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Teaching Cognitive Science and the Arts III
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Cynthia Freeland

In this article I will suggest some strategies for exploring the relationship between cognitive science and music. This follows up on Part 1 (ASA Newsletter Spring 2001, pp. 1-3), on teaching cognitive science and visual art, and Part 2 (ASA Newsletter Fall 2001, pp. 1-3) on teaching cognitive science and film theory.

Increasingly, scholars in aesthetics accept that research in cognitive science can affect our approach to our own discipline. As Diana Raffman explains in her book Language, Music, and Mind (1993): “The border between psychology and the philosophy of mind is already richly planted; hence insofar as aesthetics makes its home in the latter discipline it is high time for scientific theory to be applied there as well” (p. 10). The contributions do not run just one-way; work in aesthetics of music has potentially great impact for the philosophy of mind. So it is not surprising that in his review of Mark DeBellis’s Music and Conceptualization (1995), Andy Hamilton found it “as much a contribution to philosophy of mind as it is to aesthetics – more so, perhaps.”


A course on cognitive science and music would not work well with undergraduates unless they are unusually good and well-prepared. Even for graduate students this topic poses special problems: material on cognitive science is difficult, and the technical details of music theory make this perhaps the hardest among the arts to cover in an interdisciplinary setting. The two central books by philosophers who have launched this field, Raffman and DeBellis, are short and clear, but dense. Both presuppose multiple abilities: to grapple with tough philosophers (Goodman, Dennett, Fodor, Churchland, Peacocke, etc.); apply basic vocabulary of musical aesthetics; read music; and grasp in outline some musical analyses proposed by Schenker as well as Lerdahl and Jackendoff. An intrepid philosophy professor might enlist the aid of a friendly colleague from music theory, or encourage participation by music graduate students who could help others understand basic concepts of their discipline.

Though Raffman and DeBellis have led the way for philosophers in applying cognitive science to music, their books pose limitations for use for an interdisciplinary seminar. For students with strong background in music aesthetics, many natural areas of interest are not touched upon, such as expression, interpretation, and style. On the other hand, from a cognitive science perspective, these books are limited by adopting a computational perspective that ignores recent extensions of connectionist research and related dynamic systems analyses. These limitations could serve as a springboard, however, by highlighting opportunities for new research. I would divide my students into teams from diverse fields, like music, philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Team members could help each other with material and pursue a research topic of interest to all of them on, say, music learning theory, cross-cultural musical styles, or music perception studies.

The two most basic ways to structure a course in music and cognitive science are as (a) a seminar on an interesting topic in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, or (b) a seminar in the aesthetics of music. I will sketch both options in relation to the two most promising seminar texts.


Raffman begins with a presumption that Fodor is basically right in his approach to philosophy of mind: “perception proceeds via the computation of a series of mental representations” (14). To show what this might look like for music, she refers to Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s generative grammar as offering an account not just of musical structure but of semantics, i.e. of musical understanding. Her key question here is, do we have mental experience (or consciousness) that is ineffable? In answering, she describes three types of ineffability in music: structural, feeling, and nuance ineffability. On the first, she argues that in principle, the hearing of musical structures is describable and so not ultimately ineffable. On the second, Raffman presents her view as a sort of amplification of points made by Cavell in “Music Discomposed”. To know what music sounds like, we must hear instances; however, descriptions can convey what music sounds like, given prior experiential knowledge. What she has in mind by musical feeling is fairly narrow; Stephen Davies offers persuasive criticisms in his review, noting also that she moves too quickly in rejecting certain views on musical expressiveness.

Raffman focuses on her third type, nuance ineffability, most extensively. This has to do with the ways in which not just our language, but our basic categorizations and memory of pitch nuances in our musical listening, are just too coarse-grained to capture all that we actually hear. She argues that this type of ineffability raises an important problem for Dennett’s views on qualia and his account of conscious experience: “The difficulty is plain: if we consciously experience aural nuances, but cannot represent them propositionally, or a fortiori report them verbally, then there is more to consciousness than sentential-type representation will allow” (p. 201). Interestingly, however, Raffman still believes we ought to follow the eliminativst line (126-7).

