Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 1 (Fall 2001)

Classical Music -- Is Anyone Listening?: A Listener-based Approach to the Soundtrack of Bertrand Blier's Too Beautiful For You (1989)

By Teresa Magdanz

Introduction: Listeners awaken

In his book Musical Elaborations, prominent cultural historian Edward Said discusses the wretched position in which he feels Western Classical music now finds itself. Based on three lectures given at the University of California, Irvine, under the auspices of the Critical Theory Institute in 1989, this little-known work is at once a lament for the amateur musician and motivated listener, as it is an examination of the links between “the public and private meaning of music”:1

Some years ago Adorno wrote a famous and, I think, correct account of “the regression of hearing,” in which he emphasized the lack of continuity, concentration, and knowledge in...listeners that has made real musical attention more or less impossible. Adorno blamed such things as radio and records for undermining and practically eliminating the possibility that the average concertgoer could play an instrument or read a score. To those disabilities we can add today's complete professionalization of performance...Whether we focus on the repeatable mechanically reproduced performance available on disc, tape, or video-record, or on the alienating social ritual of the concert itself, with the scarcity of tickets and the staggeringly brilliant technique of the performer achieving roughly the same distancing effect, the listener is in a relatively weak and not entirely admirable position.2

Said comes to his topic as a passionate musical amateur, a self-professed outsider whose concern for the hyper-specialization of the concert-going apparatus has lead him to speculate on the irrevocable split between public status and private pleasure -- amateur performance and “real musical attention,” as he puts it.

In the book's final chapter, Said offers himself up as a listening subject, detailing his own concert-going experience at an Alfred Brendel recital at Carnegie Hall.3 Interspersed with his recollections of listening in the moment are two “non-musical associations” he says flitted through his mind while Brendel played the Brahms Theme with Variations for Piano, op, 18: one was an old Prades festival recording of Pablo Casals, and the other was the Louis Malle film Les amants (1958), in which the Brahms functions as the chief element in the film's scoring. Interestingly, Said plays down these associations with the work performed at the Brendel recital, mentioning that they only “occurred [in his mind] because of the music, [and that] “they seemed to have only a secondary, derivative cogency to them.”4 Said's own self-reflexivity here allows me to ask some crucial questions about the nature of listening and listening contexts. These include:

  • In a given listening context (concert, film, or recording, for example), do we only ever hear just “the music”?
  • What exactly is “real musical attention,” as Said mentions in the above quotation?
  • Is “real musical attention” only possible, or at least desirable, in certain listening/performing contexts (i.e., such as the Alfred Brendel recital which Said attended)?

To these ends, I propose to make Western Classical music in differing listening contexts, the proper subject of this paper.

In using Said's book as a starting point for discussion, however, I am not laying out an assault on the intimate recollections and thoughts of the place of Western Classical music in the scholar's life. Rather, I invoke some of his ideas and experiences to highlight the crucial dimensions of public and private listening to a particular music. While I sympathize with Said, and with the plight of many would-be amateurs, I surmise that the “constant ‘backgroundization’ of music,” as the eminent scholar puts it,5 has existed as long and maybe even longer than, for example, Renaissance singing hawkers who sold their wares to throngs of moving buyer-listener-folk while performing canti carnascialeschi. Certainly, five hundred years or so later, and at the outset of the twenty-first century, there are countless individuals around the world whose experience of the Western art-music repertoire tends to be through the “undesirable” media of film, television, Hooked on Classics LP's, children's video games, audio recordings, shopping malls, restaurants, and, perhaps most recently, cell-phones. Therefore, my study asserts that Western art music is valid and meaningful for many listeners, primarily because it has infiltrated the popular arena in the guise of the various media and contexts mentioned above. Further, I argue that the many kinds of listening that a diverse cultural mainstream has developed reveal several creative approaches toward a music and musical practice assumed to be for “serious” listeners only.

The project...

In March and April of 2000, I conducted a fairly small three-part study to ascertain various listener experiences of Western art music in various listening contexts. Film as the tool for my exploration was the logical choice, since, as I argue, film scores have brought classics from the Western art-music repertoire, as well as music modeled on nineteenth-century symphonic works, to more listeners than any other medium in history. After much thought, I chose Bertrand Blier's Trop belle pour toi (hereafter referred to by its English title, Too Beautiful For You)6 for my research. First, I chose to focus on this film, as its soundtrack is almost entirely comprised of some fourteen different works by the Classical-Viennese composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Secondly, the film confronts the listener-viewer with what I term an “overt aesthetic” of Western art music, not only because it has the look, feel, and sound of an art-house European film, but also because it uses music in formally arresting ways, structuring the narrative in such a manner as to provide tangible and concrete means for the viewer to reflect upon her/his experience of sound and vision.

