This essay was written in the span of one week as the "Music Perception and Cognition" portion of my Ph.D. candidacy exam. Here is the question to which this essay responds:


The Significance of Music Perception and Cognition for Historical Musicology

As in many other areas of cognitive science, the basic scientific dilemma­­Do primitives think the way we do?­­has not lost its urgency. But the ways in which scholars think about this question have become much more sophisticated. Nowadays most investigators take for granted that the basic modes of perception and classification are the same everywhere, but that particular elements in the environment can affect how­­and the extent to which­­these processes develop. Thanks to research in this tradition, many instructive differences among individuals in diverse societies have been uncovered, even as the fundamental continuities in mental processes everywhere seem increasingly to be confirmed. Here is where future work is likely to proceed.

Howard Gardner, The Mind's New Science, 1985.


Introduction: Nature vs. nurture

The basic question to which this essay responds (slightly reformulated: Do modern listeners experience music in a manner akin to historical listeners of the same culture?) is conceptually related to a recurring theme in psychology, namely the so-called "nature-nurture question." What has a greater influence on shaping a person's behavior­­is it one's heredity (nature) or one's environment (nurture)? In the past, different camps within the psychological community have emphasized one at the expense of the other. The notorious behaviorist B. F. Skinner, for instance, believed that the conditioning effects of one's environment solely determined one's behavior, and that heredity had so significant effect. Biological determinists, on the other hand, believed that one's genes were one's destiny. If such were really the case, we could argue that, genetic variations notwithstanding, all people experience the world in essentially the same way, irrespective of cultural environment­­and the answer to our basic question posed above would be "yes." If, however, behaviorism were an accurate model, we could argue that the cultural variation evident across time and place precludes commonality of experience among peoples­­and the answer to our basic question would be "no." (Un?)Fortunately, the generally received wisdom at present is that both heredity and environment interact in complex ways to shape a person's development, and thus we are obliged to search for a more nuanced answer that will of necessity be equivocal to some degree. Along the way, various philosophical and methodological issues surrounding music cognition, ethnomusicology, and historical musicology will be brought to bear on our question.

Perception vs. cognition

The question to which this essay responds makes reference to "perception and cognition." It will be helpful at this point to define and distinguish these two terms. For the sake of discussion, we can informally define perception as the process of receiving external input to one of our five senses. By contrast, cognition might be defined simply as conscious thought, as that which takes place in the mind independently of external stimulus. These characterizations imply a dichotomy between passive perception on the one hand and active cognition on the other. This is to a certain degree a false dichotomy, however, since these two activities are not so easily separable. Certainly we can identify cases in which perception does occur independently of conscious thought, such as when a loud noise causes a reflexive startle response before we even know what is happening. Similarly, we can imagine situations in which cognition occurs in the absense of any perception whatsoever, such as when a person floating in a sensory deprivation chamber hums a few bars of Beethoven "in the mind's ear." But such scenarios are relatively rare in the realm of human experience; more commonly, the dividing line between perception and cognition is blurry.

For one thing, perceptual processes are far removed from the passive, objective processes of, say, a tape recorder or video camera. Rather, we actively select certain components of the incoming stimuli for increased attention, usually those components which are most likely to contain information that is useful to us. For example, we tend to focus on certain features of human faces rather than others to help us remember and distinguish among them; similarly, we tend to focus on certain features of melodies rather than others to aid in recalling and distinguishing among them. In short, in the majority of human experience, to perceive is to interpret. Thus perception necessarily involves cognition.

While it is clear that there is some qualitative difference between hearing a melody and thinking a melody, for instance, the two experiences would also seem to share some essential commonality. Brain scans show that the auditory cortex is active both when listening to music and when replaying music in the mind's ear.

There is much yet to learn in this field. At this point, the differences between perception and cognition are often difficult to tease apart. Even though important differences do exist between the two, nevertheless it helpful to regard them not as entirely separate entities but rather as two overlapping components of a coherent conceptual package.

The cultures of the ultimate generalist

A fruitful perspective on behavior that often yields valuable insights is the biological one. This perspective addresses questions, among many others, such as: what strategies for survival have various species adopted in the face of challenges posed by the environment? Some species find success through a high degree of specialization (e. g. animals that are highly skilled at capturing one kind of food source), whereas other species achieve success through generalization, the ability to flexibly adapt to a wide variety of circumstances. It can be argued that the human species is the ultimate generalist, enabled in no small part by its highly developed brain, which makes it arguably the dominant species the world over.

