Conference (keynote) at the annual meeting of the Austrian Society for Musicology (Centre for Systematic Musicology, Graz.

Abstract: According to some theories, the perception of order is what sets music apart from other kinds of sounds. In Europe and the Middle-East, this idea can be traced back to early Greek assumptions that music, algebra and geometry are intimately linked. Modern linguistics introduced a new set of concepts, and an altogether different way of understanding sound organization, which inspired many ethnomusicologists. John Blacking resorted early on to concepts from transformational grammar in his analyzis of instrumental pieces of the Venda people from South Africa. His How musical is man? (1973) was also influential in defending, more generally, a cross-cultural understanding of music as "humanly organized sound". For Blacking, music started in listening however. Before humans would even want to make organized sounds, there was "the human capacity to discover patterns of sound and to identify them on subsequent occasions."

Classic experiments in psychology have shown fundamental processes by which humans identify structures in sound. Ethology indicates that they share this ability with many other hearing beings. The problem then is that the perception of acoustic order, despite its prominent position in Western definitions of music, can hardly be considered a characteristic. Because structural listening is essential to so many ecological and communicational behaviors, one might as well reverse Blacking’s question and ask: how musical is a pattern?

Several musical traditions are clearly predicated on the use of patterns. African polyrhythms, Romanian motivic tunes and electronic dance music will provide here three contrasted examples. Ethnography shows that listeners to these genres can prize just as much their order as their ambiguity and structural indeterminacies. In listener’s accounts, some patterns display moreover specific kinds of agency which are not entirely human. I will show why this ability to transform patterns into agentive beings is a better approach to the perceptual phenomenon of musicality than structural listening per se. Looking back from musical experience, one might also ask whether the agency beyond the pattern was not, from the start, the ultimate goal of human and animal capacities to discover order in sound.