Gonçalo Gato

CICANT – Lusófona University, Portugal; goncalogatolopes@gmail.com


To talk about listening in music is to talk about music itself. Despite this generality, specific knowledge is still building up as we study the perceptive and cognitive processes involved. This is not to say that there aren’t aspects of music not tied to listening, (e.g., pure score engraving). Plus, it is certainly possible to compose a piece without hearing a single sound. The opposite scenario is, nevertheless, the most common and natural, and developing listening skills is the main aim of musical training. Composers work with sound, which requires a source and a listener to be experienced. This duality gives rise to two general corollary questions. What sound sources do composers use while composing and how do they differ? How can music listening be characterized and what aspects stand out as most relevant? This paper attempts at giving a contribution towards answering both questions from the viewpoint of compositional practice. A first subtopic relies on the fact that the act of composition defines a moment, and in relation to that moment there are three different times: before, while and after. Listening while composing is the most specialized, whereas before and after may share characteristics. How can these times be characterized and what are their implications? 

A second subtopic concerns sound listening modes. These have been previously addressed by some authors, namely Schaeffer, Truax and Chion. Are there further and specific music listening modes and do they apply to musical composition? How? What further listening modes can be identified and/or theorized? Regarding musical elements such as harmony: can we theorize ways of listening? Are there different ways of listening and conceiving chords and chord progressions? For instance, chords can work as harmonic functions, as interval sets, or as timbres. A third subtopic concerns the way we approach new music. It is generally accepted that listening has gone through changes throughout music history, an evolutionary idea captured by Schönberg in his emancipation of dissonance: the ear gradually becomes accustomed to intervals which no longer need to be prepared and resolved. But can we further develop the idea of listening adaptation to different aesthetic propositions in contemporary music, not just connected to dissonance? What kinds of perceptual emancipations can we theorize for today’s music? What changes occur in listening as we approach music that does not work in a way we’re used to? A fourth and final subtopic concerns a particularly interesting and paradoxical aspect of music making and music listening that needs further exploration: what we can call the unheard. What can exist in music that is not heard, and what is its role in composition? A striking example of an unheard element of music is pulse: it is usually implied, inferred by the brain and felt by the body. But many times, composers deal with other unheard aspects, which can either be non-musical — numbers, schemes, structures, etc. — or musical, such as an intentional compositional action of not hearing, or of purposefully leaving space for indeterminate performative actions during a concert. Are unheard phenomena an internal, calculation-based listening mode?

Keywords: composition; listening; listening modes; musical perception; musical cognition.


Gonçalo Gato was born in Lisbon, Portugal. His works have been performed in the UK, Canada, Germany, France, Portugal and Brazil. The recent CD NowState (2020) was released by the prestigious label KAIROS. He was one of the Panufnik Composers associated with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2016–17, subsequently becoming Young Composer in Residence at Casa da Música. He is active in the field of computer-assisted composition, after completing his doctoral degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama under Julian Anderson’s supervision. This research led to a chapter in the OM Composer’s Book 3 (2016), published by IRCAM.