David Christoffel & Bastien Gallet

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To Cite this Article

APA : Christoffel, D. & Gallet, B. (2014). Hearing Laboratory. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e , 1 (1). http://www.p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e.org/?p=619

Chicago : Christoffel, David, and Bastien Gallet. “Hearing Laboratory.” p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e 1, no. 1 (Fall 2014). http://www.p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e.org/?p=619

MLA : Christoffel, David, et al. “Hearing Laboratory.” p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e 1.1 (2014). http://www.p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e.org/?p=619


Twenty volunteer subjects – ten men and ten women, between the ages of 21 and 74 (4 aged 20-27, 4 aged 28-37, 4 aged 39-49, 4 aged 52-63 and 4 aged 64-74) – sat at a table in an enclosed room and listened to 13 different musical pieces divided into 7 successive ‘listening phases’: Mozart, vocals, functional music, shapes, noises, repetition, belief. Each listening phase is defined at the beginning by an instruction (which helps guide the listening experience), and at the end by a questionnaire (which reconstructs the listening experience).

The recording set-up consisted in 2 cameras: the first one filmed the subjects’ faces, and the second one filmed the table on which objects were placed before each listening phase. This enabled us to record the volunteers’ changing facial expressions and to observe how they looked at and handled the objects.

The objects placed before them, in the following order, were: 2 guinea pigs in a cage (phase 1); a lemon, a glass of water, some staples, and an ashtray (phase 2); a badge and a sponge (phase 3); a pile of sand, and 2 ear plugs (phase 4); 2 dice, a matchbox, and a cigarette lighter (phase 5); three mahjong tiles and a potted rosebush (phase 6); two drill bits (phase 7).

This set-up allowed us to analyse their listening experience through: 1, the visible emotional reaction on their faces; 2, the way they semi-consciously played with the objects as a result of their listening (we soon switch off when we are listening to something); and 3, volunteers’ conscious and thoughtful answers to our questions about their listening experience. In other words: feeling, playing, and explaining. Three types of effects (and meaningful signals) which helped generate musical scores. The listeners (and subjects of the experiment) then signed the scores (thus becoming the creators of their own listening experience). The scores were played and recorded by pianist Mathieu Acar at the feedback session, on September 25th, 2013.

We aimed to create a hearing laboratory to test listening skills through music, to study an everyday form of listening which is not erudite, but emotional, unfocused, non-professional, and which in this set-up has a real effect and leads to visible conscious, subconscious and semi-conscious signals through which we hope to reflect, analyse, and in the end, recreate music thanks to what Joyce called in another context a “vicus of recirculation”.

Guinea pigs

This sort of protocol can be annoying, as it sometimes allows participants to get so involved with the experiment that in order to satisfy their curiosity they lose all spontaneity. Stylistically this is positive : such a protocol leads participants to focus on the challenges they are set thus avoiding an aesthetic assessment of the situation. But the downside is that they may end up resenting as counteractive any instruction which may circumscribe the activity. Participants themselves have expressed biases, in particular when trying to explain their negative reaction to the first question we asked : “Did this piece affect the guinea pigs?”. Our aim with this question was to reveal likely recurrent expressions which might be linked to stimuli themselves probably recurrent as well. The link between the two might show patterns in the way we deal with the potential emotional content of events.

The emotional event in this case was the rationalising of guinea pigs’ behaviour by participants, with the independent variable of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto. The questionnaire they were asked to answer was meant to encourage them to find a link between their understanding of the animals’ behaviour and their perception of the music.

The first volunteer hid behind his ignorance of guinea pig behaviour and did not bring up for discussion the opposite possibility (that a potential ignorance of Mozart’s work could just as well have limited his perception of the impact of the music on the animals). Whereas the 4th volunteer stated that music had no effect, pointing out that another piece of music might have stimulated them more. But the vast majority of participants drew our attention to the guinea pigs’ movements. As we had asked participants to check for animal reactions to the music, we had created a link between their movements and the music, and therefore participants tried to establish such a link every time guinea pigs moved. One volunteer for example found a link with the rhythm of the music. Another noticed a reaction to the sound level. We learned that several participants felt the smaller guinea pig was more active than the larger one. One participant thought there was not enough time between musical segments to compare their level of activity with or without music, which led him to say he could not answer the question. But when asked: “What criteria allow you to assess if the impact of the music was beneficial?”, another volunteer thought the guinea pigs stopped moving while the music was playing.

