Norges musikkhøgskole Norwegian Academy of Music
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Gestalt listening: What, how, and why?

In his doctoral project, Ville Langfeldt seeks to investigate the harmonic concept of «gestalt listening».

Gestalt listening is understood as the ability to identify chords as complete entities (through recognizing their specific qualia, i.e. their «colour», «feeling» etc., rather than through analyzing their structure, e.g. their combination of intervals). A basic example is the process of identifying a major triad by ear—for a skilled musician, this identification presumably requires no effort in terms of intervallic analysis. Indeed, the only active reflection likely to be involved is connecting the triad’s experienced gestalt quality—it’s «major triad-ness»—to the correct theoretical term. Gestalt listening thus appears to be an intuitive, non-analytical way of identifying harmonic material. However, the material must somehow already be familiar to the listener.

Gestalt listening is characterized by renown aural skills theorist Gary S. Karpinski as a both rapid and fluid way to identify chords or harmonic passages. Nonetheless, the phenomenon has received limited attention both in empirical studies and in theoretical literature, and can hardly be called an academically established concept at all. This discrepancy might be due to assumptions about the characteristics of gestalt listening: because of its idiosyncratic, non-verbal and abstract nature, it may not seem researchable. In any case, the lack of empirical research leaves us with a limited insight into the fundamental questions of gestalt listening.

Gestalt listening was one of several themes covered in Langfeldt’s master’s thesis from 2016, which examined, through a phenomenological approach, the forms of representation and association demonstrated in practical listening situations by professional jazz musicians. The study showed that gestalt listening was indeed a real and important part of the musicians’ harmonic listening repertoire. Furthermore, it offered a rudimentary conceptual framework that allows for improved methodological precision in future studies.

In his doctoral work, Langfeldt seeks to develop this project further, by isolating the concept of gestalt listening and examining it from multiple positions. The aim of the study is to gain new knowledge about gestalt listening as a cognitive model, its developmental aspects, and how it is used by expert listeners in practical situations. Addressing these questions can provide fresh insights and perspectives on how we teach harmonic listening.