Listening in context

In class today, we listened to an excerpt of Zoboko by the Aka Pygmies, a ritual that is performed the evening before an important hunting expedition.

Aka Pygmies Zoboko (traditional)

This listening exercise was done out-of-context, i.e., without knowledge or experience of the circumstances in which this music takes place. In fact, most experimental research isolate music from its context (one could venture to argue that this state of affairs is related to the ideology of “absolute music” which has exerted much influence on Western culture and thought). Although many interesting observations and questions can be generated this way, even more can be learned when the music is reconciled with its context. For much of history, music has been associated with other activities, such as rituals and dance, and the predominance of “passive” listening as musical behavior is also a rather recent development.  This video will give you a glimpse of music production in the culture of the Aka Pygmies:

What, then, might be missing from a recording of pieces such as those in this video that is relevant to an investigation of rhythm? What research questions might be prompted by observing the music in its context?

14 thoughts on “Listening in context

  1. One obvious quality missing from a simple musical recording is the physical movement of the performers and dancers along with the music. This movement provides us with visual cues as to where more “important” musical events occur, which (it seems to me) allows the listener to more quickly ascertain the pulse and how the beats in the music are intended to be grouped. In fact, it would be interesting to research whether the way that listeners “group” the music – where they hear important beats, repetition, etc. – changes when viewing the physical movement of the performers (like a McGurk effect for music).

    • Peter Martens did a study where he investigated this question in a series of string quartet performances, although his study focused on the pulse level selected as the tactus rather than location of the beats. You can review details of his study (including visual and audio-visual sample stimuli) and the results on Music Theory Online:

      Prof. Poudrier

    • I think an investigation of how the performers communicate rhythm and indicate moments of musical importance could be interesting in and of itself. What visual cues (if any) are passed between musicians, from musicians to dancers, from dancers to musicians, and between performers and non-performers? What role does visual communication play in this music?

  2. Interesting comment! Piggy backing off your idea, I think it would also be interesting to see where dancers from different parts of the world stress the “important” beats when listening to a recording like the one in the video. Personally, I think the rhythm of the pieces in the video would be easier to investigate if we were able to listen to the piece as a whole (hearing the start and finish), because it seems we are thrown in in the middle and it is disorienting.

    • The recording of Zoboko is given in its entirety. One important feature of much of the Aka Pygmies music is that it is built as an “ostinato with variations” (Sinha Arom).

  3. Definitely, the dancing helps signal the “beat” so we can follow the rhythmical sense of the piece. Also, I found it much easier to follow one line of rhythm when I could watch the drummers. Matching visual cues with the line I was trying to distinguish in the polyrhythmic texture helped me listen for a particular instrument’s rhythm, rather than hearing just the summation of parts blended together. I wonder which (if any) of the instruments the dancers look to for their beat, or if they are so practiced at the dance and accustomed to the rhythm that they don’t need to look at one of the drummers. What line of rhythm do they pay the most attention to? Would it be the one that hits on the same beat as their moves do?

  4. Listening to this piece in context also seems to aid the investigation of rhythm via providing more understanding about the artist’s intention. Upon finding out that Zoboko is based on the Pygmies’ ritual the evening before the hunting expedition, I find it at least easier, for instance, to evoke a narrative from the rhythm (e.g., ‘the chase’), or to latch onto certain emotive descriptions of the rhythm (e.g., urgency).

    I expect that– especially with more abstract pieces, for which the line between music and noise can sometimes seem murky– knowing the artist’s intention may significantly alter one’s listening. After all, the artist presents her own vision of something, but often the audience does not know simply from listening what exactly that something is. Provided with artistic context, however, one is better able to appreciate how the artist’s rendering (through rhythm) of her view of something compares to one’s own view (or that from a more ‘veridical’ standpoint) of that something.

    One potential experiment (which I imagine has already been run) could compare participants ratings of listening pleasure for pieces with accompanying contextual description vs. pieces sans accompanying contextual description.

    • I appreciate your mentioning of a “narrative” attached from the rhythm reflecting Zoboko’s occasion as a pre-hunting ritual because it brings up the question of how this piece of music was originally conceived given its context. In order for anyone to truly understand and appreciate music such as this, its context is of vital importance.

      It may be hard for us to attach much meaning to this piece due to our culture’s pre-occupation with a much more sequential time structure, but I have little doubt that the aka Pygmies created their music in order to reflect a certain important feeling. Perhaps it is “urgency” that they attempt to represent, as some sort form of preparation for the upcoming hunt. Perhaps this complex composition speaks to them in a way that it does less so with us.

      However, another possibility is that the piece reflects the same idea that seemed prevalent to us (or at least me), especially before the music was given a context: chaos. Perhaps the rhythm means as little superficially to them as it meant to us. Maybe we have been relying on the assumption that there is some fundamental difference in how we perceive musical form and function. To me it does not seem to far fetched to imagine the aka Pygmies attempting to represent the sheer random unpredictability of the final moments of a hunt: the confused footsteps, the alarmed animal, the disturbed wildlife around them – all in an incredibly complex, and notably spontaneous poly-rhythm.

