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HomeNumeri66Listening to the Space of Music


Quando ascoltiamo musica, dobbiamo distinguere tra l’esperienza dello spazio in senso metaforico, cioè quando percepiamo lo spazio suggerito o evocato dalle caratteristiche musicali di un pezzo, come la melodia, l’armonia e il ritmo; e l’esperienza dello spazio fisico, che ci dà informazioni spaziali che hanno a che fare con fonti del suono e con la regione spaziale in cui queste si trovano. Nell’analizzare il modo in cui percepiamo lo spazio quando udiamo le fonti musicali, mi concentrerò sull’esperienza dello spazio fisico. Applicherò un modello del modo in cui facciamo esperienza delle fonti sonore non musicali (o ambientali) – un modello che chiamerò “il modello della matrioska” – alla percezione delle fonti sonore musicali. La conclusione a cui giungerò è che l’esperienza spaziale delle fonti dei suoni non-musicali e l’esperienza spaziale delle fonti dei suoni musicali sono simili, almeno per quanto riguarda quelle composizioni musicali in cui lo spazio viene impiegato come mezzo estetico di un certo tipo. Inoltre, la mia analisi suggerisce che se vogliamo capire qual è la differenza tra l’esperienza musicale e l’esperienza dei suoni non musicali in relazione allo spazio, dobbiamo concentraci sull’esperienza dello spazio in senso metaforico.

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Testo integrale

1. Two ways of listening to space in music

1We can have two different kinds of spatial experience when listening to music. First, we can experience space in music metaphorically (Macedo 2015: 242), when music evokes or suggests spatial images and metaphors involving abstract concepts or perceptual experiences which are not necessarily related to the spatial properties of sound sources. We are inclined to describe this kind of experience by metaphorically applying spatial concepts to aspects of a musical composition like rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, texture and morphological traits. For example, we can experience different pitches in a melody or chords in a harmony as ascending or descending. We can seem to hear the distance between different elements which constitute the rhythmic structure of musical compositions. And listening to spectral music can seem to highlight a way of “ordering” sounds within a space of possible timbers.

2The majority of philosophers has tended to focus on this (metaphorical) experience of space in listening to music and explored it in different accounts of how perceptions of space, movement and gesture can evoke expressive properties (Scruton 1983, 1997; Budd 1985; Davies 1994; Levinson 2006; Peacocke 2010; Kania 2015).


3A second kind of spatial experience we can have when listening to music is the experience of physical space, which occurs when we acquire spatial information concerning the sources of sound. We can hear things about the spatial region where a musical performance is taking place and the relative distance between various sound sources in this performance (e.g., singers and instruments) and us. This spatial information isn’t just practically useful for locating sound sources; it can also be aesthetically weighty. I will argue that composers can, and often do, consider spatial information concerning the location of sound sources or even more sophisticated matters (like the motion of sound or the reverberation of sound dependent on the actual dimension and size of the place where music is performed), treating this as an element in musical composition.

4This auditory experience of physical space is the result of the interaction between the sound produced by sound sources and the space where the sound is produced and propagates. We can acquire the relevant spatial information about sound sources from listening to music without being aware of the typical features which constitute the musical object we are attending to (e.g., without knowing whether we are listening to a sonata, a fantasia, a tonal or a modal piece, and without knowing what kind of overall rhythm or temporal structure the music composition has). This kind of auditory perception of space is similar to the way we can visually perceive material objects as located in space, when we see them as occupying a determinate spatial region but are not aware of their exact nature (e.g., when we see an object approaching from in front of us or on our left but can’t determine whether it’s a car, a truck or something else).


5In this paper I will focus on the auditory experience of physical space, specifically, on the auditory perception of spatial information relating to musical sources. I will examine the different aesthetic roles that physical space plays in different musical compositions. I will argue that spatial perception often plays a minimal role in such compositions, and that it can also play a weighty role. I will then apply a specific model of spatial experience of non-musical (or environmental) sound sources discussed in Di Bona (manuscript) to musical sound sources, providing a unified account of the auditory perception of physical space. I will argue that the spatial experience of musical and non-musical sound sources are similar in the spatial properties of sound sources they present (at least when space has a minimal or a weighty aesthetic role), so that any major difference between musical experience and the auditory experience of non-musical sound with relation to space, plausibly lies in the experience of metaphorical space. When investigating such differences, we should focus on the metaphorical spatial experience we have when taking into account features that are typically musical, such as melody, harmony or rhythm.