At the centre of my research will sit the experiences of seventeen undergraduate students who viewed the film, listened to excerpts of the soundtrack on tape-cassette or CD, and completed a survey based on their experiences.7 An initial group of four listeners began by watching the film, followed with a hearing of the tape-cassette. For my second and third groups (comprised, respectively, of six and seven individuals), I reversed the process -- tape-cassette first, and film afterwards. Listeners were asked specific questions about the film, its content, its use of music, where typically they might listen to, or casually hear such music, and about any previous experience with Classical music, performance or otherwise. Critically, the listeners' responses will be framed and contextualized through a discussion on reception and listening, as theorized by Swedish musicologist and film historian Ola Stockfelt. Because almost all of the respondents indicated that concert Classical music was synonymous (at least for them) with “instrumental” music, “film music,” and many different kinds of what we might call background music, I will invoke the work of Simon Frith, who suggests we look at music as one entire field that is shaped by three distinct yet overlapping discourses of pop, high-brow, and authentic/folk.8

My findings represent the viewpoints of an admittedly small group of individuals, and do not claim to speak for all social and ethnic groups. I am confident, however, that my study will begin to uncover radically altered listening attitudes toward a commonly assumed “unradical” music.9

Context is everything

I would briefly like to discuss the viewing and listening experience of one of my first respondents, Roy, as his experience clearly illustrates the importance of looking at environment/context in an appraisal of how one encounters music. After watching Too Beautiful For You and then listening to the tape-cassette (Schubert), Roy stated that his first inclination would be to buy a compact-disc of the music of Schubert, rather than renting the movie again, or even buying the soundtrack. Yet, of the seventeen participants in my study, he was the only one to admit that he had not noticed mention of the composer's name in the movie, or even, the moments when Gérard Depardieu's character brings the subconscious music right into the action. A further contradiction resulted: though Roy said that his number one choice of venue for listening to this music would be a “concert-hall setting,” he also declared that he had enjoyed watching the film more than listening to the various Schubert pieces on tape cassette. Keeping in mind that this is one response of seventeen, and that, to varying degrees, two other respondents had similar responses, Roy's experience nonetheless highlights a central concern with respect to the current listening climate surrounding Western art music. Roy's response suggests that he equates “serious” listening of concert Classical music with a proper and correct environment. Moreover, he doesn't want “listening” to music (i.e., in an autonomous, self-reflexive manner) to infringe on his enjoyment of what he saw to be a true-to-life story about a “gorgeous female [Florence] who can't figure out why she isn't the centre of attraction.” We might say then, that Roy's listening expectations depend heavily on the context or environment with which he happens to be presented at the moment. One of the goals of this study then, is to discover how Roy and other listeners draw a line between various attitudes to listening in different contexts.

"How did the participants listen, and what did they listen for?"

In this section, I will comment on the two different listening contexts in which I immersed my participants. In the first listening context, I will discuss what transpired during listening of the Schubert tape-cassette, and in the second, I will choose one key filmic scene which respondents were asked to discuss vis-à-vis the Schubert music.

Listening to the tape-cassette

As the thirteen listeners of my second and third groups streamed into Winters' Senior Common Room of York University, I plunked on a 19-minute tape-cassette. On it were the following three pieces from the film soundtrack: a solo piano piece (Impromptu No. 3, D. 899), a dramatic-sounding choral movement (the Sanctus from the Mass in E-flat), and the Adagio from the Arpeggione Sonata, D. 821 (cello and piano). Right away, various listening attitudes began to manifest themselves, suggesting that this was an “easy listening” context for most. In each group, one or two people had brought newspapers. Soon, most participants had grabbed a section of the paper, while carrying on casual conversation with me or with others in the room. With the dramatic change in mood that the choral Sanctus movement brought, listeners looked up for an instant before resuming their conversation, reading, eating, drinking coffee, etc. This listening situation, as well as the style of music seemed to put the listeners at ease, for a number of participants got up from their seats (a various assortment of chairs and couches) to walk over to the window or to have a look at the large mural on the wall.

In retrospect, I don't think that I planned for the listeners to hear in any particular way; I didn't really give it much thought. However, when participants started to drift, I remember feeling surprised, and a little anxious. I began to think, “Hey, this is my survey, it's important to me, listen up!” (Obviously, my own listening attitudes were beginning to assert themselves). Thus, the listeners' experiences directly challenged my own notions of “relaxed” listening, or “distracted” listening to the Viennese Classical-era art music.

Since, as is clear, most people listened while engaged in other activities such as reading, eating, and talking to others, I was intrigued to note the numerous responses that detailed various listening goals, or strategies. Several of the participants stated, when asked, that the Schubert music was similar in style to other music of films they could recall. When asked if any sort of narrative or story came to mind as they listened (i.e., from a novel, real-life event, or film, etc.), seven of the thirteen responded “yes.” For nearly all the seven “yes” respondents, another film was the instigator of meaning. (Five of the seven felt that the taped music was similar in style to other music of films they could recall.) Two respondents said they could imagine the devil rising in some sort of a generic film scene, with one person citing the Devil's theme song from the horror flick Needful Things [1992] (based on the Stephen King novel) as being very reminiscent of the Sanctus movement.10 For two other respondents who mentioned specific films, nostalgia was also a powerful mediator of feeling:11

Classical music tends to remind me of the past and the way I, as most people my age, visualize the past is through various scenes in movies. It's rather straight-forward, but for example, hearing the violin reminds [me] of scenes in “The Red Violin.” - Kevin
One piece reminded me of “Star Wars,” probably some fighting scene with the voice and all [Sanctus], the others reminded me of old silent action flicks or cartoons, it really brought around a feeling of nostalgia. - Daniel

One respondent who, I noticed, had talked throughout the entire sitting of the pre-recorded Schubert tape, elaborated on a film whose mood and emotion, she found, were very similar to that of the music of Schubert:

I was thinking of a movie called “Dangerous Beauty,” about a courtesan in Venice, around the late 1400’s, I realize it’s not the right era, but the mood fits - similar in emotion. - Lisa

For the six out of thirteen who had not experienced a storyline of some sort, all put down “romance” or “drama” as best describing the sounds of the music. One of the respondents, Ann, wrote that even though she wasn't reminded of a particular story, film as a genre fit right in with this music; to her, the music suggested “one of those overcoming-the-odds-to-achieve-greatness movies.”

