Accounting for Meaning in Improvisation: Embracing New Research in Embodiment

Modern scholarly attempts to account for musical meaning in the academy are roughly divided among musicology, ethnomusicology, and systematic musicology. Perhaps responding to Joseph Kerman’s call in 1980 to move beyond analysis and descriptive criticism as methodologies, musicologists have borrowed liberally from feminist studies, comparative literature studies, gender studies, and deconstructionism to impute historical and ideological meaning in the Western canon, pop music, etc. Ethnomusicologists use these methods, often with an additional focus on ethnography and Geertz-ian “thick description” to describe the import of musical activities in “othered” musics. Systematic musicology - depending which continent one is on or whom you ask - tends to focus either on empirically oriented study of music cognition to investigate music or, conversely, philosophical approaches to understanding musical meaning and affective power. While not neatly divided or without blind-spots, these disciplines and their methods have produced much in the interest of furthering a collective understanding of the relevance of musical phenomena and its role in building identities, histories, social systems, and economies. Still, some of the aporias of music studies can not fully be addressed by just one epistemology and its concomitant methodologies. To that end I’d like to offer an argument for the incorporation of some relatively new theories and methodologies from the fields of embodied cognition and neuroscience that may be deployed to offer new ways of describing and understanding the why, what, how, and so what of music, especially freely improvised music. I will offer below something of an introduction and literature review of recent material on embodied situated cognition and mirror neuron research with an aim to suggest their relevance to music researchers.

In jazz music, improvisation is commonly associated with ideas of freedom, the numinous, and cosmological significance as observable in the musics of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Steve Coleman among many, many others. Musicians and listeners alike speak anecdotally about their experiences with improvised music in terms of motion, space, euphoria, trance, identity, dilation of time, etc. While these experiences and the part they play in the jazz tradition have been addressed both anecdotally in magazines and rigorously in academic journals and books (Berliner 1994; Monson 1996; Jackson 2012), the question of meaning in regard to musical improvisation has not been sufficiently addressed. Mainly due to its consideration as primordial, improvised music is oftentimes stripped of social context, historically relevant means of production, structure, etc. From this perspective, musicians seem to embrace Eduard Hanslick’s epistemologically confused assertion that “instrumental music is music purely and absolutely” (15).* As Hanslick suggested in 1854, when we (attempt) to remove notions of “content” from our understanding of musical meaning (social elements, emotion, etc.) and recognize it solely as “tonally moving forms” (29), it still moves us. Neuroscience may be offering a new way of investigating and accounting for the mysterious embodied, pre-reflective elements of musical meaning so present in instances of musical improvisation.

Recent theories of embodied situated cognition and/or enactivism (Feldman and Narayanan 2004; Gallese 2003; Lakoff and Johnson, 1999) describe humans not as body and mind, but social mind emerging from its physical embodiment; neither reducible to the other, but each mutually inflecting. Thought is therefore not an abstract, disembodied activity or thing, nor is it simply the brain. Embodied cognition recognizes cognition as something both empirically available but also socially constructed, and that the tools of language and abstract thought are not disembodied, but informed by our embodiment and social identity in the world (Maturana and Varela 1987; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991). Therefore:

… the proper locus of mind is complex, multilevel, continually interactive process that involves all of the following: a brain, operating in and for a living, purposive body, in continual engagement with complex environments that are not just physical but social and cultural as well … [w]ithout a brain there is no meaning. Without a living, acting body - no meaning. And without organism-environment interaction - no meaning. (Johnson 2007: 175)

Embodied cognition seeks the roots of concrete and abstract conceptualization alike in patterns and qualities of sensorimotor experience (Johnson 2007: 174). “Abstract” concepts are thus second-order, emerge from our first-order embodiment (Hampe and Grady, eds. 2005; Johnson 2007: 135-154), and pre-reflectively influence our understanding of ourselves in the world.

The import of the idea of music as embodied process is further enriched by theories from embodied cognition such as image schemas and embodied metaphors. Concepts created in one modality of experience are commonly mapped onto another. For instance, in music we speak of “high” and “low” sounds which are in fact neither high nor low. Rather, our understanding of “pitch space” is mapped cross-modally from experiences in the spatial domain. Our concept of melody, too, borrows from several domains of experience as we conflate spatiality, temporality, and goal-seeking metaphors to make sense of our perception of movement and direction in music (Johnson 2007: 235-62). Music scholars have begun to effectively appropriate these findings and methods to investigate the relationship of gesture and musical meaning (Godøy 2003; McGuiness and Overy 2011).  Our culturally generated and understood gestures are tied to our embodiment and map visual and aural aesthetic experience onto our sensorimotor structures of knowledge about the world.