I can think of several ways to use Raffman’s book as part of an exploration of topics in aesthetics. One would be to consider her account of nuance ineffability in relation to other discussions of ineffability in music, using Cavell as a point of departure. As Levinson noted in his review, discussions of musical ineffability by Schopenhauer, Langer, and others have addressed something much broader than Raffman’s. Whether cognitive science has implications for such other notions could be explored. A second option would be to follow the thread from Goodman discussed in Raffman’s Chapter 6, “Naturalizing Nelson Goodman,” concerning the properties of symbol systems in the arts, such as denseness. The seminar might also seek to extend implications from the phenomena Raffman discusses to others; as noted in Justin London’s review, there is now a very wide range of musical perception research on other interesting topics such as rhythm, movement, and expression.

De Bellis

To approach DeBellis’ book as a study in philosophy of mind offers the chance to explore issues about mental representation in relation to hearing rather than vision, which is more commonly discussed by contemporary philosophers. Chapter 4 is crucial; it asks, “Is There an Observational-Theory Distinction in Music?” DeBellis recounts the debate between Fodor and Churchland on this issue, coming down on Churchland’s side. Building up to this view, in Chapters 2 and 3, DeBellis discusses cases in which the musical hearing of the “ordinary listener” is either weakly or strongly non-conceptual. He locates this discussion in relation to work by Peacocke on the nature of sensation and perception. For strongly nonconceptual hearing, the listener’s awareness or hearing does not involve or count as belief at all. But for trained musical perception, DeBellis defends the theory-dependence of perception. This suggests, as against Fodor, that relevant mental modules are permeable and not insular. Justin London has noted an alternative resolution might be found in Eugene Narmour’s Analysis and Cognition of Melodic Structures: “Narmour has shown how the output of a low-level module(s) for melody and rhythm constrains both the formation of higher-level structures as well as the application of our knowledge of musical syntax and style which inheres in those structures.” (London, Review of DeBellis, 130).

For a seminar with a clearer focus on aesthetics, I would zero in on DeBellis’s chapters 5 and 6 (“Theoretically Informed Listening” and “Conceptions of Musical Structure’). Chapter 5 addresses the reasons why a trained listener’s hearing is enriched by musical understanding. DeBellis argues that this is due to what he labels “fusion”: the concepts available to trained listeners contribute to their aesthetic experience. Next he takes up questions previously discussed by Kivy (in Music Alone) and others about the nature and project of explanation in music theory. DeBellis contrasts two primary types of “explanation”, intentional and causal. Though he believes a credible music theory ought to seek causal accounts, he worries that the relevant laws that explain music perception would fall outside of music theory (in, say, acoustics or perceptual psychology). Does explanation in music theory aim to account for features in the music or in the listener? It is not obviously true that understanding music in the sense of getting how it is constructed and put together can be equated with understanding it in the sense of aesthetically appreciating it. (This is a confusion, or at least elision, that Raffman seems to make in her assumption that a Lerhdahl-Jackendoff type of analysis aims to explain musical understanding, not musical structure; see Raffman, 49.) DeBellis thinks that music theory should aim at genuinely causal explanations, and thus argues we ought to link the explanans of musical understanding of structure with the explanandum of musical appreciation. These are interesting questions with some clear parallels in studies of the other arts.

Final Thoughts

Alternatives to the two books discussed here abound, but philosophers working on them will be paving their own path. I mention some of these in the Bibliography below. A number of relatively new books, by Fred Lerdahl, David Temperley, and Carol L. Krumhansl, look promising, but I have not had time yet to work through them. The blurb on Temperley’s book says it “addresses a fundamental question about music cognition: how do we extract basic kinds of musical information, such as meter, phrase structure, counterpoint, pitch spelling, harmony, and key from music as we hear it?” Temperley adopts a computational approach, but his book has the advantage of discussing rock and traditional African music, in addition to the examples from Western classical music discussed by other authors.

