ISSTC2015 paper: Embodied Resonances and Thoughts of Electroacoustic Music

I’m due to go to the Irish Sound, Science and Technology Convocation in Limerick next week to present another paper from my collaboration with Ricky Graham, entitled, Embodied Resonances and Thoughts of Electroacoustic Music.

You can find the abstract below.

If you’re interested, my previous posts on ‘Embodied Thinking and Music’ relate to the same general subject matter.



Embodied Resonances and Thoughts of Electroacoustic Music: What can we learn from theorising disembodied sound using embodied schemas?

Brian Bridges, Ulster University

Ricky Graham, Stevens Institute of Technology



Music technologies have frequently been conceptualised in terms of how they break or creatively challenge the normal causality of sounding actions. Sound recording and processing technologies, by their very definition, modify the temporality of sounds through encoding, processing and diffusion. They also disturb gestural causality, making sounds available using gestures which may be far removed from the effort, force or structure of action involved in the original sound event.

Fixed–media acousmatic presentations are one extreme on this scale. However, even when describing the most disembodied acousmatic presentations, embodied resonances haunt our discourses. The abstracting imperatives of reduced listening may nonetheless be seen as drawing attention to the basic articulatory acoustics of sound events; in particular, archetypal envelope structures and stages. In addition, when we turn to describing larger–scale form in electroacoustic music, there is a frequent tendency to apply embodied and environmental metaphors and force–based models. For example, Smalley’s (1986, 1997) influential theory of spectromorphology describes a variety of prototypical schemas for joining individual sound objects based on apparent causality. Even with unfamiliar sound materials (or, arguably, especially with unfamiliar materials, which may promote reduced listening) an implicit assumption of such theories of electroacoustic music is that perceived connections between sound materials may echo a ‘gestural grammar’ of causal schemas drawn from our everyday environmental and embodied experience.

This descriptive strategy may be of more significance than mere rhetorical convenience (i.e., the use of familiar metaphors as convenient approximations when describing the unfamiliar). An influential strand of theory within contemporary cognitive science, embodied cognition, argues that our thought processes are shaped by learned embodied and environmentally–derived schemas. The embodied image schema theories of Lakoff and Johnson (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; 1999) propose a series of common embodied forms as structural primitives for cognition, including the conceptualisation of formal relations. A growing interdisciplinary interest in these theories has seen them being applied to common practice music (Brower, 2000; Johnson, 2007; Wilkie, Holland and Mulholland, 2010). However, we consider such theories to be even more directly applicable to electroacoustic music and related forms. We identify parallels between some of Smalley’s formal structuring and dynamic principles and image schema theories. The identification of embodied resonances in electroacoustic music may allow us to extend our current descriptive theories by comparing them with broader theories of embodied cognition. Furthermore, certain specifics our sounded forms may provide insights which extend the image–schematic theories of Lakoff and Johnson and other embodied cognition theorists. Such an approach also has the potential to inform developments in design, such as the development of music performance and production systems which provide models of musical structure appropriate to electroacoustic music.


Spectromorphology, embodied cognition, schemas, environment, form, structure, theory

Selected references

Brower, C. (2000). A Cognitive Theory of Musical Meaning. Journal of Music Theory, 44(2), pp. 323–379.

Johnson, M. (2007). The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Smalley, D. (1986). Spectro-morphology and Structuring Processes. In: Emmerson, S. (ed.) The Language of Electroacoustic Music. London: Macmillan, pp. 61–93.

Smalley, D. (1997). Spectromorphology: explaining sound-shapes. Organised Sound, 2(2), pp 107-126.

Wilkie, K., Holland, S., and Mulholland, P. (2010). What Can the Language of Musicians Tell Us about Music Interaction Design? Computer Music Journal, 34(40), pp. 34–48.


Embodied Thinking and Music (Part 2): Electroacoustic Music as Embodied Cognitive Praxis (EMS15)

For the last while, I’ve been working with Ricky Graham (Stevens Institute of Technology, NJ) on music performance systems designs that are informed by embodied perspectives on musical structure. Our previous work has centred on traditional tonal music forms as applied to spatialisation (via Emmerson’s space–frames and the embodied image schemas of Lakoff and Johnson). We’ve also developed some new ideas about how theories of electroacoustic music exhibit strong similarities to theories of embodied cognition. (Given electroacoustic/acousmatic music’s focus on environmental sound materials and immersive sound environments via spatialisation and other processes, this part seems intuitively obvious, right?)