Different human groups respond to environmental challenges in different ways, but the relationship between environment and response is by no means a deterministic one. Other factors such as individual initiative and creativity as well as pure happenstance also play a role. Thus, in a brief thought experiment in which we place two identical human groups in two identical environments, at the end of, say, a thousand years, we would likely see many behavioral similarities but also many significant differences. One way to look at culture, then, is as the wide variety of responses of the ultimate generalist to survival challenges. This view does not restrict one to considering only material culture, as it might seem; a significant human survival advantage is our ability to coordinate social groups toward a common goal, carried out by means of, among other things, language, art, and religion (all activities requiring abstract thought).

Cultural distance across place and time and person

The discipline of ethnomusicology, which in theory has no limits on appropriate objects of study in terms of time or place, in practice tends to focus on non-Western cultures, or on the so-called folk cultures of Western nations, of the present day. In other words, ethnomusicologists, the vast majority of whom are from Western nations, study the music of cultures which are geographically and/or qualitatively distant from their own but which are not distant in time. By contrast, historical musicology (also carried out largely by representatives of Western nations) focuses on Western cultures of the past; the distance here is temporal­and the question of qualitative distance may be a subject for debate.

This notion of qualitative distance among cultures (or simply "cultural distance") seems to hold promise for the present discussion. It might be defined as the cumulative difference of experience, or lack of commonality of experience, between members of different cultures. In the case of ethnomusicology (and anthropology in general), it is easy to see how there might exist more or less cultural distance (i. e., less or more commonality of experience) between the researcher and the researched. In the case of historical musicology (and history in general), a similar situation obtains, but for a different reason: the passage of time. Cultures change over time, of course, so the same nominal culture of a hundred years ago will in fact be a different culture in the present day, just as a river was the same river ten minutes ago but is not actually the same river now because different water is flowing by. Temporal distance becomes a convenient approximation of cultural distance. It could be argued, however, that the passage of time produces less cultural distance than that produced by wholly separate cultural histories.

But this notion of cultural distance encounters difficulties, largely due to problems encountered by the concept of cultural membership itself as used above. Gerhard Kubik (1996) relates that

John Blacking used to warn students against that notion [of cultural membership], and I often heard him say that no one can ever be a member of a culture. More recently I have stressed in some of my own work that no individual is necessarily nailed down to one culture from birth to death, and I introduced the term "inner cultural reconfiguration" for describing what seems to be a constant process during an individual's life-span.

The point here is that a culture is comprised of individuals, each with different experiences and each constantly gaining new experiences, and so "a culture" can be conceived of as neither a homogeneous nor a static entity. The basic units of culture are not whole people groups but individuals at a given moment in time. A related problem crops up when considering cultural distance created by the passage of time: how much time must pass before a culture is no longer the same culture? Certainly less than a millenium and less than a century; probably less than a decade and maybe less than a year. But why not a month, a minute, a millisecond? There is no logical reason for stopping at any particular span of time. Certainly greater change occurs over a greater amount of time, but that does not alter the fact that a culture at any two instants in time is two different cultures. This last point might seem like philosophical hairsplitting that is contradicted by common sense, but in the end it doesn't really matter. The main point here is that the parallel questions­"Can we experience the world in the same way as a person from another culture?" and, "Can we experience the world in the same way as a person from our own culture in the past?"­boil down to one very basic question that can most meaningfully be asked on an individual basis: "Do we experience the world in the same way as any other person, and how do we know?"

Epistemology and cognition

The above question is a variation on some of the fundamental questions of epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge: What is the nature of knowledge? How do we come to have knowledge, and how are we justified in making claims of knowledge? While this is not the place for a full-blown discussion of epistemology, it should be noted that the burgeoning "science of the mind" (psychology, the study of cognition) witnessed in the 20th century ought to stand at the center of further epistemological work. There are those who would argue that epistemology should continue as a "pure" philosophy, one founded on logic alone and one not concerned with physical entities such as brains. Philosopher Alvin I. Goldman (1986: 4) argues against this position on a number of grounds: first, epistemology

is interested in inferences as processes of belief formation or belief revision, as sequences of psychological states. So psychological processes are certainly a point of concern, even in the matter of inference. Furthermore, additional psychological processes are of equal epistemic significance: processes of perception, memory, problem solving, and the like.

Why is epistemology interested in these processes? One reason is its interest in epistemic justification. The notion of justification is directed, principally, at beliefs. But evaluations of beliefs, I contend, derive from evaluations of belief-forming processes. Which processes are suitable cannot be certified by logic alone. Ultimately, justificational status depends (at least in part) on properties of our basic cognitive equipment. Hence, epistemology needs to examine this equipment, to see whether it satisfies standards of justifiedness.

