The Effect of Vision and Hearing Loss on Listeners' Perception of Referential Meaning in Music

By Darrow, Alice-Ann; Novak, Julie | Journal of Music Therapy, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

The Effect of Vision and Hearing Loss on Listeners' Perception of Referential Meaning in Music


Darrow, Alice-Ann, Novak, Julie, Journal of Music Therapy


The purpose of the present study was to examine the effect of vision and hearing loss on listeners' perception of referential meaning in music. Participants were students at a state school for the deaf and blind, and students with typical hearing and vision who attended neighboring public schools (N = 96). The music stimuli consisted of six 37-second randomly ordered excerpts from Saint Saëns, Carnival of the Animals. The excerpts were chosen because of their use in similar studies and the composer's clearly intended meaning conveyed in the titles of the excerpts. After allowing for appropriate procedural accommodations for participants with hearing or vision loss, all participants were asked to select the image portrayed by the music. A univariate ANOVA was computed to address the research question, "Do students with vision or hearing loss assign the same visual images to music as students without such sensory losses?" Data were analyzed to examine the effects of sensory condition as well as age and gender. A significant main effect was found for sensory condition, with follow up tests indicating that participants with typical hearing and vision agreed with the composer's intended meaning significantly more often than did participants with vision or hearing loss. No significant main effects were found for gender or age, and no significant interactions were found. Summary data indicated that selected images were more easily identified, or were more difficult to identify across conditions. The data also revealed an order of difficulty and patterns of confusion that were similar across sensory conditions and ages, indicating participant responses were not random, and that some referential meaning in music is conventional.

There are two traditional, but opposing aesthetic positions related to music-absolutist and referentialist perspectives (Radocy & Boyle, 1997). The absolutist position is that music refers to nothing outside of itself; that is, there is no meaning in music beyond that inherent in the musical sounds themselves (Meyer, 1956). The opposing or referentialist position is that music can refer to nonmusical events or concepts, and therefore, can arouse mental images (Langer, 1959). Though it is generally agreed that music has the power to evoke images in the listener's mind, the perception of such images is dependent upon listeners' ability to aurally discriminate musical detail, and to mentally organize what has been discriminated. The role of these abilities in determining imagery in music has important implications for listeners with vision or hearing loss. Furthermore, Deschenes (1995) suggests that images do not occur logically because of the music, but rather as symbols of the listener's experiences-a suggestion that has implications for listeners with vision or hearing loss as well.

Though all music has the potential to evoke images in the listener, one genre of music, program music, is composed specifically for the purposes of prompting images or ideas in the mind of the listener. Program music is instrumental music that endeavors to arouse mental pictures in the mind of the listener (Lagassé, 2001). The "program" of a piece is the story or subject, often indicated by the piece's title. In one form or another, program music has existed at least since the 160Os (Huffman, 1997). Early examples of program music include well-known pieces such as Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Although listeners familiar with such well-known pieces may readily agree with the composers' intended images, musical sounds cannot convey concrete meaning in the way that words can. Music does have the capacity to evoke shared associations; however, it will inevitably evoke different associations for its listeners, and associations that perhaps vary from the composer's intended meaning (Trainor & Trehub, 1992; Wagner & Darrow, 1983).

Interested in the ability of listeners with typical hearing and vision to decode referential meaning in music, Trainor and Trehub (1992) and Wagner and Darrow (1983) examined listeners' visual interpretation of selected music.

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