6Existing views on the auditory perception of space (Casati, Dokic 1994, 2005, 2009; Nudds 2001, 2009; O’Callaghan 2007; O’Shaughnessy 2009; McLachlan 1989) do not explicitly take musical sounds or musical sound sources into account; they mainly focus on the location of environmental sounds and their sources. So by applying a specific model of the spatial experience of environmental sounds to musical sounds, I will try to connect two areas of inquiry which seem to have been kept distinct so far: the study of environmental and musical sounds.

7I will begin by briefly discussing how we experience space when hearing non-musical sound sources (§ 2), and by pointing out three ways in which we do that, clarified by a model which I will label “the matryoshka model”. I will then apply this model to the auditory experience of musical sound sources (§ ), to argue that our spatial experience of musical sound sources is similar to the spatial experience of non-musical sound sources. I will support this model by analyzing compositions which employ space as an aesthetic tool. I will present Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major K 136 (§ 3.1) as an example of a musical composition in which space plays a minimal aesthetic role. And I will suggest I am sitting in a room by Alvin Lucier and “In Ecclesiis” by Giovanni Gabrieli (§ 3.2) as examples of musical compositions where space has a weighty aesthetic role.

2. The spatiality of non-musical sound sources

  • 1 Starting from the 20th century, the distinction between musical sounds and environmental sounds has (...)

8In Di Bona (manuscript), I propose a theory of what spatial information audition gives us about the sources of environmental sounds. I argue that we auditorily perceive the location of sources of environmental, non-musical, sounds. Environmental sounds, that is, the objects of everyday listening, are the sounds which normally surround us, e.g., the sound of people laughing, breaking glasses, crowds cheering, church bells, doorbells. These sounds are usually meant to be different from the sounds a musical piece is generally made of.1

9It is intuitive to say that we always hear sound sources as having a location (whether we perceive this location accurately or not). Indeed, if we just consider how we perceive sounds sources to be located in space, it appears that our ability to hear the space in which sound sources are located is quite similar (in outcome) to our ability to visually perceive the space in which objects are located. So one might argue that we can experience the spatiality of sound sources by an analogy with vision.

10The three modalities by which we can visually experience space are (Martin 1994): seeing the spatial region where objects are; seeing the space between the parts an object might be composed of; seeing space as occupied by the objects we see. The third spatial experience is the experience of space itself: we don’t just see objects as located in space, we also see the space where objects can potentially be seen. Nudds (2009) elaborates on this idea by claiming that the auditory experience of space is more similar to tactile than visual experience of space, since even if we can hear the space where sources are and also the space that separates them, we cannot hear space itself. I will expand on Nudds’ view, by claiming that in audition we can, not only 1) hear the space where sound sources are and 2) hear the space between different sources, but also 3) hear space itself, that is, space as something which can be potentially perceived as occupied or empty, analogously to what happens with the perception of space in vision. My argument is based on the following example. Imagine listening to the sound produced by a Russian matryoshka filled with one doll, say the medium-size doll, when someone shakes it. You will hear a sort of woody noise. By means of audition, you might perceive 1) the spatial region where the dolls are located (for instance, in front of you and on your left); and 2) the space between the external matryoshka (the bigger one) and the medium-size matryoshka. The idea is that, by the sound you hear, you can guess if the internal matryoshka is the smallest- or the medium-size one. Therefore, there is a sense in which you hear the distance between the bigger external matryoshka and the medium-size matryoshka inside it. However, at the same time, if you try to shake the matryoshka several times and change the size of the matryoshka which is inside, you can also experience 3) the space within the matryoshka as a space that might be potentially filled by other material objects. That is, you can tell the “quantity” of space which might yet be filled. The different sounds you hear can tell you that there’s a space which might potentially be either empty or occupied.

