When it comes to understanding the nature of listening to music, acknowledging the differences between noun-based and verb-based thinking, as I did last week, is less than half the battle. It does little more than refine the statement of the problem, but it still provides a useful point of departure. The fact is that the very concept of understanding has a long and venerable history. Understanding the nature of understanding has its roots in how the practice of hermeneutics has changed over the centuries.
The original intention behind hermeneutics involved systematic approach to understanding the content of sacred texts. However, with the rise of Enlightenment thinking, the scope of the study broadened to all texts. Nevertheless, texts are artifacts. They can, literally or figuratively, be “held in place” and “examined” from many different “points of view.” Like my favorite metaphor of the elephant, they can even be “grasped” from many different locations, sometimes providing broadly varying data points that challenge the observer to assimilate them all. However, if we are to think about the performance of music as a phenomenon that extends beyond the symbols encoded on score pages, then we need to think about listening as a matter of trying to understand a process in the real-time flow of its very processing.
Hans-Georg Gadamer distinguished himself in writing about hermeneutics in Truth and Method by taking aesthetics as his point of departure. This allows him to pursue the fundamental nature of concept of play, thinking of the elephant-nature of that concept, a game from one point of view, the act of playing from another, and, more specifically, the process of enacting a drama from a third. He introduces the term “self-presentation” in referring to the relationship between the performers of and those in the audience. With almost religious rhetoric he suggests that there is a communion behind the individual sitting in the audience and the drama being enacted before him/her.
That sense of communion may be a fruitful metaphor to explore when one tries to take on how the attentive listener tries, as perhaps succeeds in the task of understanding the music being performed before him/her. There may be some means by which such a listener is capable of “inhabiting” (again in a metaphorical way) the music being performed, thus recognizing that the real-time cognitive processes are significantly different from those that emerge when one is manipulating the symbols on score pages. This may sound overly poetic, but sometimes ideas congeal out of serious efforts to make sense out of poetic vagueness!