What “Composing the Music You Hear” Means

Since people seemed to like the subject of keeping the performer in mind while composing, it’s been on my mind, in response to a couple of comments, to hopefully blow apart a notion I regard as superficial and misleading: that the composer “writes what he hears.” Creative activity is virtually infinite in its
forms, and I would never claim that no composer does this, but I think it must be fairly rare. Of course, in a sense I certainly do write the music I want to hear (my ability to relisten to my own CDs verges on narcissism), and I do “hear” my music before I compose it; but it often comes out sounding different than I expect, and I almost always end up rewriting it into something I never quite expected to hear. I’d be disappointed if my music didn’t regularly surprise me.

Take this blog entry, for instance. I’ve started it because I’ve got a bug up my ass, as happens, about some mistaken notion I see myself in a position to correct. It’s been running through my mind for a few days, and the mental form it always takes is that the initial, central idea always comes first, and other related ideas, or apropos phrases, group themselves around it in no particular order, like spokes around the hub of a wheel. Now I’ve sat down to write, and all those disconnected ideas must arrange themselves in series, into coherent paragraphs. Some of them don’t link logically. Transitional ideas must be grabbed out of the air. I struggle with introspection, because at this exact point in writing
my initial idea has been stated, but the other eloquent phrases I’m eager to use don’t fit in yet. Very, very often I find, as I think any serious essayist must, that what I end up meaning as the essay takes shape is not exactly what I expected to say. I might possibly find myself contradicting the gist of this
blog entry and not finishing it. What’s given, though, is that the linear format of these paragraphs is not isomorphic to my obsessive musings of the past few days, and that I cannot possibly simply throw the latter down on paper (or screen) as they exist in my head. The impetus is transformed by the process. In a sense I had something to say and I will have said it, but more accurately, I will have found out by the end of this essay what I think. Which is the value, for me personally, of writing a blog – and would continue to be even were no one reading it.

Music is not language (though recent studies are suggesting that it uses the same part of the brain [h/t McLaren]),
and parallels between them are always tenuous. You might imagine, however, and correctly, that
writing music and writing words have become particularly conflated in the lifestyle that has chosen me. In a sense I’ve been better professionally trained to write words than music – only because being edited for a newspaper is a strict and arduous process – and my composing has increasingly borrowed reflexes from my writing. (There’s< a point I didn't expect to think of.) Everything I've said about my experience writing this blog entry applies to my composing, more or less depending on the piece. I always have an idea I want to get across, or an effect I want to create; but most of the time (not all), I find that the idea doesn't get across, or the effect doesn't happen, the first way I write it down. These little bits of nonlinear music that float through my brain don't map onto the linear page without some organization. Ultimately, the piece goes where it wants to go, and I'm smart enough to try and get out of the way.

It is common to believe, I gather, that people think the material of music is simply sound, and that, being so incorporeal, music is the freest of the arts, that the composer can simply make something appear and it happens. For me this has never been the case. The materials of music exert as much resistance back to the artist as clay does to the potter, paint and color to the painter, granite
and steel to the sculptor, words and syntax to the poet - and even more so, I tentatively think, because the materials involved, at least in composing via notation for human performers, are heterogeneous in origin. It depends, I suppose, on how you define your materials, and this is how I define mine:

1. 12 pitches and their octave equivalents (unless I’m composing microtonally, in which case I gather pitches like a kid with a credit card in a toy store until I’m a little freaked out by how many I have to carry home; and in this case they tend to group themselves into clumps of associated pitches);

2. Musical notation, which includes rhythm within all its humanly possible limitations;

3. The instruments and the sounds they can make that I find attractive or acceptable (for instance, I’m just not into multiphonics or sul ponticello);

4. Insofar as I can anticipate it, the trained psychology of my performers, which may vary
in specificity depending on how well I know them.

