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Long posting on perception / cognition


I am not a scientist, I am not a researcher, I am not well-read --
most of what I know is from personal reading, personal experience,
and teaching composition, electroacoustics, theory and ear-training,
mostly to older people (17 to 75).

Perception / cognition ... and issue of semantics?

Is perception possible without cognition?
Is cognition possible without perception?

I fear that the continued use of the undefined term 'music'
contributes to this psycholinguistic minefield. It appears that many
writers talk about 'music' without delimiting it and readers bring
their own experience and expectations to the table.

Does music need sound?

Does the composer work with cognition while the performer works with

At what I call the 'perceptual' level (which quickly crosses over to
what I call the cognitive level), I work somewhat as follows:

In electroacoustics classes (mostly the acousmatic model of
composition -- "sound design" to a more general population), my
experience is that much of my time is spent having students hear
"into" the sounds (ASA - segregation). Picking out the attack
transient of a note played on the piano, nearing the dominant formant
frequency of a sustained vowel, detecting reverberation within a
signal, noting subtle internal shifts of spectrum and amplitude.

In (music) ear-training classes (my approach is traditional because
of departmental needs), I work on skill development -- the ability to
generalize from specific items, for example to hear an ascending
minor third whether played on trombone or a piano; and the ability to
differentiate (categorize) from among similar elements, for example
to determine whether that is a flugelhorn or a cornet (ASA -
integration and segmentation).

For me, the 'cognitive' deals with the 'grouping together' of (types
of) perceptual elements -- "hearing" repetition(s), "hearing"
'transformation' (be it motivic or spectral), noting relationships,
patterns and parallels. In my experience, the (my use) 'cognitive' is
strongly tied to culture and learning -- how has the student been
taught (sic) to 'structure' the perceptions. It is possible to have a
student learn to identify a rounded binary form (even Sonata form
etc), through the presentation of models of composition.

For me, whether or not the student 'hears' (detects) the modulation,
or feels the function of the harmonic progression is a grey area
regarding cognition / perception, but I have addressed this in a
two-year ear-training sequence (sight-reading and dictation) which I
have written.

And similarly, the 'perceptual' cannot be 'taught'. It can be
'extended' to some kind of (natural <ug!>) limit. I cannot 'teach' a
person to hear a 1/16 semitone deviation (much less name it as such).
The methods I use help many come closer, or to get a glimpse into
this other (greater) perceptual world, but in my own experience, my
own pitch perception has moved little since I was under 10 years of
age. I have learned to give names to the perceptions, but the
'limits' have not moved very much.

My own musical cognitive deficit came from a severe lack of exposure
to (classical western) music until I was into my teens. I was not
aware of the existence of an "intellectual environment" until my
late-teens, but through much work I was able to make up some of this
'cognitive' deficit. My gift was a heightened perceptual capacity for

In orchestral timbers, my 'streaming' perceptual ability is very
good, being able to follow many individual lines and parts at the
same time in relatively dense orchestral textures; I have the ability
to pick out principal room resonances by listening to sounds in the
room -- making my ear 'scan' the spectrum, much the way my eye scans
a picture for details. I do not regard these capacities as being
'cognitive', they came with me at birth.

In my teaching I have developed a vocabulary that allows me to
'present as cognitive', that which I perceive as 'perceptual'. This
freely moving backwards and forwards between the domains is something
which for me characterizes the 'most successful' composers, be it
Bruckner, Hindemith or Stockhausen. In my experience, my most
'enjoyable' pieces are those where the composer or performer works in
both regions with ultimate freedom -- Fritz Reiner, Glenn Gould or
Pandit Kamalesh Maitra.

That's my 1.2 cents for now.

Spring and crocuses, and squirrels digging up tulip bulbs




Kevin Austin
Music / Electroacoustic Studies
Concordia University

Heard SONUS?