Music As Open-Work: The Call For An Ecological Approach To Music Analysis

In this essay I want to explore the role of listener in music. There has been a tendency to think of music as a closed noun, as a separate and singular thing, instead of as an open-work or an active engagement. I want to explore how thinking ecologically might better expose some of the interactions and relationships embedded in a music-making experience and allows us to explore the role of listener. Can music be understood apart from an audience and context? In particular I will explore how one piece of contemporary music has challenged the perception of music as a singular object and the consequences this imposes onto the discourse of cultural musicology. Looking largely at the arguments made my Gumbrecht and Clarke, I will explore the call for acknowledging and addressing the relationships through which we come to perceive and experience music. In giving a more experimental and perhaps ‘artistic’ form of music as an example, I recognise the limitations it may produce, but also feel is best able to represent and establish a broader, more active example of musics.

In the 1989 translation of ‘The Open Work’, Eco introduces us to the concept of openness; where some artists decide to leave their arrangements to some element of chance. That is to say there is a number of choices open for the performers or conductors to decide upon. Eco is keen to reinforce the notion of intentionality within this concept, reinstating that a composer may set a definitive number of possibilities open to chance via the listeners or performers, however this is in their intention and the piece of music would still ultimately be their own. My main interest within this concept is the argument circling around authorial intent and constraints. Do we, as listeners, need an author to legitimise our interpretations and is there always a pre determined interpretation that we must be drawn to?

Eco, although not necessarily intending to, has therefore brought to question the nature of interpretation and active engagement from other sources, for example; from an audience or performer. The example I have chosen to demonstrate this is John Cage’s 4’33” where the audience, composer and orchestra are all participants in a silent staged performance. This piece is often seen as a piece of sound art, or more of a statement than a piece of music, but rather than directly debate its legitimacy within the field I want to explore why this debate exits and the challenges it poses to a traditional understanding of what music might be.

4’33” forces its audience to become conscious of a wider soundscape, one that draws away from the orchestra and into the ecological setting. The listener becomes acutely aware of the temporality of the piece along with their own ontology; being pushed to listen to ones surroundings whilst mentally questioning your expectations of a performance. An example of  music which challenges traditional notions and structures of the field and opens up the spacial possibilities emanating from chance, experimentation and the surrounding audience and environment.


For Cage “…music takes on social weight, beyond symbolic systems and toward immediacy and the profound presence of being there” (LaBelle 2006:8). We transcend beyond the traditional understanding of music as an object or noun and are left with a highly active, participatory concept: an acute awareness of our own being within it. Musics can then be interpreted in a number of different ways. Music as a concept is now itself open-work where those who engage with it; as listener, conductor or performer; have an impact on it. This mirrors Christopher Small’s notion of Musicking whereby a range of activities that contribute to the music are acknowledged as having an impact (Small 1998). Small’s understanding of music is as an activity, one which, similar to Eco’s ‘open-work’, relies on active engagement. Small goes as far as to argue that instead of Music as a noun, we should use to music, as a verb to mean participating to any degree in music.

Music, in this sense, can be understood as relying on these relations and the meanings bound between them, we can identify a key problem with the study of music in a largely academic and abstract way. Following on from Small’s argument, it is essential to situate music within its environment. Music can only be experienced as a performance, be it live, in memory, in the imagination or from recording and as such, the meaning of music can only be determined within this paradigm. ‘To music’ is then in a dynamic relationship with ‘to listen’. If we are to consider a way of better studying music, and what music means to us as humans, then a greater degree has to be understood in regards to the way in which we listen to and perceive it. This way of approaching music denies looking at music solely as a form of knowledge, and recognises that this knowledge is always to some extent related to the idea of performance.

Clarke proposes an ecological approach to our perception of music, one in which he argues “perception and meaning are closely related. When people perceive what is happening around them, they are trying to understand, and to adapt to, what is going on. In this sense they are engaged with the meaning of the events in their own environment” (Clarke 2005:6-7). Clarke’s approach forces us to rethink our basic assumptions about listening and provides a framework through which we are able to address a more participatory understanding of music. He allows for emotion and meaning to be primary attributes and draws the focus away from purely sonic properties. This strain of thought is in parallel to Gumbrecht’s notion of presence (Gumbrecht 2004). In this he argues that interpretation alone cannot do justice to cultural events and phenomena which have a tangible impact on our bodies and senses. Humanities as a social science plays the role of interpreting the meaning of the world in which we reside but fails to address this presence or impact on us.

Similar to Small, Gumbrecht acknowledges the need to delve directly into the subject matter rather than discuss or assess in its absence. Gumbrecht sees knowledge as not confined to, or dependent on, prior interpretation. Music is then revealed as an active experience in which in each occurrence it is produced in a form based within a dynamic relationship between current and prior forms, but can only be understood in context. As Clarke explains it: “perception must be understood as a relationship between environmentally available information and the capacities, sensitivities, and interests of a perceiver” (Clarke 2005:91).

Cage’s piece is situated within a movement of experimental music that seeks to move away from an overtly musical framework and towards an increasingly contextual one which looks outside of musical phenomenon. There is an intensification of the listening experience which acknowledges it as having been previously disregarded. This notion of presence and an ecological approach to listening both situate music in a spheres where it is not traditionally deemed. We now see music within the wider environment of sound and within that we are conscious of sound being interwoven in relationships of meaning, symbolism and interpretation.

What I hope this has addressed is the movement within musicology to incorporate a wider viewpoint on what music can be, and in doing do, how the field is responding in its approach to understanding cultural meanings of music. An ecological, contextual appreciation of music is one which is forced to recognise the active participation of agents external to the noun of Music (reduced to the sheets of music, the instruments, or the musical sounds).


Clarke, Eric 2005 “Ways of Listening: A Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning” Oxford University Press

Eco, Umberto 1989 (translation) “The Open Work” Harvard University Press

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulricht 2004 “The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey” Stanford University Press

LaBelle, Brandon 2006 “Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound and Art.” Chapter 1: “Sociality and Sound” pg 7-21 Continuum Publishing Group

Small, Christopher 1998 “Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening” Wesleyan University Press

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