ARlogoThis project was conceived in 1998 and informed much of my future work in its concerns and approaches. It is most visible in the Conversational Musicology and Tool Kit for Music Analysis projects, but also provided the framework for the MMT-IMP-NESTAR project. The description below is from 1998; the proposed models are now being subsumed into the Tool Kit and background context explained in Conversational Musicology.


The approach . . .

This project was designed to occupy an area between music theory and music perception, not only in the issues it addresses, but also in its method.

To oversimplify: the music theorist studies a score and proposes his or her own personal interpretation, and if the colleagues who are listening think that the proposal is valid, then they treat the theorist with increasing respect, thus gradually corroborating the method or findings.  On the other hand (still oversimplifying, and in cynical mode to boot), the psychologist of music feels much shyer about involving intuition, and usually sets up a well-defined experiment, preferably with no potential for ambiguity, to gather responses from a group of people before publishing the findings.

Now, in both cases, the feedback is often pretty slow, and the scope of the analysis or the lab experiment is pretty narrow.  The theorist’s proposal may be quite ideosyncratic. and it may be a decade or so before it is widely lauded or refuted, if it is lucky enough to be placed in a position to attract attention.  The validation of a finding in psychology by a pool of subjects is no more secure, though it may appear so on the surface, since the experiment itself may be based on false premises, contain errors of data interpretation, etc.  and only in the case of watchful colleagues may what seems to be incontrovertible evidence be revealed later as misleading.

My objections to the two approaches are mainly in their unsuitability for my own research. I want to tap other people’s expertise on subjects that do not yet have tried-and-true methods for examination. Issues which particularly interest me – such as improvisatory non-tonal gestural passages, complex polyrhythmic structures spanning several minutes, music in multi-media contexts, unnotated Persian music played on a non-Western scale base – are considered too complex for formulation into testable experiments.  In many of the experiments conducted, the pool of subjects whose opinions and behavior are being evaluated do not seem to coincide with the typical audiences of any but the most mainstream of Western music. (Even though musicians are often involved, they are usually performers, often of 18th-19th century music, not composers of the 20th-21st century.)

As a composer I am specifically interested to know how people who may encounter my music are likely to respond to certain aural structures and patterns. I am more interested in the response of genuinely interested researchers than I am in the response of a small sub-population whose “average” member may be far from the profile of my potential audience.

Although my education leads me to accept the music theorist’s approach as rather normal, and the music psychologist’s as a bit odd, in the end I seem to have the typical attitude of an artist: I like to entertain all kinds of ideas, use lateral thinking, brainstorming, and intuition, and enjoy the exploration without worrying about defending the logic of the steps used to reach a particular mountaintop viewpoint.
Hence the Armchair Researcher.  I propose some examples, some scenarios, some questions for reflection, and ask interested parties for feedback.  At the least, I believe that I am stimulating reflection by a few musicians about issues current in the fields of music perception and cognition, and possibly introducing a few psychologists to perspectives held by some contemporary composers. Hopefully, some from each field will remain that much more receptive to the work of the others, and appreciate the fascinating work being carried out in different corners.

Module 1 focussed on the use of Musical Imagery by composers.

Module II focussed on the use of texture and gesture in music. 

Module III, IV and V were designed to explore mood & emotion, tuning, and timbre respectively. 

Over the last decade, I have been collecting - and sometimes creating - very short media clips (sound, still image, and video clips) as well as potentially relevant descriptors for Modules Il-V for exploration within the framework of the IMP-NESTAR project.  My reflections on the results to date will be incorporated into the Tool Kit, with some reference also in Conversational Musicology and the Playroom Phenomenon books.

SAQs (Seldom Asked Questions)  were designed to encourage reflection on miscellaneous issues relating to music and perception.  The original questionnaire is available here: SAQ. I am hoping to revive this little section.