Jeff R. Warren


What do we know when we listen?


In general, it might be said that there are things we know when we listen. The toll of a bell, for instance, can help us know the time and our approximate distance from the sound source. Beethoven’s fifth symphony helps us know about victory and triumph. Yet while these sounds can help us ‘know’ such things, abstracting experiential knowing into a reduced set of epistemological rules for what it means to ‘know’ art is problematic, as the knowledge resulting from the sound of bells differs throughout time and cultures, and the association of Beethoven’s fifth symphony and victory is a twentieth century phenomenon. What we ‘know’ when we listen changes in context, and cannot be reduced to the linguistic. For example, a gesture can help us know as much about music as words about music. Wittgenstein argues that “in order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living”. Exploring aesthetics and what we can ‘know’ in art requires exploring the role that art has in a given culture. In this presentation I explore several case studies of the significance of sound and music, showing that the context created for them alters what is ‘known’ about the art. I conclude by arguing that what we believe we can know from sound and music alters the place of these sounds in our culture. In our interactions with sounds – our words, gestures, responses – we alter the potential for what can be known from art. We, as artists and scholars, have a responsibility then for our interactions with music and what can acceptably known through it.


Jeff R. Warren is Assistant Professor of Music at Trinity Western University, where he also serves as the director of the interdisciplinary Verge Arts Series. He has published and presented internationally on ethics, music, improvisation, and philosophy. As a performer, Jeff has played bass professionally in jazz, latin, rock, and art music settings. He has also composed soundscape installations for collaborative gallery exhibitions. Jeff is currently a Ph.D candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. His thesis title is “Musical Experience and Human Relationships: Improvisation, Repetition, and the Ethics of Music.”