Later Goldman (1986: 6) goes on to rally against the introspectionism of the past and in favor the methods of experimental psychology as developed up to the present.

In the realm of scientific and historical research, epistemological issues (justifications for knowledge claims) and methodological issues (how one goes about gaining knowledge) are closely linked. It is to a consideration of certain methodological issues as they relate to different disciplines that we now turn.

Methodology across disciplines

The most fundamental division in academia of the present day is between the sciences and the humanities. Broadly speaking, the sciences concerns themselves with understanding the natural world and the humanities concern themselves with understanding humans. There are certain disciplines which seem to have one foot on either side of the divide, disciplines such as (human) biology, psychology, and sociology which seek to understand humans as part of the natural world. Apart from the instrinsic pleasure of gaining understanding, the sciences also have a practical role in giving us a certain amount of control over the natural world, which (ideally) is applied to improving the quality of life. Similarly, the goal of the humanities (apart from the instrinsic pleasure of it) is a better understanding of humans in general and therefore of one's self­with the hope that such understanding can be applied to improving the quality of life. While these statements may seem a bit obvious and grandiose, they make the point that the fundamental aims of both the humanities and the sciences are essentially allied.

As it has happened, the sciences and the humanities have differed not only along topical lines but also along methodological lines. While exceptions can be found, the humanities have tended to feature "historiographic, semiotic, deconstructive, feminist, hermeneutical, and many other methods" whereas in the sciences, "the principal scholarly approaches include modeling and simulation, analysis-by-synthesis, correlational and experimental approaches" (Huron 1999).

Echoing Huron (1999), I believe that a researcher in any field has a responsibility to employ the potentially most effective methods in tackling the problem at hand and to explore new methods so as to make informed decisions in this regard. (I doubt that any scholar has ever intentionally chosen a poor methodology, so this last point about exploring new methods is especially important.) While in many cases the methods adopted by researchers in the humanities and sciences may in fact be the most appropriate ones for the tasks at hand, there need not be any necessasry methodological distinction between the two.

Generally speaking, a certain skepticism about the methodologies of the "other side of the aisle" can be observed. Here is a telling remark from historical musicologist Paul Merkley (1990: 184): "This [study of a single tonary manuscript] constitutes only a piece of the puzzle of the early history of chant, but one which brings us one step closer to the truth, something gradiose statistical studies cannot do." In this comment, Merkley is presumably reacting to a previous study or studies of tonary manuscripts which used quantitative methods. Without knowing the object(s) of his disfavor, we might infer that he is at least partially justified if the studies to which he refers amassed piles of descriptive statistics with negligible interpretive value. (Indeed studies of this nature early in the 20th century may have contributed to musicology's disenchantment with quantitative analysis in succeeding decades.) If, however, he is reacting against studies which make judicious use of inferential statistics (about which more will be said later), Merkley's implicit criticism seems unwarranted.

Although postmodernists would disagree, it appears that the aim of most researchers is to get "one step closer to the truth," to borrow Merkley's phrase. Most scientific and humanistic research pursues this aim by means of inductive reasoning, or the attempt to establish the truth of a general proposition by making observations of phenomena that are consistent with that proposition. This sounds intuitively reasonable, and indeed it is one of the main ways in which humans negotiate the world in day-to-day life. But from a formal methodological point of view, inductive reasoning encounters difficulties. As the 18th-century philosopher David Hume observed, no amount of observation can prove the truth of a general proposition, because one can never know whether additional observation might run counter to it (Huron 1999).

Among the attempts to deal with this problem of induction, that of Karl Popper (1935/1959) stands out as perhaps the most influential. He built his approach on the central notion that, while a proposition cannot be proven true by any amount of observation, it can certainly be proven false by a single falsifying observation. "Accordingly, Popper endeavored to explain the growth of knowledge as arising by trimming the tree of possible hypotheses using the pruning shears of falsification. Truth is what remains after the falsehoods have been trimmed away" (Huron 1999). While it has subsequently been shown that Popper's falsificationism encounters problems of its own and that it does entirely escape the trap set by the problem of induction in some of its details, his formulation has been influential in shaping the methods of scientific research. This is seen most clearly in the use of inferential statistics in experimental and correlational studies. Often the "punchline" of a statistical analysis of observed phenomena is a p value. Rather than expressing the probability that the hypothesis in question is true, the p value expresses the probability that a competing "null hypothesis" is true. For example, one might wish to test the hypothesis that "Balding men are more intelligent than non-balding men" by collecting the I. Q. test scores of a certain sample of men. In this case the null hypothesis would state that any observed differences in test scores are due to chance. If one derives a low p value by performing an appropriate statistical test, one can say that the null hypothesis is rejected and that one has gained some support for inferring the validity of the hypothesis (that intelligence is correlated with baldness). To state it another way, one has gathered evidence that is not inconsistent with the original hypothesis.

