We are surrounded by all kinds of sounds: by geophonies (sounds produced by elements such as rain or wind); and biophonies, produced by all living beings; and of course, by anthropophonies, sounds generated directly or indirectly by human activity.

Sounds are flows that affect us:

Imagine you are strolling in a pedestrian area and suddenly a vehicle behind you hoots loudly. The sound affects you and generates a feeling in you, perhaps anger that the vehicle was somewhere it shouldn’t be.

And this is also how posthumanist theory views music: a sonic flow created and/or perceived for aesthetic purposes but which can fulfil functions that go far beyond these purposes; it is a sonic flow that affects us. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze conceives music not as a form, language or ideology, but as a force. In art, be it painting, sculpture or music, it is not merely a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but of capturing forces.

Nietzsche recognised that one of the main qualities of music is that words disappear from our thoughts when we give ourselves up to it completely. The whole body absorbs the music and we are able to switch off purely rational thought. This is affect, an unconscious experience of intensity, the sensation of merging with the music, of the deletion of dividing lines between object and subject. Music, and sounds in general, are not separate from bodies but enter into a constitutive relationship with them. What is important is not what they are, but what they do in us. Rather than meanings or discourses, we can speak of emotional reactions, internal kinaesthetic sensations or even, sometimes, of transcendence, when we experience an “oceanic feeling”. The world of sound can produce bodily pleasure (in a concert, for example), discomfort (from noise pollution), and may be even be experienced as violence, when music is used as an instrument of torture.


The dualistic Cartesian view, with its rigid separation of subject/object, overlooks many aspects of reality. When one says, for example, “I make music”, one ignores the fact that “I am (also) made by music”.


In fact, music is a sonic flow that affects us, and we don’t only listen or decode signals, but in line with the perceptualism proposed by Baruch Spinoza, we become full of sounds. An affect implies amalgamation between two bodies (Deleuze, 1978), we become music.


There are different ways of listening to music. Contemplative listening is conscious listening and generates thoughts about the music, which might be value judgements, aesthetic appreciation, or technical evaluation. But in the haptic mode of listening, purely rational thought is switched off and music is absorbed by the whole body. This is affect, an unconscious experience of intensity. One has the sensation of merging with the music, of the dividing lines between object and subject being dissolved.


Haptic perception is a combination of tactile, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive effects; it is the way we experience touch, and we can feel it both on the surface and inside our bodies (Marks, 2002: 2). Music has a greater degree of materiality than that of light waves; it has a visceral quality. We are affected by the resonance of sound waves through bodily organs and tissues.

In this sense, music really does touch us. This is why profoundly deaf people can also enjoy music, and even, like the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, become renowned artists,


When the meaning of music is discussed, reference is usually made to the fact that it is endowed with a well-defined semantic content which is created through the symbolisation of its materiality. But between the material dimension—the haptic power of sonic flows—and the result of the symbolisation, there is also a further dimension that is worth exploring. This is a kind of phenomenological, indeterminate, and much less structured signification that occurs at a pre-conceptual or pre-objective level. (Vadén and Torvinen, 2014: 212). Here, for example, we experience music as energy, as a profound melancholy that overtakes us, or as the calm we feel at the delightful sight of a green meadow. It should be noted, however, that although this is so, it is not only the case that the music is energising, melancholy, or soothing, but that in order to be able to feel it in one way or another, the situation in which it is produced is also crucial. Only when the situation and the music are joined do they produce a certain atmosphere.


The best illustration of this indeterminate effect is when music is used to create an atmosphere. Music is a particularly important element in the generation of atmospheres. We all know what we mean when we talk about mood music: music designed and arranged to generate a special ambience or atmosphere, a feeling of familiarity, comfort, or festivity, and so on. This is as old as the custom of making music in churches to generate an atmosphere conducive to spiritual reflection and worship, or the sounding of fifes and drums on the battlefields to fire up soldiers. This function of music, together with technological advances, led to the founding in 1934 in the United States of a powerful company, the Muzak Corporation, which was launched to transmit mood music over the telephone connection. The aim was to use music to create a good working atmosphere and increase productivity rates in factories and companies. Mood music, transmitted in a range of different ways, now pervades our daily lives, and has taken over shopping centres, offices, restaurants, lifts, public transport, etc.


As Anna Hickey-Moody has said, all the different elements involved in a dance performance make up a whole: the space, costumes, lighting, music, the bodies on stage and the dance moves. Each of these elements can be analysed separately, but if we focus our attention on the affective dimension we understand that what counts, what gives meaning, is the effect of the whole, which—through emergence—is more than the sum of its parts (Hickey-Moody, 2013: 90).


The sound technologies of today have profoundly changed human relationships with music. Today we are in a position to regulate the sonic flows that affect us in the same way as we choose the food we eat, our lighting, or the temperature in our rooms. Technological progress has made it possible to enjoy “blanket” coverage, to access music at all times. We can now surround ourselves completely with music, and this makes it possible for music to be employed as one more of the multiple technologies of the self (Foucault, 2008). We can tune in to lively music in the morning or to music that makes us feel calm and serene in the evening. The most genuine sonic expression of the Anthropocene is produced in the wide range of ways in which music is used to affect the atmosphere.


Music always exerts agency. This is clearly shown when it is deliberately exploited in physical exercises, in music used for military parades and in today’s gymnasiums; it can be used even in transpersonal music therapy.

In all these cases, music is experienced as a flow that directly affects the body, while all the standard musicological categories relating to style, genre or composer are of secondary importance. Music is important for what it does, not for what it is.


The sense of the world, Jean-Luc Nancy tells us (in Smith, 2013: 31), is the touching of bodies each against the other. And this is basically what happens with music. If music is so important to us, even beyond its capacity to symbolise, it is because it touches us. The meaning of music derives principally from the materiality of physical vibrations touching our bodies.

  • Deleuze, Gilles, Seminar given on Spinoza on 24 January, 1978 [accessed: September 2016]
  • Foucault, Michel, Tecnologías del yo y otros textos afines, Buenos Aires: Ediciones Paidós, 2008
  • Hickey-Moody, Anna, “Affect as Method: Feelings, Aesthetics and Affective Pedagogy”, in Deleuze and Research Methodologies, Rebecca Coleman and Jessica Ringrose (eds.), Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013, pp. 79-95.
  • Marks, Laura, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002
  • Smith, Mick, “Ecological Community, the Sense of the World, and Senseless Extinction”, Environmental Humanities 2/1, 2013, pp. 21-41
  • Vadén, Tere and Juha Torvinen, “Musical Meaning in Between: Ineffability, Atmosphere and Asubjectivity in Musical Experience”, Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology 1/2, 2014, pp. 209–230