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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review: Musical Cognition by Henkjan Honing

Musical Cognition: A Science of Listening is a short, concise book for popular readers that describes University of Amsterdam professor Henkjan Honing's particular views of music. This review is of the 2011 English translation recently published by Transaction Publishers.

With only 160 brief pages, this is a relatively quick read. The book is more like a long pamphlet introducing basic ideas but not getting deep. The writing style is very accessible and clean, with no technical jargon, notation, or traditional music theory. The 15 short chapters have clear internal breaks and section headings, so it is very easy to digest this in tiny chunks, which is something I appreciate in any book, whether popular or technical.

The introductory content does a superb job of clarifying music as a cognitive process:
  • Music is not language. There are parallels and shared features between music and language, but they are quite distinct. Emotional prosody, shown most strongly in infant-directed-speech, show musical as well as linguistic properties. Yet attempts to find language-like syntax in music are misguided. Music is not restricted by semantics or strict lexicons. Music can be more or less surprising or stylistic, it can be more or less accessible, but music does not have rules of grammar that can be truly violated the way we have in language.
  • Music is not sound. Music is a subjective experience within a listener's mind. We can ignore claims about mathematical properties and other structures that supposedly exist in music as a external object. Music is about perception and cognition. If we don't perceive a structure in any regard, then it is not in the music. [In this regard, of course, music and language are the same!]
  • People are innately musical, whether or not they have any formal training, any performance skills, or any ability to explain anything about music. The act of listening to and enjoying music requires cognitive abilities that are remarkable and complex yet are present in basically all normal human beings.
Honing addresses the subject of music's evolution, arguing that music is an exaptation: it does not serve a necessary survival function, but is built on independent adaptive functions and has now taken on its own purposes in human life. We can see music as an exceptionally rich cognitive and social game — a game powerful enough to strongly influence our moods, emotions, and identities.

I appreciate Honing's approach overall. He attacks the relativism and postmodern anti-scientific attitudes that pervade musicology these days. He uses the music/food analogy (see my post), pointing out that music notation is like a recipe — it doesn't itself provide nourishment.

Honing also points out the relative nature of music. Absolute pitch or timing is not as important as the relationships between pitches and events. Just as we can still enjoy watching a TV show on different screens that have different color settings, we recognize and appreciate music even when played through fuzzy speakers or when pitches or timing are slightly different. On the other hand, we recognize and respond to subtle deviations in pitch and timing within the overall context. I disagree with Honing in his dismissal of the issues of tuning and temperament, but I agree with the focus on perception and cognition over purely mathematical theorizing. Pitch is not a matter of just math, it is a matter of cognition and human experience.

Unfortunately, the only specific music cognition subject covered in in this book with any depth is rhythm — specifically the particular subjects of Honing's main research: beat-induction, timing, and syncopation. Other topics, when discussed at all, are glossed over without a lot more depth than I'm providing in this review.

Honing uses the shave-and-a-haircut rhythm cliche to discuss syncopation (click here for the book's online supplement with audio). Initially he says, regarding the feeling of syncopation in the pause, "no matter how hard you try, you can't hear it any other way." This leads me to try, of course, and I can succeed at hearing it in other ways. If I consciously focus on the rhythm in a triple meter instead of duple, then there is no syncopation. Honing actually acknowledges and explains this himself a few pages later, but then why have the misleading incorrect initial comment? Furthermore (unacknowledged by Honing), it is possible, even with duple meter, to reduce the feeling of syncopation by simply de-emphasizing the note just before the pause and treating it more as a minor echo connected to the strong previous note, instead of as a lead-in to the pause. Of course, my points here fully support Honing's main emphasis that musical experience is all in the mind.

A later chapter discusses how perceived and performed rhythmic timing varies greatly from mechanical exactness. Though not stated as such, the shave-and-a-haircut audio on the website is a perfect demonstration of awkward mechanical timing. I find it to be jarring how even the timing is in that example.

For some reason, Honing seems almost antagonistic about the evidence of non-human beat induction found by Patel et al in Snowball the dancing cockatoo. While acknowledging their results, Honing makes a point of sewing as much doubt as he can about the study. His prior belief that he does not want to give up is that beat induction is uniquely human. Regardless of the validity (the studies appear well-controlled and valid to me), there is no reason why human-uniqueness would have any impact on the significance of music. So humans and parrots both can feel the beat... hmm, very interesting. That certainly doesn't take anything away from my musical experience!

On the other hand, Honing has no hesitation to jump to bold conclusions from his own research on beat induction in newborn babies. I think there is a good chance his conclusions are correct, but his studies are arguably less controlled than Patel's. From what I can tell, Honing did not control for tempos, irregular timing, different sounds, or a number of other factors. His EEG study shows evidence of surprise in babies when a bass drum sound is missing from "beat one" in a rock beat. Maybe the surprise would not happen if the sound occurred a little earlier or late (instead of missing entirely). Maybe a change in sound would elicit surprise as well. Maybe a totally irregular rhythm (no steady beat) that still had events at a certain average frequency would elicit the same surprise when a longer than normal pause between events occurred. Honing's stimuli did not include missing of the bass drum sound at any other points in the beat, so we can't conclude that the babies felt beat "one" as most salient versus beat three or the upbeat after beat three. I expect that Honing is right that newborns have full beat induction, but his limited research is far from conclusive.

Overall, I am in full agreement with Honing about the value of studying cognitive universals in music. Music exists in the mind and so is, in principle, a subject entirely contained within the field of psychology (though worthwhile research is, of course, not at all limited to the controlled psychology lab). However, Honing's emphasis on music as the act of listening, active as listening truly is, betrays some cultural bias for the Western concept of music. Honing would have a sense of steady beat that gives rise to beat induction as fundamental to music (acknowledging that a good beat deviates quite a lot from precise even timing). This denies those musical traditions that do not utilize a steady pulse. Also, Honing shows serious Western bias in his unqualified suggestion that harmonic progressions are fundamental in identifying songs. In this and other ways, cognitive music researchers too often are culturally-biased in how they devise their hypotheses, studies, and conclusions. But this is not the fault of music cognition as a field. I expect Honing and all his colleagues graciously welcome insights from cross-cultural perspectives, as long as they respect the idea of scientific inquiry and music as cognitive experience.

It is exciting to be witnessing a cognitive revolution in the field of music, and Honing is one of the figures at the forefront. Each new book and research publication helps get closer to a new understanding of music free from the constraints of traditional assumptions about notation or talent or culture. I want to recommend Musical Cognition because I want more people to accept this overall viewpoint. However, I'm not sure that it is worth rereading much. It is a bit overpriced given the minimal content. It is something like a long position paper, worth reading once, maybe getting from the library...

1 comment:

  1. I guess I'm on roughly the same grounds as him, in particular rejecting theories that deal with music as an external object. Looks like I'll be picking up this book soon; it's already on my list of to-reads, haha.

    Thanks for the review!