While both humanities and sciences use inductive reasoning, as mentioned above, clearly the "flavor" of research is often very different. Perhaps the main methodological difference between the two types of disciplines (as typically practiced) can be characterized as the difference between an informal and a formal system of inductive reasoning, respectively. However, a certain proportion of humanities scholars (which appears to have grown during recent years) have been attracted to the perceived rigor of the so-called "scientific method" (which will be called the "systematic method" from now on to avoid the disciplinary affiliation). But the problem of induction still lurks. "There is no getting away from it: inductive reasoning is commonplace, useful and problematic" (Huron n. d.). In response, Huron lobbies for the pursuit of "converging evidence" in music research (see esp. Huron n. d.) That is, a researcher should seek evidence pertaining to a particular question from a variety of methods, from a variety of types of data, from a variety of samples, and so on. Likewise one should seek converging evidence across disciplines, across cultures, and, if possible, across time. Such converging evidence, according to Huron, is the most persuasive evidence and is the most secure foundation upon which to build the pursuit of knowledge.

Having spoken in general terms about culture, epistemology, and methodology, it now behooves us to attempt some kind of answer to our basic question, and then to defend it. In the strictest sense, no, we cannot experience music in the same way as a historical listener from the same nominal culture­just as we cannot experience the world in exactly the same way as any other person. This statement makes the assumption that all past experiences condition, or have some influence on, present experiences, and since each person's configuration of past experiences is unique, no two people will experience any event in exactly the same way. However, this is not the same as saying that every person's experience is utterly different. I believe we can make provisional judgments concerning the degree of commonality of experience between ourselves and another person (an historical listener, for instance). The following sections address how we might go about making these judgments.

Innate cognitive features and musical universals

Because of the flexibility of the human species and the myriad of cultural responses which it enables, it is easy to lose sight of the fundamental cognitive features which all people share (barring any abnormal development before or after birth). True, we are more of a blank slate at birth than any other creature, with a vast capacity to learn and adapt. (Actually, a "filled slate" from which portions are erased may be a more apt metaphor, since neuronal death plays such an important role in the cognitive development of children.) But the structure of the brain itself and the way it operates place certain constraints on our cognitive capacity. The brain is incredibly flexible, but not infinitely so.

Humans are born with certain reflexes which are evident right at birth. Take the rooting reflex, for example: at the touch of a mother's breast on an infant's cheek, the infant will turn toward it to suckle. Similarly, the startle reflex in response to a loud sound can also be witnessed from birth. (Thankfully, the rooting reflex eventually recedes while the startle reflex does not.)

In addition to such overt, "hard-wired" features, people are also born with certain predispositions for patterns of thought. Since these are not directly observable, they must be inferred through a variety of means, the most important, perhaps, being controlled experiments. We may not understand the exact physical mechanisms in the brain whereby cognitive processes occur, but we may be able to infer that they are indeed taking place. Modelling is an important tool in deciphering brain activity just as it is in other fields. In particle physics, for example, the particles and forces of interest are far too small to actually see, but physicists devise and revise models of them that get better and better at explaining all the observational data. Brain scan techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) do allow researchers to peer directly into the brain, in a manner of speaking, but these techniques are still relatively crude and are just one line of evidence in an array of evidence that must be considered.

The search for "musical universals" has been a perennial theme in both ethnomusicology and music cognition. It has come to be recognized that this search should be grounded in innate perceptual and cognitive features (see e. g., Harwood 1976).

Judgments about commonality of (musical) experience, mentioned above, must undoubtely take account of innate cognitive features as well as the musical universals founded upon them. But these innate qualities (deriving from heredity or "nature," to hearken back to the introduction) are only a part of the picture; the environment ("nurture") shaping the thoughts and experiences of each person must also be taken into account, insofar as possible. Accordingly we now consider how one might learn about both innate and acquired mental behavior, focusing first of all on types of evidence or data that can be adduced, particularly in music research.