Other composers will conceptualize their materials differently, depending on medium or performing abilities, but I expect that for virtually everyone it’s kind of an odd assortment – or becomes so with experience. (As several commenters have suggested, realizing pieces electronically changes the game entirely – but even there, with my limited skills, the medium resists with a vengeance.) I push all of these materials to do what I want, and I am accustomed to finding that they push back. I want to create effects that turn out to be inelegant or unwieldy or a pain for the performers, and in composing (or, more strictly, revising) I find how those effects can realize themselves within the materials I’ve got.
Everyone knows that Stockhausen asked Feldman what his “system” was, and Feldman replied: “I don’t push the notes around.” Stockhausen: “Not even a little bit?” It becomes painfully obvious to me, in composing, when I’m “pushing the notes around,” and I back off.

For instance, in the string quartet I’m writing, there’s a lovely pandiatonic passage on the D-major scale. The section preceding it ends on an A7 chord, which I considered a nice link. But that preceding section was too complicated, difficult to play in rhythm, and with an unmemorable melody; so I rewrote it, and its voice-leading led to a B7 chord. I tried transposing the D-major, and it just ruined the resonance of the cello. I was despondent for about ten minutes, but playing through it realized that the A7 to D sounded trite, and the B7 to D was not only charming, but expressed my overall, non-causal
expressive intentions better. The notes seem to be smarter than me. Thank goodness the purpose of the piece is not to demonstrate to the world how smart its composer is (which strikes me as being the case with some pieces I hear).

Another compromise I made: In the first movement of Desert Sonata, I have an isorhythmic passage (in 41/16 meter) in which the bass line runs through a repeating rhythmic cycle and a pitch cycle that go out of phase. Given my usual numerological inclinations, I would have had something like 17 notes in the rhythm and 19 in the pitch, so that they’d never come back in sync within the time framework of the piece. But the cognitive demands on the pianist would have been outrageous. Finally I settled for the non-mutually-prime numbers 15 against 18, so that the whole pattern would repeat every five measures, and it sounds great – not only easier to play, but easier for the listener to grasp what’s going on. 

Parenthetically, though it furthers the point, I find that some composers write more effectively
for solo strings than I do because they can keep in mind what all the open strings are, to take advantage of them for double- and triple-stops. I just don’t like letting those “special pitches” interfere with my freely composed harmonies, and so to this extent I arrogantly fail by my own criterion. I’m an emotion/intuition type, and not earthy at all. For the same reason I find classical guitar nearly impossible to write for. The physical material is too eccentric.)

The point about keeping the performers is mind is that I have found that I ignore category no. 4, performer psychology, at my peril. The first version of the “Moon” movement from my The Planets turned out to be impossible to play without a conductor, and since the rest of the piece doesn’t require one, this was unacceptable. (I actually strolled onstage to conduct “Moon” at its first performance, which I felt reflected something of a failure in my composing.) One of the most difficult things about my music, which is hardly ever virtuosic, is that I try to create rhythmically free situations in which various performers have virtual downbeats in different places, often unrelated to the meter and especially to each other. The idea must get across, or else I won’t feel like the piece is mine. But in this instance I rewrote the work with more frequent articulated downbeats, especially in the percussion, so that the players could keep track of where they were. It may seem like a compromise to some, but I was certainly happier with the performance as it turned out.

I doubt what I’m saying is particularly controversial (though I have given up trying to anticipate reactions). My colleague Joan Tower, who’s from a completely different side of the aesthetic tracks, likes to say, “When you’re composing you think you’re in control, but you’re not,” and other well-established composers have said similar things to me in conversation. They say the young Mozart conceived works all of a piece, and I suppose it sometimes happens. David Galenson’s book Old Masters and Young Geniuses suggests that planning a work out in advance is more typical of young artists, and experimenting to “find” the piece more typical of older ones, which accords with my experience; I used to plan too much, and the
results didn’t always flow. I know a retired composer who says that he always hears music in his head, and when he starts composing he just writes it down; but he hasn’t had much of a career.

