LED And The Analysis Of Musical Perception

As the funded phase of LED winds to its conclusion, we must all of us be thinking just a little about the overarching purpose and purport of the project. Has it been principally an exercise in Digital Humanities: of collection, transfer and the collation of interesting information ? If so, it must be considered mainly in the light of providing an aid to research for other scholars to employ in their own work. Or if there another heuristic effort going on? As we gather together accounts of listening in many times and places, are we in the long run endeavouring to uncover something about the very act of listening itself, its slow evolution over the course of history, and the various ways in which it may be interpreted ?

These thoughts were brought into focus last week when I attended the Second International Conference on Music and Consciousness at the Faculty of Music in Oxford. Among the organisers were a couple of scholars who have thought hard and long about the nature of listening: Eric Clarke is Professor at Oxford and author of Ways of Listening (OUP, 2005), and Ruth Herbert, who did a spell as lecturer at the OU, heads the faculty’s Experiencing Music Project and in 2011 published with Ashgate the book Everyday Music Listening : Absorption, Dissociation and Trancing Listening. Having a teenage daughter of her own, she is especially interested in the listening habits of young people, to whom she has made available a multi-authored blog where respondents may post their own records of hearing everything from Amy Winehouse to Beethoven.

Music psychology is a developing, and quite fashionable, field much concerned with a subject of much significance to ourselves: just how various kinds of music are perceived, partly by the performer, but vitally also by the listener. Over the last few years it has developed its own vocabulary: concepts of “flow”, of “groove”, of “trance” and of “entrainment”. Quite a lot of these ideas are especially relevant to ways in which we experience repetitive music in which patterns – particularly rhythmic patterns – recur in close proximity. Little wonder then that a preponderance of the papers last week were devoted to twentieth- and twenty-first century popular music: to disco beat, click track, or repetitive drumming. Since one declared purpose of the event was to bring neuroscientists into dialogue with musicologists, such examples had the advantage that their effects on the mind are comparatively easy to test in laboratory conditions. A second advantage from the point of view of the speakers was that such attention-seizing forms of expression are very amenable to pithy illustration in the lecture room. Take, for example, the topical application of a fairly established idea. “Entrainment” is what occurs when two pendulum clocks (or two metronomes) occupying the same physical space gradually adjust to one another’s pace, so that after a while they are both swinging at the same speed and in the same direction. As an approach to listening, entrainment applies to an equivalent process whereby one is drawn into the momentum of a piece of music. This seems to me to be a salient idea when applied to much of the music of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries, as well as to modern pop music and some of the more regular kinds of jazz. But Webern, Harrison Birtwistle? Very little was said at the conference about ways of listening to the Second Viennese school, let along the rest of the avant-garde. A s a result, a nagging reservation lurked in my mind concerning the circular nature of this particular academic discourse. If attractive examples are adduced to illustrate selected high profile ideas, is there not a danger of the theories predetermining the nature of the observation? In a question session following one presentation, a member of the audience sought to apply notions of trance and flow to seventeenth-century passacaglia . We may be “entrained” by a piece of minimalist Philip Glass, so can the same be said of “Dido’s Lament”? And what of a Bach fugue where the repetitions lie in different voices and at contrasted layers of pitch?

It is in the zone such questions that I begin to sense one possibility of collaboration. Our own listening database is historically conceived and organ ized, as the proceedings of this particular conference were not. There were, for example, only three or four papers that addressed themselves specifically to what was variously, and sometimes nervously, referred to as “classical” or “western art” music. The Oxford event was understandable engrossed with the here and now: the immediacy and contemporary relevance of music. An essential next step is apply the ideas thus generated to a diversity of contexts and periods. As it develops, our database arguably falls in with this design. We cannot, of course, place seventeenth-century listeners in the lab, but we can read what they said and wrote at the time and interpret it in the light of empirical approaches that have since emerged. LED, after all, is a lab of sorts: an extended and verbally based one that conducts its experiments across time. We are the researches and the lab assistants. We cannot sit our historical witnesses in the open maw of an fMRI scanner and measure their cerebral responses, but we can sift the testimonies of the dead and gone for evidence of the kinds of reactions currently observed by such means.

Is this a forlorn hope? Much was made at this gathering of recent speculations about the extended nature of the mind beyond the individual brain to embrace and utilize the environment beyond it, as if the whole of external reality constituted some gigantic mental space. Could not an equivalent approach be taken to the stretches of history, subjecting the archival evidence that we have painstakingly collected in our own endeavours to a cogent, and scientifically informed, empirical framework?

There may be dangers in this, if the result is simply to subordinate the past to the present. We do not react to the music of any period in the same ways in which our forebears did: indeed, the differences that lie between them and ourselves is likely to be of the very nature of the inquiry. Another term banded about in Oxford – not least by Eric Clarke - was that of “empathy”. Music at its best, he remarked, empathises with us: it shares our sorrows, which is maybe why, as Henna-Rikka Peltola abd Kai Tuuri of the University of Jyvaskylia in Finland observed, we are persistently attracted to sad music. Correspondingly, there is a need for us to apply psychological, and even neuro-scientific, discoveries of recent inception to written records of past musical experience, with a respectful instinct for difference blended with intelligent fellow feeling. We are only at the outset of this energizing task.