Mary Louise Serafine, Music As Cognition: The Development of Thought in Sound. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, 247 pp. £32.80. ISBN 0-231-05742-3.
The title Music As Cognition is meant to encapsulate Serafine's major thesis that "music" resides, not in some external form such as the score, the sounds, or even the sensation of the sounds, but in the world of cognitive constructs -- a mental world of thoughts concerning sounds and their relationships. This is a magnificently impressive book -- yet it is marred by several regrettable flaws. It is an important contribution to the field, but requires some careful winnowing of the grain from the chaff -- a task which exceeds the bounds of a single review.
Music As Cognition is centred about an impressive series of experiments designed to unravel various proposed dimensions of developmental change in musical understanding. These experiments are bounded by introductory and concluding chapters which attempt to make a much larger argument regarding the correctness of viewing music as a cognitive phenomenon. In the first instance, the experiments make abundantly clear that the manner in which the child comprehends music is very different from that of the adult. This fact Serafine supposes supports (in some mysterious way) a demonstration that music is cognitive. Let me say that I sympathise with Serafine's view, however, I fear that her purported demonstration is fuzzy at best.
The problem of "where" something like a musical work resides is a convoluted but not intractable issue. Consider the assertion that a "table" is neither a physical object nor a type of sensation, but is instead a cognitive or conceptual construct. The way in which such an assertion may be demonstrated is to show that the concept "table" is more stable than either the physical object or the sensation. Through experimentation it is possible to show that innumerable physical objects will elicit the concept "table"; similarly, innumerable sensations (such as arise from changes of visual perspective) will also always elicit the concept "table". What allows us to claim that "table" is a cognitive artifact rather than a class of physical objects or a class of sensations is the fact that the variability of the cognitive construct is much less than the variability of the physical or sensual constructs. Moreover, this is true whether we are speaking of individual subjects, or with regard to inter-subjective variability.
The demonstration that "music" is a cognitive or conceptual construct should take a similar form. We would like to show that although everyone in a concert hall receives a different sonic artifact (as any recording engineer will attest), and that everyone is receiving a different sensation (as any audiologist will attest) -- despite these variations, there is a common core or stable psychological experience which is elicited and which can be properly understood as "the music". This is not to say that every member of the audience will like the work, or even pay attention to it. Rather, we mean that there are some psychological constructs which are prior to these very high-level responses or interpretations. Examples of such constructs would be the closure of a musical phrase, or the recognition of a thwarted rhythmic expectation. It is the fear that individual listeners have completely different experiences that leads aesthetic philosophers like Nelson Goodman to insist that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony must reside in the notation rather than in people's minds.
Peculiarly, Serafine has demonstrated the precise opposite of what she needs in order to support the claim that music is cognitive. She has demonstrated that different people (age groups) comprehend "the music" quite differently. Goodman could point to this data as proof that the identity of the music cannot be cognitive, since there is not one cognitive Hammerklavier Sonata, but at least one for each age group. By contrast, there is only one notation (in Goodman's sense) -- and so surely (he would argue) the notation is the Hammerklavier Sonata.
In order to extricate herself from this problem. Serafine would need to introduce some sort of overt value judgement concerning different congitive modes or abilities. She would need to demonstrate that the child's (or the adult's) cognitive understanding of a work is deficient -- thus accounting for the observed variability in her subjects. The most obvious approach would be to claim that music cognition developes in the value-laden sense of becoming more musical. Serafine's work provides a lot of ammunition for such a claim, but she curiously stops short of making the argument explicit and so leaves her thesis hanging. The important point is that as long as psychologists go around showing how everyone's experience of music differs, formalists are perfectly justified in dismissing perception and cognition as responses to the music, rather than as the music itself.
It is perhaps helpful at this point to quote at length Serafine's definition of music. Music is an
"aural-cognitive activity -- that is, thought having to do with sounds -- and it excludes all such thinking that does not involve sounds. `Sound' here may be construed as including not only actual sounds in the physical environment but also mental images of sounds that occur internally -- that is, sounds occurring in the imagination ... and not merely represented there through some nonaural cue such as verbal pitch names, visualizations of music notation, or images of colors, spaces, or objects. In fact all such nonaural material is excluded from this definition of music, including items that may be about but not in music, such as the following: entertainments about musical characteristics that reach the level of verbal description (`The music sounds jagged'; `This sounds like such-and-so'); conscious awareness of the compositional or performance techniques of the piece; speculations about historical or biographical matters; verbal labellings of the progress of musical events (say, moving beyond felt changes in harmony to the exercise of labelling them after audition). Moreover, when words occur in the artwork itself, their consideration is excluded from the definition of music if it is their semantic meaning that is the focus of attention. (But words may be defined as music to the degree that it is their temporal and sound qualities that are entertained.)" [p.70]Serafine also excludes
"the spelling out of words with pitch names (e.g. B-A-C-H); the use of symbols (e.g. in the baroque period the descending chromatic line for death); the use of explicit representational devices (for painting thunder, cuckoos, or clock-tickings) ... [and] all reflections rooted in verbal or visual imagery (including musical emotional reflections)." [p.72]This definition of music eliminates quite a lot of human behaviour. It means that listener's who follow the lyrics, or the unfolding libretto of an opera are engaged in musically irrelevant behaviour; it means that sonic allusions such as perceiving a ritard as "slowing down" (Kronman and Sundberg, 1987) are spurious; it means that identifying the advent of a recapitulation in no way enhances a listener's musical comprehension; it means that the recognition of allusions or quotations to other works have no strictly musical import; and while musical preferences and tastes are certainly phenomena of a sort, they are not musical phenomena.
