Sonic subtlety : attentiveness, consciousness, ubiquity

Richmond, Annabelle (2018) Sonic subtlety : attentiveness, consciousness, ubiquity. (MA(R) thesis), Kingston University, .


This research branches from the study of silence in sound studies and musicology. It contributes by theorising ‘sonic subtlety’, a new category of sound positioned between silence and sound, where the sound is more restrained, but also not completely silent. Sonic subtlety appears in four aspects of sound: amplitude, spectrum, space and time. This study observes how sonic subtlety performs in 20th-century classical music and contemporary film music and answers the following: • What does sonic subtlety do and in which ways can it perform effects to a listener? • How does sonic subtlety function in 20th-century classical music and contemporary film music? • How does sonic subtlety change the act of listening? In Chapter 1, I explain ‘sonic performativity’, the ability of a sound to perform an effect to an audience. This thesis considers sonic subtlety in terms of its sonic performativity. Most 20th-century classical music has no external, extra-musical functions such as illustrating a narrative or accompanying a visual. Sonic subtlety performs effects for the listener’s enjoyment only. In Chapter 2, sonic subtlety has four modalities of performativity: sonic clarity, sonic environment, sonic preparation and thematic subtlety. Film music has a more functional nature than 20th-century classical music with the addition of three cinematic factors: intermediality, narrative and emotion. In Chapter 3, the modalities of sonic subtlety function in film music to enhance these factors. Sonic subtlety in film music also often encourages ubiquitous, inattentive listening. Sonic subtlety performs effects to the listener on a partially-conscious level; I call this ‘subtly conscious performativity’. Sonic subtlety in film music can create a ubiquitous listening experience which can involve a new mode of listening between attentive and inattentive; I term this ‘subtly attentive musicking’. Sonic subtlety encompasses both the construction of sonic parameters and the ways of understanding musicking and performativity. This thesis breaks previously opposed categories: silence and sound, conscious and unconscious, attentive and inattentive. It contributes new perceptive and analytical categories for composers, sound designers and musicologists that can now be explored further.

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