Towards an Acoustemology of Time Acquiring and aligning an aural knowledge of flows of time

“Sound is not ‘in’ time; rather time is invented as a sound spreads out.”

Makis Solomos

This article is part of the series ‘Practices of Musicking‘, (re)thinking musical experience beyond limited understandings of ‘listening’. The series accompanies the theme of our new, first issue of Soapbox: ‘Practices of Listening‘. Read here.

What is time? Does it pass, flow, circulate, stand still? And what does it sound like? Like the ticking of a clock, the trickling of sand falling through an hour glass, the ringing bells from a church tower at the full hour?

The mysteries of time’s incoherence have always intrigued me, never have I been able to comprehend its passing. One minute might pass with the blink of an eye or stretch into an eternity. Does the flow of time slow down for a mayfly, making its one-day-life feel to the insect just as long as decades of living feel to an aging human?

In this article I want to investigate how through practices of listening we come to know about the flows of time. As such I understand the subjective, contextual, incoherent, plural, and relative experiences of how time is passing.1 My interest then is of epistemological rather than ontological character; I am not interested in establishing what time is physically or how it passes ‘objectively’, but how we can (think we) know about its passing via listening-oriented practices.

In particular, I think that musicking2 contains much potential for studying the acoustemology3 of time, because in order to learn how to ‘music’ in a certain way we also need to develop certain knowledges of time, which can be shared collectively. My aim, to propose musicking to develop an acoustemology of time, is based on two arguments: Firstly, I believe that to become a musicking self, we need to develop an aural knowledge of a flow of time; we need to learn to listenwith certain technologies through which we manipulate our personal flow of time. Secondly, I argue that for collective musicking we need to align our individual flows of time with each other, through which we come to learn about past, present, and future communally. Throughout, I attempt to highlight the interconnectedness of aural knowledge of sound and time with other aspects of our lived experiences. Thus, I suggest that an acoustemology of time can also allow us to think about how we know bodies, senses, and space aurally. As a case study I will share my experiences of my own music education, beginning in my childhood.

Musical compositions are often given two core factors that define them: melody and rhythm, the former being considered the arrangement of tone values, the latter how they are distributed over time. I hope that investigating the techniques which we develop to learn both can lead to interesting findings about the conceptualisation of the flow of time. My argument is that this understanding/feeling of the flow of time is learned; and that through the techniques of learning both, we are able to discipline ourselves to rationalize, feel, and listen to the flow of time in a certain individual, introspective way.

As a small child I went to a music playgroup, where we would sing songs, clap, and learn basic instrumental skills. Until now I remember the clapping games designed to teach us rhythm and its notation. Ta ta ti-ti ti-ti ta-a ta-a. These syllables are assigned to specific rhythmic values, and I recall them until this day whenever I need to work out a complicated bar on the cello. They chop times into digestible audio-visual chunks, making it easy to imagine and to navigate. Learning to play the cello requires one to learn those units designed to measure the flow of time, it must be trained; uncountable hours with a metronome have deeply engraved my understanding of what time sounds like. One has to learn how to reproduce these measurements of time not only physically, but also by developing the ability to hear the beat or the ‘length’ of a note.

Similarly, my cello teachers often mentioned the importance of the ‘inner ear’ in connection to pitch or intonation, the ability to hear the music ‘in your head’ before playing.

The cello does not have frets or keys that determine the pitch value of a note. Instead, fingers must be placed knowingly on the fingerboard to determine how ‘high’ or ‘low’ a note will sound. This practice is inseparable from spatiality; the movement along the fingerboard that becomes the act of pitching is an enactment of space through time. Moving the hand from one part of the cello to the other requires both temporal and spatial knowledge; knowing where to start and to stop the movement is also always knowing when to start and stop.

…it is not simply the enactment of time that we learn, but a knowing of how to adapt our perception of the flow of time to create a self-referential coherence that enables us to reproduce patterns of measurements in a comprehensible way…This knowledge, then, is an aural knowledge of time and space, imagined through practices of listening.

Knowing how to ‘play in tune’ on the cello then is a form of embodied knowledge of space and time expressed through listening. One needs to be able to measure the right distances on the finger board intuitively, understand the spatio-temporal efforts required to travel from note to note rhythmically, all while ‘listening ahead’ with the ‘inner ear’ to assure correct pitching.

Now, one could of course object and argue that even if we learn to internalize certain methods of time measurement to learn rhythm and pitching, they do not automatically affect how we perceive of the time passing, the flow of time. For instance, after practicing a piece with a metronome for a longer time on one day, constantly increasing the number of beats per minute, the highest speed I reached comfortably turns out to feel way too fast at the start of the practice session. Even though the measurements remain consistent technologically defined, the perception of them can still change.

Against this I hold that even though the physical ability to reproduce the exercise at the higher speed might not be there the second day, the ability to hear the faster speed internally, to know how the exercise would sound like at the faster speed would still be there. In other words, it is not simply the enactment of time that we learn, but a knowing of how to adapt our perception of the flow of time to create a self-referential coherence that enables us to reproduce patterns of measurements in a comprehensible way. Part of learning the cello to me meant to learn how to internally hear how fast a piece would sound when played at a given speed. This knowledge, then, is an aural knowledge of time and space, imagined through practices of listening.

