Modes of production, modes of listening: alternative realities and the sonic divide

Some time ago, I read Bob Katz’s paper on ‘An Integrated Approach to Metering, Monitoring and Levelling Practices’, in which he suggested that :

In the 20th Century we concentrated on the medium. In the 21st Century, we should concentrate on the message1

This sentence struck me as extremely interesting not only because it offered an interesting shift in emphasis on McLuhan’s often quoted phrase, but also because it raises the question of what the message is in recorded music. According the OED (online) a message is:

A communication transmitted through a messenger or other agency; an oral, written, recorded, or electronic communication sent from one person, group, etc., to another2.

The transmission of any message (through the recorded medium) requires at least the idea that you should listen.  Listening is strangely problematic because different kinds of listening are identified by different authors. In a thought provoking article on background listening,  Franco Fabbri makes use of Adorno’s hierarchy of listening to demonstrate the connection that listening practices have with genres. Adorno (1962/1970), makes a distinction between the ‘expert listener’, the ‘good listener’, ‘resentful listener’, ‘pastime listener’, and the non-listening ‘anti-musical listener’. The implication of this type of approach is that ‘low level listening becomes synonymous with ‘low level’ music’3 There are many other similar typological positions, all with corresponding value positions. Michel Chion, for instance, identifies three listening modes: casual listening, semantic listening and what he refers to as reduced listening, a term borrowed from Pierre Schaeffer to indicate the kind of listening that focuses on the characteristics of the sound itself independent of any causal or semantic meaning. Levinson (1997) by way of a further example, evokes the words of English psychologist and musician Edmund Gurney (1847-88) who suggested there are two modes of listening: definite and indefinite.

…we may note that Gurney distinguishes between two modes of music listening, the definite and the indefinite. His conclusions concerning musical form, enjoyment, and value all presuppose and relate to listening occurring in the definite mode. Someone listening definitely attends to the specific features of the melodic and harmonic motion of the music as it passes, registers the individuality of what he hears, and has some recognition or recollection capacity for those bits of  form as a result…Gurney asserts that the superiority of definite over indefinite listening is properly attested to precisely by those who have, at different times, experienced both. And in that we are happy to concur. But we shall not, in any case, be further concerned in this book with indefinite listening. (Levinson, 1997: 11-12).

When I read this type of writing, I wonder if Adorno, Levinson, Gurney, and the countless other philosophers of listening shared the same faculty for listening that I have. I have to confess that the promotion of these hierarchical listening positions confused me for many years as they are not the way I listen to music. Thankfully, to save me from a complete feeling of inadequacy and ineptitude, in his discussion of the recording engineer, Thomas Porcello (1998) suggested that we have ‘the ability to listen from multiple subject positions’.  As a recording engineer, Porcello suggests, you have to be able to:

project oneself into the space of the eventual consumer, making judgments about what is or is not an aesthetically (and, often, commercially) viable sound. In this role, the engineer listens as a consumer, a music fan, a radio station program director, the owner of a high-end stereo system or a boombox, a drive-time commuter, a club owner, a talent scout, and so on. In other words, the engineer (along with producers, musicians, and everyone else in the studio) projects as many listening situations and experiences onto the musical text as possible, or, one might say, experiments with multiple phenomenologies of the musical work that correspond to projected subject positions4.

In this way, the ‘art of record production’ might also be considered as the ‘art of listening’   and if the engineer can listen in multiple subject positions, is it not possible for others to do the same.  In this way, hierarchies of taste are replaced by listeners who use music in their everyday lives: in the car, at home, on their iPods, in shops, on audiophile technology, in the classroom and in a variety of other ‘subject positions’.  What Porcello is less forthcoming about in highlighting these various modes of listening (and by implication production), is the question of what we are listening for and how do we know when have found it?

Listening implies some kind of attentive strategy (witting or unwitting) which Charles Morrison referred to as ‘modes of engagement’5 What Morrison (2007) suggests is that these ‘modes of engagement are the active, operational means by which listeners experience music and that listening experiences more often than not involve multiple interacting modes rather than a fixed mode throughout’. Morrison’s main argument is that through these multiple interacting modes of engagement, we begin to define ‘unique and meaningful trajectories through music as heard’.

