Absorption and Attention while Experiencing Music

“…in this way the musical artwork fully draws us into itself and carries us forward”

What Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel describes in his Lectures on Aesthetics (1835-38), is often referred to as absorption in the context of musical reception. In the framework of differential psychology, absorptive capacity is considered a characteristic more or less strongly marked in different people (as measured for instance by the Tellegen Absorption Scale). In addition, the extent to which a person is absorbed to something is subject to his or her control. To examine such assumptions in relation to musical reception, we first have to find a way of rendering absorption during the experiencing of music measurable. In this project, we will take an approach placing absorption into relationship with the construct of attention. Attention can be described as a limited resource capable of being aimed at information in our environment, for example at physical characteristics of stimuli or a spatial direction. In research on working memory—an area of cognitive psychology—alongside selection of information from our environment attention serves to retain this information over a short time span. Transferred to the field of musical reception, this means that attention is needed as a capacity to process music. “Deepening oneself” in music would thus take up more capacity used to process music; if the music is being played in the background, less such capacity is deployed. That in any event background music is itself cognitively processed when it is not meant to receive attention has been shown in research on the so-called irrelevant sound effect.

In our project we make use of a variety of methods. On the one hand we use an eye tracker in order to draw conclusions regarding cognitive load and processing intensities in different listening situations on the basis of eye movement. On the other hand we apply dual task interference: absorption in music is seen as an active process that can be disturbed through secondary tasks. Here the sorts of task in play offer information on the processes involved; on the basis of individual levels of disturbance we learn more about the capacity to immerse oneself in music in a controlled way.

Cooperative partners include Petra Sinn (Universität Potsdam) and Fabian Zweck (Bayrischer Rundfunk).