Experience and meaning in music performance

The Open University


Project summary


Entrainment Network

Entrainment in Congado




Andy McGuiness

Music and Mental Representation

Detailed project description

My project, provisionally titled Music and Mental Representation is a part of the major research project Experience and meaning in music performance, directed by Dr Martin Clayton. I recorded and interviewed rock bands and undertook some analysis of the interviews, but my thesis is mostly theoretical.

Multitrack recordings were undertaken utilising portable recording equipment, running Pro Tools software with Focusrite Octopre mic preamps, and a digidesign 002 interface (with a variety of microphones, headphone boxes etc).

Some timing data extraction was carried out in Praat, free software developed for phonetic analysis by Paul Boersma and David Weenink at the Institute of Phonetic Sciences of the University of Amsterdam (Boersma and Weenink 2005). I wrote a Praat script which finds attack times to within 0.5 millisecond, based on the steepest energy curve in the high frequencies close to the general attack time (which is found by rises and falls in a more smoothly averaged energy curve). It works for drums, and sometimes for guitar notes with a clear attack.

The bands I am focusing on generally involve noisy guitars and very active drummers, often with the drummer leading and controlling the beat. I sometimes use the term ‘posthardcore’ to describe what I like, but many bands are doubtful about accepting that term even when it has occasionally been applied to them in the music press. Another genre influence which is sometimes relevant is ‘math rock’.

Perception, action, ‘displaced’ action

The philosophy of music which I am currently developing begins with the phenomenology of perception: the following ideas are mine (in the sense that noone else should be blamed for them), although based in current theories of phenomenology, philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

Briefly, perception of any object depends on its transcendence beyond immediate sensation, its establishment as a concept. Constituting a perception is a process of temporal integration of sensorimotor data, and as such requires temporal integration of the subject doing the perceiving. Alva Noë (2004) argues strongly that perception consists in sensorimotor skills which can be defined as ‘conceptual’. Thus, normative perception can be seen largely as a process of habitual physical responses to sensory stimuli, rather like the habitus described by Pierre Bourdieu (1977).

The focus thus becomes action rather than simply perception. I am interested in the performance of music as a process of ‘self-regulation’, an idea which I got from Joel Swaine.

In phenomenological terms, as we learn to constitute objects and ourselves as subjects, we learn to control our actions objectively, that is, in terms of empirical space and the temporally stable objects within it. Self-regulation to produce (for example) a satisfying vocal tone while singing, is an instance of what I call ‘displaced action’ – action which is controlled no longer in terms of the external world, but in reference to one’s own body, with goals that relate (at least in the first instance) only to that body. Other examples of displaced action would include chewing and swallowing, and sensual and sexual activities. I will argue that displaced action provides an avenue for the escape from habitus, in particular via open loop actions (see below).

If perceptions are abstract and conceptual, it may be that qualia are simply those sensory inputs which are extra to the abstract perceptual category, for instance too fine-grained in difference (eg. of musical pitch, or shade of colour) to be differentiated by the currently applied categorical perception [the notion of qualia is subject to much debate in current philosophy of consciousness - this idea obviously needs more exploration to determine whether it has any validity]. Qualia might be the sum of all sensory inputs, whether included in the perception or not; or those not included in the perception; or some kind of relation between the two.

The important thing for my argument is that perceptual representation is grounded in nonconceptual content which is apprehended in terms of relational matching of magnitudes (such as durations in rhythm) through actual or simulated motor actions.

Layers of temporal integration in music

Since perception involves temporal integration of experience, how we deal with time in music is central to the topic. I will argue that – at least in music – there are two important levels of temporal integration. The lowest level I am concerned with is the tactus or beat level. The tactus period ranges around 500 milliseconds (from ~300 to ~1500 milliseconds, with the most comfortable beat period at about 600 milliseconds). Mari Jones’s and others’ work on attentional rhythmicities (Jones 1976; Jones 1985; Jones and Boltz 1989; Jones and Yee 1993; Large and Jones 1999; Drake, Jones et al. 2000) and the momentary phase coherence of cortical brain waves associated with the tactus beat (Snyder and Large 2005) seem to indicate that perceptions may occur rhythmically.

Open loop actions

‘Open loop’ simply refers to the control circuit for the kinds of actions this term specifices. A ‘closed loop’ action involves a circuit of action-feedback-corrected action – the feedback loop is closed. Open loop actions are those which, once planned and intitated, are completed without feedback. Typically, they are completed too fast for feedback – within the 500 millisecond frame required for corrective action based on sensory input – however the maximum possible duration of a single open loop action is unknown. Thus, open loop movement durations are of the same order as tactus periods. More investigation is required here, but it appears that open loop movements may be a way of creating fresh (musical) perceptions.