In fact, we modified the set-up for observing guinea pigs during the experiment. After the first few tests, we noticed they were hardly moving. We then changed the protocol, and instead of putting them directly on the table with the top of the cage on the table and above them, we opted to place the whole cage on the table with the guinea pigs inside.

This did not lead to problems, but there was no consensus on how useful it was. Indeed, 8 of the 20 participants mentioned the guinea pigs in the general questionnaire when answering questions such as “Were you afraid?”. At the very end, it is when answering “Were you surprised?” that guinea pigs were mentioned again: volunteer subjects referred to them when analysing possible issues raised by the experiment. One volunteer wrote: “I was surprised by the presence of animals, I felt like a ‘guinea pig’ observing a ‘guinea pig’.” Another wrote: “I wondered whether I should interact with them.” Yet another answered he had been surprised “by the guinea pigs’ reaction,” and a fourth one “by the change in the guinea pigs’ attitude once the music started playing.” A last volunteer said he was surprised by the very presence of guinea pigs in the experiment, adding however that he was “convinced that animals are very musically aware.”

Indeed, the presence of animals seems to have reinforced the natural tendency of subjects to find angles from which to view the experiment. To help them achieve this, we asked them in the questionnaire what questions they expected. Their reaction to this was focused on their feelings and on the objects. Some thought we would ask about their tastes, hobbies, favourite music piece, or memories evoked by the music they were listening to. Others imagined that the questionnaires might focus on the links between the objects and the musical experience, or on how the experiment might have led them to move around the room, not only so they could touch the objects on the table, but also so we could study the way they moved in the space available.

The issue of what questions participants expected led to a revelation of the fantasy world they were able to create with this experiment and the challenges it raised. One volunteer expected to be asked why he was taking part. Another thought we might ask him to draw what the music inspired in him, or whether he had experienced synesthesia, or whether alcohol consumption could affect his openness to or his perception of music. Following a similar line of thought, another volunteer believed he might have been asked how each type of music influenced his behaviour with the objects, but also what effect he could guess other types of music might have had on the guinea pigs.


Music, as we all know, inspires an emotional response in listeners. We are not considering whether these feelings are more or less real compared to emotions in everyday life, but how they revealed themselves during the tests, both in subjects’ facial expressions and in the way they consequently handled the objects. There is no doubt that feelings show openly on people’s faces and can be deciphered by interpreting facial action, but we must be honest and raise 2 issues which may sound like objections: 1. Firstly, not every emotion shows on the face of the person feeling it. During the tests only 2 of the 6 emotions usually identified by facial action experts specialising in emotions were clearly visible: disgust and surprise, but there was no trace of anger, contempt, joy, or sadness. Many faces showed no emotions, which obviously does not mean the subjects were not feeling anything; 2. Secondly, not every facial action can be understood as revealing emotions.

To counter the first objection we placed objects in front of the volunteers, to help them indirectly show emotions which did not reach their faces, feelings of being bored or tickled for instance. To counter the second objection I will use an example.

In the case of boredom, not an emotion listed by FACS (Facial Action Coded System), the many changes in people’s faces when they are bored are as much expressions of the feeling itself as stalling tactics, in other words ways for the person to while away time by dealing with the boredom themselves and reflecting it. The number of facial actions can be quite large (volunteer 11). The way people use their hands as well is very striking (volunteer 6). In this particular case, gestures and facial expressions operate as skills, and the way different subjects spontaneously use them can vary. Boredom and how you express yourself when you while away time necessitate a certain talent which is not recognizable through FACS.