Types of data in ethnomusicological research

Ethnomusicology as a discipline grew out of anthropology and remains closely allied to it philosophically and methodologically. The types of data which an ethnomusicologist might obtain in pursuit of converging evidence concerning the musical experience of a particular culture are many and various. With regard to the people themselves, data might include direct behavioral observation, verbal reports, or interviews with the researcher. The people might be persuaded to act as participants in a controlled experiment. With regard to the music, the researcher might obtain sound or video recordings, or might make notational transcriptions of the music (from the recordings or from direct observation). The researcher might observe or collect samples of material culture such as musical instruments, and in some cases, musical notation or written documents concerning music. Finally, certain data types might be derived directly from the researcher herself (phenomenological data), from introspection while observing / listening to the music or from direct participation in a music event. (This so-called participant-observer method is pursued during the fieldwork of ambitious and dedicated ethnomusicologists.)

Types of data in music-historical research

Clearly the types of data available in music-historical research overlap to a certain extent with those in ethnomusicological research, but just as clearly the configuration of data types differs in important respects. The most obvious difference is the fact that the people who created the music of interest are no longer alive; there is possibility for neither fieldwork and informants and the like, nor recorded music (before the era of recording technology). (When studying music of the recent past, a situation in which composers or performers might very well be alive, disciplinary boundaries become fuzzy.) This is compensated for to some extent by the relatively large amount of material culture typically left behind by Western cultures as compared to many non-Western cultures. Musical instruments and pictures of musical instruments (iconography) often survive. But the two most important sources of data are notated musical works and written documents concerning music, especially theoretical treatises. Any sources that help to establish cultural context are also invaluable. Another source of insight that is easy to overlook is the phenomenological experience of the researcher himself.

It is possible in a limited sense to be a participant-observer by performing music from original notation and/or on original instruments, for instance, or by attempting to write archaic notation with period-appropriate materials (e. g. with parchment and quill pens).

Riches and poverty

Huron (1999) makes a distinction between fields of inquiry that are "data-rich" and "data-poor." Data-rich fields are those which have theoretically unlimited prospects for obtaining new data. Ethnomusicology would seem to be a data-rich field since more fieldwork is always an option (although the situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that the number of cultures in the world might be construed as shrinking, due to globalization, cultural assimiliation and extermination, and the like.) Data-poor fields are those in which all the pertinent data have already been generated, and no amount of additional effort will necessarily generate new data. Historical musicology would appear to be a data-poor field in this view. In some cases, much of the pertinent data has been destroyed by time, and musicologists are often forced to make interpretations based on scanty remains. In other cases, plenty of unmined material exists, but the fact remains that it is not being generated anew. (It might be argued that current musical events receding into the past are a constant source of new data­but not necessarily of the type desired by the researcher.)

One further data-type distinction made by Huron that is relevant here is the distinction between prospective and retrospective data. Prospective data is that which is yet to be gathered; retrospective data is that which is already in hand. Plenty of prospective data exists for the historical musicologist in the form of unstudied musical works.

The emic/etic distinction in ethnomusicology

A basic concept in anthropology, and which has featured prominently in ethnomusicology as well, is the so-called emic/etic distinction. Kenneth Pike (e .g. Pike 1967) first proposed this concept in an attempt to apply the phonemic/phonetic distinction in linguistics to human behavior in general. In linguistics, the phonemic/phonetic distinction arose out of the observation that speech sounds and speech sound categories are not necessarily the same thing. Listeners often consider two or more slightly different speech sounds (i. e., different phonetic sounds, easily differentiated through acoustic analysis) to be the same speech sound category (phoneme). For example, the first /p/ in paper is aspirated whereas the second is not (Harris 1976: 338); one could aspirate both or neither without changing paper into another word. Such categorizations take place in the mind of the listener, and are an example of categorical perception. What may be a phonemically insignificant phonetic difference in one language may be a phonemically significant difference in another.

The emic/etic distinction simply drops the 'phon' and extends the idea to all behavior. Kubik (1996: 5) encapsulates the concept nicely:

To study from an emic standpoint therefore means to analyse a system according to its own meaningful components. To study from an etic standpoint on the other hand means to analyse one or more systems comparatively with reference to an analytical framework of concepts created by the researcher and projected upon those systems.

Unfortunately this once simple distinction has gotten weighed down with additional conceptual baggage and has been the occasion for much debate (see e. g., Headland, Pike, and Harris 1990). Marvin Harris (1976: 329) would like to characterize the distinction as one between the behavior stream (etic)­"all the body motions and environmental effects produced by such motions, large and small, of all the human beings who have ever lived")­and mental life (emic)­"all the thoughts and feelings which we humans experienced within our minds." While Harris' usage differs from most others', it is a useful reminder of a point made earlier, that only behavior is directly observable and that mental life (cognition) must be inferred from it.