The temporal window of the psychological present

The exact nature of the experienced present, and in particular its thickness and whether it is some kind of sliding window, or rather discontinuous duration blocks, or overlapping duration blocks or none of these but the accumulated effect through time on neural networks of the brain - has been and is a much-debated topic. Without reviewing the issue here, I want to note the wealth of evidence for temporal segmentation to provide a window for planning and action of a few seconds. This window is sometimes referred to as the subjective present (Pöppel 1983; Seifert, Olk et al. 1995) or sometimes (although this is confusing, since William James’s term has never had a stable definition) the specious present (Turner and Pöppel 1988). This “mental island of activity distinctly separated from the temporally neighbouring ones” (Pöppel 1996) has been found to temporally structure: gelada monkey vocalisations (Richman 2000), friendly vocalizing among humans (Kowal, O'Connell et al. 1975; Pöppel 1988; Vollrath, Kazenwadel et al. 1992), coactive and alternating kinesic patterns of emotionally expressive behaviours of face and body in early mother-infant interaction (Dissanayake 2000), the duration of spontaneous intentional acts (Schleidt, Eibl-Eibesfeldt et al. 1987), and music, such as the insiraf rhythm of the music of the Maghreb (Pöppel 1983).

In music, the psychological present maps neatly onto the macroperiod in repetitive rhythmic music (such as Africa traditional drumming, funk, and other groove-based musics). There is evidence for motor planning at this level from the pattern of sequencing mistakes in piano-playing and in typing (Terzuolo and Viviani 1980; Palmer and van de Sande 1995; Palmer and Pfordresher 2003).
How considerations such as these can shed light on the experience of music, and how meaning is part of that experience, is the broad area of my research project.

Boersma, P. and D. Weenink (2005). Praat: doing phonetics by computer. http://www.praat.org/

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Dissanayake, E. (2000). Antecedents of the Temporal Arts in Early Mother-Infant Interaction. The Origins of Music. N. L. Wallin, B. Merker and S. Brown, eds. Cambridge, Massachusets, MIT Press.

Drake, C., M. R. Jones, et al. (2000). "The development of rhythmic attending in auditory sequences: attunement, referent period, focal attending." Cognition 77: 251-88.

Frith, S. (1996). Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music. Oxford, OUP.

Jones, M. R. (1976). "Time, Our Lost Dimension: Toward a New Theory of Perception, Attention, and Memory." Psychological Review 83(5): 325-55.

Jones, M. R. (1985). Structural organisation of Events in Time. Time, Mind, and Behavior. J. A. Michon, ed. Berline, Springer-Verlag.

Jones, M. R. and M. Boltz (1989). "Dynamic attending and responses to time." Psychological Review 96: 459-91.

Jones, M. R. and W. Yee (1993). Attending to auditory events: The role of temporal organization. Cognitive aspects of human audition. S. McAdams and E. Brigand, eds., Oxford University Press.

Kowal, S., D. O'Connell, et al. (1975). "Development of temporal patterning and vocal hesitations in spontaneous narratives." Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 4: 195-207.

Kristeva, J. (2002 [1984]). Revolution in Poetic Language. The Portable Kristeva. K. Oliver, ed. New York, Columbia University Press.

Large, E. W. and M. R. Jones (1999). "The Dynamics of Attending: How People Track Time-Varying Events." Psychological Review 106(1): 119-59.

Meyer, L. B. (1956). Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Noë, A. (2004). Action in Perception. Cambridge, The MIT Press.

Palmer, C. and C. van de Sande (1995). "Range of planning in skilled music performance." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 21: 947-62.

Palmer, C. and P. Q. Pfordresher (2003). "Incremental planning in sequence production." Psychological Review 110(4).

Pöppel, E. (1983). Musik-erleben und Zeit-struktur. Auge macht Bild - Ohr macht Klang - hirn macht Welt. E. H. Gombrich and H. Petsche, eds. Wien, cited in Seifert et al, 1995, Franz Deuticke.

Pöppel, E. (1988). Mindworks, Time and Conscious Experience. Boston, Harcourt Brace Jovanich; cited in Pöppel 1996.

Pöppel, E. (1996). Reconstruction of subjective time on the basis of hierarchically organized processing system. Time, Internal Clocks and Movement. M. A. Pastor and J. Artieda, eds. Amsterdam, Elsevier.

Richman, B. (2000). How Music fixed "Nonsense" into Significant Formulas: On Rhythm, Repetition, and Meaning. The Origins of Music. N. L. Wallin, B. Merker and S. Brown, eds. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press.

Schleidt, M., I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt, et al. (1987). "A universal constant in temporal segmentation of human short-term behaviour." Naturwissenschaften 74: 289-90; cited in Pöppel 1996.

Seifert, U., F. Olk, et al. (1995). "On Rhythm Perception: Theoretical Issues, Empirical Findings." Journal of New Music Research 24: 164-95.

Snyder, J. S. and E. W. Large (2005). "Gamma-band activity reflects the metric structure of rhythmic tone sequences." Cognitive Brain Research 24: 117-26.

Terzuolo, C. A. and P. Viviani (1980). "Determinants and characteristics of motor patterns used for typing." Neuroscience 5: 1085-103; cited in rosenbaum, 991.

Turner, F. and E. Pöppel (1988). Metered Poetry, the Brain, and Time. Beauty and the Brain: Biological Aspects of Aesthetics. I. Rentschler, B. Herzberger and D. Epstein, eds. Basel, Birkhäuser Verlag.

Turner, V. (1987). Social dramas in Brazilian Umbanda: The Dialectics of Meaning. The Anthropology of Performance. New York, PAJ Publications.

Vollrath, M., J. Kazenwadel, et al. (1992). "A universal constant in temporal segmentation of human speech." Naturwissenschaften 79: 479-80.