The move from listening to engagement is an important one to thinking about modes of production and modes of listening. Listening, for instance, has certain connotations which generally revolve around  the physicality of the sound, its reception and interpretation. Production, in a general sense,  is the creation of sound for a particular medium. The shift to ‘engagement’ provides a different way of thinking about listening which might include acknowledgement of the feel or vibe.  To engage with sound suggests a wider mode of reception than the singular experience of listening suggests. Moreover, to my mind, the notion of engaging with music raises the notion of listening as ‘active’: to engage with the music removes any notion of passivity as engagement suggests something you do. But what do you do?

One way of exploring engagement is through the semiotic process. Semiotics, possibly more than any other approach, is concerned with message and meaning of “symbolic forms and ‘the phenomenon of referring’ to which they give rise” (Nattiez, 1990: 15).  In his book, Music and Discourse: toward a semiology of music, Nattiez isolates three important components of the semiological process:

  1. the poietic processes
  2. the esthesic processes
  3. the material reality – in this case the recording as a physical trace which results from the poietic process.

From these processes, it is possible to construct what Nattiez refers to as the  classic communication schema:

Nattiez explains that this is not the case and rather than simply ‘transmit’ meaning, the message produced is not always the message received as the reality is that the ‘message’ is subject to interpretation which is contingent, dynamic and constructed. For Nattiez, the classic schema should be replaced by the following:

There are a number of other considerations that have to be taken into account when considering this more dynamic model. Philip Tagg’s approach to the semiotics of music is important as it takes into account cultural considerations: it is important to be able to interpret music (on a recording or otherwise) as part of the cultural community if we are to engage effectively with the communication process. One further aspect is of importance to the communication model and that is the idea of a  ‘store of symbols’ or the ideas that are communicated. With these additions to the model, a much more contingent, dynamic and interpretive model beings to emerge.

Figure 1. Basic communication model6

The key elements of this model is that we are all members of an interpretive community: this is how we communicate the message. To demonstrate this, in communicating to you here and now, I am working under the assumption that we share a similar store of symbols which allows me to speak. Furthermore, if I were to use a term such as ‘funk’ or ‘grunge’, ‘jazz’ or ‘country’, I would expect sufficient consensus because we share similar socio-cultural codes. If we understand what is being communicated, this is generally known as codal competence. The same might not be entirely true if I began to speak of ‘fidget house’ or ‘bass-line’. Here, we might have a situation where we have codal incompetence. Philip Tagg notes that,

For musical communication to work, transmitter and receiver need access to the same basic store of signs, by which I mean a common vocabulary of musical sounds and norms. If the two parties don’t share a common store of signs, codal incompetence will arise, at either the transmitting or receiving end of the message, or at both ends7.

According to Chandler (1998: 242) what we are describing here are signifying practices which are ‘the meaning-making behaviours in which people engage (including the production and reading of texts) following particular conventions or rules of construction and interpretation’. To explore the meaning making behaviours, I have chosen to look specifically at a well documented movement in the history of music which is commonly referred to as ‘historical performance’. Historical performance of early music involves the recreation of early music on early instruments (often replicas). In a sense, the practicalities of the early music rework the twin problems of the medium and the message and given that in many cases, the some of this music had not been heard for over 400 years.

The music is Ruben Quem by Christopher Tye (d.1585) performed by the Rose Consort and produced and engineered by Andrew Hunter. The recording was made at Forde Abbey (Dorset UK) between 23rd and 25th November 2006 and released on Deux Elles (Reading, UK) in 20088

Your own response to this music will depend on a number of variables not least of which is your cultural reference point and the personal store of symbols you have. For some, this will be familiar musical territory, but for others it will be outside or on the margins of your experience. Your engagement – your esthesic response  – will be determined by these factors. For those who are familiar, you will quickly create interpretive schemas from your existing store of symbols. For those not familiar, you will look for other symbolic reference points perhaps through film or your school experiences to make sense of what you hear.