The emic/etic distinction has also gotten attached to the insider/outsider opposition, but many scholars reject this conflation of concepts, including Kubik (1996: 6-7):

The insider/outsider distinction focuses on the person of the observer or researcher and his share in the culture to be studied. The emic/etic distinction focuses upon standpoints, regardless of the kind of person involved . . . Etics/emics solely describes the angle from which an observer (any observer) operates in his or her studies at some juncture.

Kubik (1996: 7) goes on to say that

[d]ue to the universal learnability of culture any so-called outsider to any culture can eventually become an insider. Likewise an original insider might well cross cultural borders that first separated his small world from the larger outside world, until he or she eventually becomes an outsider to the culture into which he or she was first enculturated. In practice nobody is every 100% insider, and nobody is ever 100% outsider to anything that exists.

A living example of outsider-become-insider is ethnomusicologist John Baily, who became an insider in Afghan culture to the extent that his performances on the Herati dutar were accepted by native listeners as authentic (see Baily 1995).

Some have objected to the assumption that while emic meaning is necessarily culturally bound, etic meaning is somehow culturally neutral and universally valid (i. e., couched in the terms of "scientific" discourse). I would agree that no one can escape cultural boundedness, but at the same time I would reject the relativism espoused by the point of view that etics is simply the emics of the researcher (see Harris 1976). Events have an objective reality independent of anyone's apprehension of them; some apprehensions will be closer to reality than others (without necessarily being reality itself) and it is possible to determine which those are.

Jean-Jacques Nattiez weighs in on the emic/etic discussion and provides a useful framework for resolving the subjective-objective tension alluded to just above. The central feature of Nattiez's analytical model is the recognition of three levels of "discourse" which ought to be considered separately before being integrated: 1) the poietic level, the level dealing with the production of discourse; 2) the immanent or neutral level, which deals with the "trace," i. e., physical objects and properties (e. g., "the music itself"); and 3) the esthetic level, which addresses the reception of discourse (Nattiez 1990). Nattiez associates emic meaning with the poietic level and etic meaning with the esthetic level. This so far is not essentially different from other emic/etic models, but where Nattiez goes beyond them is in the insight that the discourse of the receivers (on the esthetic or etic level) should itself, in turn, be subject to analysis as a "metadiscourse" on the poietic/emic level. Thus, the discourse of scholarly research can be seen as having both emic and etic significance at the same time.

Nattiez's model also has significance for the question of musical universals, which was discussed earlier. In a review of Nattiez (1990), I wrote the following:

. . . both the musical object and the musicological discourse about it are symbolic facts that must be interpreted according to semiological principles. Even if traits of musical objects from two different cultures seem identical on the surface, they cannot be considered the same if the producers­necessarily, by virtue of their culturality­conceive of them differently. Likewise, two musical producers in different cultures may be striving for an identical goal, but with very different results. "Since etically similar phenomenacan be emically dissimilar, and etically distinct phenomena may result from the same emic categories, universals can no longer be sought at the level of immanent structures, but in more profound realities" (Nattiez 1990: 65). Those more profound realities are likely to be processes rather than structures, namely processes of production and perception (or poietic and esthetic processes) since these may be rooted in a psychology that is common to all humans (Veltman 1999).

This underscores the point made earlier that the search for musical universals ought to be grounded in the study of music cognition.

An approach in anthropology which has been specifically cultivated in order to draw out emic meaning is called ethnoscience or ethnosemantics (see Gardner 1985: 244ff). This approach seeks first and foremost to understand a system purely on its own terms. One of the more systematic methods of attempting this is called componential analysis, in which the terms of a conceptual system are laid out in a hierarchical grid such that each term can be identified by one and only one set of coordinates on the grid, and such that a term's relationship to other terms is displayed in a clear and parsimonious manner. Componential analyses have been performed successfully on kinship terms and color terms in various cultures, but less successfully on emotional terms and disease terms (Gardner 1985: 246-248).

To my knowledge, componential analysis as such has not been applied to musical terminology, but the ethnoscientific approach in general (which in ethnomusicology tends to be called ethnotheory) has achieved some notable successes. Hugo Zemp (1978, 1979) has elucidated an elaborate system of indigenous music-theoretic terms among the Are'are of the Solomon Islands. Steven Feld (1982) has discovered that the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea use a system of kinesthetic and emotional metaphors to speak about their music. And Hiromi Lorraine Sakata (1983) has illuminated the various categories of music and musician to be found in Afghanistan.

