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I teach in Oregon City and online videochat. I work with all ages and levels and a variety of styles. I specialize in creative exploration, the psychology of music, and conscious music practices. Visit the lessons page to learn more.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Framework for Studying Human Experience


I've always felt in-touch with both holistic and analytical ways of seeing the world. Breaking things down into distinct parts can be a valuable way to make sense of reality. But human cognition does not have the capacity to deal with great numbers of broken parts all at once — let alone the capacity to recognize how the parts could fit back together again. Sometimes, we need to step back and try to take in the whole picture. When we then return to analyze separate parts, we may not be able to comprehend all the connections, but we can at least try to keep context in mind while looking at any particular item.

I have always been interested in music, but as a student, I was uncomfortable with the degree to which music study seemed divorced from broader context. In the years since finishing my Bachelor of Music, I've grappled with cross-disciplinary questions that led me to study physics, biology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, and other fields. I can't claim expertise in these areas, but I've learned a lot. And through my studies, I have gained insights into music which seem more profound and valuable than the things I learned in my music courses.

Recently, I've been considering a return to academia, but I've struggled with choosing the right direction. I now recognize that there are many angles to get at the same questions, and I want to be sure that any program I pursue has a good perspective on how different fields of inquiry fit together.

One of my main concerns is the apparently persistent divide between science and humanities. I appreciate much of what I've seen at conferences and such, but I often feel that the bias for certain angles of study is greater than what would be expected just because people have their particular specialties. Humanities folks (a group which includes the majority of music-related researchers) seem to make everything about culture. Of course, there have been countless debates about universals versus cultural differences, debates about different approaches to scholarly inquiry, debates about nature versus nurture, and so on. There is enough material for scholars to make entire careers out of just studying the history of these debates as a meta-topic. Trying to make sense of all of this, I've developed my own framework to address the different angles of inquiry, and that's what I going to describe here.

My interdisciplinary framework

The deep questions most of us have are basically about understanding the nature of our own experience. We will never be able to know or explain everything, of course. But while our abstract models are imperfect, they may still be useful.

The figure to the right is a diagram of an intellectual framework which I find useful for contextualizing understanding, research, and experience. I don't think any element here is overall more or less important than the others. To reasonably explain any of our experiences, all these levels need to all be acknowledged.
The figure represents a hierarchy of unidirectional restrictions. We live in the inner circle and only experience the outer levels indirectly. We necessarily experience and understand physics through our subjective and culturally-influenced perspectives. Yet while culture influences physicists, culture cannot alter the basic physical laws of the universe. Physical reality imposes absolute restrictions on the possibilities within all the lower levels, not vice versa.

Some clarifications about the terminology in this figure:
  • "Psychology" is meant to refer to common human psychological properties, not necessarily every subject within the academic field of psychology.
  • "Innate personality" is outside of culture because this framework is for describing an individual's subjective experiences. Cultures as a whole have arguably larger scope than personalities, but the innate aspects of one's personality are not defined by culture. There are biologically-determined congenital traits which have notable influence. Again, this influence is unidirectional. Considering only hereditary personality traits, we can acknowledge that these affect the way we relate to our surrounding culture, but culture cannot change our genes. (Well, in principle, it is possible for cultures to influence genetics by influencing who pairs up to become parents, and maybe cultural factors influence hormones and gene activation/deactivation, especially in today's world with medical hormone treatments and with chemicals polluting drinking water and so on…).
  • "Habitus" is a term from sociology which refers to something like an individual's dispositions which come from surrounding cultural influences. I intend here a slightly broader interpretation which acknowledges that one's dispositions are influenced by all of one's particular life experiences.
  • Finally, "mood" generally refers to temporary subjective mental state, but I am considering this level as including all aspects of short-term situational context that impact our subjective experiences.
  • "Subjective events" is the level of immediate conscious experience.
The problem I see with the humanities in academia is that it lives primarily at the cultural level and so develops cultural theories for experiences that may be more defined by the other factors. I usually find entirely-cultural explanations unsatisfying. Cultural theorists may assume that outside factors are a given and need not be mentioned, but unless these factors are actively considered, we risk attributing things to culture that don't make sense; or we might ignore profound influences that may be more relevant to explaining a given experience; or we may color our own perspectives by over-emphasizing the cultural elements.