My first batch of four participants listened to the tape cassette after viewing the film. Initially, I gave a copy of the movie-video, a prepared tape-cassette and two questionnaires to be watched, listened to, and completed at home. This meant that each participant took a week to complete the survey, which became very time-consuming. In retrospect, however, I think it garnered more interesting and varied responses when it came to the kinds of listening situations each chose: for some, it was listening to the tape on public transit, while for others, it was listening to the tape-cassette in a car while driving, or even, while working in a computer lab. Perhaps not surprisingly, the responses to the music were more varied -- though this also could have been due to the influence of the film, personal interpretation, etc. One of my respondents, who listened to the music on a portable Walkman while walking outside, had a strong aural recall of some of the film's most powerful (and distracting) scenes:

The music helped me to recall certain parts of the film, especially the scene where Bernard asked his son [to tell him] “what the music playing was.” It also helped me to remember the feelings felt by Bernard and his lover. - Adam

Roy (whose response I summarized above,) listened to the tape while performing, perhaps, a more distracting activity: driving. He recognized the music as providing background for some of the quiet moments, and for the transit/train/bus ride scenes.

Thus, listening in various contexts (chatting, doing other things such as reading, eating, driving, while casually listening to concert Classical music on a tape player) was an unexceptional activity for most, if not all, the respondents of my study. Because my respondents seemed fairly relaxed with a music that I had assumed might make them uptight or self-conscious, I concluded that this was a normative mode of listening for this musical style (Western Classical music) for most in the room. I was still troubled, however, by a distinct possibility: what if the mode of listening I observed (i.e., “casual, semi-distracted”) was the standard mode of listening used by my respondents for virtually all music all of the time? If this was the case, I reasoned, then this particular listening mode does not in any meaningful way describe how one listens to various genres of music. However, as Ola Stockfelt insists, one must first examine the physical context in which the music is encountered. If, as he hints at in the quotation below, we hear the same work in a variety of contexts, we are, in fact, creating (or, creatively hearing) several different versions of a musical piece:

At the same time, the same listeners have the competence to use the same type of music, even the same piece of music, in a variety of different ways in different situations. The symphony that in the concert hall or on earphones can give an autonomous intramusical experience, tuning one's mood to the highest tension and shutting out the rest of the world, may in the café give the same listeners a mildly pleasant, relaxed separation from the noise of the street.12

Or, in the context of my respondents who might be highly competent at listening in a distracted/casual manner, it would follow that these individuals encounter music most, at least a good deal of the time, in cafés, shopping malls, video arcades, and so forth - a reasonable assumption given the mean age of these listeners, roughly 21 years of age.

“Don't you hear the music?”/Film screening

For the first seven or eight minutes of Too Beautiful For You, music (a Schubert piano “Impromptu,” as well as dramatic tremolo string music from the Rosamunde “Entr'acte,” No. 2) is used in conventional and clichéd ways, serving to infuse scenes with emotion, colour, warmth, and to impart a whiff of the French art-house film. As we watch Colette (Josiane Balasko) and Bernard (Depardieu) staring into each other’s eyes over coffee in a local restaurant during the beginning stages of their love affair, the romantic and melancholic strains of a Schubert solo piano piece are heard. Even through an abrupt scene-change that shows Bernard and his family having dinner in their palatial home, the music continues, voicing for us as spectators, the perfect picture of upper middle-class French life. As the camera does a slow pan around the dinner table, pausing on each of the lovely faces, Florence (Carole Bouquet) unexpectedly asks her husband: “Do you like the music?” Looking up from his plate Bernard queries, “What music?” The camera does a slow pan, switching from Bernard's growing perplexity to the mild curiosity of Bernard's beautiful children and then back to Florence. She persists: “Don't you hear the music?” It is at roughly this point in the dialogue that we realize Florence is initiating a filmic transgression: she is forcing the audience to hear music that was intended as subliminal and psychological background. Bernard, however, is unaware of this shift. As the dialogue with Florence continues, Bernard becomes increasingly agitated. He tries once again: “There's music in the house?” Finally, he gets up from the table and walks to the stereo from which, we as viewers now know, must be the real music source. As Bernard abruptly turns off the music, his son quietly gets up from the table to walk to his father's side. “What's this music?” Bernard quizzes his son. “A Schubert Impromptu,” the son answers. Grilling his son mercilessly over the invasive music, Bernard discovers that the Schubert is for a school project, and that his son is to write on the composer's work, life and influence. All through this dialogue, Bernard appears to alternate between distress, sheer dislike for the music and something else - incredulity. Finally, he blurts out: “But this music shatters me!”

