A(nother) definition of music


At last summer’s SMPC, I shared a quasi-interactive poster with my most current definition of music. The poster invited viewers to add examples or counter-examples of musical experiences via post-its to where ever it seemed spatially appropriate. Since then, the poster has been in the PhD office at NYU, and a couple more edges cases have been added. Still, the definition stands.

It goes as follows:

Music is a broadcast signal enabling sustained concurrent action.

My claim is that these six terms form a necessary condition for something to be perceived as music or musical. Perception here is relevant as our processing of sensory information adapts to extract useful information for sounds and signals, and the relevance of music and its various qualities are displayed in the structure of these perception strategies. But by using our perceptual processes to define music, the associated experiences might not all fall within with our culture’s delimitations on the concept.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 22.01.43

The attached poster does the work of explaining each of the terms and their relevance, but I’ll add an important challenge to the definitions.

“What about the wildebeests?”

This was asked by a fellow grad student, with a grin, but the question is reasonable. A herd of wildebeests running sounds and feels thunderous, any member of the herd would hear it as coming from it’s herd-mates, and this sound inspires a strong impulse to run too, an obvious instance of sustained concurrent action. So is the sound of a running herd music to a wildebeest ears? I would have to say maybe, conditioned on the two remaining terms: signal and enabling. For the sound to be a signal, it would have to transmit so kind of intentional herd-running, individual members falling into a special running style, with perhaps some extra regularity or heaviness to their gait. The enabling bit is a little more tricky. Music doesn’t determine action, instead, it gives us some well fitting options. For the sound of a running herd to enable a single wildebeest’s actions, said individual wildebeest should be able to resist the suggestion to join in and and have some choice as to how, if the suggestion is accepted. Having no familiarity with the running habits of ungulates of any kind, I can’t be more specific.

A similar human case came to mind recently when I crossed paths with #OrangeVest, a performance art piece by Georgia Lale about the ongoing Syrian Refugee crisis. A block of some twenty adults in orange life vests were marching slowly and silently through the streets of New York, with helpers around to shoo traffic and explain the action. In an instant, I recognized the deliberateness in their movements, their aura of stillness, and I felt the tug to step in line. But instead, I waited for them to pass and looked up the project later. If you feel inspired to lend some (more) support to the cause, consider donating to MOAS, Refugee Support Network, or your preferred means of distributing humanitarian aid.

Essays for performers: Perception, Action, Empathy


I’ve begun writing what I hope will be a regular series of short essays on performance and cognition, intended for non-neuroscience, non-music cognition readers. These should be treated as exercises rather than properly-formed treatments of issues dear to my heart. I don’t like writing, but I need the practice, and sharing is a good motivator for editing. Given those caveats, here is the first. Sorry for the second person.

Note: MOTL stands for More On That Later, signalling a topic I hope to return to another day.


Embodied perception, Mirror Neurons, and Empathy

Different parts of the brain are crucially involved in different cognitive functions. Sensory systems have key locations, auditory on the sides, vision in the back, and somatosensory arching between the ears. While thought doesn’t simply happen in discrete locations (MOTL), the sequences of neural activity (electric and chemical) that supports action, reaction, thought, and sensation concentrate in these areas, depending on what is going.

When we make an action, like when we say a word, the motor commands which run to the muscles in our face, throat, and abdomen are shadowed by efferent copies of the action to our sensory processing areas. The auditory cortex is readied to hear the acoustic consequences of speech, somatosensory cortex is prepared for our eventual lip and tongue positions (proprioception) and all the transient changes in how these sensitive areas are in tactile contact. Anticipated sensory consequences of our actions are then compared to inputs collected from our sensory organs such as the vibration of vocalisation through bone and acoustic reflections which reach our eardrums. Continue reading