Consider three situations involving the same piece of music, a Beethoven piano sonata. In the first situation, a music lover has paid a substantial sum of money (and traveled a considerable distance) to sit in a downtown concert hall and hear an internationally renowned concert pianist play the piece. In the second situation, two parents are sitting in a suburban school hall, listening to their daughter play this same piece in her first concert. In the third situation, a taxi driver has put a CD containing this piece into his car audio system, and it plays in the background while he cruises the city center looking for customers. From the perspective of the people hearing the music, how similar are these three musical experiences?
One of the ways of thinking about musical experiences, which has been somewhat overencouraged within the classical tradition, is what we might call a “work-focused” approach. In simple terms, this approach posits that the composition (often identified with the printed or written score) exists in and of itself as an autonomous, pure object, detached from any specific performance of it or any specific context in which it might be heard. Traditional musicology has encouraged this way of thinking by promoting such activities as score analysis, in which the structure and content of the music are analyzed in a way that makes little or no explicit reference to actual performances. This perspective would focus on the similarity that the three situations share, namely, the same piece is being heard on each occasion. The sonata has a certain structure, aesthetic quality and context, and set of mood transitions; taken together, these things are central to determining the nature and meaning of the experience for all listeners, regardless of their situation, motivations, and background.