Before I dwell on this scene, gauging spectator response to such things as the music's function, the pacing of the script, feelings of being controlled or alternatively, of feeling free to imagine, etc., I would like to contextualize it with Blier's view as to how spectators might experience this scene and other such scenes. Quite clearly, and as this reality-bending scene illustrates, Blier is fed-up with the conventional story line that is so dependent on realism:

Increasingly, I couldn't care less about stories; what matters is having an interesting theme, and that is played at the level of form, the way the story is told...When you are an author, the job consists of freeing yourself from structures, to burst open the story, time, the stupidities which make the cinema boring, and which make you a prisoner of realism: when it's daytime, it's not night-time: impossible that it can be both at once.13

Thus, the above-detailed scene from Too Beautiful For You transgresses traditional filmic convention that would have dialogue, action and music fill conventional roles, and music instead interfaces and controls all other elements. Not only does Blier let the Schubert establish the scene's audio and narrative character, it underscores the film's fanciful and surreal tone.

In addition to choosing the film for its Schubertian soundtrack, I hoped that deliberate mention of the composer's name and mention of his music throughout the film would elicit some unusually rich insights, leading, perhaps, to a closer understanding of the nature of hearing in certain contexts. One of the key questions of my questionnaire pertained to the dinner scene which I have just outlined above. I posed it thus:

Ten minutes into the film, we watch Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) come to the realization that the music he THINKS he hears in his head actually exists in the real world. Is this moment believable for you? Could you see yourself experiencing the same sort of thing with music?

Here is a cross-section of what the respondents wrote in reply:

This was weird. As an audience member, I've gotten accustomed to music I can hear that the players can't (soundtracks). This situation...oddly enough, it does seem believable, in the same way that you can not notice that music is actually playing until it stops. - Ann
Occasionally I'll be thinking of a tune and realize someone is playing it quietly. - Graham
This scene was put in the film too early. If the surreal nature of the film had been established it would have made it believable. - Andrew
At that time I also thought that the music was just mood music and not played in their house. This often happens to me in real life, where I often think that there should be music in parts of my life, maybe I've seen too many movies. - Lisa
I don't think it was done well in the film - awkward. - Olivia
I didn't understand it at first, but given Bernard's condition and personal experiences, I could very much see myself having a similar experience. - Kevin
In the filmmaking aspects, it's really really interesting and rarely done. I can't say I can relate to it personally however. - Caroline
That was only ten minutes into the film??? Wow. I think it's very believable. Some music can be so involving that you don't even notice it taking hold of you. I could definitely see something like that happening to me. Though it never has. - Marnie
Didn't notice this “moment” of the film (oops!) - Roy
I believe that this is possible. For myself I don't think of music, I like to listen to it, but it doesn't keep my mind - Adam
The moment (I feel) is crazy. He doesn't like the music but it is in his head. - Daniel

As can be seen from a selection of the replies, some respondents commented on the obviousness of the music's use in the dinner scene. For some, this highlighting of the music was irritating and awkward, while for others it provided a momentary shift in listening modes before accepting a new one as part of listening life. In other words, various listeners were also conscious to different degrees of their own choice of mode of listening and were able to adapt a current mode of listening in a sudden and new listening context.

My participants seemed less comfortable during the film screening than during the entire listening to the tape-cassette. This could have been due to any number of reasons, some being:

  • the room wasn't entirely dark, leaving, perhaps, some individuals to feel “naked,” and,
  • when one or two people in each group would settle down to a comfortable listening position, (i.e., lying fully horizontal on one of the Senior Common Room couches), I could see a few startled glances in that person's direction from other viewers. Thus, it seems to have been an uneasy combination of a stay-at-home video viewing context, and a more-formal-movie-theatre context -- the question being for each listener, which one of these contexts would be considered proper in this somewhat artificially-set up environment?

What made the deepest impression on me, however, were the several creative approaches to hearing this scene. Rather than picking out the proper syntax and structure in the Schubert works, several of the participants evinced different listening strategies, with some respondents hearing in two or more ways simultaneously:

  • “heard” the filmic technique behind these scenes
  • chose to “hear” cathartically with Bernard, sharing his experience
  • intimated that the music was “controlling” them

Brett, (a respondent whose answer doesn't appear on the above list) simply answered “No” to the question, that he didn't think that experiencing music in this way could or had happened to him. He was very put off by the entire questionnaire segment on the film. Previously, he had described the taped music as “interesting” and sounding like “romance,” but on viewing the film, the music now sounded “repetitive, pretentious and trite.” He also found mention of the composer's name within the dialogue “annoying” and declared that he would “never see this film again.” I don't believe this was due to the film's content, which he said he had enjoyed (he liked the several dinner/conversation scenes, as well as the abundant “sexual humour”). But because Brett was one of the few listeners to state that he would prefer to hear Schubert and music like Schubert in a concert-hall setting, I can only ascertain that the music, of which he was forced to become aware against his own wishes, was not in a listening context with which he was used to coping.

Modes of listening

As Ola Stockfelt's research makes abundantly clear, the kinds of listening that happen for so many in and through media like film, television, and radio, do not accord with listening as it is prescribed by the academic study of music (i.e., autonomous, reflexive, concert-hall listening). Further, Stockfelt argues that traditional (Western) scholarship ignores the features of music that are most important for many different kinds of listeners. In his 1988 book Musik som lyssnandets konst (Music as the Art of Listening), Stockfelt has catalogued numerous arrangements and contexts in which Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G minor (K. 550) has surfaced during its 200-year history.14 Surfboards with tiny radios attached to them, “7-11” convenience stores with a background wash of music, restaurants, mountain-tops, airplane cabins, films, and video games, all come under his purview in the exploration of how the “mass-media musical mainstream” experiences Western art music.15