The emic/etic distinction in historical musicology

The emic/etic distinction functions in historical musicology as well, but not in the same self-conscious way as in ethnomusicology. The situation is a bit different on the surface of it, because witnesses to theoretical concepts come in written form, often as intentional, full-blown treatments of theory. Since this mode of discourse mirrors the researcher's pre-eminent mode of discourse, i. e., the literate one, it may be easy to overlook the cultural distance between the researcher and historical author in a way that would be more difficult to do with oral discourse. Most serious explications of historical treatises, however, make an honest attempt to deal with the concepts first of all on their own terms (emic analysis). For instance, it is generally understood that the original language of treatises should never be ignored, even when excellent translations have been made, since some loss of nuance is almost inevitable in the translation process. Many works also effect a transferral into the etic domain, that is, into concepts and terms concordant with the researcher's modern theoretical understanding. Some historical musicology dealing with theoretical treatises might benefit from a more conscious application of the emic/etic distinction so as to avoid overly quick flips between emic and etic domains.

The importance of facsimile editions of original notated sources of music is widely appreciated. These notated sources are, of course, an invaluable testimony to musical concepts and categories that were significant to the persons who produced them. Transcription of those sources into modern notation facilitates the thinking of the researcher since it brings the music into his or her mental comfort zone.

As alluded to above, certain participatory activities which a historical musicologist might engage in could be construed as an attempt to draw out emic meaning from past music cultures. Performing from original sources, performing on original instruments, and notating music with period-appropriate writing materials exemplify this approach.

Methods in the study of music perception and cognition

Perhaps the most critical method for gaining insight into music perception and cognition is the experimental method. Controlled experiments, when designed properly, allow one to hold many features of environmental stimulus steady while systematically varying some other element in order to assess its effect on subject response or performance. Experimental participants are typically not informed of the hypothesis of the reseacher, nor sometimes even of the feature(s) of interest. Rather than responding directly to questions about the feature of interest, participants are often asked to make judgments of "goodness of fit" or to rate a some variable feature on a scale from 1 to 7 or to perform some motor task.

The special opportunity of the experimental method comes from the fact that, due to the tightly controlled environment, direction of causality (rather than just correlation) can be inferred. This tightly controlled environment presents challenges of its own, however. The question may always legitimately be asked, How well does this experimental result transfer to the real world of everyday life? The concern expressed in this question is known as the problem of ecological validity. Experimental designs must make choices between the competing demands of control and ecological validity (Butler 1992 has a fine discussion of this point).

Converging evidence between music perception/cognition and historical music

An obvious problem for the experimental method from the point of view of music history is that one cannot recruit dead people to participate in experiments. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the cognition of historical people is completely out of reach, although certainly one must reach farther. As mentioned earlier, we cannot study the cognition of anyone directly, but we can infer things about cognition from observable behaviors. Historical disicplines are one step further removed in this respect: we have the physical traces of behaviors of historical persons from which we may, perhaps, infer certain things about their cognition. Conversely, things we can learn about the perceptual/cognitive systems of living people can help us interpret historical artifacts, i. e., notated musical works. An project exemplifying this type of research is Huron's work on deriving the rules of voice leading from perceptual principals (Huron, in press). This work shows that certain features of the music of the past has been shaped by an understanding of musical perception gained from experiments with modern-day subjects. The experimental method can help determine innate tendencies which can be extrapolated backward in time, on the assumption that people's perceptual and cognitive equipment has not changed significantly in the intervening period.

Current understanding of perception/cognition can be used to generate hypotheses concerning music of the past: "Since such and such has been observed about the way we hear music, we would expect the music of the past to exhibit these certain characteristics." In this sense, notated musical works can serve as prospective data for the researcher.

Notated musical works can also be considered part of the environmental stimuli experienced by the historical listener. Innate predispositions and environmental stimuli interact to form mental sets or cognitive schemas. Schemas are formed according to the music that one hears. A present-day person can listen to a similar repertoire as an historical person and form similar schemas. The schemas cannot be identical, however, firstly because an exact listening repertoire of the past cannot be reconstructed (only approximated), and secondly because a modern listener's schemas will have been conditioned by later musical styles that a historical listener would never have heard. (This is based on the assumption that continual adjustment and refinement of schemas occurs with each new listening experience.) Indeed, listening experiences between persons separated by time cannot be the same, but perhaps, on the basis of an array of converging evidence as discussed above, they might be judged similar enough that one is satisfied of sharing a certain level of commonality of experience.