On the other hand, I understand some of why culture gets so much focus (aside from being truly interesting). In our diverse globalized world, it is relatively easy to notice when someone is being ethnocentric. And the the answer to ethnocentrism is to give respectful attention to cultural differences. The fact that we can recognize ethnocentrism is actually evidence of substantial universal human biological and psychological similarities. It is because of common human factors that we have capacity to empathize with those in other cultures, and it is through such empathy that we come to recognize our cultural biases. It is harder to recognize our species-centrism because we don't communicate as well with other creatures, and we have less in common, so it is more difficult to relate our experiences.

Overall, I don't want to diminish cultural concerns. On the contrary, I think culture studies are strengthened by clarifying the boundaries of what is and isn't cultural.

Similar issues occur when physicists and mathematicians reduce human experience to measurable physical phenomena. There is a long history of prescriptive theories that try to make the world fit nice, clean mathematical formulas. Yet even when nuance and deviation are acknowledged, descriptions of physical states are still not the same as descriptions of subjective experience.

Consider the classical philosophical question: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, this question simply highlights a linguistic/semantic problem with the word "sound." If "sound" refers to the outer physical level of my framework, i.e. certain types of waves in air, then yes, hypothetical falling trees make physical waves in the hypothetical surrounding air. If "sound" refers to the biological level, i.e. our perceptual experience, then no, a perceptual experience does not occur if nobody is there to have it. So the question turns out to be mundane instead of profound (we can make this even more mundane by pointing out in any hypothetical situation, the person positing the situation could simply decide anything they want about what is true in their imagined fantasy world). We could instead ask an actually profound question: if someone is there to hear the tree fall, how will they react? What will they experience overall? To answer those questions, we have to work our way through the rest of the levels of my framework.

If we word our questions better, with full respect to all these levels of inquiry, we can go about finding useful and insightful answers. Otherwise, we risk fooling ourselves into thinking that things are simpler or are more complex or more ineffable than they really are. I propose that all our claims, theories, and hypotheses be clarified as to where they fit within my framework. Effort should be made consider all the levels because we may make mistakes or miss important insights if our focus is too narrow.

The framework applied to the study of music


The physics of music includes sound waves and their behavior in various physical contexts. This is a deep field of research which impacts the design of acoustic spaces, musical instruments, recording devices, electronic amplification, and so on. It includes topics such as the harmonic series, inharmonicity, wave propogation and interaction, and more. The majority of the information stored in analog or digital audio recordings is basically a description of physical phenomena.

In the teaching and study of music, physics should be a foundation. Starting on day one with new music students, I teach the most basic physical concepts: A string with more mass vibrates at a slower rate. More tension increases vibration speed. Concurrent vibrations interact and can cause interference patterns (i.e. beats). Once a student understands these things, they have a framework for examining their observations as they learn. They can recognize that duplicate tones on stringed instruments aren't due to an arbitrary cultural decision but are an inevitable feature of physics (once we have more than one string and the capacity to shorten the vibrating portion or change tension). The function of frets makes sense when understood physically, but the position of frets is not defined by physics. Fret position is due to lower factors.

More complex physical concepts in music include combination tones, resonance, formants, the nature of distortion, nyquist limits in audio recording, and fourier transforms. Musicians don't need to fully understand all these things, but recognizing their existence is valuable. There are certainly times when these elements are relevant to one's actual experience working with music.


The nature of life itself is a fundamental topic in understanding our experiences. We live in a biological context with all our living systems interactions: food, disease, reproduction, biological development, death, and so on. The biological factors most relevant to music include the structures of our ears and the other relevant physical and neurological make-up of the human body when engaged with music-making.

There is an area of study sometimes called biomusicology which engages with cross-species and other biological topics. How does birdsong relate to human music? Do other primates exhibit musical qualities? Is music an inherent part of human biology or a cultural invention built on biological foundations that are not themselves strictly musical?

While these are interesting questions, the vast majority of all musically-relevant aspects of biology are those we study to gain insights into psychology. Perhaps one day someone will show that certain combinations of harmonic vibrations have an effect on cell health or something, but that's tangential to actually studying music. To reiterate the purpose of the framework: proper study of psychology requires some understanding of biology. Thankfully, psychologists today usually acknowledge the significance of broader biological contexts (unlike some researchers on the other side of the science/humanities divide).


