Friday, March 27, 2009

Lasswell's Formula: Making sense of the listening experience

There is a formula I learnt decades ago, when we studied the mechanics of human communication at college. Propounded by Harold Lasswell, this approach to understanding the communication process is actually beautiful in its simplicity.

Lasswell analyzed any communication by asking:
“Who says what, to whom, in what channel, with what effect?”

It seems an appropriate way of looking at the process of appreciating classical music as well!

We could freely translate that formula to:

Who (the composer/performer) says what (the music), to whom (the listener(s)), in what channel (the medium), with what effect (the impact).

Does this simple model of communication help to make more sense of that mysterious process of listening to and enjoying music?

1 comment:

  1. My only observation here is it would be interesting to view such 'communication' when the 'who' is not known to the listener. Knowing often creates bias. If I know a piece but perhaps can't place the composer, how does it impact me? When I first heard Beethoven's eighth sym 2nd movt, I didn't know it was him, and my response was difficult to describe. It leaves an emptiness until you know who is talking to you. Of course when some 'signature bars' played, I guessed it was Beethoven. But once you know, then you see it in a particular way and it has particular meaning for you. Sometimes it made no difference to the musical experience but made an impact on how I viewed a composer. When for a long time I did not know the composer of the New World Sym slow movt, I marvelled at its beauty. When I found out it was Dvorak, my regard for him doubled.

    What is said is, of course, of prime importance and how it is said - the notes themselves, the idiom, the form, and how the music is interpreted and performed. You expect differently from a sonata and a symphony and when those expectations are not met the music can score more or score less depending on how it varies from what you expect.

    The impact is the final outcome I guess. So it's not really a factor in the process but the end of the process. The medium I think may matter in the sound, the recording quality, the live output, the whole 'experience' when it's a live performance, the aura of the performers and so forth. Overall, the model makes sense and to me the most interesting variable is the 'who' or the creator / presenter of the music.