The experience of music

In one sense music is "ineffable" (following Raffman 1988) because it operates in a non-verbal domain. Talking about music is, of course, not the same as experiencing it. There is more to music than the apprehension and appreciation of abstract structures; it operates in time and it interacts with one's perceptual/cognitive equipment. In short, one has to hear it to experience it.

Thus, despite music's presumed ineffability, it is not futile to attempt to model what happens in the mind during the process of listening to music. An important element in the modelling of musical experience is the notion of expectations (Meyer 1956) or "expectancies." As I wrote in Veltman (2001a):

Patterns of musical elements (e.g., rhythm, melody, harmony) inevitably create expectations as to how the pattern will or will not continue. Subsequently, the expectations may be fulfilled immediately, or fulfilled after a delay, or perhaps thwarted all together. In addition, something unexpected may happen. When musical patterns do not yield predictable outcomes, such patterns can be characterized as ambiguous or uncertain, and they lead to strong tensions and expectations of clarification. Our perceptual and cognitive systems are designed to glean useful information from the environment, useful in the sense of enhancing the survivability of the human organism. Clearly, the ability to predict future outcomes on the basis of past sensations is useful for survival. The human brain will give itself a positive emotional reward for successful predictions, perhaps a feeling of satisfaction, comfort, or rest. Conversely, negatively valenced emotions such as feelings of anxiety and apprehension attend situations in which the mind is unable to formulate predictions, or when such predictions as are formed are proven wrong. In both cases, the emotional "rewards" and "punishments" serve to motivate the individual to make successful predictions. 

Recommendations for future work


Baily, John. (1995). "Learning to perform as a research technique in ethnomusicology," in Lux oriente: Begegnungen der Kulturen in der Musikforschung­Festschrift Robert Gunther zum 65. Geburtstag, 331-347. Kassel: Bosse.

Butler, David. (1992). The Musician's Guide to Perception and Cognition. New York: Schirmer Books.

Feld, Steven. (1982). Sound and Sentiment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gardner, Howard. (1985). The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Goldman, Alvin I. (1986). Epistemology and Cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Harris, Marvin. (1976). "History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction," Annual Review of Anthropology 5: 329-350.

Harwood, Dane. (1976). "Universals in Music: A Perspective from Cognitive Psychology," Ethnomusicology 20/3: 521-533.

Headland, Thomas N.; Pike, Kenneth L.; and Harris, Marvin. (1990). Emics and etics: the insider/outsider debate. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Huron, David. (in press). "Tone and Voice: A Derivation of the Rules of Voice Leading from Perceptual Principals," Music Perception.

Huron, David. (n. d.) "Converging Evidence in Music Research." 5 Nov. 2001 <>.

Huron, David. (1999). "The New Empiricism: Systematic Musicology in a Postmodern Age," Lecture 3: Methodology of The 1999 Ernest Bloch Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley. 31 Oct. 2001 <>.

Kubik, Gerhard. (1996). "Emics and Etics: Theoretical Considerations," African Music 7/3: 3-10.

Merkley, Paul. (1990). "Tonaries, Differentiae, Termination Formulas, and the Reception of Chant," in Beyond the Moon: Festschrift Luther Dittmer, ed. Bryan Gillingham and Paul Merkley. Ottawa, Canada: The Institute of Mediaeval Music.

Meyer, Leonard. (1956). Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. (1990). Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music, trans. Carolyn Abbate. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pike, Kenneth L. (1967). Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structures of Human Behavior, 2nd ed. The Hague: Mouton.

Popper, Karl. (1934/1959). Logik der Forschung. Vienna: J. Springer, 1934. Trans. as The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1959.

Raffman, Dianna. (1988). "Toward a Cognitive Theory of Musical Ineffability," Review of Metaphysics 41/4: 685-706.

Sakata, Hiromi Lorraine. (1983). Music in the Mind: The Concepts of Music and Musician in Afghanistan. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press.

Solomon, Robert C. (1995). "Some Notes on Emotion, 'East and West'," Philosophy East & West 45/2: 171-202.

Veltman, Joshua J. (1999). Unpublished review of Nattiez (1990).

Zemp, Hugo. (1978). "Are'are Classification of Musical Types and Instruments," Ethnomusicology 22/1: 37-67.

Zemp, Hugo. (1979). "Aspects of Are'are Musical Theory," Ethnomusicology 23/1: 6-48.

Return to Research Index