What makes the point worth stressing, I think, is that we are still emerging from a kind of collective macho mindset which overrated the untrammeled will of the composer. I have been strongly influenced by Pauline Oliveros’s famous 1984 article “The Contribution of Women Composers,” in which she drew a contrast between two types of creativity:

(1) active, purposive creativity, resulting from cognitive thought, deliberate acting upon or willful
shaping of materials, and (2) receptive creativity, during which the artist is like a channel through which material flows and seems to shape itself.

Quoting both Mozart and Beethoven in support of the idea that we need both kinds, she
goes on to say,

“Artists who are locked into the analytical mode with little or no access to the intuitive mode are apt
to produce one-sided works of art. Certainly many of the totally determined, serial works of the post-war years seem to fit that category.”

The emphasis I bring to my composition students is that the piece is king, they are servants; the needs of the piece they’re writing are more important than their own needs. “This piece wants something from you,” I’m always telling them; “what is it?” And the disappointing response I usually get is, “Well, that’s just the way I want it,” which I consider a miserable failure as a rationale. Or else they’re giving the performers something that’s going to take tremendous trouble to play for very little or confusing effect.

A live-performed musical experience is something that it takes several intelligences to create, and the composer is only one of them. For me to ignore the way my performers will react to the notation, in order to effect some pre-ordained system of my own, would be as stupid, I think, as for a painter to ignore how differently water-colors act than oil paints. Those musicians are the clay I have to work with. The composer has something to learn from his or her own music just as everyone else does. And while we talk loosely about the composer “writing down the music he hears,” I think we do more justice to the complexity and reciprocal value of artistic experience by admitting that the composer is just as subject to his or her materials as anyone else. All praise to the composition – but the composer should be humble.

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Comments

  1. mclaren says

    Regarding “Music is not language (though recent studies are suggesting that it uses the same part of the brain…” — well, yes and no.
    Like so much of musical perception and cognition, it’s complicated.
    Brain imaging studies and auditory cognition experiments have shown that some aspects of musical perception take place primarily in the left brain which also does linguistic processing and abstract reasoning. Specifically, tracking the roots of harmonic progressions: the left brain language centers light up when people hear that stuff.
    But when people listen to the overall shape of a melody (as, for instance, when they hear a melody and try to figure out if it’s a recap of a melody they’ve heard before), at that point the left brain goes dark on the fMRI and the right brain lights up with lots of activity. Now, the right brain is non-verbal holistic and intuitive…in almost every way the opposite of the left brain hemisphere.
    Moreover, the right brain is responsible for emotional processing. And here’s where the real kicker comes in, because when we experience an emotional wallop from music, it’s always the right brain lighting up. So for most people (non-musicians) listening to music most of the time, it’s mainly the right brain hemisphere that’s active.
    But it’s even more complicated than that. Because the left brain hemisphere does process individiual notes in a melody if they stand out and you try to recognize ‘em. For example, if you hear a melody that keeps rising chromatically toward the tonic, your left brain hemisphere will light up when it reaches the tonic because that’s a specific pitch and your cognitive processing changes when you pick out specific pitches amidst a melody.
    Moreover, musicians will typically show brain acitivity in both hemisphere for most music because we are used to performing the music and that usually means reading it from a page, which is a highly literate left-brain abstract logical activity. Also the specific mechanics of producing a pitch, whether by placing your hand on the string on a violin or by fingering notes on a piano, requies lots of left-brain logical reasoning. Everyone who plays piano has had the experience of having to working out fingering for a given passage — that’s left-brain-oriented.
    So when musicians listen to music their left brain hemisphere is also active because they’re recreating in their minds the experience of playing the music, albeit half-unconsciously. (I often have the experience when listening to piano music of figuring what fingering I’d have to use to play various passages and if the passage is really virtuosic or requires hand-crossing it hits me with a particular jolt that non-musicians probably won’t get. That’s left-brain activity going on.)
    So it’s complicated. For non-musicians, as long you’re not hearing changing roots in chord progressions, most of what’s going on will be right brain intuitive holistic emotional cognitive acitivty taking place mainly in the right brain hemisphere. Unless the melody picks out specific notes as mentioned, or unless you get a chord progression with constantly changing roots.
    This left brain hemisphere vs right brain hemisphere stuff is enormously important because as Pauline Oliveros points out, the super-macho control-freak logic-ueber-alles mode of music-making is all left brain. It tends to disregard emotion, it disparages intuitive, it’s highly atomized and anti-holistic, and it’s a really intense form of power gaming that gets into an almost B&D-style top-vs-bottom submissive/dominant mode of behavior.
    That’s high modernism.
    But the huge importance of what Pauline is talking about is that we have this whole other mode of being that most listeners (non-musicians) use most of the time when they listen to music. Namely, right brain holistic intuitive emotional cognition. The right brain hemisphere takes lots of melodic notes and reduces ‘em to a single shape, in the much the way a hologram takes individual rays of laser light and reduces it to a single image. It’s a totally different mode of cognition from left-brain abstract logic thinking but equally valid and in its own domain, crucial and irreplaceable.
    Western music education emphasizes a Germanic left-brain control freak approach, especially at the postgraduate level in college. That’s not the only mode of valid cognition for dealing with music.