      But then again, that is just an idea…

  5. As discussed in the video, the Aka Pygmies’ vocal musical tradition is an inherently social event for their community, as the narrator in the video noted that their music often accompanies cultural ceremonies and assemblies. In this very way, the visual dance, and even the “stage setup” (the musicians circled by dancers) is inextricably linked with the overall experience of the music. It is definitely valid to listen to this music on its own because of the intricacies of the music itself: there is a strong sense of pulse, polyphony, and improvisation. On the other hand, the Aka Pygmies is not really about the Western ideal of the “concert stage,” in that there was a visionary composer whose ideas are expressed by a virtuoso performer. Rather, the Aka Pygmies’ music is about something much more communal. It seems to be the celebration of their culture instead of the glorification of individuals. In this way, I think that their music is something both refreshing and enlightening to any Western listener deeply rooted in the notion that performance takes place on a formal concert stage.

  6. I appreciate Julian’s mention (above) of the murky line between music and noise. Observing the profound cultural origins of the Pygmies’ music, along with the physical movement that accompanies it, certainly makes it more meaningful, easier to comprehend, and perhaps more pleasurable to the listener. I do wonder if our definition of “music” vs. “noise” has to do mostly with our familiarity with the structures we hear. It seems to me that we use “noise” to define sound that we are unable to codify. The issue of music vs. noise might be primarily one of prior conditioning and learning.

    Another dichotomy that interests me is that of artistic complexity vs. artistic primality (primal-ness might be a clearer term). Our ears hear this particular sort of music as extremely complex and struggle to grasp familiar structures in it, just as we tend to hear some 20th century music in the Western canon— however, in this video, our eyes see it as culturally primal and organic, rather than mathematically calculated. Though intellectually we might think of “primal” and “complex” as opposites, our unfamiliarity with world music might lead us to describe it as both, depending on the context in which we hear/ see it.

    I’d be interested to see if experimental subjects, when asked to describe music as “complex” or “primal,” will change their answer based on the presence of a visual context.

    I’d be open to changing those adjectives if any of you thinks of more accurate ones to describe the phenomenon I’m observing!

    • sat53, I am most interested in your comments, as they are related to my hunches about how knowledge of visual context would differentially affect our sensations versus our perceptions of the music. I would hypothesize that awareness of the visual context would exert greater effects on the latter. Specifically, I would suggest that our evaluations of music particularly on a scale of pleasant to unpleasant or more versus less quality would be more influenced by seeing all the visual cues. As you imply, music out of visual context might be experienced more as noise (unpleasant) because of our lack of familiarity with it. This relationship should be more pronounced to the degree that the music differs from the music with which we are most familiar. In addition, our evaluation of music, particularly that with which we are less familiar, might be enhanced by seeing all the visual contexts. I would suggest that we would be less likely to be critical of music when we can see people singing and dancing and using the music in important rituals. In the same vein, I think experimental subjects would choose to listen to music for a longer period of time if provided a visual backdrop versus just audio. Finally, such differential effects might also depend on characteristics of the listener. For example, listeners who are more abstract or mathematically oriented might find pure audio without contextual info more interesting or at least positive in some ways.

  7. With my eyes closed, I found the music from the video very confusing; I was completely unable to pinpoint the beat or find any rhythms I could latch on to. However, while actually watching the video, I found that the music felt very natural and flowing to my ear. What was interesting was that, despite the fact that I could “feel” the music during this second listening, I still couldn’t find a beat. Somehow, simply viewing corresponding footwork was enough to justify the rhythms in my mind, even without an understanding of the overall framework of the rhythms. I wonder if this is related to the genesis of the music itself? I imagine that the music and the dancing were not devised separately, but are rather very intimately linked due to the improvisational nature of the performance. If so, it would follow that observing both halves would inform the listener of the “feel” to a greater extent than either isolated half.

    • The visual definitely helps us latch on to the beat. I also remember being in class, and before a certain percussion instrument entered, there was no sense of meter (or downbeat or tactus), but once that instrument started we were better able to hear the patterns. I just had a similar experience with a piece of music that came up on my pandora station, called Miami Showdown (by Digitalism, at It starts out in 5, which is sort of jolting, and then a crash/drum sound enters and all of a sudden I can feel it in 2, which feels better given our bias towards binary rhythms. If there was a music video with dancing, maybe I would have caught on sooner to the pattern in 2? It’s interesting to consider how this can be extended to modern music, especially now that technology makes it easy to see video with music (which it wasn’t possible to do when music was recorded on records, tapes, or CDs).

  8. I am curious as to what might influence specific sub-divisions of the larger pulse. Some sub-division groupings sound like a repeated series of varied durations, but how do they choose those different durations? Are they simply influenced by the performer’s aesthetic, or are they inspired by the sounds they hear in the nature. If Aka Pigmies model some of their dances to the movement of animals, it begs the question if they model any of their rhythms, specifically sub-divisions, after sounds they hear in nature.

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