What Brett and the other participants (including Roy, page five) whose replies I discussed were doing during the listening/viewing of this particular dinner scene from the film, was adopting various strategies for listening. To describe the different ways of listening, to “denote the different things for which a listener can listen in relation to the sound of music,”16 Ola Stockfelt has developed the term “modes of listening.” These new modes of listening have instigated changes in performance praxis, and especially as it affects my research, in the re-use and reworking of established music-works. Because each hearing person is potentially in daily contact with a wide range of musical styles, and because a single piece of music can exist in several of these styles at any given time, each listener has amassed a large repertoire of listening modes. Such “competence,” as Stockfelt terms it, does not spring from formal music training, but rather from continuous learning situations from which we absorb and catalogue the many sounds flowing through our cityscapes and other environments:

Each hearing person who listens to the radio, watches TV, goes to the movies, goes dancing, eats in restaurants, goes to supermarkets, participates in parties, has built up, has been forced (in order to be able to handle her or his perceptions of sound) - to build up an appreciable competence in translating and using the music impressions that stream in from loudspeakers in almost every living space.17

In addition, we begin to learn which different types of music correlate with which activities and subcultures.18

Stockfelt, however, is not the only individual to analyze how we as listeners have grown accustomed to collecting sound experiences through our everyday lives. There is an important dovetailing with the perspective of several film-sound creators whose job it is to grasp the common sonic experiences of countless film-going individuals:

People have been exposed to music, therefore they have associations with certain instrument groupings to perform certain emotional functions and a tempo that creates a rhythm, which then has an emotional association. I think our everyday experiences with sound in the real world perform the same kind of learning situation on the average person. They don't know it, but they have all kinds of little buttons that can be pressed. If you press the right button, it will make them feel a certain way. This is the basis for music, and it's the basis for selecting sound effects in a movie.19

Who precisely are we profiling when we talk about such listening competency? Stockfelt describes a “mass-media musical mainstream,” a singular and dominant cultural repertoire cutting across traditional culture, class and age boundaries. Attached to this more or less homogeneous culture are several “profiled subcultures,” where listeners may also reside, while calling upon more specialized and less mainstream musical language and listening. Though my study of seventeen listening-viewing experiences is perhaps too small, and therefore limited in the information it could generate to definitively support or refute the idea of a dominant cultural group which collectively consumes European and North American “serious” music (as well as Anglo-American pop music), it is important to note the manner in which my respondents identified themselves. One person described himself as a white Canadian, while another claimed Scottish ancestry. Though it appeared that at least three of the participants were of east-Indian ethnicity, and one young woman was of Jamaican descent, all declined to be identified on the basis of ethnicity. Thus, the most popular self-description (for fifteen out of seventeen respondents) was “Canadian citizen - student.” While I think that we would have to see the results of a much more comprehensive study regarding listening attitudes and competency, especially where it cuts across cultural and age differences, it seems that how one encounters music shapes the music experience itself. Stockfelt goes so far as to say - and this is in regard to music of the common cultural repertoire - “daily listening is often more conditioned by the situation in which one meets the music than by the music itself, or by the listener's primary cultural identity.”20

Certain modes of listening are often firmly connected to specific listening situations and because of this, listeners may or may not choose to listen to a style or genre of music. For example, to listen to a symphonic work in a concert hall almost invariably means sitting secure in your own seat; the narrow aisles purposely do not contain the space for hearers to get up and dance. This would be a social breach - the “wrong” kind of listening.(!) Similarly, but perhaps with fewer punitive restrictions, listeners are discouraged from standing with their eyes closed, enraptured for forty-five minutes, listening to an “easy-listening” version of a Brahms symphony in an all-night convenience store. Beyond this, it is crucial to note that listeners' choices of listening contexts are not always unmediated - in fact, they may never be. As the experiences of some of my respondents illustrated, it can prove difficult to listen in a self-reflexive autonomous way if too many other things are vying for attention. Similarly, the same applies to those who might try to block out or to disengage their hearing when strong, loud or profiled sounds, such as vocables with a special significance for the listener, resound.

To conclude, modes of listening are contingent upon the following:

  • Every mode of listening demands a significant degree of competence on the listener's part. A listener's competence does not diminish, either, because many individuals possess the same competence or hearing experience.
  • Not every mode of listening is immediately adaptable to every kind of sound structure or even to every type of musical work. For example, listeners who first heard the “classics” through the early 1980's Hooked on Classics series, might have experienced difficulty when attempting to listen to the original versions of these works. The former example is based on what Stockfelt calls “sound bite listening”: the musical object is fashioned from the original work's most recognizable snippets to become a musical pastiche facilitating a particular kind of listening.21 Normally, this listening is not compatible with the type of listening required to pick out the syntax and instrumental rhetorical devices that are part of the Western European tradition of orchestral writing.
  • Different modes of listening are in different ways more or less firmly connected to specific listening situations. This of course is ideologically driven and socially determined: the examples of the concert-hall and convenience store attest to expected outcomes for appropriate listening behaviour.
  • Finally, our choice of listening strategy is free, insofar as the above conditions have been met. Also, our choice of hearing must not be impeded by other sounds, and there must exist the requisite amount of material investment in technology with which to listen.22

Redefining listening contexts

Based on the research I have presented, it will now be clear that the kinds of listening that happen for so many in and through media such as film, television, and radio, do not always accord with listening as it is prescribed by the academic study of music (i.e., autonomous, reflexive, concert-hall listening). Instead, I assert that the following strategies, or, listening goals, are more in keeping with the types of sound structures and “background” listening contexts facing many listeners:

  • WHAT the listener is listening for (romance, nostalgia, a moral and ethical position, to get energized, etc.)
  • HOW the listener participated (with head back and eyes closed, while driving, while watching a movie, etc.)
  • WHO the listener thinks the transmitter(s) of the music is/are (listeners don't always think of the composer as the musical source; can be a screenwriter, producer, programmer, visual element on-screen, etc.)