But what happens when we join together with other persons in acts of musicking? When playing instruments together with other people, there needs to be some consent on how time flows, we need to sync up with each other. By playing together with others, I argue, we create shared aural knowledges of past, present, and future.

Whenever I have played with others, ‘being together in time’ has always been one of the issues given most importance to. Especially where there is no conductor indicating time measurements, there needs to be some sort of a collective agreement on the flow of time in order to play together. We need to hear with our inner ears what the other players will play when. We listen out to cues in their parts, pick up their tempo, attend to their measured breathing. Thereby we are adapting our subjective flow of time to interlink with theirsinformed by an aural knowing of when what needs to happen.

It is of uttermost importance not to interrupt this collective flow of time. If we make a ‘mistake’ we have to join back in where the rest of the group is. Even if we misplay our favourite bar in the composition, we cannot just replay it while the rest of the ensemble continues. Instead, we need to ‘find our place’ in the music and join back in at the right moment. This can be very difficult, because it requires us to think (and hear) time in multiple directions at once.

…when we are successfully playing together, we come to move through time together, sharing past, present, and future in collective consent. We are situated in a liminal place of in-between-ness, a constant process of becoming, with the present urging to turn into the future. 

If we lose count, we can get lost in time, not knowing where past, present, and future are situated. In order to find our place again, we must think ‘back’ in time to where we got lost, while keeping track of what is happening around us in the present moment in order to know when to play in the future. As such, past, present, and future become blurred. Having played in chamber orchestras for a few years, I know this feeling all too well. Often enough, I would have long rests, during which I had to relentlessly count the passing beats in silence, one moment of distraction being enough to get lost.

This, however, also implies that when we are successfully playing together, we come to move through time together, sharing past, present, and future in collective consent. We are situated in a liminal place of in-between-ness, a constant process of becoming, with the present urging to turn into the future. This shared momentum defining when is now and when has already passed and when is about to come connects us as persons participating in collective acts of musicking, it is what forces us to interlink our flows of time. This knowledge is(predominately) aural, because it is listening to each other that allows us to join each other in a collective, synchronised flowing in time.

Yet, despite my focus on aural knowledge, I am not intending to argue for a total separatism of sensorial experiences. Tim Ingold has argued against the concept of soundscapes because they reduce complex environments to an exclusively sonic set of information.4  In a similar vein, I think we should abstain from reducing knowledge to one singular sensorial experience. When playing with other musicians, all sorts of impressions intermingle. I watch them, as seeing their bodies moving allows me to anticipate how and when they will play. I listen for their breathing, feel the motion of movements, make eye contact to communicate beginnings and endings. An aural knowledge also informs us about and is informed by our contextual situatedness, our being in a moment as complex, biosocial selves that are in a constant state of becoming.5

Acoustemology, the study of how we come to know through sound, has the potential to raise important questions about how we may conceptualize time. In the first section I have argued that by learning how to play the cello in a European classical tradition, I had to develop techniques to manipulate my flow of time. By this I mean that I had to acquire the ability to relate a certain experience of time to a given measure in order to learn how to play ‘in time’ by training my ‘inner ear’.

In the second section I have argued that in order to play together with others, we need to sync up our subjective time flows. Even though that does not mean we necessarily agree on the adjectives we would ascribe to the flow of time, we are joined together in an experience where past, presence, and future can merge together and connect us in a collective becoming in time.

Finally, I believe that an acoustemology of time bears the potential to explore further ways of knowing, knowledge-making, and being. The aural knowledge of time is always intrinsically linked to related knowledges. Sensorial experiences cannot be seen in total isolation from each other, aural knowledge is hence not just aural knowledge, but also spatial, embodied, social, etc. I hence argue for an acoustemology of time, because it allows us to consider the (human) selves involved in processes of musicking as complex, biosocial beings that are entangled which each other and their environments.

This paper was first developed for a postgraduate course in cultural musicology taught by Barbara Titus at the University of Amsterdam.

Introductory quote from: Solomos, Makis. “From Sound to Sound Space, Sound Environment, Soundscape, Sound Milieu or Ambiance,” Paragraph 41(1), pp.95-109, 2018.

[Image: Score for “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Roger Reynolds]

  1. see Rickles, Dean and Maria Kon. “Interdisciplinary perspectives on the flow of time,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1326(1), pp. 1-8, 2014.
  2. see Small, Christopher. Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening. Wesylan UP, 1998.
  3. see Feld, Steven. “Acoustemology,” Keywords in Sound, ed. David and Novak and Matt Sakakeeny, pp. 12-21, Duke UP, 2015.
  4. cited in Solomos, Makis. “From Sound to Sound Space, Sound Environment, Soundscape, Sound Milieu or Ambiance,” Paragraph 41(1), pp.95-109, 2018.
  5. see Ingold, Tim. “Prospect,” Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology, ed. Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson, pp. 1-21, Cambridge UP, 2013.