11So I maintain that we don’t just hear sound sources as having a location and the space which separates two different sound sources, but that we can also hear the space of sound sources itself. Thus, the modalities in which we recover auditory spatial information about sound sources are analogous to the modalities in which we see an object as located in space (Di Bona manuscript).

12Of course, the matryoshka example is not meant to suggest that, when perceiving space, the acuity of audition is comparable to the acuity of vision. It only shows that, despite the fact that auditory spatial acuity is relatively poor, we can experience space and objects as located in space by audition in a way that might be considered analogous (in its outcome) to the way in which we experience objects as located in space by vision.

13A brief clarification: when analyzing how we hear space itself as something which can be perceived as potentially occupied or empty, we should distinguish between perceiving space as potentially occupied by, or empty of, material objects (such as sound sources or other objects in the vicinity), and perceiving space as potentially occupied by, or empty of, sounds. In this paper, when talking about hearing space itself, I always mean hearing it as potentially occupied by, or empty of, material objects.

3. Spatiality of musical sound sources

14The locations of musical sound sources are to some extent perceptible. Throughout the history of music, composers in the Western tradition have often paid attention to the spatial features, like the musicians’ position with respect to each other and the audience, and the architectural characteristics of the venue in which their music was performed. They might have been aware that spatial information acquired merely through audition requires specific kinds of attention from listeners, and also that it produces different musical significations.

15Merely taking into account musicians position with respect to each other and the audience is already a way of using space with an aesthetic intent. For example, it is common, presumably, for the composer of a string quartet to consider where the four musicians sit with respect to each other and the audience, in order to achieve the right balance of volumes (e.g., to ensure the second violin’s phrase stands out suitably against the other instruments’ accompaniment). A composer taking spatial information into account in this way uses space with an aesthetic role, although it is a minimal one. When space has a minimal aesthetic role, it already fulfills a relevant function for influencing the experience of music in the hierarchy of the functions of musical elements – even though features like harmony, melody and rhythm have a far more important role than space in shaping our musical experience.

16But from plainchant and late Renaissance music in Venice up to the 19th century, we also find composers giving space more than just this minimal aesthetic role. Spatial effects have a great importance in Hector Berlioz’s Requiem (1837), for instance, in which four orchestras are situated at different spots of the concert venue, as well as in many other works by romantic composers like Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler (Morgan 1980). The separation of performers into spatially divided groups, specifically mentioned by the composers in the score, became even more important in the 20th century. Charles Ives, for example, composed his 4th Symphony (1909-1916) paying attention to spatial effects created by employing a group of violins and a harp spatially separated by an ensemble of percussion. This employment of space suggests that from a minimal aesthetic role, space began to assume a more weighty aesthetic role in the history of Western classical music, reaching almost the same functional role of typical aesthetic features such as melody, harmony and rhythm. Composers paid attention not only to the positions of musicians with regard to their relative placement and to the audience, but also to the characteristics of the performing space responsible for the acoustic effects of reverberation (natural or artificial) generated by sound reflection, diffraction, and resonance.

  • 2 See Macedo (2015) for more examples.

17Starting from the beginning of the 21st century, many compositions in the fields of electronic music and sound art treat space as a prominent aesthetic element, to the point that the musical features of harmony, melody and rhythm have been relegated to a secondary role. Space has been explored not only with relation to the position of the musicians and the audience (minimal role) and the use of reverberation (weighty role), but also for the effects aroused by the motion of sound – which gives the impression of dispersing sound sources throughout the performance venue – and its capacity of creating an imaginary environment. Examples of compositions in which space plays a prominent role are Gruppen (1955-1957) and Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Artikulation (1958) by György Ligeti, “Fall,” the second movement of Computer Suite From Little Boy (1968) by Jean-Claude Risset, De Natura Sonorum (1975) by Bernard Parmegiani, and Double Concerto, Op. 27 no. 2 (1989-1990) by György Kurtag, to mention just a few. The genres of field recording and soundscape composition – with compositions like Presque Rien n. 1 (1970) by Luc Ferrari, Cricket Voice (1987) by Hildegard Westerkamp, People Underground (1991) by Katharine Norman, Voices of the Rainforest (1991) by Steven Feld, Island (2000) by Barry Traux, and La Selva (2015) by Francisco López2 – explore the concept of creating imaginary soundscapes which are completely different from the soundscape of the places is actually performed.