But what’s really striking to us is just how closely some of the theories follow each other. Our latest paper, Electroacoustic Music as Embodied Cognitive Praxis (presented at EMS15, Sheffield) proposes that Denis Smalley’s theory of spectromorphology is a theory of embodied cognition. And that electroacoustic music, therefore, is ‘embodied–cognitive praxis’.

At a basic level, Smalley’s spectromorphology uses a language of gestures and (environmental–style) causality in discussing musical form. So it’s already (more than) halfway to embodied cognition. It also takes a variety of musical cases which are strikingly similar to Lakoff and Johnson’s image schemas: cycles, paths via vertical and horizontal trajectories, centre–periphery forms and balancing dynamics via combinations of gestures; we looked at a few key cases from Smalley and broke them down into image schemas. Where there are differences, we propose that Smalley’s spectromorphologies actually extend image schema theory.

spectromorphology and image schemas

A key plank of Smalley’s theory is that different types of gestures have different embodied–functional associations and, hence, causal dynamics. Based on this idea, we’ve outlined a number of specifically sounded schemas (based on common raw materials or audio processes in electroacoustic music) and their embodied associations.

  • Flocking/streaming…grouping and segregation (grow/integrate/dissolve)
  • Rupture/breaking/glitch (break/sudden change of state, foregrounded act)
  • Stretching (extension/sustaining tension, investigating limits of system)
  • Bouncing (equilibrium/balance schemas; bounce–back, echoes, decay, inertial effects, coming to rest…cue for new event entries)
  • Slow oscillation/breathing (cycle, balance; pace, tension/relaxation)
  • Dilation/diffusion–to–point source (expand/contract/coverage,density)

In this view, the embodied dynamics/associations are the generative imperatives and grammars which underpin electroacoustic/acousmatic music (and other similar timbre–based forms).

We then moved on to look at timbre itself, via a model of forces and gestural dynamics. We saw some striking parallels between many of Smalley’s basicgestural dimensions, his energy–motion profiles, and Johnson’s (2007) qualitative dimensions of movement.

qualitative dimensions of movement

This leaves us with a three–dimensional model of gestural dynamics: (1) tension, (2) projection and (3) linearity.  We sought to apply these dynamics to an embodied–cognitive theory of timbral ‘space’. We blended Patton’s (2007) theory of 3D spectromorphology–influenced notation with the classical 3D cognitive timbre–space proposed by Grey (1977). Combining these models with the gestural dynamics noted above gave us an outline of an embodied timbre–space which is organised around the qualitative dimensions of movement (see below). We hope to develop this theory in future work.


towards an embodied timbre space

This type of model provides a starting point for an embodied theory of timbral relations for a wide range of musical materials and functions (and may provide insights into how larger–scale musical form works for timbre–based cases). Also, the treatment of timbre on the basis of dimensions of movement may help us when considering how to mediate between performance gestures and musical/sonic structures in musical interaction design/HCI…music performance systems, DMIs (digital musical instruments), software interface, sonification, etc.

gesture timbre space

Our conclusions are as follows:

  • Spectromorphology is an implicit theory of embodied cognition and may be extended via the gestural dimensions and forces of image schema theory, providing insight into a broader range of musical/sonic forms and practices via these typologies.
  • Potential connections beyond composition: embodied timbre/gesture spaces may inform musical/sonic HCI, DMIs/NIMEs, sonification, and how we theorise sonic and digital arts practices.
  • Also, the embodied resonances of electroacoustic music (and related forms) make it a space for embodied–cognitive exploration (it’s embodied–cognitive praxis), potentially informing and extending theories of embodied cognition.

The slides from this paper are available on The full text of the paper will be available via the EMS proceedings site from October.

