Music as Embodied Action

February 01, 2006 · Thesis

Extended essay submitted as part of BROWN, N. (2006). Portfolio of essays and compositions. Oxford Bodleian Library DPhil Thesis, Manuscript, 2006.


In this essay I argue that the primary object of musical experience does not consist in patterns of sound and, therefore, that the act of listening is not of primary significance. Instead, I contend that musical experience, which I understand as something that includes the process of composing, is primarily a way of effecting relationships between human beings and their environments. I investigate the implications of this understanding for practitioners of new music in contemporary Britain and address the common, Western conception of composing, that is, an individual musician’s engaging their technical facility for the notational representation of sounds and their patterns. According to such a normative definition, composers issue performative mandates for decoding by performers, or secondary agents, from which results the existence and configuration of musical sounds.

In contrast, I suggest that the composer’s task might focus on circumscribing the nature of experiential relations, which a percipient encounters on apprehending a musical work. This compositional task would differ from one that engages in the fulfilment of commissions for concert pieces or the production of text-objects, delivered through notational schemes, for later realization by secondary agents and subsequent contemplation by individual percipients. Thus, my argument provides an alternative interpretation of musical activity, using a phenomenological approach that cites the body’s encounter with the world of things as the primary object of musical experience. Accordingly, I suggest that the act of composing might defer from its relatively recent role as an isolated act of self-reflection through which the private imagination of a composer is revealed.