Essentially, music is entirely psychological. Physical qualities of sounds and patterns identified in musical forms must be perceptible and psychologically meaningful to be considered aspects of music itself.

Of course, the holistic experience of those engaged in music includes the broader context. Imperceptible aspects of the physics of sound can be relevant for making, manipulating, and studying musical tools of all sorts. And musicians who study these things will likely have a different mindset during their experience of music. Believing (accurately or not) that there is a physical pattern in a piece of music will affect one's experience even if the (supposed) pattern is not actually perceptible.

For the most part, psychological research — especially the statistical quantitative sort — emphasizes generalizations about the human species or subgroups. For practical reasons, most research is strongly biased toward the study of college students in developed countries. Researchers have their own personal and cultural biases as well. Regardless of these practical concerns, the ideal goal in psychology is to explain the nature of the human psyche generally.

Music is remarkable for integrating an exceptionally disparate variety of psychological features. Most sub-fields of psychology are easily tied to music. Music has strong connections with language, motor movement, social relationships, emotion, expression, expectation, pattern perception, time flow, arousal, memory, and more. With so many elements involved in music, different people and contexts may emphasize very different aspects.

In my framework, "psychology" represents a level for general principles of human perception and cognition. For example, there are limits to human working memory which limit our processing of long and/or complex musical phrases. Our auditory system works in certain ways which define our ability to resolve pitch perception issues. There are gestalt principles which explain much of the groupings we conceive in music. Statistical learning explains much of how we develop of schemas for different musical genres. These are universal factors for all normal people.

Furthermore, it seems that various musics have emotional and expressive qualities that are universally perceptible to some degree. This is similar to facial expressions which are known to have a biological basis and be mostly universal (even congenitally blind people make the same universal facial expressions when feeling the same emotions). I think music has similar qualities. For example, there is a certain attitude within blues music that both transcends the blues but also lacks any other adequate description in words. Of course, the cultural context in which the blues evolved was largely responsible for the form of the music as well as the attitude, and the attitude itself impacted the musical choices. But just as anyone from any culture can watch a blues guitarist's face and identify the feeling to some extent, I believe the same occurs when the listener closes their eyes and listens to the sound of the music. Likewise, upon first hearing a flamenco singer, any person would recognize the raw emotion and passion of the style. At a more basic level, fast, high-density music is universally more arousing than slow ambient music. And universal perceptive and cognitive factors cause us all to process acoustic events similarly enough that we agree about which music is fast and which is slow.

The universal features of music are not adequate to fully define how people will interpret specific music — we must account for the inner levels of the framework, and these are far from universal. But while the cultural contexts of any music must be understood, the manner in which people become enculturated is itself governed by universal human psychology. Still, of the potentially universal features of psychology that have musical relevance, few are utilized by all musical styles. But this lack of universal use of features is not evidence against universal perception. There are universal psychological features in music which cross cultural boundaries and which must be acknowledged for a complete understanding of the phenomenon of music. It is not my purpose here to describe which features are universal but only to clarify that the issue exists.

Innate Personality

We are all a complex product of genetics interacting with the world. Our genes are engaged and disengaged in various ways in early development based on prenatal hormones from our mothers and further developmental factors. While we have much in common with other humans, we have a range of differing personalities.

Although our real-world personalities are greatly influenced by our surrounding culture, we have innate temperaments that culture cannot overcome. This is profoundly shown in twins who have common traits even after substantially different life experiences. In all cultures, there are some people who are more reserved and others who are more outgoing. Some people are curious and creative, while others are more conservative.

The most widely accepted psychological model for personality traits is the Five Factor Model: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (and some argue for a sixth main trait of Honesty-Humility). Like my framework, such a model is a simplification, but as long as we keep that in mind, we can use such models to help with comprehending and considering our personality differences.