Moreover, and as Stockfelt himself contends, these different listening strategies require that we re-think the relationship between space and sound, or, the spatial and psychological proximity between music and listener. Below, I have outlined three different listening situations whose environments determine wholly different outcomes for a listener experience:

  • A traditionally-mediated listening experience where the listener is sitting in front of a solo pianist on small stage, while the performer plays a solo piece. Listener may be positioned in upright, non-movable chair at least ten feet away (often more) from musical source. In this situation, we often accord the soloist with interpretive rights which somehow have been inherited from the long-dead composer.
  • Compare the above to a hearing of the same solo piano piece emitting from a CD-player in one's living-room. It takes a short time to walk over to the player, insert the compact-disc or cassette and then settle into a comfortable chair, or have dinner with friends, listening casually. We might now ask...who is transmitting the music? The producer who created this compact-disc, the composer, the performer(s), or, is it the very materiality of the stereo system that is bringing it to the listener? Potentially, the stereo/CD player can decrease the distance that the listener feels is between the sound source and her/his hearing experience, creating an aural environment not found in the listening context of the recital hall.23
  • Listening to solo piano music, such as a Schubert Impromptu, with a simultaneous visual narrative (film). Again, an analytical approach would have to be sensitive to the various listening-viewing contexts in which this music might be experienced (i.e., dark movie-theatre with upright, non-movable seating, sitting with several others, as well as the more informal video-viewing in a private space).

I lay out the above scenarios with the following observation, however: it seems to be the overall dimensions of the event, along with the medium or technology employed, that determine who (or what) we accord the privilege of being the source of the musical sound. I would argue that in the first situation listed above, if one were watching this same performance on video-tape (assuming, of course, a static camera position in front of the performer and piano), the listening outcome may well be similar to that of the live one (i.e., recital atmosphere, certain decorum expected of audience).

As another case in point, I cite the example of music notation -- something that one would expect to show up in the first category as part of the interpretive triangle between composer and performer, well away from the listener-viewer. However, as I discovered when I showed a film that included several brief instances of closely-shot music notation to a new group of participants, the interpretive rights so often aligned with the composer or performer through the auspices of the score, were felt by several of these listener-viewers to be in their own hands, so to speak.24 Though my respondents were at least ten feet away from the video monitor and thus the music notation, the extremely large scale and proportion of the images (shot with a special 200mm lens for such close-ups)25 had the participants convinced of the overwhelming proximity and power of the notation.

Problem: What IS “Classical” music?

The following question, which I addressed to all my participants, proved to be the most vexing of the survey:

Can you name any other film (or films) you've seen whose soundtrack includes any Classical music?

With this question, I was simply trying to ascertain the depth of each listener's experience with concert Classical music. I was unprepared for the replies that virtually all ran alike:

how does one define Classical music?
I don't know what you mean (3 replies)
but all films have Classical music!
I can't tell you any at this moment
countless amount of movies contain background music
No, I don't think that I would be able to distinguish Classical from instrumental.
I assume you mean music not created for the film, which I usually consider ‘Classical’ music.

In reading my participants' questionnaires, by observing them in the very act of listening and viewing, and in conversing with them on a casual basis, I discovered quite quickly that for these listeners concert Classical music is most often interchangeable with “instrumental” music, i.e., film music, and many different kinds of what we might call background music. For example, most of these listeners thought the soundtracks to movies such as the James Bond action series (of which many of the earlier scores were written by John Barry), Taxi Driver [1976; scored by Bernard Herrmann], Star Wars [1977; scored by John Williams], Chariots of Fire [1981; synthesizer score by Vangelis], The Piano [1993; scored by Michael Nyman], were mostly comprised of “serious” instrumental music.

As several of the respondents whose replies I detailed above imply, the search for what is properly classifiable as Western art music, and what to identify as characteristics (or idiosyncrasies) of such a music in soundtracks is shrouded in discursive confusion. Film music scholar Kathryn Kalinak, among others, pegs the classical Hollywood film score from its ascendancy in the 1930's to its continued presence in the 1980's,26 with its roots determinedly in the nineteenth-century idiom of orchestral writing. This “Classical” score, however, is not ultimately defined by idiom, medium, genre, or even personal style, but rather, by the force of its structural conventions - a set of practices that evolved for the specific use and placement of music in film. As Kalinak asserts, the Classical score can be thought of as a recent institutional practice for the organization of nondiegetic music in film.27 In a chapter from Overtones and Undertones called “Actions/ Interactions: ‘Classical’ Music,” film scholar Royal S. Brown wades into the discursive fray. Beginning in a similar vein as Kalinak when he states “[that] the type of music that has far and away dominated the music/film interaction is ‘classical’ music in numerous of its various styles,” he goes on to query