In approaching this recording there are a number of contextual considerations may be of use in considering the ‘message’. The Rose Consort is a well known early music ensemble who perform regularly at an international level. Central to their performance style is the recreation of music on period instruments. John Bryan, who plays tenor viol, is also a specialist in the field of early music and has extensively researched performance practice as well as the construction of the instrument and the bow. For example, the consort uses gut rather than metal strings preferred by many ensembles to provide an authentic approach. The key to this type of ensemble is in the recreation of early music in the light of information that musicological scholarship provides. Adrian Hunter, the producer and engineer, has a vast wealth of experience in the field of recording early instrumental groups.

Forde Abbey is a former medieval monastery and private residence which dates back to the time of the compositions and the Abbots house . The location was quite important to the recording as the geographical location and its historical significance is felt to add to the musical integrity of the recording9. The objective of the recording process is to remain as close to the live performance as possible.

In his very approachable book, An Introduction to Semiotics, Daniel Chandler suggests that those styles of representation which we consider ‘realistic’  or natural reflect a particular aesthetic practice:

Over time, certain methods of production within a medium and a genre become naturalized. The content comes to be accepted as a ‘reflection of reality’. In the case of popular television and film, for instance, the use of ‘invisible editing’ represents a widespread set of conventions which has come to seem ‘natural’ to most viewers. In ‘realistic’ texts what is foregrounded is the ‘content’ rather than the ‘form’ or style of production. As in the dominant mode of ‘scientific’ discourse, the medium and codes are discounted as neutral and transparent and the makers of the text retreat to invisibility10.

In their study of over 1000 recordings made between 1965 and 1972, Dockwray and Moore (2010) found a significant shift in the way that ‘the image of a virtual performance is created in the mind’ (Dockwray and Moore, 2010: 181). They report a vital change in the way that the vocals were placed in the centre of what Moore (1993) refers to as the ‘sound-box’. The point of the research provides an insight into the changing use of stereo space inside the sound-box. This research would seem to support Chandler’s view that methods of production become naturalised over time.  As Dockwray and Moore demonstrate, the process of naturalising methods of production take time to establish  and in part this can be explained by the need for these methods to circulate in the interpretive community and, I would argue, establish themselves in the store of symbols  so that their use in production can be interpreted competently by the listener.

The recording of Ruben Quem provides an interesting case for thinking about production methods and the representation of performance. Firstly, the performance itself is a reconstruction of music which had not been heard for over 400 years. Over the course of time, the sound of early music has begun to be ‘normalised’. In effect, the performance is a representation of a musical sound which was, to some extent, reinvented. Through careful musicological research the recreation of early music has now achieved a particular sound which is quite distinct from more contemporary sounds. The performance of this music is as near to it’s historical sound as we can achieve and, as has been pointed out, the reality effect has been enhanced by recording the work in an historical setting.

Our understanding that this is historical music and our acceptance that this is how it would have sounded in Christopher Tye’s day – or as near as we can get to it – is interpreted through what is known in semiotics as ‘modality markers’. Modality markers therefore relate to the ‘status, authority and reliability of a message’11. A key modality marker for classical music is ‘transparency’ the notion that at the production stage, the engineer or producer is intent on capturing the sound of the performance as it happens with the minimum of interference.

We should not take transparency for granted and as a modality marker, it requires some consideration. No medium is totally transparent – each medium has its limitations and the modality markers that exist on a record are chosen through accepted conventions. Certain decisions made at the recording stage are the result of experimentation, of careful listening and subtle changes. The intention of the recording is to place the listener at the centre of the consort. In the painting Musical Society by Abraham Bosse (c. 1635) you can see an amateur social music gathering with part books spread around the table. (The semicircular formation of the ensemble is, I presume, dictated by the view of the artist). The performance of  Ruben Quem was recorded in a circle with the intention of allowing the listener into the centre of the table.

Figure. 2 Musical Society (Abraham Bosse, c.1635)

As a result of the recording process, the seating arrangement of the Rose Consort has changed over the years and they now prefer a semicircular arrangement with the Bass viol in the centre. On listening back, you might guess that different instrumentalists have different opinions of the sound and in interview with John Bryan, he suggests that one issue is that ‘the bass is never loud enough’.12. The use of spot microphones to allow for the adjustment of sound at the mixing stage is clearly important.