In his 2006 book Making Comics, Scott McCloud introduced a new framework specifically for artistic personalities. I find McCloud's ideas extraordinarily compelling, and I would like to one day create a thorough analog of his work applied to the medium of music. For now, here is a summary of his artistic personality framework:

Art Life
Tradition Classicism Animism
Revolution Formalism Iconoclasm

McCloud describes the classicist as focused on aesthetic beauty, perfection, and craft; while the animist is focused on the story and meaning. Formalists are curious about the medium itself, how it works, its limits, and its potential. Iconoclasts question and critique things and care about authenticity, truth, and real life.

There is meaning to this quadrant layout as well. The left side emphasize art, while the right side emphasizes life. The upper quadrants celebrate tradition, while the lower ones engage in revolution. The opposing diagonals contrast beauty (classicist) versus truth (iconoclast) and form (formalist) versus content (animist).

Obviously, McCloud and I are both formalists — otherwise we would not be so interested in analyzing these things and writing about them. But regardless of one's tendencies, everyone has the capacity to recognize the values of all of these perspectives, and most of us are a complex combination. Broad cultures may celebrate certain perspectives over others, but there are probably innate tendencies within each of us that lead us towards these different attitudes. These diverse individuals generally find their way to sympathetic subcultures within their larger communities even when their immediate family or initial cultural surroundings are different.

The application to music is obvious: classical academies teach careful technique and precision, while folk and popular musicians emphasize expression, story telling, worship, and so on. Some formalist theorists and composers really question the way music itself is put together. And postmodern critics question the others' perspectives, emphasize the broader context, and express concerns about bias and discrimination.

I think each of us also have innate dispositions for other particular attitudes and emotions. Given the partially-universal elements of music expression within human psychology, there may be individual factors that draw us to certain musics over others. Even within a given culture, some people simply prefer more boisterous music, while others prefer more subdued music. Of course, most of us have wide-ranging tastes and appreciate different music in different contexts — which is an issue for further down the framework.

Obviously, innate traits are not enough to limit people to a certain box. Where one ends up is greatly affected by all the lower levels in my framework. Still, I suspect that I would be relatively creative and questioning compared to my peers even if I had grown up in a completely different culture. On the other hand, I am reasonably moderate overall (I come out pretty balanced on all personality tests I've taken), so external factors surely have pushed me in different directions. I believe we all have innate tendencies which connect to these generalized models, but we also have innate traits that are too subtle and nuanced to fit any simplistic abstraction.


So we exist within the limitations imposed by the physical world, our basic biology, and common human psychology. Individuals with varying personality traits then live together within the social constructs of various cultures. By putting culture at this level in the framework, we can acknowledge the common pressures that shape all cultures without making assumptions about specific universals.

Although cultural issues can be brought up in relation to nearly any topic from any field of inquiry, most cultural study is done within the field of cultural anthropology. Although there are systematic and cross-cultural comparative studies, the main focus of cultural anthropology is on describing the particular behaviors and beliefs of specific communities. Of course, the complex history of each culture is acknowledged along with its influences and interactions with other cultures.

The study of music in cultural context is called ethnomusicology. In many respects, the field can be seen as anthropology that focuses on musical aspects of cultures. Different cultures have distinct ideas about what music is and isn't, what music's place in everyday life is, how to learn music, who gets to participate in what ways in music, what the purposes of music are, and much more. Identifying these things and exploring their ramifications is a large part of most ethnomusicological research.

There is also an historic tendency to lump in with ethnomusicology any sort of study of so-called "world music" (i.e. music outside of the Western art music tradition or mainstream Western pop music). There is great variation among the world's music including different tuning systems, different rhythmic structures, different sorts musical instruments and ensembles, and so on. These differences are intertwined with broader cultural values, but some differences are arguably arbitrary.

The majority of music has certain general features that are governed by general human psychology, as described above. The idea of variations on a theme is a common feature in much of the world's music, for example. But the starting themes as well as the ways in which they are varied are anything but universal.

Everyone becomes enculturated in connection with particular musical idioms which greatly affect our beliefs about music and which develop our familiarity with certain sounds and musical structures. We also learn to associate different musics with our own culture, with different subcultures, or with foreign cultures. Some scholars assert that these associations are the primary significance of music — that the emotional and psychophysiological experience of music participation has its essential meaning in connecting people with a particular cultural worldview. I find this idea to be an overemphasis of this one level of my framework, but the connection of music to cultural identity is undeniably significant for most people.

