Music and Embodied Cognition: Listening, Moving, Feeling, and Thinking

Music and Embodied Cognition: Listening, Moving, Feeling, and Thinking

Music and Embodied Cognition: Listening, Moving, Feeling, and Thinking

Music and Embodied Cognition: Listening, Moving, Feeling, and Thinking


Taking a cognitive approach to musical meaning, Arnie Cox explores embodied experiences of hearing music as those that move us both consciously and unconsciously. In this pioneering study that draws on neuroscience and music theory, phenomenology and cognitive science, Cox advances his theory of the "mimetic hypothesis," the notion that a large part of our experience and understanding of music involves an embodied imitation in the listener of bodily motions and exertions that are involved in producing music. Through an often unconscious imitation of action and sound, we feel the music as it moves and grows. With applications to tonal and post-tonal Western classical music, to Western vernacular music, and to non-Western music, Cox's work stands to expand the range of phenomena that can be explained by the role of sensory, motor, and affective aspects of human experience and cognition.


I do not know how the sentence
“I have a body” is to be used.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Like many music students, I spent a good deal of my undergraduate and graduate coursework in music theory focusing on musical structure and making more or less factual observations about how the various elements of music fit together in particular works and styles. Since I enjoyed this kind of study, for my doctoral thesis I planned to take the same approach in analyzing the music of Debussy. But then one day the stove in my apartment stopped working, the repairman came over, and we started chatting. He asked if I was a student up at the college, and I said yes, and that I was studying music theory. He replied, with unexpected enthusiasm and seriousness, “Music theory—so you must study how music makes us feel things.” With some embarrassment I explained that I was actually studying hierarchical relations among musical tones, at which point our conversation quickly died a quiet little death. His assumption, however, that a music theorist naturally would study musical affect led me to reflect on my scholarly priorities. One result of this reflection was my attention to the fact that, although my analysis revealed relevant and interesting details about the music, it seemed to miss something important about how the music “works” and about why I was drawn to this music in the first place. From this reflection emerged a desire for a more holistic approach.

My search for a more holistic, interpretive approach led me to Debussy’s letters and critical writings, where I intended to learn what I could about how he understood his own music and the music of others. Since these writings proved to be filled with metaphors, both conventional and idiosyncratic, I then needed a way of understanding more explicitly the relationship between his words and the music to which they referred. I eventually settled on conceptual metaphor theory, and the book you are reading is a result of my study of the relationship between musical experience and conceptualization—or, how music makes us feel and think whatever it is that it makes us feel and think. This exploration has led me beyond the music of Debussy to a number of principles that apply to music . . .

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