What is classical music? The term “classical” should delimit a certain period dominated in music by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, a period that shares certain aesthetic principles with other classical art... The term as it is commonly used, however, connotes what some might refer to as “highbrow” music, music that stands in opposition to the more popular forms of the art, whether songs, dance tunes, jazz, or whatever.28

Indeed, Brown goes on to problematize so-called Classical music, citing such composers as Beethoven and Chopin who routinely used popular elements in various guises in their compositions. In a later passage, however, Brown's definition of a Classical score echoes that of Kalinak:

This is not say that the classical score has totally died out. One thinks of Alex North, whose part-jazz score for Elia Kazan's 1951 “A Streetcar Named Desire” represents an important milestone, and whose complex, modernistic symphonic style is a major element of such films as...Stanley Kubrick's 1960 “Spartacus”.29

But the search for what is properly classifiable as Western art music and what to identify as characteristics (or idiosyncrasies) of such a music in soundtracks is a problem-wrought exercise, according to some. Simon Frith argues that “[i]t seems unduly restrictive... to treat the classical, folk, and pop music worlds (as most analysts have) as if they were distinct objects of study; it is more fruitful... to treat them comparatively, tracing contrasting solutions to shared problems.”30 More recently, and in an extension of Frith, Alan Stanbridge has pointed out that “some aspects of ‘classical’ music appear to be more ‘popular’ than ever,” citing the enormous popularity and economic success that has accompanied such phenomena as Hildegard von Bingen and Gregorian Chant, the Three Tenors, and the Nonesuch recording of Górecki's Third Symphony which vied for visibility on the British pop charts alongside pop superstars.31

Another complicating factor in any discussion of so-called Classical music is the degree to which one can argue that pre-existing music in film scores can be identified as “classical” at all. For as several as the respondents of my film-viewing study indicated, it was difficult to differentiate between pre-existing Classical music, and that of music scored especially for film. Further, I would wager that CD recordings of film scores produced for various markets only add to the confusion. For example, a recent release on the Naxos label called “Cinema Classics 1999: Classical Music Made Famous in Films,” contains, in addition to the canonical staples by composers such as Schubert, Chopin, Haydn and Fauré, two interesting additions: the first, an aria from the opera “Die Tote Stadt” written by the legendary 1930's-40's film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (and seen in its fourth cinematic incarnation in The Big Lebowski), and, second, John Philip Sousa's “Stars and Stripes Forever” (Bulworth).

Conclusion: Performative listening

At the end of my final film-screening, the participants felt like hanging around so we had an informal chat about the film, the music, and questions on the nature of my project. One of the participants, Lisa, who plays piano, but is not a music student (she is a Visual Arts major) said her favourite pieces of music to play were “Classical music like Debussy and like the piano music to the soundtrack ‘The Piano,’” written by the film composer Michael Nyman. When one of the other listeners in the group asked her a question about some of this music, she got up, went to the piano and started playing various of these pieces saying that, though she had enjoyed the Schubert piano pieces in the film Too Beautiful For You, she would prefer to play “Classical music, like from The Piano soundtrack.” She then asked if I, or any of the other participants in the room, could suggest film music or sheet music that “ sounded like the Schubert, but that was a little different.”

As I have discussed above, the type of music that has traditionally dominated the entire music/film interaction is “Classical” music in a variety of stylings. And as Lisa's experience attests, though film music uses many of the basic sounds and devices of Classical music, the film score does not always organize these sounds and devices into the type of extended, coherent, concert-intended work that has historically been one of the hallmarks of Western art music composition.32 Put another way, Lisa's listening strategies, in large part shaped by her love of movie-going, were implicit in her choice of piano repertoire. Thus, one could actually hear and see evidence of her preferred listening strategy for the film Too Beautiful For You (with its use of Schubert music in its more-or-less structural and syntactic form), in her attempt to re-hear the music once again through playing some re-jigged pieces, if only she could find them.

In light of Lisa's experience, I would like briefly to reconsider Edward Said's comments about his own listening experiences. My respondent, Lisa, and Said, actually share two striking similarities: they are both passionate piano players and listeners of piano music. Both also love what they each consider to be “Classical” music. And yet Said seems to deny the creative links to and associations with a music he loves because of the dubiousness of the listening contexts in which they transpired. Christopher Small, in pondering what a new attitude towards Western art music could be, declares that “ a truly confident creative passion takes the great work of the past and remakes it constantly, thus renewing the act of creation through the generations. These re-workings, tasteless as they may seem, may be truer to the creative spirit than our carefully researched urtext-edition attempts to restore the letter of the original.”33 I like to think that this rather grandiose statement, scaled down a bit, could apply to creative listeners and players like Lisa, as well as to all those listeners hearing in new and ever-changing contexts and environments.

Teresa Magdanz, born in Vancouver, has worked as as a hack flutist for several years playing banquet-hall weddings, bowling alley gigs, Chapter's bookstores, funerals and divorce parties (honest!). She is currently in the Ph.D. programme, Music Department of the University of Toronto, where she is pursuing such diverse interests as the study of film music, music criticism, social semiotics, and carousel/band organ music. Ms. Magdanz is also a part-time lecturer at McMaster University, where she has taught a seminar on the history of Canadian music.


Brown, Royal S. Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Dobson, Julia. “Nationality, Authenticity, Reflexivity: Kieslowski's Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993), Blanc (1993), and Rouge (1994).” French Cinema in the 1990s: Continuity and Difference. Ed. Phil Powrie. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Kalinak, Kathryn. Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

LoBrutto, Vincent. Sound-on-Film: Interviews with Creators of Film Sound. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.

