Supervisor Name

Dr. Jonathan De Souza


phenomenology, music, oxford handbook of phenomenology and music, edmund housserl, martin heidegger, playing, improvisation, podcast


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A brief introduction to key concepts and thinking in phenomenology.


Special thanks to Dr. Jonathan De Souza for being my supervisor, providing the music and his infinite patience, as well as help for editing the script. An additional thank you as well to Professor Jessica Wiskus and Professor Benjamin Steege as editors for the Handbook.



This is Phenomenology and Music in Fifteen Minutes, a podcast created for the research output for the 2021 Undergraduate Summer Research Internships program at Western University, and hopefully helpful as a sort of prelude to the Oxford Handbook of the Phenomenology of Music. I am Elias Tung, an undergrad student studying Music Research going into my fourth year, and an editorial assistant for the book.

It is usually bad form to talk over music, but in the interest of time and as a little excersize, I ask you to bring your attention to the background instead of the foreground. This music was created by the wonderful Dr. Jonathan De Souza, my supervisor. I think he put it best in that, “The note C appears in every chord, but the changing musical contexts affect its sound. Same with the piano loop: it repeats, but it sounds different because everything around it changes. All of this, of course, is like a musical equivalent to walking around a table or looking at the same object from varied perspectives. Phenomenology!”

So what is phenomenology? An acquaintance saw my copy of Queer Phenomenology by Sara Ahmed in my home once, and since he was also acquainted with other phenomenologists, inquired as to why I was reading it. Or in a broader sense, why study phenomenology? The easy answer was it was my job— I had to read and study phenomenology in order to comprehend the material that I was going to be reading. That was simple—this act served a function, and it benefitted me. But the difficult answer was: it interests me. Taken out of the context of pragmatism and purpose and placed within the area of pleasure, suddenly the answer invites more questions. What is it? What is interest? What is me? Why does it interest me?

Talking to the same acquaintance I came to a realization. Most phenomenologists are never sure of anything. Phenomenology interrogates one of the most fundamental acts that we do—living and experiencing the world. It asks us, what is experience, how does it affect us, and why does it affect us so? And since everyone’s experiences are different, what results is a field of mass uncertainty. Experiences are as numerous as there are people in the world. What prevents us from being a mass of people hallucinating is agreement about the world we live in, a world of constants and variables. If you and I look upon a butterfly resting upon a flower, we would both know that it is a butterfly and that the butterfly occupies the same space as we do. Now, one variable is how much we know about the butterfly. Perhaps a lepidopterologist would be able to recognize what kind of butterfly it was—or that it might not be a butterfly at all, but a colourful moth. Perhaps the lepidopterologist is really bad at their job, and therefore misidentifies the insect. These different definitions of the same experience, or data, is the “phenomena” in phenomenology. These experiences differ, but they can be directed toward the same object, the same 'phenomenon'.

Treating lived experience as something like a data-set was what the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, aimed for, with an unique and more “scientific” approach to philosophy. Responding to the growing field of psychology, his book, Logical Investigations (1900-1901), completed in 1901, attempts to use introspection and the study of experiences to properly define mathematics philosophically. In his work, Husserl essentially wanted to take the phenomena that make up human experience, organize them into an established data-set, and investigate it, varying the “same” experience.

However, what is to say that the butterfly is not a moth? The word of an entomologist? Which experience should be prioritized, or should be the “true” one?

As Wittgenstein said, some questions should be dissolved rather than solved. To study phenomenology, these questions are not necessarily important. In his book Experimental Phenomenology (1977), Don Ihde describes the process of horizontalization as a method used within phenomenology. Horizontalization is, to think of each phenomena as equally plausible. Ihde describes a “Cartesian seer” and a “druidic seer” observing the same tree. The Cartesian seer, believing that to observe the true nature of the tree is to observe it in its stillness, observed the tree on a sunny day, and thus had a clear picture of the tree. The druidic seer, however, believed that to observe the true nature of the tree is to observe it in its moments of transience, during windy storms and foggy mornings with the wind whipping the branches back and forth. Yet it is not to say that the tree is any less or more of a tree, whether on a clear sunny day, or being battered by rain. Both phenomena are on equal ground, and thus, horizontal. Another way I like to think of this method is by the way of Schrodinger’s cat. The hypothetical cat trapped within the box with the poison, may be considered both alive and dead as long as the box is not opened. To study phenomenology, is in a sense, to never open the box.

