Spem in Alium

Thanks to Kindles and e-readers you can read anything at home, at work, on the train, or the bus without embarrassment. No one need ever see the book’s cover. Paper books can be left lying around the house for others to pick up. Not so with electronic books. Reading really has become a private affair.

July this year recorded a significant spike in sales of Thomas Tallis’ musical work Spem in Alium (Hope in Any Other) (Telegraph). The timing corresponded to the rapid rise in popularity of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, in which the music sets the mood for the climactic love scene. The music doesn’t play while you are reading of course, but the author describes it’s effects on the characters.

The use of music in a fictional erotic context reminds us of how music can set the mood, ie provide a setting.

Abruptly, the soft silent hiss and pop of the iPod springs into life. From inside my head, a lone angelic voice sings unaccompanied a long sweet note, and it’s joined almost immediately by another voice, and then more voices – holy cow, a celestial choir – singing a capella in my head, an ancient, ancient hymnal. What in heaven’s name is this? I have never heard anything like it.

Several exhausting pages later the music is explained:

“What was that Music?” I mumble almost inarticulately. “It’s called Spem in Alium, a forty-part motet by Thomas Tal-lis.” “It was … overwhelming.” etc

Music can claim emotion, in full intensity, as its own. In his book The Singing Neanderthal Steven Mithen insists, “If music is about anything, it is about expressing and inducing emotion.” Think of how readily listeners describe a piece of music as happy (eg Beethoven’s Ode to Joy) or sad (eg Mozart’s Requiem). Sometimes they mean simply that the music makes them feel happy or sad, or has the potential to induce that feeling in someone.

By way of contrast, we would be less inclined to describe a building as happy or sad. A similar reluctance applies to fine art. Is Frans Hals’ (1580-1666) painting The Laughing Cavalier a happy picture? Are we as comfortable with so classifying a painting as we are with the pop song I Gotta Feeling by Black Eyed Peas?

Emotions don’t feature prominently in architectural thinking — at least not traditionally. Form and function are important, and ornament. On a more abstract level, there’s aesthetic experience, significance, memories, and even something called the “spirit of a place.” But raw, unsophisticated emotions such as feeling happy, sad, angry, frightened, contented or aroused are too transient and vague when designing long-lasting functional edifices that populate the cityscapes and landscapes of the built environment.

Of course, the harmonies of Spem in Alium were composed for churches. Architecture has a stake in ethereal ambiences, under the powerful assistance of music. Architecture shares the category of the sublime with music.

Does listening through an iPod change the music-architecture relationship? One difference is that the listening-inhabiting experience becomes very personal and private, like reading to oneself on an e-reader. It’s interesting to carry your own sound track with you, and not to disturb others with it, but sharing is important — not just sharing a playlist, but the simultaneous enjoyment that comes from being in an audience, part of the crowd, or otherwise in sociable company.


  • Böhme, Gernot. 2005. Atmosphere As The Subject Matter of Architecture. In P. Ursprung (ed.), Herzog and De Meuron: Natural History: 398-406. Montréal: Lars Müller.
  • Cohen, Annabel J. 2001. Music as a source of emotion in film. In P. N. Juslin, and J. A. Sloboda (eds.), Music and emotion: Theory and research: 249-272. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Cooke, Deryck. 1989. The Language of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. First published in 1959.
  • Mithen, Steven. 2005. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body. London: Orion
  • Wigley, Mark. 1998. The architecture of atmosphere. Daidalos, (68)18-27.
  • Zumthor, Peter. 2006. Atmospheres: Architectural Environments – Surrounding Objects. Basel: Birkhäuser

Also see: Architecture and music, The sublime indifference of waves.


  1. Perhaps it is the sensory experience of architecture – spatial and visual senses instead of auditory – that explains some of the differences. However, I have had emotional experiences of architecture; most noted was sitting in the rotunda designed by Lutyens for the gardens at Hestercombe. I went to experience a Jekyll garden but once I sat in an alcove of the rotunda, my friend could barely pry me away. There was an essential “rightness” to the proportions that made for a profound spatial experience that has lasted long after the memory of flowers blooming; in essence, the space “sang” to me.