Embodied cognition theories suggest that our physical gesturing both expresses and plays an active role in constituting our thought, and also that our use of linguistic metaphor (including that employed in music theories) is based on embodied image schemas. We perceive others’ intentions and feelings through their bodily movement, and thus embodied interactions underpin our sense of self, our social relations and our capacity for intersubjectivity and joint action. (Clayton and Leante 2013: 194)

Music, then, perhaps even before understood as culturally situated by a listener, has bodily meaning potentially crossing several modalities of perception.

Also germane to the study of musical free improvisation and questions of communication and meaning is the relatively new study of the mirror neuron system. Discovered by Italian researchers in the 1990s, the mirror neuron system is a group of neuronal structures in primates and humans which mirror observed actions. Very simply put, these cells respond and fire when a subject observes an action performed by another just as if the subject were actually performing said action themselves. For example, if a subject witnesses another grasping a cup, the same neurons that would fire if the subject were herself grasping a cup “light up”. In observing others, we have virtual experiences that use the very same neural structures as if we ourselves were performing said actions. Research suggests these neural structures are deeply tied to empathy, affect, and associative learning. Even more explicitly relevant to investigations of intersubjectivity, feelings of movement, communication of affect, and emotional contagion in music studies is the finding that mirror neurons act multi-modally: experience of virtuality seems not to be limited to visual observance of performed acts. Studies show that simply hearing an activity performed activates the related neurological structures of performing said activity (Rizzolatti, Fogassi, and Gallese 2001; Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004). This finding is remarkable as it seems that perhaps simply hearing can feel the same as performing said act. When we see musicians performing, we ourselves may have a virtual experience of performing. When we hear music without seeing it being performed, we may regardless have a cross-modal virtual experience of our own bodies performing; moving our limbs or position of bodies, moving in space.

These processes of cognition are constantly at work as we build our understanding of our world and our place in it. Perception of sound is inherently tied to sensorimotor experience in creating cross-modal, virtual experiences of movement. All of these processes are pre-reflective and, in effect, run in the background of our cognition. Music, it seems, is a multi-level, cross-domain activity which engages us on multiple fronts, e.g., biological, psychological, intellectual, social, etc. By recognizing individuals as neither disembodied minds nor the sum of their social attributes, we see that mind arises from embodiment; the social nature of mind is non-reducible. Returning to the mystery of the affectual veracity of freely improvised music, we can see how embodied situated cognition theory and the mirror neuron system are but two paths of study leading to an understanding of music as an engine of embodied, cross-modal metaphor and embodied, pre-reflective knowledge. Their study and incorporation into existing methodologies can only enrich our understanding of the why, what, how, and so what of music. As Christopher Small suggests with his gerund “musicking”, music, like cognition, is not a thing we have, but a thing we do.

*The notion of stripping a music of its context is fallacious as all music is necessarily produced and heard by socially situated persons. Improvisation, too, is necessarily a socially situated and intertextual phenomenon. For a rigorous discussion of the intertextuality of improvisation and its relevance to music cognition, see: Hogg, B. 2013. “Enactive conscience, intertextuality, and musical free improvisation: deconstructing mythologies and finding connections.” In David Clarke and Eric Clarke, eds, Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, pp.79-93. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berliner, P. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clayton, M., B. Dueck, and L. Leante eds. 2013. Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. Oxford: Oxford.

Feldman, J., and S. Narayanan. 2004. Embodied Meaning in a Neural Theory of Language. Brain and Language 89: no 2 385-92.

Gallese, V. 2003. A Neuroscientific Grasp of Concepts: From Control to Representation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 358: 1231-40.

Godøy, R. I., 2003. Motor-Mimetic Music Cognition. Leonardo 36 (4):317-19.

Hampe, B.,and J. Grady, eds. 2005. From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hanslick, E. 1854/1986. On the Musically Beautiful: A Contribution Toward the Revision of Aesthetics of Music. Trans. G. Payzant. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Jackson, T. 2012. Blowin’ the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Johnson, M. 2007. The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kerman, J. 1980. How We Got into Analysis, and How to Get Out. Critical Inquiry 7, no. 2, 311-31.

Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Maturana, H., and F. Varela. 1987. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McGuiness, A. and K. Overy. 2011. Music, Consciousness, and the Brain: Music as Shared Experience of an Embodied Present. In David Clarke and Eric Clarke, eds., Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives, pp.245-62. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monson, I. 1996. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rizzolatti, G., L. Fogassi, and V. Gallese. 2001. Neurophysiological Mechanisms Underlying the Understanding and Imitation of Action. Nature Neuroscience Review 2:661-70.

Rizzolatti, G,. and L. Craighero. 2004. The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27:169-92.

Small, C. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Varela, F., E. Thompson, and E. Rosch. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

AJ Kluth comes to UCLA’s ethnomusicology program (systematic musicology specialization) after having received graduate degrees in humanities and social thought (NYU) and jazz saxophone performance (DePaul University). His research interests include contemporary philosophical interpretive strategies of musical meaning, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, ethnomusicology, and jazz studies. He currently manages the Space is the Place subsection of the Sounding Board.

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