And because we are shaped by our experiences, and thus our experiences are shaped by us, personal interpretation of phenomena within phenomenology becomes important. Here, phenomenology intersects with ontology, the study of being. This was emphasized by Martin Heidegger’s Being And Time (1927), where Heidegger presents the idea of being-in-the-world, where the subject (self and observer) is not separate from the object (world and observed). In Being And Time, even the most mundane experience, put under the microscope lens of phenomenology, becomes an investigation of our relationship with the world and thus our meaning.

This investigation is further developed in Queer Phenomenology, where Sara Ahmed describes the concept of “orientation.” Kant treats orientation as a self-central experience in “What Does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thought?” (1786). Upon being led blindfolded into a room, Kant believed that he needed to distinguish the left and right side of the body, so as to know which way to turn to get out of the room. Ahmed argues instead that to know which way to go, one must feel around their environment—for the wall, for the furniture. Understanding left from right is useless in an empty circular field, because these concepts require both subject and object. We say, “on your left,” as a warning for something coming from towards our left side unawares—most likely a bicycle. In order for this warning to suffice and make sense, it requires the bicycle and the pedestrian. Instead of left or right, Ahmed uses an exploration of objects (and consequently, phenomena), to orient ourselves. Understanding orientation is to understand a way of being in the world— understanding one’s place in it in relation to others. And this new book, the Oxford Handbook of the Phenomenology of Music, is all about the relationship and experience that we have with the world, as well as music.

Let’s begin in childhood, or infancy. In his chapter, “The modifying mirror: Binding one’s experiences through music,” Professor Joona Taipale describes musical scaffolding, or the role music might play as a parent that could affirm an infant’s emotions. It begins by investigating the emotional relationship we have with music (and by a broader extension, art). Taipale argues that music not only controls emotion, but it also provides catharsis in helping to articulate emotion by simply listening. For example, listening to sad music after going through a break-up helps us to articulate our grief and perhaps provide some catharsis, especially finding understanding in someone (or something else). The music affirms our emotions. For an infant, this role is usually played by a parent. However, though by no means a replacement, music can also play this role. From the very moment we are born, we are learning and orienting ourselves to this world. The infant can easily be analogous to the blindfolded man in Kant man, while listening to music is its way of learning to navigate the complex emotional spaces of its own dark room. Here, the experience of listening helps to orient the subject and help it understand its place and being in the world.

Philosopher Bruce Ellis Benson discusses the experience of music making in his chapter “What Is ‘Improvisational Virtue’?” He explores improvisation in the terms of communication with a broader musical past and/or culture, where a jazz improvisation is derived from a history of jazz, or a repetition of tradition. This extends to ethics within music-making. In terms of Confucian thought, the practice of performance is in a way, a ritual that requires the proper etiquette to be observed. In the context of improvisation, it would be bad form to play out of the tradition it was grounded in. A jazz improvisation usually does not invite a metal guitar solo, it would be rude to play over someone else, or to not listen to what others are playing and continue the melody in an “organic” way. The mutual respect and societal code which musicians observe can be considered as a code of ethics. However, this code of ethics can only be solidly observed within music making and within the context of music making, and should someone not know the language, it would be a musical faux pas. For example, children (and many adults) playing in an orchestra in different sections might lack attentiveness and have difficulty listening to each other. Perhaps the first violins thought they were the main melody again, and played over the violas, instead of relinquishing the limelight as they are expected to in this ritual. These rules, both spoken and unspoken, become “musicianship.”

Going back to the question I asked in the beginning of this podcast, “why does this interest me,” I would say that phenomenology is important because of its diverse application to daily life as well as its humbling nature. Each person will derive something different from the study of phenomenology, as well as the study of everything else, as they interrogate their own experiences and their relationship with them. For me, phenomenology not only opens up the possibilities of various other experiences, but provides me with context and at least, the curiosity to approach the subject without judgement. It invites meditation on the self and the world around the self, as well as bringing to the forefront of the senses we often take for granted.

Thank you for listening to this podcast, Music and Phenomenology in Fifteen Minutes. Special thanks to Dr. Jonathan De Souza for being my supervisor, providing the music and his infinite patience, as well as help for editing the script. An additional thank you as well to Professor Jessica Wiskus and Professor Benjamin Steege as editors for the Handbook. This podcast was written, produced, and recorded by me, Elias Tung. Again, thank you for listening to my research output, and I hope this brief introduction will help in engagin with the book.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License

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Phenomenology in Fifteen Minutes

A brief introduction to key concepts and thinking in phenomenology.