Selected references:

Adlington, R. (2003). Moving beyond motion: Metaphors for changing sound. Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 128(2), 297-318.
Blackburn, M. (2011). The Visual Sound-Shapes of Spectromorphology: an illustrative guide to composition. Organised Sound, 16(01), 5-13.
Brower, C. (2000).  A Cognitive Theory of Musical Meaning. Journal of Music Theory, 44,2, pp.323–379
Godøy, R. I. (2006). Gestural-Sonorous Objects: embodied extensions of Schaeffer’s conceptual apparatus. Organised Sound, 11(02), 149-157.
Graham, R., & Bridges, B. (2014). Gesture and Embodied Metaphor in Spatial Music Performance Systems Design. Proc. NIME 2014. Goldsmiths University of London.
Grey, J. M. (1977). Multidimensional perceptual scaling of musical timbres. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 61(5), 1270-1277.
Johnson, M. (2007).  The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Patton, K. (2007). Morphological notation for interactive electroacoustic music. Organised Sound, 12(02), 123-128.
Roddy, S., & Furlong, D. (2014). Embodied Aesthetics in Auditory Display. Organised Sound, 19(01), 70-77.
Wilkie, K., Holland, S. & Mulholland, P.  (2010). What Can the Language of Musicians Tell Us about Music Interaction Design? Computer Music Journal. Winter 2010, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 34–48

Embodied Thinking and Music (Part I)

Just as I’m starting my research leave, I’m taking a little while to think about embodied ideas as they impact upon music and how my thinking on this has developed over the last couple of years.

I first became interested in embodied and environmental perspectives through the work of Albert Bregman. His work on auditory scene analysis grouping/segregation principles helped me to understand how some of the microtonal and drone–based music I was most passionate about created such novel perceptual results. (Basically, such music often finds ways to ‘hack’ our auditory system’s ecological expectations, sometimes producing rich auditory illusions…for examples of music which functions in this way, check out the work of Glenn Branca, Phil Niblock and La Monte Young.)

So, this sparked an interest in environmental structures as key to the problems in perception and cognition I was interested in…the experience of microtonal music. During this process, I completed a PhD on perceptually–based approaches to microtonality. I began to investigate microtonality from the perspective of how an ecological–embodied framework may simplify the problem of perceiving complex microtonal materials which are sometimes thought of as exceeding the limits for ordered cognition due to limits in short–term memory element–capacity (McAdams, 1989).

Long story short, I proposed that ‘bottom–up’ ecological–embodied processes and models may help the cognition of these complex musical materials and conditions. Without getting into all of the details, I discussed some parallels between the cognitively–based tonal hierarchy models advanced by Krumhansl (1990) and Lerdahl (2001) and ecological–embodied forms.

At the most basic formal level, the cone–based hierarchical structure which Krumhansl found in subject testing and which Lerdahl used as the basis for his theories mirrors the structural divisions of the early harmonic series (see below).


Figure 1: Pitch–class divisions in Lerdahl’s (2001) basic space tonal hierarchy; Harmonic series intervals within first five octaves mapped to functional division

Following this idea on a little, this type of tonal hierarchy could be broken down into components using the embodied image schema theories of Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1999), bringing it into the realm of embodied cognition (i.e. applying embodied ideas to the structure and dynamics of thought processes). Brower (2001) and Johnson (2007) have done this previously in relation to common practice music, but I was more concerned about how this could work with microtonal materials and unusual textural cases.

TPS and embodied schemas 1

Figure 2: Ecological and embodied perspectives on a tonal hierarchy: embodied image schemas (cycles and verticality) and the harmonic series as an ecological–embodied structural division

In effect, this reads Lerdahl’s theories ‘against the grain’ as embodied–cognitive rather than more ‘traditional’ formalist cognitive theories. But, since he invokes the inverse square law of gravitation for his dynamic model of tonal attraction, he doesn’t seem to be completely averse to such a form of thinking!

Embodied_ecological tonal model

Figure 3: A unified ecological–embodied model of microtonality

This type of combination satisfied my concern for how to handle the unification of a variety of different microtonal and non–microtonal conditions whilst satisfying a requirement of comparative simplicity. (We essentially have one ecologically–based/embodied model, with minor contextual adaptations for different cases, providing a simple framework to structure the experience of these materials rather than making things more complex!)