  2. Thanks. In a way that confirms that we are more comfortable using music to express or talk about emotion than the visual arts. Perhaps gardens are something else again. I enjoyed the garden at Stowe, and perhaps it made me happy, but I would be reluctant to call it a happy place.

  3. qingzhao says:

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  4. Alex Pearson says:

    It is exactly right to say that we all walk around these days with our own personal soundtracks and that these soundtracks represent our moods and so these moods are projected onto the architecture that we view. For me Edinburgh will always be associated with the excitement of my undergraduate degree, the soundtrack for that four years was symphonic European power metal, to this day as I walk around Edinburgh it has to be that same music that is playing on my iPod, anything else would just be wrong. I do not however believe I need to share this music with the world, primarily because (and I’m making a sweeping generalization here) the world has terrible taste in music and despite what I’m listening to being very well crafted and executed music the population of Edinburgh probably would not enjoy it.

    Sharing music is important but there are people who do share their own personal playlists with the public and it is one of the most infuriating thing to endure. I’m sure almost every one has has the unpleasant experience of sitting on the bus and being subjected to some one else’s music played out loud with no consideration of others through tinny and fuzzy mobile phone speakers. There are a few brave people who ask these inconsiderate souls to turn their music off, I am not one of them but I wish I was because whilst I was at it I would also explain to them that they are ruining whatever they are listening to by listening on such awful quality speakers, that probably me just being a sound snob but I assume most of the readers of this blog have the same opinion!

    The only place that music should be shared is in the privacy of your own home either with friends or colleagues who enjoy the same music or at concert, live music being, in my opinion, one of the most worthwhile way of spending leisure time.

    Yes people share books once they are finished and yes sharing music in the right context is culturally important but non one should ever have to endure the sound track to some one els’s life, it would be almost as if the person on the bus next to you started reading their books out loud, which would be infuriating and, if the book in question is Fifty Shades Of Grey, incredibly embarrassing!


    1. Alex, Interesting. In a way you are highlighting a sadistic approach to music, as if some people derive pleasure from afflicting others with their own personal taste preferences. You are also implying that some people are masochistic in listening to substandard music on tinny speakers. Perhaps the solution resides in a sadomasochistic approach in which there’s mutuality in the pain and pleasure contract. I say that as Shades of Grey is apparently about SM. Just a thought.

  5. Zack Moir says:

    This is an interesting post and I agree that sharing music is important both in the social contexts that you mention (concerts etc.) and through sharing files / exchanging CDs and playlists etc. I also agree that by consuming music privately, whether in public via iPods or in solitude, we are inevitably (and probably purposefully) having a different type of musical experience to that which may be derived from a concert for example. So, when reading your article and the comments above, there was one issue that kept going through my head with regard to the music-architecture relationship and more generally the music-environment relationship. Namely, that many people, myself included, choose to use music as a way of divorcing themselves from an environment and the people who inhabit it at certain times.

    When trying to study in a busy library, people may use music to drown out the audible traces of the other people in the environment and trick themselves into feeling isolated and peaceful. When on a bus, music can be used as a way to create one’s own environment (a cocoon, perhaps) to luxuriate in mentally while you are physically uncomfortable or cramped. In this sense, the music choice is irrelevant, as is any structural or aesthetic dimension of the music – the important thing is that people are using iPods (or whatever type of mobile digital devices) to create and ‘tweak’ their own environments. In this way, we might suggest that the mood/feel/ambience of the music and of the environment, respectively might become related or aligned in the private experience of the listener.

    Whether music is used to enhance an environment/experience or to escape from one, it is interesting that people construct private musical experiences for themselves and it would be very interesting to attempt to find out what aesthetic factors are at play in the ‘design’ of this hybrid experience.

  6. For me it’s about texturing the audial field, like erecting a spatial and translucent screen to provide privacy. I select tracks without voice (unless abstract) as that distracts. Rhythm is good, and I avoid minor keys. Sometimes I overlay white noise from the WhiteNoise app to fill in the gaps. This is all so I can work of course, and is essential while in a coffee shop or on the train. Walking down the street is something else. In that case it’s sometimes interesting to let the sounds interact with the environment.

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