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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Hearing Hoofbeats: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Interspecies Musical Encounters

  • Author(s): Vanderlinden, Lauren Olivia
  • Advisor(s): Cooley, Timothy
  • et al.

In this thesis, I explore the sonic interactions between humans and horses that take place in the many sporting and leisure events that rely on the presence of music and media as part of the web of connection between actors. To accomplish this, I bring together literature from a wide variety of fields to argue that analyzing and understanding interspecies musical encounters requires a flexible, interdisciplinary approach to theory and methodology that more deeply accounts for animal agency, sentience, and individuality. Many scholars have suggested that music is not a solely human endeavor, but rather one that has tangible, felt effects on many life forms beyond the human. Despite this acknowledgement, there is a dearth of studies that deal in the specifics of human-animal interactions within musical contexts. This is partially because no single discipline’s methods can successfully encompass what it is like to live as a member of another species, rendering non-human existence fundamentally unknowable and therefore difficult to engage with analytically. However, this thesis attempts to offer a solution to this problem by arguing that using the shared, embodied, thinking activity of music as a starting point for case-specific interdisciplinary combinations of methods and theories can allow scholars to more rigorously, ethically, and comprehensively engage with non-human agents in interspecies encounters. Ethnomusicology in particular offers an excellent starting point for this engagement because of the field’s emphasis on music as a social practice situated in specific contexts and relationships.

Analysis of literature stemming from anthropology, sociology, sports studies, media studies, voice studies, biology, and cognitive science reveals three core themes that drive my research questions: first, the idea that interspecies research is fraught with a particular set of ethical dilemmas that emerge when non-human agents are involved. How might we conduct research that promises to do no harm when we cannot truly know what harm means to others? What are our ethical responsibilities to our animal interlocutors and partners, and how do we fulfill them? Second, closely tied to considerations of ethics is the profound impact that interspecies relationships and musical relationships have on the physical bodies of those who participate in them. This refers not only to the physical toll that research and fieldwork takes on the body of the researcher, but the physiological imprints that horseback riding in particular has on riders and horses alike. Music, too, is tied up in this idea of shared bodily impact; in sports like dressage, the rider disciplines the horse’s body into synchronization with the music that undergirds their performance, creating the illusion of a fluid and collaborative dance. But do animals really understand and hear humanly-defined music as something different than speech or communication? If we cannot ever know for sure whether or not they do understand, how can we claim to undertake research that accounts for non-human cognition?

Third, the questions raised by considering cognition and the body lead us to trouble any clear division between music, sound, and language. Literature from anthropology, voice studies, and music cognition all complicate the idea that these categories are strictly bounded, and suggest that in the unknowability of non-human sentience our conceptions of music and language might even be moot when it comes to animal communication. Studies of birds, dolphins, bats, and whales have pushed biologists and music scholars to radically re-consider what they believe music to be and do, and turning to less obviously musical animals like horses holds the potential to further complicate and break down these conventions. But what is the value of this kind of inquiry? If we broaden our definitions of music and musicking to account for non-human participation, what will become of music scholars?

These questions are addressed in this thesis through the convergence of disparate fields of literature. By bringing into conversation these disciplines that seldom meet, a more clear picture of what ethical, rigorous, musical interspecies research might look like begins to emerge.

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