Julian Johnson

Royal Holloway University of London, UK; julian.johnson@rhul.ac.uk


Recent decades have seen a striking expansion of research into music listening across many disciplines (from neuroscience and psychology, to education, sociology and philosophy). While these approaches imply a diversity of methodology, they are all shaped by a common assumption: the centrality of a self-identical listening subject. Empirical and theoretical studies alike not only start from, but also reproduce and reinforce, a model of the listening subject that is the legacy of a Humanist Modernity. Unsurprisingly, studies of the function of music listening tend to confirm it is mainly individualistic, self-referring, and solipsistic, and that most listeners are concerned with music as a tool of self rather than social relatedness. My paper takes an opposite approach in exploring a more critical theory of music listening. It takes seriously the idea that music and music listening challenge the explanatory discourses we bring to it. Rather than allowing music to be reduced to a mute object of discourse, I therefore explore what happens if we accord priority to the particularity of musical experience. I begin with the idea of aesthetic attentiveness – a mode of opening to the world defined precisely by a suspension of the rush to discursive articulation or explanation. Normative theories of music listening are predicated on the idea of consumption, a model derived from a capitalist comportment towards the world (the world as material to use to my ends). This mode of attention is neither a necessary condition of music nor music listening; indeed, it is the antithesis of what makes music listening a distinctive human activity. Nowhere is this clearer than in musical practices that refuse the equation of consumer choices with the exercise of an autonomous and critical subjectivity. I take the category of ‘new music’ to be a paradigm of such a refusal and the listening it affords as a resistance to a capitalist mode of comportment. My paper therefore considers music listening as exemplary of a different comportment. It explores music neither as a practice of meaning or communication, nor in terms of personal pleasure, identity formation or consumer habits, all of which refer music listening back to the sovereignty of an atomistic subject. Instead, it considers listening as aesthetic attentiveness, a mode of creative, embodied, non-discursive sense-making that does not subsume particularity but opens out to the world. Such an ecological attitude joins up with the emphasis of posthumanist aesthetics on exceeding the boundaries of a closed subjectivity. I explore this through examples of new music from Scelsi and Sciarrino to electronica and glitch, though my argument is not repertoire specific and might be applied to all sorts of music. I conclude by drawing out the critical social potential of music listening understood as aesthetic attentiveness rather than in terms of instrumental functions of private or social life. Paradoxically, I contend that such a practice of music listening is today one of the most critical, pro-social and vitally important of all the many affordances of music.

Keywords: Aesthetic Attentiveness; Comportment; Posthumanism.


Julian Johnson is Regius Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. He was previously Reader in Music and Fellow of St Anne’s College at the University of Oxford (2001–7), and Lecturer in Music at the University of Sussex (1992-2001). Originally a composer, his academic research has focused on issues in music history and the aesthetics of music across the broad period of musical modernity. In 2005 he was awarded the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association for ‘outstanding contributions to musicology’ and, in 2013, became the first holder of the Regius Chair in Music established as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. In 2017 he was elected to a Fellowship of the British Academy and is currently the holder of a British Academy Wolfson Research Professorship for a project titled The Persistence of the Aesthetic: The Value of Musical Listening in the 21st Century.