Listening and Attention in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland

Thursday Lecture Series

  • Audience open exclusively to Columbia faculty, students, and invited guests
  • All others interested in attending, please email SOF/Heyman at [email protected].

In his essay Of the Nature of that Imitation which Takes Place in What Are Called the Imitative Arts (1777 / 1795), Adam Smith famously described instrumental music as engaging a specific mental faculty: “by the sweetness of its sounds it awakens agreeably, and calls upon the attention [and] by their connection and affinity it naturally detains that attention.” According to Smith, this task could “occupy, and as it were fill up, completely the whole capacity of the mind, so as to leave no part of its attention vacant for thinking of any thing else.” Many scholars have regarded Smith’s approach to attention and instrumental music as articulating an early aesthetic of absolute music (e.g. Seidel 2003; Bonds 2014). This talk suggests that, when viewed within the context of eighteenth-century music theory, Smith’s comments also reflect a contemporaneous Scottish fascination with the role of attention in structuring auditory perception.