Said, Edward W. Musical Elaborations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Small, Christopher. Music, Society, Education: A radical examination of the prophetic function of music in Western, Eastern and African cultures with its impact on society and its use in education. London: John Calder, 1977.

Stanbridge, Alan. “Who Could Ask For Anything More?: Cultural Theory, Contemporary Music, and the Question of Canons.” Diss. Carleton University, 2000.

Stockfelt, Ola. “Adequate Modes of Listening.” Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture. Eds. David Schwarz, Anahid Kassabian, Lawrence Siegel. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1997. 129-46.

Toubiana, Serge. “Entretien avec Bertrand Blier,” Cahiers du cinéma, 441: 22-7.

Vincendeau, Ginette. The Companion to French Cinema. London: Cassell; British Film Institute, 1996.


1. Edward W. Said, Musical Elaborations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), dust-jacket.

2. Ibid., 3.

3. Ibid., 73-105. The chapter is titled “Melody, Solitude, and Affirmation.”

4. Ibid., 86.

5. Ibid., 96.

6. The 1989 French film Too Beautiful For You/Trop belle pour toi, directed by Bertrand Blier, stars Gérard Depardieu as a nouveau-riche auto-dealership owner whose life with a too-beautiful wife (Carole Bouquet) and family is driving him to distraction. He finds warmth, passion and normality with the plain, frumpy, and slightly-past-her-prime Colette (Josiane Balasko), a secretary hired to answer phones at Bernard's auto showplace and garage.

7. This research was conducted at York University, Toronto, Ontario where I was a graduate student in the department of Ethnomusicology/Musicology. Consequently, the participants in both studies were first-year York students from a wide range of disciplines.

8. Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 21-46.

9. In his critique of the Western art music tradition, Christopher Small repeatedly emphasizes this point - that the music has lost its freshness, as well as its capacity to disturb. Music, Society, Education: A radical examination of the prophetic function of music in Western, Eastern and African cultures with its impact on society and its use in education (London: John Calder, 1977), 160-81.

10. Interestingly, the Devil's theme song in the film Needful Things is voiced by Schubert's Ave Maria (vocal).

11. Though far from conclusive, my research so far tends to support the theory that heavy use of pre-existing art music as part of a film soundtrack exists with an equally heavy use of narrative flashback (nostalgia). Some good examples of this are: Death in Venice [1971], The Unbearable Lightness of Being [1988], and of course, Too Beautiful For You.

12. p. 133. Ola Stockfelt, “Adequate Modes of Listening,” in Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture, eds. David Schwarz, Anahid Kassabian, and Lawrence Siegel (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 129-46.

13. p. 24. Serge Toubiana, “Entretien avec Bertrand Blier,” Cahiers du cinéma, 441: 22-7.

14. My own research is based on a single chapter (“Adequate Modes of Listening”) of Stockfelt's book, as it is the one section translated into English from the original Swedish.

15. Stockfelt, “Adequate Modes of Listening,” 132.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. The emphases are my own. Excerpted from an interview with Hollywood film-sound creator Ben Burtt. contained in Vincent LoBrutto, Sound-on-Film: Interviews with Creators of Film Sound (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994), 143.

20. Stockfelt, “Adequate Modes of Listening,” 133.

21. Ibid., 131.

22. Ibid., 135.

23. Headphones can bring the perceived music source even closer. Some of my respondents commented on the overwhelming catharsis they experienced on hearing and seeing Bernard listening to Schubert music on headphones, in the dead of night while his family slept.

24. Though only in the initial stages of research with this new study, I have compiled critical evidence regarding music notation and listener-viewer perceptions. Thus far, I have had 13 undergraduate students from various disciplines watch Kieslowski's Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993). Throughout the film, there are five instances where the camera closely follows the printed musical score while we hear music play. At times, Julie's (Juliette Binoche) finger traces the notes on the page; other times, the viewer goes it alone with the printed score as the notation blurs and almost disintegrates. Since roughly half of the participants didn't read music notation, and further, many admitted that this was their first experience watching an “art-film,” was attending to the music in this manner intimidating or confusing for them? The participants voted overwhelmingly in favour of the scenes' physical impact and narrative importance. Whether the viewer read music or not was irrelevant to an understanding of these key scenes. The following two responses typify the reaction to the above-quoted scenes: “The hand movement on the notes lets the viewer feel the exact feeling as the character has, because they are watching the world from the same window.   Personally, it made me move, dance, and fly with the music.” “The printed music intensified the emotional, as well as psychological and philosophical aspects of the film.”

25. p. 238. Julia Dobson, “Nationality, Authenticity, Reflexivity: Kieslowski's Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993), Blanc (1993), and Rouge (1994),” in French Cinema in the 1990s: Continuity and Difference, ed. Phil Powrie (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 234-45.

26. Kathryn Kalinak, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

27. Ibid., x (Preface).

28. Royal S. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1994), 38-9.

29. The emphases are my own. Ibid., 237.

30. Simon Frith, Performing Rites, 43.

31. Alan Stanbridge, “Who Could Ask For Anything More?: Cultural Theory, Contemporary Music, and the Question of Canons,” Diss. Carleton Univ., 2000: 114.

32. Royal S. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1994), 48.

33. Christopher Small, Music, Society, Education, 32.