  2. GW says

    mclaren wrote:
    “Western music education emphasizes a Germanic left-brain control freak approach, especially at the postgraduate level in college. That’s not the only mode of valid cognition for dealing with music.”
    I think this is not the case. Graduate schools in the USA are famous for the emphasis on Schenkerian and neo-Riemannian analysis which are both linear, all about hearing lines, with harmonic functions a consequence of the melodic motions. This is not about separating halves of brains but finding out how they work together.
    KG replies: I just work here, but I would have thought analyzing how the right-brain aspects work was a pretty left-brain thing to do.

  3. Ernest says

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m having a hard time swallowing this brain binary. Thanks for taking the time to write this entry, Mr. Gann.
    KG replies: It’s pretty well documented. What McLaren says all seems backed up by what I’ve read.

  4. Samuel Vriezen says

    Nice post, Kyle! Just to quote (also borderline-narcistically) a Facebook Status Update I posted a few days back: “Could the form of this piece STOP CHANGING FOR A MINUTE so that I can go compose it or what?”
    I can only write my pieces when I know that every layer of it “fits”. I won’t settle for anything that is less than perfect – which doesn’t mean all of my works are masterpieces, but at least they are complete thoughts.
    My subjective role I find is in a way very passive. It’s simply making sure that the thought gets to be complete, and just wait, see how it develops, step out of the way, try to locate the obstacles to clarity and remove them. And thereby to, hopefully, arrive at “a truth immediate, rare, enormous, and perfect”, as Xenakis puts it.
    There’s something anti-humanistic about it: you depend on a structure that is still “out there”, not inside. I find this to give me a freedom in the truest sense. It liberates you from the usual expressive-subjective notions which are really a form of being enslaved to oneself.
    (oh and re: writing with the performer in mind: I do believe that if your idea achieves clarity, difficult and strenuous passages can in fact be a useful part of it. Provided you understand that the difficulty and strenuousness are in fact part of the musical message and not simply forms of sloppiness. But if everybody can understand that what a performer is doing is really a feat, and the reason why it has to be difficult it clear, then performers may actually get to enjoy that kind of difficulty.)
    KG replies: Amen. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with extreme difficulty, as long as you know what you’re asking for. In fact, I feel like some really good performers stay away from my music because there’s little overt virtuosity involved, but I don’t really like the sound of virtuosity, just personally.

  5. says

    Re listening to your own music – funny how that varies amongst composers. Some people never want to hear it once it’s done, others enjoy hearing it a lot. I enjoy playing my own music in a group – you get to hear your own music many times, especially when it’s in a theatre or dance run. As long as it doesn’t get to the burdensome level of Led Zeppelin having to play Stairway to Heaven at every single gig.