There is, of course, much more to say about musical cultures, and vast libraries of publications exist on the topic.


Habitus is a sociology term that means basically habits of thought. Each of us have dispositions that we acquire through life experiences. Many scholars use this term to emphasize the impact of culture on our individual dispositions. So for some, "habitus" is a primarily cultural issue. But I want to be broader and acknowledge that individual dispositions vary within a culture. Cultural factors exist which create common elements in our dispositions, but each of us have differing individual life experiences. Our experiences may vary along an undefined continuum based on our particular families, friends, and other circumstances, or we may be impacted by particularly anomolous life experiences such as a traumatic car crash. Within the contexts of the outer framework levels, our particular life experiences shape us further.

In music, our habitus is shaped by the particular music we listen to, concerts we've attended, formal music training, associations of music with events in our lives (particularly during adolescence, as documented by numerous studies), and, of course, our overall musical culture. In the modern world, we are used to hearing specific recordings and specific types of recordings. Listeners are able to identify musical styles from mere milliseconds of recorded music. Trained musicians develop analytical listening approaches as well as associations between hearing music and playing their instrument.

Though the term is not used, much of the writing in popular music books is actually focused on habitus. There are countless biographies of famous composers or popular songwriters, and a common element of these writings is the relation of peculiar experiences and life contexts to the music that these people create. A songwriter expresses through song his anger at being abandoned by his father. A composer challenges the status quo in formal harmony in connection with her political views influenced by events of the time. A virtuoso instrumentalist plays to honor the master teacher with whom he trained for many years. I have a "bio" link above to an older website in which I tell a story of my own musical experiences and how I developed to have my current habitus and personal identity as a musician, scholar, and teacher.


At any given time we may feel tired, hungry, excited, depressed, peaceful… Psychologists distinguish between emotion as discrete temporary reactions to specific events and mood as an overall state on a slightly longer time frame. Whereas I may feel emotional listening to the chorus of a song, I have an overall mood at the time of attending the concert. My mood will greatly influence my emotions, of course. If I am feeling irritable and distracted, I am unlikely to be as receptive to certain elements of music. If I am in a thoughtful mood, I will analyze the music more than when I am in other moods.

Although the outer levels of my framework influence the overall way we are affected by various contexts, particular aspects of a given event will impact our mood. A concert experience is greatly influenced by factors such as who we are with, the particular lighting, experiences just prior to the concert, and our physiological states. The experience of the music itself can then alter our moods as well, thus impacting the way we experience later music in the same concert.

Subjective experiences

The only direct experience we ever have is raw consciousness. The contents of consciousness include thoughts and sensations. Broadly, thoughts include all forms of images whether language (which itself is usually a mix of sound images and kinesthetic images — images of the muscle movements were we to speak the sounds) or visual images or other forms. Sensations include pressure, pain, heat, sound, light, proprioception, and so on.

Patterns of thought create concepts by which we organize our conscious experience. We have labels, predictions, memories, and so on. Through mindfulness meditation, people can learn to somewhat drop the concepts and notice only the raw thoughts and sensations. Most of the time, our expectations, labels, and other thoughts distract us. We find our attention focused on the stories in our thoughts that give meaning to our experience. Usually, we are not even aware of this process. We get lost in thought without the meta-cognitive awareness of it happening.

Music may influence us in even subconscious ways (and we have some ways to study that), but I think we can interrogate most of music through conscious experience. I doubt that a person under general anesthesia has any music experience.

We can experience music as a sound image in our minds with no external stimuli. We can hear sound recordings. We can produce music through singing, playing instruments, and dancing. Whatever the details, we will have our moment-to-moment experience of the musical events. The emotional, cognitive, and body experiences are the combination of everything at all the levels of my framework all leading to what is here right now in our consciousness.


If our goal is to understand our experiences as fully as we can, we must acknowledge the entire context. My conceptual framework is a practical guideline for the multiple layers of reality to be considered. Because any level contains an infinite depth of details, it is easy to get absorbed in a limited focus. But even when specializing in one level or another, we may recognize the limitations of our scope by stepping back and seeing how it fits in the bigger picture.