The opposite emotion, which cannot be named joy in the same way that boredom cannot be referred to as sadness, is another particularly interesting case. The satisfaction felt when listening, which might be best described as an inner tingling, is rarely reflected in faces, but can sometimes be inferred from the way some objects are handled (as with volunteer 3 and the lemon). We are very close to the Spinoza notion of “titillatio”, translated by some (Charles Appuhn, Roland Caillois, and Bernard Pautrat) as “tickling”. It refers to a pleasurable sensation within a certain part of the body, in other words, in his lexicon, a localised increase in corporal and spiritual strength. In this case, “titillatio” clearly seems to affect the subject’s hands. He handles the lemon in order to diversify ceaselessly his tactile and visual perception of it. He is in effect playing with it, a form of choreography even reveals itself gradually, but he is also trying to achieve a sensory understanding of it in every possible way: to feel its weight, its rounded shape, its texture, its colour (as he watches himself handle it).

To conclude this chapter we would explain that for us, musical emotions need to be expressed through a medium and seen with detachment in order to be truly felt, which does not mean that we become aware of them however. It feels as if in order to listen we must see ourselves listening or better still, listen to ourselves listening. I would say the consideration needed to listen is an emotional necessity. By reflecting our emotions we learn to listen.

Memorisation or concentration

One of the instructions we gave the participants was to memorise 7 words we said out loud: sky, greenery, birth, next day, regrets, order, light.

The words were chosen because of their emotional content and their poetic and spiritual connotations. Before asking them to recite them back to us, we played two pieces: one of military music, the March of the 2nd Armoured Division (Marche de la 2eme D.B.)and one of zen music by Tracy Bartelle, The Secret Life of Trees. The aim was two-fold: not only were we trying to reveal the contrasting effects on memorisation of listening to military music and ambient music, but we were also aiming to make volunteers think about concentration.

After listening to the music, only 3 of the 20 participants were able to repeat the 7 words in the correct order.

One volunteer said the 7 correct words in the wrong order, putting light just after greenery and next day before birth. Another said 7 words in the wrong order, but forgot the word next day and said the word order twice instead.

Of the 15 volunteers unable to repeat all the words, everyone remembered at least 2: greenery and birth. Only one other volunteer was unable to remember sky: this same participant also forgot light and was therefore only able to remember birth, order, greenery, next day and regrets. 6 volunteers were able to remember 6 of the 7 words: sky and greenery were always in the right order, but 3 of the participants moved next day in front of birth. As for the 6 volunteers who only forgot one word, that word was order twice, next day twice, birth once, and regrets once. It is worth noting that 2 volunteers changed the words: one said nature instead of greenery, and another said new-born instead of birth. Of the 7 volunteers who remembered between 3 and 5 words, 4 remembered 5 words, 2 remembered 4 words, and one remembered 3 words. Overall these 7 volunteers together forgot 18 words – light (4), greenery (4), regrets (3), order (3), birth (2), and next day (2).

Neither the specific words which were forgotten nor traditional factors such as the age and gender of participants seem to have an impact on the ability to memorise 7 words in the right order. However, the experiment fostered a discussion on whether music can support a memory effort. The question “Which of the 2 pieces was less helpful in memorising the words?” led to insignificant answers. 11 volunteers said the first one, 7 said the second one, one answered: “I was not trying to memorise the words while I was listening (sorry! J),” and another: “Neither one, from the start I could not remember the 7 words.”

One of the 7 volunteers who said the second musical piece was less helpful, added something which implied a disconnection between forgetting the words and listening to a certain type of music, by pointing out: “The second one, because that is when I started to forget the words.”

On the other hand, in the first group of 11 volunteers, 3 of them tried to establish a link: “Hard to say, but probably the first one because it was ‘more demanding’ and made concentrating more difficult”; “The first one as it was more stimulating”; and “Probably the first one as it was more entertaining, liking a piece would have made me lose my concentration a bit more.”