Representation of the musical performance may therefore not be entirely transparent as so many decisions go into the recording process and further decisions are made at the editing stage. Representation is not the real thing (that is,  identical copies of the performance) and therefore cannot ever be neutral and transparent. The transparent approach to production constructs reality in a way that allows the listener to participate in the belief that this is ‘real’.  Reality is further disrupted at the listening stage as the ‘receiver’ in the communication chain can make decisions relating to the media they use, the way they listen (headphones, speakers) the volume they listen at as well as the situation they listen in (car, home, studio…).

For Jean Baudrillard the modality markers conceal the absence of reality. The term he uses in considering representations is ‘simulacra’ which concerns the absence of reality. I would argue that the construction of reality in recordings can be located in the ‘store of symbols’ and that these indicators or signs of reality or transparency mask the absence of reality. The store of symbols are continually being added to. In recorded music, normative codes are being added and accepted as reflections of reality. Consider the increasing use of sub-bass in popular music or the pronounced use of high frequencies in recordings; the use of click tracks in recordings present a reality that is impossible to recreate in humanly organised music performance;  the increasing use of Autotune to ensure our singers and instrumentalists are always pitch perfect (whatever that is); and the increasing shift upwards in dynamics through the use of compression techniques. All these, and no doubt more, give some credence to the notion of representations as simulacra.

For Baudrillard  the successive phases of representation are schematized as:

  1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.
  2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.
  3. It masks the absence of a basic reality.
  4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (Baudrillard 1988, 170)

In applying Baudrillard’s schema, I acknowledge that there are methodological problems in the steps I have taken. However, the idea of simulacrum or what Umberto Eco refers to as hyper-reality serves to highlight the problem of representing reality on a recording and questions the transparency of the recording process. This difference between a performance and a recorded performance is something which I wish to call, for now, the sonic divide, an idea that Schafer (1969) referred to as schizophonia in which he refers to “the split between an original sound and its electroacoustical transmission or reproduction”. The original sound source and it’s reproduction are taken apart and the latter starts to live it’s own life independent from the original. (Schaeffer, 1969).

A recording can therefore live its own life but rather than seeing it as ‘fake’ we often take it to represent a performance. The performance of Rubun Quem is in many ways as near to a live performance as we can find. Listening to the Rose Consort in a live performance just before I presented this paper,  I was pleasantly surprised to hear a very similar sound, albeit in a different acoustic environment, with the exception that I was not as close to the performers, I did not hear some of the bowing and the bass was not quite as pronounced. The sonic divide in this case seemed minimal but other representations of performances could be much further apart.

Our acceptance of the sonic divide is similar to our acceptance of photography or film as being real. The esthesic process asks us to be in on the deceit and to ignore the sonic divide just as we look at a photograph to see a family scene. In everyday situations, we often accentuate the divide as we turn up the volume on or stereos or portable media players. In doing so increase the hyper-real effect and I wonder if this is the result of codal confusion, codal competence or just indifference?  I return to one of the key concepts of this paper, that listening to a recording may be better considered as a process of engagement. To engage with a recording, without the visual cues of live performance, we may need an enhanced performance where, in the absence of the real thing, other modality markers are at work. Philip Auslander notes that ‘the crucial relationship resides in its relationship to its beholder rather than to an ostensibly originary event’ (Auslander 2006). In other words, our capacity to view things from multiple perspectives allows us to engage with recordings much in the way we do with film: how many of us believe that Harry Potter is real?

Concepts such as the virtual performance, hyper-real performance, transparency, and neutrality are all mediated through our use of modality markers. The terminology acknowledges that the recording is less a reflection of reality than a construction of reality, carefully crafted at the production stage and reliant on the process of normalisation which has become embedded in the esthesic processes used by the listener. The sonic divide marks the distance between the sound as performed and as represented and hyper-reality reminds us of what a recording is not: a copy of a performance.

