Theses Doctoral

Musical Sound and Spatial Perception: How Music Structures Our Sense of Space

Saccomano, Mark

It is not uncommon to read claims of music’s ability to affect our sense of time and its rate of passage. Indeed, such effects are often considered among the most distinctive and prized aspects of musical aesthetics. Yet when it comes to the similarly abstract notion of space and its manipulation by musical structures, theorists are generally silent. My dissertation addresses this gap in the literature and shows how music’s spatial effects arise through an affective engagement with musical works.
In this study, I examine an eclectic selection of compositions to determine how the spaces we inhabit are transformed by the music we hear within them. Drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theory of embodied perception, as well as research on acoustics, sound studies, and media theory, I deploy an affective model of spatial perception—a model that links the sense of space with the moment-to-moment needs and desires of the perceiver— to explain how these musical modulations of space occur. My claim is that the manner in which the music solicits our engagement affects how we respond, which in turn affects what we perceive.
I begin by discussing the development of recording technology and how fixed media works deemed “spatial music” reinforce a particular conception of space as an empty container in which sound sources are arrayed in specific locations relative to a fixed listening position. After showing how innovative studio techniques have been used to unsettle this conventional spatial configuration, I then discuss examples of Renaissance vocal music, instrumental chamber music, and 20th century electronic music in order to develop a richer understanding of the range of spatial interactions that musical textures and timbres can provide. In my final chapter, I draw upon these varieties of affective engagement to construct a hermeneutic analysis of the spatial experience afforded by Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, thereby modeling a phenomenological method for grounding interpretation in embodied, rather than strictly discursive, practices. By soliciting movement through the call for bodily action, music allows us an opportunity to fit together one world of possibilities with another, thereby providing an occasion for grasping new meanings presented through the work. The spatial aspect of music, therefore, does not consist in merely recognizing an environmental setting populated by individual sound sources. Through the embodied practices of music perception and the malleability of space they reveal, we are afforded an opportunity to reshape our understanding of the world around us.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Kozak, Mariusz S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 17, 2020