In reality, military music and ambient music do not have different effects. Their discriminate position within the experiment means the perceived opposition stems from laboratory differentiation. And even though, in real life, these 2 types of music hardly ever coincide, we can still try to identify the effect one or the other has on memory skills. To the question “Do you think another type of music might have helped your memory? If yes, which one?”, 2 volunteers answered “I do not know”; and 5 answered “No.” When we look at answers in detail, some of them reveal that a varying level of relevance was attributed to one or the other music genres when it comes to helping memorisation. One volunteer said the second piece was perfect because it did not divert his attention, he could “remember” and “focus again on the 7 words” or, putting it another way: “No, this type of music was not aggressive, and so it left us free to memorise.” Whereas another volunteer completely differentiated the 2: “I memorised the words without feeling a musical influence. The first piece which was very rhythmic, might have helped by associating one word with each note. The second piece which was softer and less lively, was maybe better for your concentration, but in a ‘pleasant’ way.”

Lastly, in order to investigate further the link between memorising, relaxing, and losing concentration, we asked one last question: “Would you agree that a music piece which helps us forget words is more relaxing?”. Although this did not bring meaningful results, the spectrum of answers does give us an understanding of the mental state induced by the experiment, which was trying to contrast a potential call to medidation through music with the intellectual activity of the task set. One volunteer answered: “Yes, because music can perhaps help us feel rather than think,” while another said: “My mind went blank, I was in the world of music.” Another volunteer answered: “My mind roamed, I lost concentration,” and yet another: “Certain types of music can lead us to a kind of internal meditation and away from the memorising effort.”

One volunteer rationalised the contrast between memorising 7 words and listening to the music pieces: “Words are limiting, not good at expressing our thoughts. They force us to translate, to interpret: we are constantly making an ‘effort’. A music piece, by making us forget about words, weeds out this effort and helps us perceive feelings and atmosphere. It reaches deep into our hearts, effortlessly. This is why it is relaxing.”

Others said: “Yes, because it would completely overwhelm us and we would feel disconnected from our environment, which in theory should be relaxing”; “There is less to memorise but we are more tense as we try to remember forgotten words”; “Yes undoubtedly, as it makes our mind go blank”; “Yes, because it reduces stress and that can have a positive and stimulating effect.”

12 of the 20 volunteers thought that a music piece which made you forget words ended up being more relaxing. And there was no link to be found between that assessment and how well they did on the memory test. This reveals a feeling that music helps us escape intellectual efforts, whilst an intellectual effort hinders relaxation and is possibly bad for our well-being.

Production of shapes

Some volunteers did not only handle the objects placed in front of them, but created shapes with these objects, which under certain conditions can be seen as forms of listening. I must first list the objects I am referring to in the order they appeared: a lemon, a glass of water, some staples, an ashtray, then a badge and a sponge, then a pile of sand and 2 earplugs, then 2 dice, a matchbox and a cigarette lighter, then 3 mahjong tiles and a potted rosebush, and lastly 2 drill bits. The shapes created with these objects are either 2- or 3-dimensional: drawings made with water directly on the table (volunteer 3), but more often drawn by hand or with an instrument in the sand such as with volunteer 11. There were also a number of drawings made of objects which volunteers placed next to each other or symmetrically around the sand (volunteer 9). Obviously, many drawings were made with matches, including one which was very impressive (volunteer 16). Sculptures were less common but still significant. Sometimes they included a few objects, as was the case with volunteer 12 (sand, ashtray and earplugs). More often sculptures were just a pile, the result of a vertical accumulation of objects, a childish game involving finding a balance. But some were creative shapes, original conceptions, such as the sculpture found in the centre of the drawing of an object by volunteer 13. In this case the sculpture becomes the support for a act which changes its very nature: the volunteer sticks matches in the lemon and uses the lighter to set them alight. In fact the question is, whether this act makes the sculpture complete, or whether the sculpture serves only as a necessary element of and a physical trigger for the act. A perplexing question.

