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.