In essence, Serafine views music as a certain subset of pre-verbal conscious mental experiences. Serafine never explains why she wishes to exclude such a range of musical behaviours. But the unspoken reasons should be evident in light of our preceding discussion concerning minimising conceptual variability. Due to the enormous individual variability of phenomena such as the formation of musical preferences, Serafine wants to relegate such behaviours to the realm of musical responses (in agreement with Goodman). But it is certainly moot whether the non-affective behaviours listed above should not be deemed musically cognitive. Perhaps Serafine's view does do justice to music; but by assuming that these other behaviours are not cognitive, she may be doing a disservice to cognitive psychology.
Nor is it entirely clear that the affective dimension of human behaviour must be excluded from a definition of music. In principal, a listening machine could be constructed that would emulate all of the cognitive processes which Serafine proposes as elements of music. Moreover, the musical behaviour of such a machine would be guaranteed not to be confounded by affective responses. But many psychologists and humanists are apt to object to this view of music, since it presupposes that "music" can be segregated from meaning, signification, and affect.
Serafine takes special pains to distance her cognitive view of music from perceptual research in music.
"Searching vainly in the domain of pitch perception for an explanation of music is the result of falsely supposing that music belongs principally to the domain of sensation and perception rather than to the domain of cognition. To do this is to mis-categorise music with tea-blending and perfumery." [p.236]She blames music perception research for reducing music to false elements such as discrete pitches, scales and chords.
"I propose that isolated pitches, particularly as they appear in pitch perception studies, are ... not the elements or building blocks of music." [p.52]
"Scales and chords do not exist in music." [p.53]There is a welcome kernal of truth to Serafine's claims. It is true that psychoacoustic studies are perpetually in danger of reducing music to unrealistically primitive elements -- in the same way that the empirically-inspired studies of previous generations tended to reduce music to a spurious physicalist language. But Serafine's detailed criticisms of psychoacoustic and perceptual studies are frequently uninformed and occasionally wreckless. At the physiological level, Serafine claims that
"it is clear that the basilar membrane (or whatever structure) has exerted no appreciable influence on the way the world's music actually turned out." [p.59]To which one need only cite Plomp and Levelt's (1965) classic study linking tonal consonance to the critical band. Similarly, Serafine's portrayal of perceptual studies as obsessed with "isolated pitches" is little more than a caricature and straw argument. Apart from studies concerning absolute pitch, I can think of no musical perception experiment which uses "isolated pitches" as stimuli -- in the manner Serafine claims. In every experiment of which I am aware, these studies deal with the relationships between "isolated" pitches -- and hence address higher level issues such as those that relate to rhythm and tonality.
Serafine's eagerness to expose the "myth" of the discrete pitch, leads her to highly speculative claims with no empirical support. For example, Serafine claims that plainsong was originally continuous with respect to the pitch domain.
"... there was singing, and here I am thinking of chant, with fine gradations and fluctuations of pitch, `wavering' along the pitch spectrum, but no discrete, separated tones." [p.61]
"I hold, then, that in our early history musical style could not have been conceived in terms of discrete pitches. Instead, isolated pitches resulted from written notation." [pp.61-62]Her claim that pitch categories arose in Western music only with the advent of notation seems highly improbable: harps, horns, and other instruments which produce discrete or quasi-discrete pitches were in common use a thousand years or more before the advent of notation. Of course this fact in no way proves that medieval listeners perceived discrete pitches as such, but what would constitute evidence one way or the other? There exist innumerable non-Western musical cultures which appear to be based on the use of discrete pitch categories, yet are devoid of any notation. Serafine's claim would gain some credence were she to provide evidence showing that listeners in any one of these cultures do not perceive pitch categorically.
An unfortunate lacuna in this book lies in the citation to other literature. For a work which focuses on the developmental psychology of music, there is not a single reference to classic work by Helmut Moog (even a critical comment) and only token reference to more recent work. Nor is there a single reference to the Gestalt literature which inspired many of Serafine's cognitive categories. Nor is there any reference whatsoever to the extensive literature on auditory streaming in Serafine's discussion of the maintenance of auditory images [e.g. p.77]. The Bibliography is very telling compared to, say, that in Hargreaves The Developmental Psychology of Music. In short, Serafine has written this work in something of a scholarly vacuum. Such "hermitage research" is a common occurrence in interdisciplinary fields, but it does raise questions concerning the review process at Columbia University Press. Someone ought to have drawn to the author's attention the breadth of existing developmental research in music. Music As Cognition could have been considerably enriched by linking the author's work to the extant literature.
Other problems arise from Serafine's writing style. The tone of many passages is excessively polemical, and the language is often parochial. Even readers who are US citizens are apt to trip over such parochialisms as "the opening six tones of our national anthem" [p.75]. Such language is appropriate for newspapers, but not for a scholarly book addressed to an international readership. Again, difficulties of writing tone and style ought to have been ironed-out by the editorial process at Columbia UP.
These criticisms notwithstanding, Serafine's experiments are first-rate. The designs, controls, and analyses are carefully thought-out, and the results are stimulating -- occasionally thrilling -- and certainly worthy of further study. Some of the interpretations are obviously incautious, but Serafine convincingly suggests that it is better to err on the side of unidentified falsehoods rather than unidentified truths. No one can disagree with Serafine's stress on ecologically valid experimental contexts, or her warnings against construing the "elements" of music as sensual primitives. Despite its shortcomings, Music As Cognition is must reading for anyone involved in the psychology of music.
Goodman, N. (1968). The Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co.
Kronman, U. and Sundberg J. (1987). Is the musical ritard an allusion to physical motion? In: Alf Gabrielsson (Ed.), Action and Perception in Rhythm and Music. Stockholm: Royal Swedish Academy of Music.
Plomp, R. and Levelt, W. (1965). Tonal consonance and critical bandwidth. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 38, 548-560.