By Melissa Forbes and Kate Cantrell
In the creative and performing arts, resonance is everywhere, both literally and metaphorically.
In music, a plucked string on a viola vibrates at the natural frequency of the instrument’s hollow body. In singing, the vocal folds open and close to chop up the pressurised airflow from the lungs, creating soundwaves that are resounded by the vocal tract. Metaphorically, in moments of connection, performers feel a resonance with their audience – an actor may feel “heard” by their fans; a musician might be “amplified” by a crowd’s roaring applause.
Off stage, and on page, writers too strive to achieve emotional resonance – that magical connection between characters and readers. As readers, we might encounter a poet whose skilful use of figurative language (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) resonates with our felt experience of longing and lust.
Resonance phenomena, however, are not limited to sound waves or the powerful quake of words. In physics, resonance is a phenomenon in which “one object vibrating at the same natural frequency of a second object forces the second object into vibrational motion” (Huber 2009, p. 61). In space, resonance refers to the mutual swapping of energy. Back home, an overloaded washing machine that vibrates violently is an everyday example of mechanical resonance. As the unbalanced mass of laundry spins faster and faster, the drum sways in its moorings, as if suspended mid-air. Put simply, the machine becomes trapped in resonance.
Expressed as an equation, we might say resonance = re-sounding. Re-sounding is the process of making waveforms bigger, louder, stronger. More intense. Re-sounding describes the complex interactions between artists and their instruments. As a result of its inherent relationality, re-sounding employs energy, motion, and vibration to re-configure the relationships between individuals, sound, and space.
Resonance, as a metaphor, is a popular way of describing the amplification of effect – what we might describe as the achievement of synergy, the feeling of contact, or the sensation of something more. As artist-academics with an interest in metaphor and cognitive embodiment (Forbes & Cantrell 2021), our ears prick up whenever we hear metaphors being deployed and re-deployed in fields beyond our own (music and writing/publishing, respectively).
Within ecological psychology, for example, the resonance metaphor is central to James Gibson’s pioneering work on perceptual systems. For Gibson, organs of perception are governed by the brain in such a way that the entire input/output system seeks and extracts external information. In other words, the perceptual system secures a resonance between the perceiver and the world (1966). Philosophers Ryan and Gallagher (2020) extend the resonance metaphor further and posit that the brain is a resonant organ, linked or coupled with its environment in a dynamic act of meaning making.
In the social sciences, the resonance metaphor is adopted by Hartmut Rosa in Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World. First published in German (2016), and later translated into English (2019), Resonance presents Rosa’s theory of human relationships with each other as either “resonant” or mute. Interestingly, Rosa’s use of the resonance metaphor to critique social relations is positioned as an antidote to the ideas outlined in his first book, itself also couched metaphorically, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (2013).
Yet despite the prominence of the resonance metaphor, its use and value has been challenged recently. Dave Camlin is a music practitioner-researcher whose work explores musical phenomena through a multi-disciplinary lens that draws on quantum physics, psychology, neurobiology, and phenomenology. In presenting the experience of group singing as a complex adaptive system, Camlin et al. (2020) gesture towards the notion of resonance but ultimately prefer the term “attunement” (Siegel 2016), which refers to the synchronisation between subjects of neurobiological processes. In group singing, this process of attunement is understood as the experience of “feeling felt” (Camlin et al. 2020; Siegel 2011).
Others suggest that attunement (Heft cited in Ryan and Gallagher 2020) might, at the very least, be preferable to resonance, given the passive connotations of resonating, and the more active and intentioned connotations of attuning. As Ryan and Gallagher (2020) explain, our brains are not merely resonating like a tuning fork in response to our environment but actively and intentionally self-tuning.
Such ideas have profound implications for how we understand abstract phenomena, and for the language we use to describe them. Indeed, we can only share a feeling or an experience with others if we have the language to express it. This brief foray into recent developments in the conceptualisation of complex human experience challenges us to reconsider the utility of the resonance metaphor, and to search for concepts that more deeply – and more accurately – capture the intricacy, intimacy, and complexity of human interaction.
Camlin, David A., Helena Daffern and Katherine Zeserson. 2020. “Group Singing as a Resource for the Development of a Healthy Public: A Study of Adult Group Singing.” Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 7 (1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-020-00549-0.
Forbes, Melissa and Kate Cantrell. 2021. “Choose Your Own Adventure: Vocal Jazz Improvisation, Conceptual Metaphor, and Cognitive Embodiment.” Musicae Scientiae, 10298649211062730. https://doi.org/10.1177/10298649211062730.
Gibson, James Jerome. 1966. The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Houghton Mifflin.
Huber, Michael. 1999. Mythematics: Solving the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Princeton University Press.
Pairon, Lukas (Host). 2022, February 23. Interview with Hartmut Rosa. SIMM Podcast Episode 15 [Audio podcast]. SIMM: Social Impact of Making Music. https://www.buzzsprout.com/1424293/10091559.
Rosa, Hartmut. 2013. Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. Columbia University Press.
Rosa, Hartmut. 2019. Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World. Polity Press.
Ryan Jr., Kevin J. and Shaun Gallagher. 2020. “Between Ecological Psychology and Enactivism: Is there Resonance?” Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01147.
Siegel, Daniel. 2011. Mindsight: Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Kindness. Oneworld Publications.
Siegel, Daniel. 2016. Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human. W. W. Norton.
Melissa Forbes is Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Singing at the University of Southern Queensland. Her qualitative research sits at the intersection of music performance, psychology, and education, and explores singing experiences as mediators of health and wellbeing. She has published her research in leading international journals. Melissa is the Editor of Australian Voice, the journal for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing, and is the Early Career Development Chair for the Australian Music and Psychology Society. She is a Churchill Fellow and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK).
Kate Cantrell is a Lecturer in Writing, Editing, and Publishing at the University of Southern Queensland. Her research specialisation is contemporary accounts of wandering and narrative representations of illness, immobility, and displacement. She has published over 50 journal articles, book chapters, and conference papers, as well as industry articles in high-profile outlets such as The Sunday Mail, The Conversation, and Times Higher Education. At present, Kate is the Special Issues Editor of TEXT, Australia’s leading journal in creative writing, and the Associate Editor of Queensland Review, a leading journal in Australian studies and the only academic journal devoted entirely to multi-disciplinary Queensland scholarship.