18Each of the three aesthetic roles I have attributed to the space employed with a musical intent pertains to different meanings of space, which broadly corresponds to the literal meanings of space that Macedo individuates when analyzing the uses of space in the recent literature on music. Macedo (2015) distinguishes four literal meanings of space that

are related to the spatial properties of sound, as perceived by the listener/ viewer. The four meanings of space [acoustic space, spatialisation, reference and location] are all literal, in the sense that they are related to specific aspects of the perception of sound in space, or to a general perception of space and its relation with aural perception. What characterises the new artistic practices that work with the spatiality of sound is the very use of space in a literal sense. Space becomes, then, not only a metaphor to describe different aspects of music, musical structure or how music or sound is perceived by the listener, but also a physical reality that, in interaction with sound, produces different kinds of aural perception (ivi: 243).

19Macedo specifies that space is characterized by a literal meaning when one focuses on the interaction between the physical reality and sound. The four literal uses of space pointed out by Macedo are location, acoustic space, sound spatialization, and reference.

20Space as location captures one of the four literal senses of space when focusing on the spatial information related to the specific venue where music is performed and listened to. The aesthetic minimal role of space matches the literal meaning of space as location since both take into account the venue where music is performed. Nevertheless, the aesthetic minimal role of space includes also the spatial information recovered by the locations of musical sources, their relative placement and the placement with respect to the audience, which, on the contrary, Macedo’s literal use of space as location does not seem to take into account.

21On the contrary, the literal use of space as an acoustic space, underlining the specific acoustic effects of the environment on sound, perfectly matches the aesthetically weighty role of sound: when employing the literal use of space as an acoustic space, we attribute space a weighty aesthetic role which is expressed by taking into account the resonances and the natural (or artificial) reverberation of the environment where sound propagates.

22Finally, the prominent aesthetic role is adopted in the compositions exemplifying the literal meanings of space as sound spatialization and reference (ivi: 245-247). In the first case – which is particularly frequent in spatial music or spatialized music – motion, direction and distance of sound are the compositional means, which often generate the dispersion of sources throughout the performance venue; in the second case, space is meant to be used in the sense of reference space, which produces or recalls in the listener the experience of being in places other than the place where the music is performed.

23Having distinguished three different roles of space as compositional means and connected them to the Macedo’s uses of space, we can see now how the way we experience the space of environmental sound sources is similar to the way we experience the space of musical sound sources, at least when analyzing compositions where space has a minimal aesthetic role or a weighty aesthetic role.

3.1. When space has a minimal aesthetic role

24We said that taking into account musical sources’ locations with respect to each other and the architectural features of an intended performance venue amounts to giving space a minimal aesthetic role. Let us analyze a composition where space has this role, in order to see if the way in which we actually experience musical sources is similar to the way in which we experience space when hearing environmental sound sources. As I said, it seems that the majority of music compositions throughout the history of the Western tradition of classical music employs space as a musical feature by attributing a minimal aesthetic role to it.

25I chose to examine a composition for string quartet – even if it can be performed also by a chamber string orchestra –, W.A. Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major K 136 (1772), since, because of the clarity of the melodic lines going from one instrument to another and the transparency of harmony, it allows us to focus on the spatial dimension. Mozart wrote this music when working for the archbishop Hyeronimus von Colloredo in Salzburg, and it was supposed to be music for entertainment. I will focus on the third movement, the Presto.

26Recall that when listening to the environmental sounds produced by specific sources, we experience space in three ways: 1) we hear the space where sound sources are; 2) we hear the space between different sources; and 3) by hearing the space which separates the sound sources, we hear space itself, that is, space as something which can be perceived as potentially occupied or empty.