A responsible approach to topics concerning cognitive science and music ought to present students with information about the basic critiques of computationalism arising now from connectionists and advocates of dynamical systems theory. The latter approach is far friendlier to phenomenological accounts of perception. As a start, I recommend Tim Van Gelder’s article in Naturalizing Phenomenology, listed below. (But implications for music would need independent development.) A professor could also encourage students to ponder the implications for musical aesthetics of current research on the neuroscience of musical perception. An intriguing start here would be Eric J. Lerner’s web article, “The music of the brain,” where he suggests that, “Perhaps the brain is not like a computer, but more like an orchestra, with billions of neurons cooperating to produce the symphony we call thought.”


Recommended texts

Mark DeBellis, Music and Conceptualization (Cambridge UP, 1995). See reviews by Andy Hamilton, Philosophical Quarterly 48:193 (1998); and Justin London, Current Musicology 60-61 (1996): 111-31.

Diana Raffman, Language, Music, and Mind (MIT, 1993). See reviews by Stephen Davies, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52:3 (1994); Jerrold Levinson, Mind 104:413 (1995); and Justin London, Music Theory Spectrum 14.2 (1994): 267-75.

Cognitive Science Literature

Paul Churchland, Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind (1979); “Perceptual Plasticity and Theoretical Neutrality: A Reply to Jerry Fodor”, 1988.

Daniel Dennett, Content and Consciousness (1969); “Quining Qualia” (reprinted in William Lycan, ed., Mind and Cognition: A Reader (Blackwell, 1990, pp. 519-47).

Jerry Fodor, The Modularity of Mind (Cambridge: MIT, 1983); “Observation Reconsidered; A Reply to Churchland’s ‘Perceptual Plasticity and Theoretical Neutrality’” (reprinted in Fodor, A Theory of Content and Other Essays, MIT, 1990).

Christopher Peacocke, Sense and Content (Oxford, 1983); A Study of Concepts (MIT, 1992).

Aesthetics of Music

Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed”, in W.H. Capitan, and D.D. Merrill, editors, Art, Mind, and Religion (Pittsburgh, 1967).

Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art (Bobbs-Merrill, 1968).

Peter Kivy, Music Alone: Philosophical Reflections on the Purely Musical Experience (Cornell, 1990).

Jerrold Levinson, Music in the Moment (Cornell, 1997).

Dynamic Systems Theory

Eric J. Lerner, “The music of the brain,” website at <>, accessed 3/17/02.

Tim Van Gelder, “Wooden Iron? Husserlian Phenemonology Meets Cognitive Science,” in Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science, edited by Jean Petitot et al. (Stanford: 2000), 245-265.

Tim Van Gelder, Mind as Motion: Explorations in the Dynamics of Cognition (MIT: 1995).

Music Psychology and Theory

Laird Addis, Of Mind and Music (Cornell, 1999).

David Butler, The Musician’s Guide to Perception and Cognition (Schirmer, 1992).

Nicholas Cook, Music, Imagination, and Culture (Oxford Clarendon, 1990).

Peter Desain and Henkjan Honing, Music, Mind, and Machine : Studies in Computer Music, Music Cognition, and Artificial Intelligence (Thesis Publications, 1992).

Diana Deutsch (Editor), The Psychology of Music (Academic Press: 1998).

Stephen Handel, Listening (MIT, 1989).

Carol L. Krumhansl, Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch (Oxford, 2001).

Fred Lerdahl, Tonal Pitch Space (Oxford, 2001).

Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (MIT: 1996; first published 1983).

Eugene Narmour, The Analysis and Cognition of Basic Melodic Structures (Chicago, 1990).

John Sloboda, The Musical Mind (Oxford, 1985).

David Temperley, The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures (MIT, 2001).

Peter M. Todd and D. Gareth Loy, Editors, Music and Connectionism (MIT, 1991).

2001 © Cynthia Freeland

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