An Overview of Cognition and Reference in Piano Playing - Takeshi Shoda

“The animal artists obviously enjoy what they are doing, but more significant, so it seems, is the evidence of their innate sense of order. The apes working for balance in the compositions they draw, the crow preferring organized patterns, the birds and mammals that make repeated attempts to achieve a clear tone are not what we might expect when we watch the casualness of the animals’ ordinary behavior – and yet there they are, these hints of an impulse to express some faint sense of organization and harmony. The effort is not long sustained but the impulse is there. The philosopher Suzanne K. Langer speaks of ‘this unconscious appreciation of form’ as being ‘the primitive root of all abstractions, the keynote of rationality, which lies deep in our pure animal experience.”

-Carrighar, Sally. Wild Heritage, pg. 231, 1965


Sally Carrighar in the book Wild Heritage describes the essence of a universal in music making. “To animals, painting, singing, and dancing show some signs at times of being moved by a similar, spontaneous impulse. It is true that the art they produce is simple and limited, but so too are the drawings, songs, and dances of very young children, and yet we recognize that a creative urge prompts them.” Parallel to other human levels of organization, human and animal music making significantly differ by the degree of active and conceptual complexity possible. “What is added by the adult human artist is self-discipline, the acceptance of drudgery in order to polish, correct, and perfect.” An aspect in common with both humans and animals is the ability to simply enjoy the musical and spontaneous processes leading to unknown results for the sake of the activity itself, something that might be lost in more strict musical training. The above excerpt is not an attempt so much to point out similarities or differences between animals and humans, but instead it expresses well what I find to be most wonderful in music making – a natural sense of freedom not often applicable or possible in other nonmusical activities.

I stumbled on the book by Sally Carrighar not in a music course, but in a basic chemistry course during my undergraduate studies. Sometimes I reconsider my musical training and wonder if too much emphasis was placed for many years on playing it ‘right’, ‘better’, ‘quicker’, etc. in accordance to tradition instead of naturally following my intuitive musical sense. As one of my students recently expressed a concern of playing the notes ‘right’, it was suggested to think in terms of degrees of accuracy rather than ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ since I found a similar way of thinking about practicing more enjoyable and more natural in the past. Beyond a basic understanding of “what” is meant by a composer in musical notation, it is not necessary to extend a two-valued outlook on what is essentially a naturally occurring phenomena, and a highly intuitive form of expression.


Music could be defined in a number of ways, but generally music is ordered sound produced in time. Sound by definition is provoked by energy vibrations passing through the medium air to a listener. Both a musician and a speaker order what needs to be communicated through the conventions drawn upon from previous experience and an intent during the present moment. Merle Lawrence describes a foreign language as “a jumble of noises until, after a little listening combined with some experience, meaning begins to emerge.” Musical systems differ from time and place, and, similar to an unknown language, what is more understandable to one individual centers on prior experience with similar musical material, or the same musical work heard at a different time and place. Although sound is universal as a naturally occurring event regardless of a listener’s previous experience and level of understanding, familiarity with systems of music depends on to what a listener and a performer was previously exposed.

Acoustics is “the science of the production, propagation, and perception of sound.” A listener physically senses sound as “mechanical vibrations or pressure oscillations,” via transmission through air particles (although other states of matter could provide transmission of sound, sound usually passes through air when we hear). The vibration energy of sound first passes through the ear canal, then through the eardrum and middle ear where small bones respond sympathetically to the sound vibrations. Finally, a spiral shaped receptor called the cochlea receives the vibrations. (The cochlea of the internal ear not only is the main sense organ for hearing, but also allows for a sense of balance in an individual). The cochlea converts, the sound energy into electrical nerve impulses. The auditory nerve then transmits the electrical impulses as code to the central nervous system – the brain. From the brain the mind constructs an interpretation of what was perceived as sound by a response.


The perception of tonal music responds with the expectation of relationships between prior and subsequent occurrences of tones and harmonies. These expectations rely on key centers in tonal music. Psychological theories of music define musical structures by way of comparison, including “grammars analogous to linguistic grammars; hierarchical representations of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic patterns; and spatial representations of tone, chord, and key structure.” The human brain, from a neurological perspective, is divided into two halves, each specialized in function but working together as a single unit. “The left hemisphere appears to subserve analytic processing, and the right, processing of holistic features of music.” Justine Sergent, in a 1995 study, illustrates a commonality between both language and music as well as differentiates general aspects of both. Both music and speech “are used expressively and receptively; both involve fine sequential motor activity for their production; both are constructed of perceptually discrete sounds that can be represented in a writing system.” Music, instead of pointing to specific objects or ideas of reference, suggests nonobjective feelings or biological emotion patterns. Psychologist Robert Frances from tests dealing with musical perception in 1958 claimed music can validly refer to extramusical objects and ideas. Frances’ classification of how music is evaluated by preferences of taste, technical or objective evaluations of musical properties in a specific work or performance, etc. furthermore suggests efforts to interpret meaning as a possible stimuli for extra musical reference. Frances’ study observed in some cases that music could motivate extramusical relations drawn from personal experiences through either emotional empathy or image association. Relations to “a specific aspect of nature, phenomena in the outside world, or dramatic situation”, or a relation to abstract or psychological traits, such as “happiness, playfulness, serenity” etc. or general representations, such as “order, disorder, hierarchy”, etc. were also described.

Implications in the above are not necessarily related directly to the conscious act of music making. Although the above could provide some insight regarding objective processes involved in music making, music by nature meaningfully occurs at the level of a conscious effort to express, understand, entertain, etc. Instrumental music is not in quality referential as linguistic definitions are, and if a composer indicates in a title or through a marking in a score an extramusical reference, the marking usually is presented in few words. In turn, the brevity of many remarks in a score allow for more interpretation on the part of the performer. When reference indications are marked by way of a title, descriptive remarks throughout a score, etc. more liberties seem present as a musical work is not bound by meaningful definitions but by convention. Listeners more likely subject music to a higher degree of interpretation than a means for clear understanding of what was meant by what was said when linguistic communication. Morgan Lloyd in 1973 describes instinctive or intuitive procedures as “part-and a not unimportant part-of the raw material on which intelligence exercises its influence, fashioning and molding it, and guiding the activities concerned to finer issues in individual adaptation.”


Awareness of intuitive activity, especially in music making “affords the data to consciousness for the perfecting or the modification of the activity and the formation of instinct habits-that is to say, acquired modifications of congenital responses,” might be one reason why speaking of a musical activity itself reaches a limit in speaking of the actual activity itself. That is, the practice of music making after a point in essence is a nonverbal activity that does not develop through verbal analysis or explanation, and only a small amount of the process can be described. After accurately gaining a sense of musical notation, musical development seems reliant on the acceptance of how the nonverbal process turns out. Children reveal how processes of learning most naturally play out, and how they can bring fresh perspectives to older learners when learning through imitation.

When attention fixes on a passable result, imitative movements less consciously become a foci for consideration according to Morgan. Similarities in like musical styles, or other compositions of a single composer, also could seem less foreign, although a probable chance for deviation from traditional interpretations more likely ensue if one lacks exposure to traditional realizations. Although addressing whether a more or less immediate response would provide more immediate results for a performance event is a valid performance question, it would seem less relevant when speaking of the process and wonder of musical experimentation. Uniquely being shaped by different experiences, a developing musician can integrate selective experiences from the past, while still retaining freedom and spontaneity.