27Imagine listening to a live performance of the third movement of Mozart’s Divertimento K 136. The movement is performed in a medium-sized concert hall, so that we can minimally recreate the chamber music atmosphere in which the divertimento was played at Colloredo’s court. The tempo indication of the third movement is a Presto and has an exposition, a development and a recapitulation, which follow the structure of the sonata form. In this movement, there are two main melodic themes and the basic tonality is D major. When listening to this live music, you can tell where the sources of sounds (which are the members of the string quartet) sit with respect to you, namely whether they are in front of you on your left or on your right.

28Very often in this movement there are pauses between the end of a section and the beginning of the next one. For example, already at the very beginning of the Presto, all the instruments play a four-bar introduction which ends with a pause drawing attention, presumably, to the importance of the first theme which comes right after it, and played by the first violin. And again, the development section of the Presto starts with a fugato, made of staggered imitative melodic entries played one after the other by each of the string instruments with silent moments. Now, when experiencing these moments of silence, in which the last notes resonates before fading away, we experience the space between the instruments in a way that can help to tell whether they are very distant from each other or close. Finally, when hearing this space between the sources, you can also tell whether it could potentially be still occupied by another object. You get the “potentiality of filling” of the space between the sources, which corresponds to experiencing space itself.

3.2. When space has a weighty aesthetic role

29The weighty aesthetic role of space finds its application when space is employed with a literal use of space as acoustic space. The perception of acoustic space (Macedo 2015: 243) depends on the acoustic effects of the environment on the sounds, effects which are generated by reflection, diffraction and resonance. Therefore, the place in which sound propagates affects sound remarkably. The natural reverberation of the venue of a music performance is determined by a number of different factors, such as size and shape of the room and the materials of which walls, ceilings and objects in the vicinity are made of. The resulting acoustics affects the features of the music with regard to timbres, rhythm and harmony.

30If we go back to the polychoral music of late Renaissance, we can find a composer like Giovanni Gabrieli who wrote music to be performed in Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. His compositions had separate choirs put on opposite lofts in Saint Mark in order to create specific spatial effects. The basilica was renowned for its oppositional organs that inspired the style of “separated choirs” (cori spezzati). This technique was based on two or more vocal or instrumental groups of musicians situated in opposite choir lofts, first alternating with and echoing each other and then playing together at the peak of the piece. The core of polychoral music was to create music in which resonant sounds merged with the sounds located in front of them.

31Let us consider a composition taken from Gabrieli’s sacred music. In the motet “In Ecclesiis” from Book II of Symphoniae Sacrae published in 1615, Gabrieli employs three choirs: a choir of voices, a choir of solo voices, and an instrumental group, all accompanied by an organ. This motet is constituted by the traditional “Alleluia” refrain, a sinfonia, and a grand climax, with solemn chords leading to the final section of the piece. Let us imagine to be sitting right in the middle of St. Mark’s Basilica, listening to a live performance of “In Ecclesiis”, and consider whether the way we perceive the space when listening to Gabrieli’s motet resembles our experience of the spatiality of sound sources in the ways highlighted by the matryoshka model discussed above.

32When listening to “In Ecclesiis”, we can quite accurately hear where the different musicians are during the performance in many circumstances – as when performing the vocal solo parts, when the entire instrumental choir plays, and when the vocal choir is singing a cappella – so that we can tell where musical sound sources are (in front of you and on your left, or on your back and on you left, and so forth).

33Very often in the piece there are pauses between the end of a session and the beginning of the next one. For example, the last session of the motet, which is the climax of the entire composition, includes many silent moments as when the expression “Deus adiutor noster in aeternum” is spaced out with many simultaneous pauses during which none of the musicians play. Now, sitting right in the middle of St. Mark Basilica, when experiencing these moments of silence, in which the last played notes resonate before fading away, we can experience the space between the three choirs. Finally, when performing the “Alleluia” refrain, it is often the case that a soloist, a countertenor or a tenor voice, alternates with the vocal groups. This effect between the two lines is construed thanks to a skillful use of tonal contrast and pauses, so that when listening to it one would hear the space between the choirs as being potentially empty and variously filled, especially during pauses. “In Ecclesiis” represents a good example for analyzing how, when listening to a live performance, natural reverberations determines the musical space. To experience a similar effect, we could also imagine to listen to a good recording of “In Ecclesis” with a very good sound system where the spatial effects are accurately recreated.

