In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sounds and Auditory Perception

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Auditory Perception in Psychoacoustics and Neuroscience
  • Spatial Hearing
  • Musical Sound
  • Speech Sound

Philosophy Sounds and Auditory Perception
Elvira Di Bona
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0232


What makes sounds intriguing items to investigate from a philosophical perspective is their double nature: on the one hand, they are produced by activities involving material objects, which are their sources and are able to carry information about them; on the other hand, they seem to be “disembodied,” detached from their sources, as having an existence of their own and specific audible properties, which are usually considered to be pitch, loudness, and timbre, regardless of the material objects whose activities produced them or to which they are connected. This ambiguous nature of sounds is mirrored by the way in which we define them and explains also why there are such diverse views on their metaphysics. These views are organized in two groups and are discussed in Metaphysics of Sound and its subsections, the Source-Based Approach group and the Wave-Based Approach group. Furthermore, the puzzling double nature of sound is also exemplified by the way we speak when describing what we hear. That is, we often say we listen to a loud or low sound and thus refer to sound and its audible properties, but we also say we hear a dog barking or a baby crying, in which case we mention sound sources. The relationship between sound and sound sources, and the question of whether we hear either the former or the latter have been some of the central issues on which scholars of the philosophy of sound have focused, especially when facing the challenge of understanding what it is that we hear when having an auditory experience. The different answers to this matter provided within the recent debate in analytic philosophy are reviewed in Auditory Perception in Philosophy and its subsequent subsections: Hearing Sounds, Hearing Sources, and Hearing beyond Sounds and Sources. The answers that research in psychoacoustics and neuroscience has given to the same question occupy, instead, Auditory Perception in Psychoacoustics and Neuroscience. When talking about sounds and how we perceive them, researchers often refer to their spatial location. Spatial Hearing is, then, about the spatiality of audition. Musical Sound is discussed as well because of its connections to the issues of auditory perception and the metaphysics of sound. Aesthetic reflections on musical sound are marginal here (for substantial bibliographical suggestions on musical aesthetics, see also the Oxford Bibliographies articles in Music “Philosophy of Music” and Philosophy “Analytic Philosophy of Music”). In the last section, Speech Sound is examined in relationship to the possibility of hearing either meanings, phonological features, or audible features such as pitch, loudness, and timbre. This bibliography begins with an introduction on the General Overviews on sounds and auditory perception.

General Overviews

There is a collection of essays and two special issues of scholarly journals on the philosophy of sound and auditory experience published in 2009, 2010, and 2017, respectively. Nudds and O’Callaghan 2009 is a collection of papers on the different approaches on sound perception and the metaphysics of sound, focusing on issues like spatial hearing, speech perception, and musical sound. Bullot and Egré 2010, in addition to papers tackling the relationship between sound, space, and musical sound, is a collection of essays on the notion of hearing “directly” and a discussion of “audio-visual objects,” which are items obtained by binding sensory information coming from vision and audition. Di Bona and Santarcangelo 2017 is an interdisciplinary special issue on the auditory object. Its contributors are philosophers, musicologists, sound engineers, and sound artists who write, besides the classical topics of the metaphysics of sound and the nature of the auditory object, on the perception of melodies as grouping properties and the different genres of sound art and their connections to contemporary positions on the metaphysics of sound. To have useful and clear overviews of the state of art in the philosophy of sound and auditory perception, the two Stanford Encyclopedia entries “Sounds” (Casati and Dokic 2005) and “Auditory Perception” (O’Callaghan 2009) are highly recommended readings. Casati and Dokic 1994 and O’Callaghan 2007 are two landmark monographs within analytic philosophy dedicated entirely to sound and audition, which defend different versions of the event view of sound. Di Bona and Santarcangelo 2018 is an up-to-date introduction to the different positions on sound and auditory experience, with an outline of the main issues on hearing as discussed not only in philosophy but also in psychoacoustics and cognitive sciences, such as what it is that we hear, the spatio-temporal dimension of audition, and the cognitive process leading to the formation of the auditory object.

  • Bullot, Nicolas, and Paul Egré, eds. Special Issue: Objects and Sound Perception. Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1 (2010).

    A special issue that collects essays on the different approaches to sound perception, musical experience, and its relationship to timbre sonicism. It also contains discussions on the direct/indirect perception of sound sources and the perception of their spatial location.

  • Casati, Roberto, and Jérôme Dokic. La philosophie du son. Nîmes, France: Chambon, 1994.

    Introduces the event view of sound for the first time into the contemporary debate on the analytic philosophy of audition. It defends a version of physicalism referred to sounds, which claims sound is the vibration of the sounding object. It starts from considerations on spatial hearing and argues against both the identification of sounds with acoustic waves and their characterization as secondary qualities of objects.

  • Casati, Roberto, and Jérôme Dokic. “Sounds.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2005.

    An overview of the different theories on sound organized by using the parameter of the location of sound: depending on where we locate sound, at either the sounding body, the transmitting medium or the vicinity of perceiver, they distinguish between distal views, medial views, and proximal views of sound. They also discuss the aspatial view of sound and auditory perception, which Strawson had already suggested in 1959.

  • Di Bona, Elvira, and Vincenzo Santarcangelo. Il suono. L’esperienza uditiva e i suoni oggetti. Milan, Italy: Raffaello Cortina, 2018.

    This is an up-to-date introduction to the central themes investigated in philosophy and the cognitive sciences on sound and audition, such as what is the auditory object, its spatio-temporal dimension, and the perceptual process, which leads to its formation.

  • Di Bona, Elvira, and Vincenzo Santarcangelo, eds. Special Issue: The Auditory Object. Rivista di Estetica 66.3 (2017).

    A special issue dealing with the nature of the auditory object with relation to its metaphysical dimension and when compared to the visual object. It also contains discussions of the musical object from the points of view of musicologists, sound engineers, and sound artists.

  • O’Callaghan, Casey. Sounds: A Philosophical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199215928.001.0001

    A very clear defense of the view according to which sound is a relational event originated at the sounding object by the interaction between it and the medium. It discusses also echoes, recorded sounds, and cross-modal illusions.

  • O’Callaghan, Casey. “Auditory Perception.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2009.

    The focus is auditory perception, auditory phenomenology, and the different varieties of auditory perception like musical listening and speech perception.

  • Nudds, Matthew, and Casey O’Callaghan, eds. Sounds and Perception: New Philosophical Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    An edited volume presenting different approaches to the spatiality of audition and the metaphysics of sound. It also contains works on speech perception, the recognition of voices, the experience of silence, and the sound of music.

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