Music is one of the most multifaceted and least defined areas of human life. Because of this, there are extremely wide-ranging opinions about it. There are profound music-related studies to be found at every level in my framework. During a musical experience, the physical sound arrives at our ears and is processed by our biological perceptual system. Our cognitive processing then analyzes the sound into various patterns which create expectations, cultural associations, a perception of emotional expression, induction of our own emotional reactions, memories, and more.

As a teacher, I try to respect all these elements at the many levels. I can use this framework to acknowledge my own context and the context of my students in their process of learning and development. Also, by explicitly discussing the issues and assumptions within each part of my framework, I help my students to break out of their own biases and relate to other situations, other individuals, other cultures, and to think critically about their own experiences and learning process.

I hope others find this framework useful. Please feel free to contact me or add comments if you have any questions or feedback. Thanks for reading!


  1. I saw you on another blog lecturing david lowery about finding a new way to make money as a musician. you said:

    "I happen to be a musician younger than you who did not live as much of my life in the pre-internet economy. But I am old enough to have known what it was like. Over many years, I adjusted my perspectives from trying to be defensive like you and wanting to be able to make a career the way you have to now wanting to figure out how to develop a new economic model where my income as a musician doesn’t rely on artificial scarcity and reduction of access and sharing. I’ve come to realize how bad artificial scarcity is for society. I do not believe that the ends justify the means. It is selfish of me to want a successful income as a musician if I do so in a way that is otherwise a detrminent to a free society. I think I’ve figured out a better system actually, and it is not at all maoist. I’ll be announcing my new funding institution sometime in the next several months."

    Just wondering when that announcement is coming?

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Funny that you posted this as a comment om this particular article which is not related at all. You could have just e-mailed me or posted on my copyright article. Anyway, the project is question is a major undertaking and still far from public announcement. However, we are recruiting particularly sympathetic people who are interested in being involved. You could e-mail me to learn more, and you could actually visit the site at and post a message there with some way to contact you. You'll need to get a private invitation to actually see the not-yet-public parts of the site. Please leave the comments right here for discussion about this particular essay. Cheers.

  3. There's a serious problem with the above analysis: that we even know what "Physics" really is conclusively (which one would have to have in order to set up this hierarchy), or specifically how it relates to the causality of neurology as opposed to the action of "Mind" as a distinct phenomenon. Making the assertion that everything is subsumed by "physical" is really saying that everything CAN be reduced into its component parts; but that doesn't work on most things of relevance as when you break them from their 'wholes' they cease to act in tandem with the larger system or phenonmenon that made that whole what it was. Everything must really be understood in the context of "Mind" first, because that's what's actually doing the perceiving, crudely put; is not to assert "Physics" as such, simply a reinstatement of Newtonian ways of seeing the world that have been disproven for well over 100 years in the realm of hard physics, or were never even philosophically grounded to begin with? If not, why not?

  4. Thanks for the thoughts, Matthew!

    You're getting into debates about essentialism and emergent properties, dualism, and a bunch of related things. Those can be interesting discussions but aren't really needed for this framework.

    Basically, this framework makes zero claims about *knowledge* of physics objectively. It says, as a framework, that we assume the existence of a basic physical world in which everything else works. There is no mind if there is no physical world in which a brain exists that does the thinking. We do not need to jump to concluding that we can know anything outside the mind. We do not need to even conclude about emergent properties of the mind. The framework only says that everything we experience is necessarily within the constraints of the physical universe.

    Anyway, to subsume everything within the physical universe does not mean necessarily that we can reduce everything to components. Certainly, we know we cannot *practically* reduce everything, in that human minds are incapable of conceiving of the totality of everything let alone the reduction of everything to components.

    Anyway, I am no expert in hard physics, but I do know this much: a lot of other non-experts have ran with metaphors they heard physicists say about observation and perception. The ideas that we generate the physical universe through observing it etc. are not ideas that any expert physicist claims to be literally true the way that some non-experts like to imagine. Of course, we live in the universe, so it is *impossible* to observe anything without the act of observing affecting the universe just as all acts we take have impacts.

    Anyway, the *utility* of the framework here is to focus on the fact that we are *subjective* observers from within the broader scope of things. It is perfectly useful to consider the framework as starting from the inside out, focusing on your immediate experience first and building our studies out from there.