I mentioned that these shapes can be interpreted under certain circumstances as being forms of listening. We find this is true in 2 particular cases which I shall now detail: 1. Firstly, when the drawing or sculpture which started out as a simple way to face boredom or pleasure, in other words, as a doodle, takes shape, and a shape which is unplanned, and which the volunteer subject discovers with us and sometimes quickly deletes; 2. Secondly, when a preconceived drawing or sculpture suddenly takes a new direction, moves, veers off course, turns into an act, or grows to unexpected dimensions. In both cases, a shape which either is semi-conscious or which is not consciously organised around a theme, appears, and expresses indirectly how the volunteer is listening even as it helps him understand his listening experience. These shapes are hence means of both expression and understanding: they allow us decipher the way an individual listens, and allow him to give an expression to the way he listens. Inasmuch as they allow him to reflect his listening experience, they help him strengthen it, not thematically, but semi-consciously, which is still a way of strengthening it. I am coming back to my earlier assumption, and analysing it more in-depth: a listening experience and therefore a listening emotion only exist if they are shared, reflected, developed, and at the same time felt. This means that in order to be felt a musical emotion must first be understood in a certain way. And now I can posit the following axiom: listening only takes place if it is expressed, and only for the listener who produces a spontaneous expression which goes beyond him and is in itself an authentic listening experience. A listener is then created by his very listening experience because it goes beyond him.


Listening is always determined by and in a way a consequence of what the listener believes. It is therefore never naive or innocent. We cannot avoid projecting on the music we hear and from the moment we hear it, various categories, opinions, and emotions, which have such a strong influence on our listening experience that it can be said that usually the act of listening will only serve to confirm what we expected of the music from the start. We can say this, and it is not only true, it is also well documented and very convincingly so. However this tells us nothing about the way listening is a type of belief in itself, it tells us nothing about the beliefs which make listening work, which are distinct from the beliefs of the listener with regards what he is listening to.

We asked our volunteers at the beginning of the 5th phase, called simply NOISES, to identify different movements within the pieces they were listening to and to count how many there were. The music pieces played were a Monteverdi madrigal from his Eighth Madrigal Book, a piece of grindcore by electronic duo Chlorgeschlecht, and a piece by Michel Dion, in other words: baroque vocal music, electronic sound, and concrete music. For the first piece the number of movements identified varied considerably, from 2 to 11, and a third of listeners identified 3 movements (which was musically correct). 75% of listeners could not separate sections 2 and 3 which they unfailingly assumed to be parts of a whole movement. The ability to differentiate between different musical styles which have only a tenuous relation obviously depends on the musical culture of listeners. However, counting movements within a piece is more a function of how a listener recognises what is a movement, and even more, a function of the listening strategy he chooses to adopt. Listening “in real time” means a new movement will be identified every time there is an obvious musical shift. Any change means a new movement. Such a strategy makes it difficult to distinguish structural and non-structural shifts. A more active and global listening strategy will compare these shifts and try to rank them in order to identify shifts from one movement to another from mere variations within each one.

We find here 2 clearly distinct listening strategies and more precisely, 2 ways to relate to musical time, either immersing yourself and letting the music take you, or trying to perceive the shape it is following and the world it is transporting you to. We maintain that both these listening strategies are based on a series of beliefs, either about music itself, or about the listener himself, about who he is and about what he assumes he is capable of. For some, the musical experience is understood through the flow of emotions running through the listener, and as he listens in real time he aims to fully feel each new emotional journey, so that every instant is new and every emotion authentic. For others, music is a shape which can be recognised through appropriate listening techniques, he will need to memorise and keep in mind musical patterns, rhythms, tones, so he can compare them to the following ones. This involves constantly supplementing real time listening with a more detached attitude of standing back to hear the full piece and recognise the shape it is gradually taking. Both attitudes are found to be intertwined in each individual listening experience, and at different times one or the other takes over. However we do think they reflect a coherent network of beliefs, and that changing just one of these beliefs if only partially would completely transform them.

Belief in God

After playing Allegri’s Miserere we asked 3 questions about faith : “Do you think faith in God is a prerequisite to enjoying this music?”, then “Do you believe in God?”, then “Did faith play a role in your enjoyment of the previous music pieces? If the answer is yes, what role did it play?”