However, in parallel to this, my collaborator Ricky Graham was also looking at Fred Lerdahl’s models from the perspective of interactive music systems design. Ricky’s problem was, essentially, how to create a performance system which took as its main input data the melodic contours, chords and rhythmic gestures of an electric guitar.  Ricky was using the tonal hierarchy structure and gravitational inverse–square law attractional dynamics  via a boids flocking algorithm to control spatialisation and other processing. Embodied image schemas weren’t yet explicitly in the frame, but as we sought to extend his PhD research, we found that some of the structuring dynamics which had applied to my microtonal work could be equally applied to the theorisation and extension of his performance system.

This is useful, as we’re seeking to find ways to integrate the figurative gestures of pitch contours with ‘direct’ physical performance gestures (e.g. those obtained via motion tracking or via individual event detection processes on an audio feed); see below for various ideas behind the system’s mappings:

tonal_spatial mappings 1

tonal_spatial mappings 2

musical gesture and embodied mappings

Figure 4 (a), (b), (c): tonal–spatial and gestural mappings

All of this brings us back to the the sense of embodied perspectives as providing unifying organisational frameworks to manage complexity (i.e., so complex materials can be perceived and be meaningful), which is probably the best way to encapsulate our current priorities in this work and also highlights its potential importance for the wider areas of musical systems design and creative practice.

This is not just of academic interest for me as a composer. The application of these ideas to creative practices spatial music and microtonal music will be personal priorities over the next while!

Selected references

Brower, C. (2000). A Cognitive Theory of Musical Meaning. Journal of Music Theory, 44(2), pp. 323–379.

Johnson, M. (2007). The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Krumhansl, C., 1990. Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Lerdahl, F., 2001. Tonal Pitch–Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McAdams, S., 1989. Psychological constraints on form–bearing dimensions in music. Contemporary Music Review 4(1),pp.181–198.

Our previous publications on this research can be found here.






Beijing, Spring 2015

I’m now in my second week in Beijing, settling in to my area at the southwestern edge of the 2nd Ring Road (we’ve found a small one-bedroom flat in a nice modern building) and starting to get my bearings in terms of geography, soundmarks and what to eat!

One thing I’ve noticed already is that we’re very lucky this year in terms of weather and pollution. Spring is already here, green shoots being noticeable straight after Chinese New Year. And we’ve had quite a few blue sky days (though not today); ‘Blue Velvet’ is playing in the café I’m in and I’m not feeling too much of the ‘Eraserhead’ vibe right now!

The nice thing about my area is that it’s a place of contrasts: large apartment buildings and expressways and overpasses coexist with warrens of backstreets with old-style single-storey courtyard houses and diverse back-alley eateries. Visually, what’s striking is the tangled silhouettes of wires and trees. I’m still not quite sure how I’ll respond creatively to the place, but the soundscape is so strikingly different and dense that it’s already inspiring at a very basic level of creative motivation!

Beijing seems sprawling at first, but at least we’re central and by a subway station; mastering the subway network makes a big difference for newbies like us; less time driving past swathes of similar-looking apartment blocks or office blocks to get where you’re going!

Beijing, near second ring road

New article: Divergence Press Issue 3: Spatial Sound, Creative Practice

Prof. Eric Lyon at Virginia Tech has edited a special issue of Divergence Press on spatial music, which has just been published online (free, open access) by the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM).

You can read the editorial for the issue here.

The issue has articles on sound installations, spatial music presentation spaces, artistic collaborations and techniques and theories.

It includes my own collaboration with Dr Ricky Graham at Stevens Institute of Technology, entitled ‘Strategies for Spatial Music Performance’. This article is part of our ongoing work on applying ideas and models from embodied cognition to a spatial music performance system (see also our NIME 2014 short paper/poster and our paper for Re–New Digital Arts Conference, Copenhagen, 2013). The new article is nicely summarised by the editor thus:

Ricky Graham and Brian Bridges explore spatial performance practice with a focus on spatial mappings and gestural narratives. Their detailed report on technical implementations will be of particular interest to musicians working to extend the boundaries of spatial sound performance.




This journal is flying the flag for open access, so please read and share; great to see such a cross–section of work, including one from fellow Spatial Music Collective member Augustine Leudar: An alternative approach to 3D audio recording and reproduction.