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Chiesa di Sant Aniceto, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, 1614

Sound, Space and the Aesthetics of the Sublime 

Sound embodies the power to sublime and to evoke a sense of numinosity. This capacity is sometimes associated with physical responses such as auditory evoked frisson, or profound affective responses such as a sense of awe. Such physiological and emotional responses to sound have been known to be elicited in nature (for example, a wolf’s howl from a distant canyon), or in the context of sacred rituals (for example, the mu’addhin’s chanting of the adhan). Some responses are elicited during engaged listening to music (for example, Calaf’s aria, Nessun Dorma sung by a great tenor in the Vienna Staatsoper). In common to all these visceral sonic experiences is the role of the physical characteristics of the environment in which the sounds are generated and perceived. The canyon walls echo; buildings and the landscape surrounding the minaret create resonances and sonic distortion; the walls of the opera house reverberate, decay and disperse the singer’s voice. Structures and topographies shape and color sound, effecting perceived clarity, brightness, and blend. These distortions are profoundly important in evoking strongly affective or spiritual responses.

While the transformative power of music has been described over millennia and across cultures, relatively little empirical research has been done to explain how the fundamental interactions between sound and space effect aesthetics, culture, and ritual such that musical sound can, in Immanual Kant’s words,  “...raise the soul's fortitude [and]...elevate the imagination to the exhibition of those cases wherein the mind can be made to feel the sublimity, even above nature, that is proper to its vocation ”. 

The proposed project aims to establish an empirically based, holistic approach to the study of how sound and space combine to create an aesthetic of the sublime. Specifically, we hope to determine those sonic attributes, and their associated physical and architectural features that, through the diffusion and dispersal of both musical and ritualistic sounds in space, create a sense of wonder and awe.

Integrating research and scholarship in musicology, art and architectural history, archaeology, anthropology, architectural acoustics, computer science, psychophysics, and cognitive neuroscience, we seek to discover underlying principles in which musical and ritual sounds modulated by the physical spaces in which they are created, transmitted, and perceived elicit powerful aesthetic and/or spiritual responses in listeners and/or congregants.

© Stanford University. 2020