No-one refused to answer the question “Do you believe in God?” 7 volunteers said they did and 13 said they did not.

Of the 7 who did, only 2 seemed to be more reserved, as if they were holding back, one writing “Yes but I do not practice a religion,” and the other “Hum, yes”; but this may have been a reaction to the first question, given that when answering “Do you think faith in God is a prerequisite to enjoying this music?” he had just written “Hahaha! No!” Faith in God does seem to lead to a decorrelation between enjoyment of an obviously religious music piece and faith itself. Of the 7 volunteers who believe in God, 4 simply answered “No” when asked “Do you think faith in God is a prerequisite to enjoying this music?”, one wrote “Hahaha! No!”, one “Not necessarily”, and only one said “Yes.” But of the 13 who do not believe in God, only one answered “Yes probably,” and of the 12 who said “No,” 4 felt they needed to add some form of explanation: “No, faith is only the inspiration for writing this music”; “No, a believer may add more meaning to this music but that is not a reaction to the music itself so I do not think so”; “No, although you can feel the spiritual if not the religious aspect of this music, you can enjoy it without believing”; “I do not think so, no. You need to open your ears and your heart…”

In other words, 25% of non-believers felt the need to explain why a musical emotion is not determined by faith, whereas believers (who also do not think musical emotion implies faith) do not feel that need.

But answers to the more general question “Did faith play a role in your enjoyment of the previous music pieces? If the answer is yes, what role did it play?” were more affected by an absence of faith.

Of the 7 believers in God, the one who had written “Not necessarily” when asked if faith was needed to feel musical emotion, still answered: “Listening to music involves taking time for contemplation.” Another volunteer, a believer who answered “No” to the question about the need for faith in musical emotion, also gave a spiritual sheen to her answer: “Yes, I felt I was ‘in communion’, my eyes shut in the understanding of the beauty of those voices.” Whereas the only believer to think faith is essential in order to enjoy Allegri’s Miserere wrote “Yes” without an explanation. Once again, non-believers gave more details in their answers.

8 were categorical in their negative view (“No”: no faith needed to enjoy music), one was rather negative (“Not necessarily”), and 4 developed a theory on the role beliefs can play in aesthetic appreciation: “Human beings have all sorts of faiths! To identify just one I will mention faith in the transcendental dimensions to our lives, but not religious faith”; ”Beauty”; “Tolerance, eclecticism, hedonism”; “Not really faith, but I feel diaphonic singing is different, in a way its vibrations are ‘in sync’ with a basic pitch of the Earth itself (reminding me of the Om in Hinduism, which is not my religion as I am an atheist, I find it difficult to explain this clearly)”.


This experiment brings to light some of the advantages of using an artistic context when doing research. The first benefit is that there are many advantages because research in such a context can look into many aspects at the same time. Within the same experiment we have indeed been able to find answers to quite different research problems. To begin with we have welcomed a pleasing flexibility in the way we could think about test procedures and how they evolved, as well as a wonderful freedom in how we could interpret data collected from different disciplines. And even when reporting our findings we were able to develop a rapport between heuristic aims using openly analytical concepts. In this we may even say that we have shown, with this real life experiment, the crucial importance of setting up theories within artistic environments.

Furthermore, we were struck by the fact that the artistic environment seemed to make participants themselves spontaneously come up with theories when they were asked to explain in detail the issues they thought were revealed by the different instructions. The research atmosphere allowed the tests to take place in the positive axiological neutrality resulting from scientific protocols, whereas setting the research project within an artistic framework made participants more curious and questioning and helped avoid fake attitudes (which a purely artistic environment might have encouraged). Indeed, the validity of the research project itself could be discussed, which is characteristic of the artistic framework in which this research took place. All of which results from the way various levels of analysis could be multiplied as we have seen throughout the study in its various facets.

In conclusion, we have listed some of the numerous advantages of exploring the artistic world for research. But just like the scientific benefits of working in an artistic environment, they can be as richly varied as the many ways in which readers will appreciate them.