Sensorial Aesthetics in Music Practices

PDF Sensorial Aesthetics in Music Practices Paperback – October 15, 2019

Book author
  1. Kathleen Coessens
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The Western history of aesthetics is characterised by tension between theory and practice. Musicians listen, play, and then listen more profoundly in order to play differently, adapt the body, and sense the environment. They become deeply involved in the sensorial qualities of music practice. Artistic practice refers to the original meaning of aesthetics―the senses. Whereas Baumgarten and Goethe explored the relationship between sensibility and reason, sensation and thinking, later philosophers of aesthetics deemed the sensorial to be confused and unreliable and instead prioritised a cognitive or objective approach.

Written by authors from the fields of philosophy, composition, performance, and artistic practice, Sensorial Aesthetics in Music Practices repositions aesthetics as a domain of the sensible and explores the interaction between artists, life, and environment. Aesthetics becomes a field of sensorial and embodied experience involving temporal and spatial influences, implicit knowledge, and human characteristics.

Contributors: Kathleen Coessens (Koninklijk Conservatorium Brussel, Orpheus Institute), Tim Ingold (University of Aberdeen), Michaël Levinas (Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris), Fabien Lévy (Hochschule für Musik Detmold), Lasse Thoresen (Norwegian Academy of Music), Vanessa Tomlinson (Queensland Conservatorium of Music), Salomé Voegelin (University of the Arts London)


Sensorial aspects and experiences are primordial in artistic practices. The musician listens, plays, listens more deeply to play differently, to adapt the body, listens again and again; he or she is deeply involved in the sensorial qualities of his or her practice. However, in reflections on and analyses of music, music theory, or musicology, the cognitive aspects and the artwork as object are stressed. A sensorial approach to the arts and to artistic processes is largely absent, or it is confined to the borders of aesthetics.

With the development of artistic research, more and more artists have become aware of these tensions and desire to open up a dialogue on the sensible, affect, and the senses in music creation, from the perspective of musicians’ practice. The discourse afforded by artistic research allows aesthetics to be rethought to include the position of and reflections on music practitioners and to retrace aesthetics as a domain of the sensible, involving an appreciation of the value of sensorial experience and of qualities in the interaction between human beings and their environment. Such a position should involve discussion of and reflection upon the following important questions:

What can a sensible and sensorial approach to arts, and more precisely to music and its aesthetic theory, offer that is different from or complementary to more cognitivist, conceptual, and systematic approaches? Can—and, if so, how can—the notion of aesthesis as sensible, perceptual awareness bridge subject and object and link them in a meaningful way? How can such an aesthetic approach, arising from the sensible, be open to experimental and practicebased processes in music, composition, and performance, and vice versa? How and when do active sensorial observation, perception, and imagination feed music creation? What is it for a listener to “listen to” something? What is the auditive, visual, or haptic experience for the musician?

In 2015, the International Orpheus Academy for Music and Theory brought together six musicians, artistic researchers, and philosophers to discuss sensible and sensorial explorations in music, and to open the field of artistic research towards such a sensorial approach to music practices and aesthetic theories. The invited guest faculty comprised five researchers and artists from different perspectives and domains who were investigating or approaching the field of sensoriality in their theoretical or creative approach to art and the world: Tim Ingold, an anthropologist writing on art, knowledge, and experience; Michaël Levinas, a composer and pianist; Fabien Lévy, a composer and music theorist; Lasse Thoresen, a composer and artistic researcher; and Salomé Voegelin, an artist performer and philosopher reflecting on art, sound, music, and society. Finally, in dialogue with the Orpheus Institute’s research team, I, Kathleen Coessens, organised the academy and proposed the subject. As a philosopher, musician, and artistic researcher, my aim was to open up the—rather intellectual and philosophical—field of aesthetics to artistic practice and to investigate aesthetics as a discipline that relates deeply to an embodied and sensorial perspective.

The present publication seeks to communicate and spread the knowledge and discussions that were generated by the academy, and that continued to evolve over the last few years as the authors expanded their presentations into written chapters. It aims to illuminate what sensorial aesthetics can be considered to be, moving between different lines of thought, always from the perspective of artistic practice. In this way, it contributes to research on a lived aesthetics that not only is part of everyday life, but also, more specifically, provides an intrinsic background to the artistic world—both in art creation and in art reception. The different chapters by the invited authors alternate with my own texts: five intermezzi that anchor the focused research and ideas of the different authors in a coherent frame of context.

In the first chapter, “Sound and Sense in Musical Phrases,” the composer and pianist Michaël Levinas moves from the sound world of the keyboard to the notion of musical phrase and its relation to melody, music text, and punctuation. He describes the development of the keyboard from its origins to the modern piano and onward to the MIDI keyboard as one of the most important defining factors of the Western sound world of the last few centuries. This sound world contains specific sensorial effects and affects due to the development of instrumentation, harmony, and melody inside a music culture that also questioned the relation between text and music—which is the focus of the second part of the chapter. Levinas describes how, on the one side, melodic morphologies can develop without connections to language, doing this through a fusion between body (both life and environment) and music, and in doing so, forging an existential relation—think of breathing or of the extinguishing of a sound. On the other side, related to the first point but developed along another path, the relation between sound and melody can even become quasi-non-existent—as in the spectral school. These two sides—a philosophical reflection on the sensorial aspects of life, and a musical reflection on the sensorial potential of Western music instruments, theory, and culture—influenced Levinas’s own compositions. Surveying the principal lines of development in the relation between text, music, melodic line, sense, and sound in France and beyond in the twentieth century, he discusses diverse examples of his own compositions, and their relationships to the musics of Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti, Henri Dutilleux, Tristan Murail, and Gérard Grisey. The chapter concludes with a short reflection on the principles of possible transmutations and superpositions of text and music that Levinas used in his most recent opera, Le petit prince.

The first intermezzo, “On the Sensorial of Aesthetics,” positions the topic of the book in a broader philosophical context. A short etymological and historical sketch of aesthetics, from Baumgarten to Kant, explains the conceptual and cultural shift from a sensorial to an intellectual appraisal of art and, thus, a change in the understanding of art. This move increased the opposition between different perspectives on art: theoretical and practical, philosophical and experiential. However, experience and experiment have the same etymological origin: they both relate to our human condition. With Goethe we remark that the search for knowledge and experiment in the West has changed from being an open experiential and sensitive investigation to taking place in a controlled laboratory setting, in which instrumentalisation has taken over the role of human perception. In reaction, Goethe proposed an experiential way of experimenting. This method offers a possible guideline for investigating art as a practice that remains intricately linked to the senses and the body—artistic practice as a sensorial exploration leading to an output that appeals to the senses.
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