Because it is so universal, an incredible amount can be learned about a group of people simply by listening to the music it makes. As Jacques Attali says, “Music, as a mirror of society, calls this truism to our attention: society is much more than economistic categories, Marxist or otherwise, would have us believe” (8). Differences in musical styles, such as the incorporation of improvisation, the musical structure, and the type of instruments used, may lend insight into the social constructions of a community. Differences in the use of music, from political tool to intellectual activity to celebratory instrument, tell about power structures and the relative interests of a society. Studying music can teach us about religious beliefs, gender roles, and even the influence of government.

However, the musician only represents a small percentage of a population. Far more important is the listener. Since music, in some form, plays a role in any and every population, it is safe to say that the audience is the best representation of a society’s state. The audience can be studied with a variety of methods; polls, record sales, and radio ratings all come to mind. More interesting, though, is the way that an audience interacts sonically with music during a live performance. In my paper, I plan to research the ways in which various musical communities find it appropriate to create sound as an audience member in a live performance of music. It is my belief that such research could teach us about the role of music in these communities, as well as draw connections across the boundaries of varying genres.

I will conduct this research in a multi-faceted fashion. With the help of various pieces of literature, I will examine structural differences between varying types of music. Such study is significant to my paper because it will lay the groundwork upon which I might then observe how these differences affect the presentation of the music in a live setting. This background will also make clear various interpretations of music: an intellectual activity, a show of personal skill, the focal point of an energetic and lively scene, an accessory to a party. These different roles of music will provide a framework with which to interpret the levels and styles of audience participation.

Next, I will research the role of the audience in the performance of this music. Such research can only be done with direct observation. As a result, I expect this work to focus on a combination of attending live shows, watching videos of performances, and listening to the audio of performances. I will then record when, why, and to what extent the audience makes sounds, as well as the nature of these sounds. I will do this work in as professional a manner as possible, with attention to details such as unintentional audience sounds, the conveyed emotion of audience sounds, the purpose of the sounds and the performer’s reactions to these sounds.

Having seen countless musical performances in my life, I have a number of expectations. For example, at a jazz performance, I know that it is acceptable and, generally, encouraged to applaud after each individual solo, while the song continues. In  freestyle rap, the audience cheers for individual lyrics, lines, and rhymes. The crowd at an electronic dance music concert constantly makes noises (though they are drowned out by the sound system). On the other hand, an audience at a classical piano recital refrains from making any sound (even coughing, if possible) until the performer has clearly finished the piece and lowers his or her hands from the keys. I expect that I will find these assumptions to remain true in my research, and that my observations will simply provide me with sound evidence upon which to base my argument.

I also hypothesize that this research will highlight a fundamental aspects of the audience’s feelings toward the performer and the composer, as well as a difference in the appreciation of artistry versus skill. During a symphony, for example, the audience remains silent because the entire symphony has been composed as a single piece, with overlapping sections and a linear path. The listener must pay close attention so as not to get lost in the composition, and applauses only at the end because any prior noise would distract from the artistry. However, during a jazz performance, the audience actively participates in the music, cheering in the middle of an improvised solo to tell the performer what it likes. This applause is not to praise a polished, artistic work, but rather to praise the skill of the performer, who composes in the moment.

I am certain that my work will bridge gaps between such diverse musical styles as classical piano and pop. By studying the activity of the audience, I will illustrate factors common to all music: the special appreciation for the composer, the praise given to artists with particular skill, and the fact that music, unlike some other art forms, places artist and audience in a simultaneous and shared experience.






Work Cited (In Proposal)


Attali, Jacques. “Noise: The Political Economy of Music.” The Sound Studies Reader. By Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. N. pag. Print.


Full Bibliography

Bailey, Derek. Musical Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982. Print.

Bailey provides a very detailed and extensive description of improvisation as understood by musicians across a wide variety of musics. His scope ranges from Indian to flamenco, baroque and organ to rock and jazz. The book is not intended as a “history” of improvisation, but rather as an examination of the style in different contexts, as understood by different people. In one particularly useful chapter, Bailey focuses directly on the importance of the audience.

Dorian, Frederick. The History of Music in Performance; the Art of Musical Interpretation from the Renaissance to Our Day. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &, 1942. Print.

Frederick, like Bailey, intentionally states that his book is not a history of music. The book explores various aspects of musical interpretation during performance. Frederick discusses the connection between composer and conductor, and the importance usually assigned to each. In particular, he is interested in changes in the way an audience praises a conductor’s interpretation of a piece over the composer, or vice versa. He also draws a fascinating correlation between this change and an increased obsession over the “rights and limits of interpretation” (24).

Jones, Mari Riess., and Susan Holleran. Cognitive Bases of Musical Communication. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1992. Print.

Jones and Holleran outline a more empirical approach to studying music and the brain. The book details various connections between pitch, tonality, and even the possibility of semantics in music, with contributions from doctors of music, psychology, and linguistics. In chapter 4, John Sloboda describes “empirical studies of emotional response to music” (33). These studies ought to provide a background for studying the sonic expression of these emotional responses.

Horowitz, Harold. The American Jazz Music Audience. Rep. no. 86-62518. Washington, DC: National Jazz Service Organization, 1986. Print.

Horowitz’s research gives a detailed breakdown of jazz’s demographics. This ranges from how many people attend live performances, the characteristics of the audience and musicians, crossovers with other genres and common geographic hubs of jazz. While attempting to understand the role of the audience, knowing about the characteristics of the audience can be immensely helpful.

Lehrer, Jonah. From Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007. 120-43.

Chapter 6 of Lehrer’s book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, talks about Igor Stravinksy’s contributions to the musical world by confronting the audience with revolutionary amounts of dissonance in Rite of Spring. The audience at the first performance of the ballet started a riot, a strong example of the audience reacting to music.