It may appear that I am arguing for renaming of this conference from the art of record production to the art of fakery. But, to think of this another way, in his interview on Recordproduction.com13, Mick Glossop suggested that we are not making ‘recordings’, we are making ‘records’. There is noting fake about the record – it is very real – but I wonder if the way we talk about a virtual performance, the transparency or neutrality of the production process obscures the real message of a record.

Realistic styles of representation reflect an aesthetic code…Over time, certain methods of production within a medium and its genre become naturalized. The content comes to be accepted as a ‘reflection of reality’ (Chandler 2002: 64).

The usefulness of semiotics is that it does not feel it necessary to say what reality is but is comfortable with the notion of alternative realities. Moreover, it allows for multiple subject positions through an acknowledgement of both the poietic and the esthesic process. It also provides a way of understanding the processes involved in our ability to adopt multiple subject positions and the way that our position can change or, over time, become normalised. The process of normalisation is one which semioticians are able to study and provide a perspective which allows us to consider in detail the esthesic processes involved in our engagement with recorded music and point to how these are closely aligned to the production processes.

About the Author

Robert Davis
Leeds Metropolitan University


1 Katz, B. [website] An Integrated Approach to Metering, Monitoring and Levelling Practices <> (accessed 14th November, 2010).

2 OED Online [website] <> (accessed 23 November, 2010).

3 Fabbri, Franco. “Taboo Listening’ Paper presented at the conference “Background listening and music composition”, Barcelona, 28th February, 2003.

4 Porcello, Thomas. 1998. “Tails out”: Social Phenomenology and the Ethnographic Representation of Technology in Music-Making in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 42, No. 3. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 485-510.

5 Morrision, Charles. ‘Musical Listening and the Fine Art of Engagement’ in British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 47, No. 4, October 2007

6 For a more complex version of this, see Philip Tagg’s notes Introductory Notes to the Semiotics of Music

7 Philip Tagg, Everyday Tonality p. 125.

8 Ruben Quem was played at the conference and can be heard at

9 Personal interview, John Bryan, November 5, 2010.


11 Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress declare that ‘modality refers to the status, authority and reliability of a message, to its ontological status, or to its value as truth or fact’ (Hodge & Kress 1988, 124).

12 Personal interview with John Bryan (date).



Auslander, P. 2006. “The Performativity of Performance Art Documentation,” Performing Arts Journal, 84, September

Baudrillard, Jean (ed. Mark Poster,1988). Selected writings. Cambridge, UK: Polity

Chandler, Daniel. (2002) Semiotics: Semiotics The Basics. Routledge.

Chandler, Daniel [website] <> (accessed 14th November, 2010).

Dockwray, Ruth and Moore, Allan. 2008. ‘The Establishment of the Virtual Performance Space in Rock’ in Twentieth-Century Music (2008), 5: 219-241 Cambridge University Press

Fabbri, Franco. “Taboo Listening’ Paper presented at the conference “Background listening and music composition”, Barcelona, 28th February, 2003.

Glossop, Mick. [website] <>  (accessed 14th November, 2010).

Katz, B. [website] An Integrated Approach to Metering, Monitoring and Leveling Practices <> (accessed 14th November, 2010).

Levinson,  Jerrold. 1997. Music in the Moment (Cornell University Press).

Morrision, Charles. 2007. ‘Musical Listening and the Fine Art of Engagement’ in British Journal of Aesthetics, (October 2007) Vol. 47, No. 4.

OED Online [website] <> (accessed 23 November, 2010).

Porcello, Thomas. 1998. “Tails out”: Social Phenomenology and the Ethnographic Representation of Technology in Music-Making in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 42, No. 3. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 485-510.

Schafer, R. Murray (1969). The New Soundscape: a handbook for the modern music teacher. BMI Canada

Tagg, Philip. 2010. EverydayTonality: Towards aTonal Theoryof What Most People Hear (New York and Montreal: Mass Media Scholar’s Press).

Tagg, Philip. Introductory Notes to the Semiotics of Music <> (accessed 14th November, 2010).

Truax , Barry.  The Philosophy of Music [website] <>  (Accessed 14 November, 2010)


The Rose Consort (2008) Four Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal (Deux Elles, Andrew Hunter)