34While in Gabrieli’s example we have explored natural reverberation’s effects, it might be also worth analyzing a composition where artificial and natural reverberation effects interact.

35I am sitting in a room (1970) is a piece by Alvin Lucier, a sound artist. In this work Alvin Lucier experiments with the construction of space and attempts to make audible the features of a room which are normally inaudible. Let us imagine attending to a live performance of I am sitting in a room, taking place in a reverberant room and performed by Alvin Lucier himself. The performance develops in the following way. Lucier reads a text and his own voice is recorded. Then, the recording is played back in the same room and recorded again with the same resonances. The performance continues by repeating the procedure until when the original voice is dissolved into a musical stream made entirely by the resonances and reverberations produced by the room.

36The text read by Lucier describes the development of the performance itself and goes as follows:

  • 3 This sentence changes in the recorded version of the piece. Instead of having “the same one you are (...)

I am sitting in a room, the same one you are in now3. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

37When listening to Lucier’s live performance, we can almost clearly hear where the different sources are during the performance. Namely, we can tell where one source, Lucier himself, is located – say, on the stage in front of you on your left, or on your right, and so on – when reading the text, and we can also tell which is the location from which the recorded text comes each time that it is played back through loudspeakers. Very often in the piece, when ending the play of a recording and before starting with the new one, there are technical pauses. For example, when the play of the first reading ends and before the first recording starts to play, there might be a long pause of 7-8 seconds. Now, when listening to these moments of silence – which repeat almost alike all the times a recording ends and a new one starts – we might experience the space between the two sources, which are Lucier and the loudspeaker. Finally, when hearing the space between sources, we can also tell whether it could still be potentially filled by other material objects, which is the way of experiencing space itself.

  • 4 For a discussion of compositions employing these two senses of space, see Macedo (2015: 244-246).

38To conclude this discussion on the different aesthetic roles of space in relation to the experience of musical sound sources, I need to talk about the prominent aesthetic role of space. This is the role which space takes on in musical compositions developing the literal use of space as sound spatialization and reference4. This role mainly explores sound motion and spatial landscapes. I tend to be skeptical about providing an analysis that shows the similarity between the perception of musical sound sources and their localization, and the perception of non-musical sound sources and their localization, when sound motion disperses sources throughout the performance venue, and the space as reference creates imaginary environments having imaginary sound sources. That is because, in both cases, space has a role going beyond the very intuitive conception of sound sources as things which should normally being identifiable in the performance venue itself. This conception has been followed when space is employed with either the minimal or the weighty role. Nevertheless, further research is needed to justify my skepticism. For the moment, showing a certain similarity between the spatial perception of sound sources within environmental sound and musical sounds of a specific kind already represents, on the one side, a useful attempt towards a unified conception of the perception of sound sources and, on the other side, a fruitful comparison between musical experience and auditory (non-musical) experience.


39To write this paper, I have benefited from discussions had with Michał Klincewicz and his research group at the Cognitive Science Department of the Institute of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University (Krakow), the people attending the Polonsky Academy Seminar in Jerusalem, and the participants in the Vita-Salute San Raffaele 2017 Spring School (Milan). I am particularly grateful to Sharon Barry, Stefano Ercolino and Torbjørn Ottersen for their perceptive comments.

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1 Starting from the 20th century, the distinction between musical sounds and environmental sounds has not always been clear, since many composers employed environmental sounds with a musical intent.

2 See Macedo (2015) for more examples.

3 This sentence changes in the recorded version of the piece. Instead of having “the same one you are in now”, Lucier reads: “Different from the one you are in now”.

4 For a discussion of compositions employing these two senses of space, see Macedo (2015: 244-246).

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Elvira Di Bona, «Listening to the Space of Music»Rivista di estetica, 66 | 2017, 93-105.

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Elvira Di Bona, «Listening to the Space of Music»Rivista di estetica [Online], 66 | 2017, online dal 01 décembre 2017, consultato il 24 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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