Music Cognition and Performance: An Introduction

By Schmuckler, Mark A. | Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Music Cognition and Performance: An Introduction


Schmuckler, Mark A., Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology


Welcome to this issue of the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, focussing on musical cognition and performance. Interest and research in music cognition and performance have grown considerably over the past few decades, with the result that this field has now become one of the most dynamic sub-disciplines within psychological and musical thought. Articles on music cognition appear with regularity in both psychological and musical journals, and there are a variety of specialty journals whose specific (and explicit) focus is on music cognition and performance. Papers on music cognition are commonplace at both psychological and musicological conferences and there are currently multiple international societies that meet regularly to provide a forum for presenting current findings of work in this area. Nevertheless, the field remains something of a mystery to many. A valuable feature of an issue such as this is that it assembles an array of papers that fit together by their focus on a common theme. Discussion in a general psychological journal, such as the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, offers many advantages: For readers unfamiliar with this area, such discussion provides a broad introduction to the discipline, presenting work by some of the top researchers in the field; for investigators currently working in the area, it provides a convenient concentration of some very recent results.

What exactly is the field of music cognition and performance? What issues and questions does work in this area address? Put simply, the principal concern of such work is the psychological processes brought to bear during the listening to, understanding of, response to, and performance of the complex auditory information known as music. When one injects into this mix the emergence of these behaviours - developmental issues - it is obvious that this field focusses on some of the most central issues of psychological functioning. It is also apparent that music cognition is an exceptionally broad and diverse field of study.

One factor underlying this diversity is that music cognition is fundamentally interdisciplinary in nature. This field draws on, integrates, and ultimately synthesizes the rich traditions of musical thought and analysis on the one hand, and psychological theory and experimentation on the other hand, along with borrowing from related fields such as acoustics, audiology, linguistics, and computer science, to name a few. All of these disciplines, and most especially music and psychology, provide independent sources for intuitions and inspirations concerning the phenomena of interest, an array of convergent and complementary methodological tools, and a range of theoretical explanations for the results of these explorations.

From a psychological point of view, music analysis proffers an entire field devoted solely to an understanding of the structure of the stimulus under investigation. Such a field provides an invaluable source of hypotheses concerning the psychological processes involved in music listening and production. From a music analytic point of view, psychology provides a medium for testing the psychological reality of these proposed principles of structure, as well as a means for describing basic constraints in hearing and in music listening. Thus, psychology helps music analysis move back and forth between an "idealized" listener, one for whom all proposed musical structures are potentially viable, and an "actual" listener, one for whom there are limitations and constraints on the structures that can be perceived. Looked at in this way, music cognition provides a prototype for interdisciplinary work, in which two strong fields of study combine to their mutual benefit.

Within its parent disciplines, musical cognition exists as a sub-field of cognitive psychology on the one hand, and somewhere between music theory and musicology on the other hand. Within cognitive psychology, and (unfortunately) perhaps more so than in music, music cognition has achieved relatively wide acceptance. …

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