  6. Samuel Vriezen says

    I can relate to that! But I wasn’t really thinking virtuosity in particular; there’s also the kind of superhuman concentration needed for, say, the Feldman 2nd quartet… which is “virtuosity” of a different kind. Myself, I’ve often written music with vast swathes of notes, but I’ve somehow never quite thought of it as virtuoso in the Liszt way. For me, dense & fast activity is more something like a path toward concentration.

  7. says

    Thanks a lot for this Kyle, you should give this post to all your composition students on day 1! The sculptor/clay anology is really helpful (as indeed is the writing an essay one) – my neighbour asked me a few days ago do I ‘hear tunes in my head’ and I found it hard to articulate a response – this will help tremendously in future!
    However I do also suspect as far as young composers are concerned it may well be part of the learning process to even understand that the ‘musical clay’ has its own resistance, that the material does indeed speak back to you. Your definitions of ‘material’ are also invaluable here – in the past when I’ve heard people talking about ‘a composer must respect their material’ I’m always thinking about a Brahmsian use of motivic development, but your much wider description of the material we must respect is far more valuable a concept to be aware of I think. Thanks again!

  8. says

    I was thoroughly startled to read, in your second paragraph, an absolutely accurate description of what composing is like for me. I intend you quote you profligately:
    “The impetus is transformed by the process. In a sense I had something to say and I will have said it, but more accurately, I will have found out by the end of this essay what I think.”
    Many thanks!

  9. mclaren says

    GW asserts: I think this is not the case. Graduate schools in the USA are famous for the emphasis on Schenkerian and neo-Riemannian analysis which are both linear…
    I feel there exist other perspectives in addition to the one you’ve just stated.
    “…The music curriculum at mostinstitutions of higher education…is based on a musical culture of which only remnants still exist, and has little relevance to music int he last half of the twentieth century. In short, our approach to teaching the history, theory, performance, and composition of music, at all levels, is reactionary and of little value to either liberal-arts students or young musicians with professional aspirations.” [Appleton, Jon, "The College Music Curriculum Is In Pressing need of Reform," Chronicle For Higher Edcuation, 19 April 1989, pg. B2.]
    “The fact that our education system modeled the German one is hardly a new observation, but we should remember that these techniques of German scholarship had already sunk into the unconscious temperament of American education by the 1920s and ’30s when the American Musicological Society, the National Association of Schools of Music, and many other professional organizations were formed. These atomistic techniques for `knowing’ music provided the foundation for the standards these organizations would uphold (or is it impose?) for the next sixty years. (..)
    “As an example of the depth of German influence, consider the expatriate German musicologists whose work formed the nucleus of Norton’s first efforts to provide comprehensive historical texts for graduate and undergraduate use, that is Manfred Bukofzer, Afred Einstein and Gustav Reese, whose works exemplify the standards discussed above. Even Grout’s text bears their stamp… (..)
    “The German model clearly explains the last three hundred years of Western musical culture as the progression of tonality (pardon the pun) and the perfection of form. We have all spent hours finding unresolved dominant sevenths and reveling in the genius of Schubert and the late Romantics as they took modulation from dominant/subdominant through mediant/submediant and supertonic ending with Schoenberg who rejects much of the process. Then we searched for row inversion and retrogrades as symbols of our sleuthing powers as an indication that we were mastering the techniques of modern harmony… The acceptance of the evolution of tonality and tonal form as the standard preference for musical development provided clearcut criteria against which to analyze new works and to compare them to their predecessors (predominantly German ones). But the process also excluded works from those cultures choosing a different aesthetic approach. (..)
    “…The dominance of German models for excellence can be seen in the works which most students study. My experience is that most undergraduate history texts make no reference to Italian, French, or English composers of the eighteenth century other than Vivaldi, Rameau, or Purcell who can be so easily incorporated into the German model (note Grout’s first and second editions). Equally, Russian and French composers of the twentieth century have been excluded because they chose to explore new applications of tonality. Since the German model labels tonality (post-1901 Schoenberg) bankrupt and defines the future as serialism and other twelve-tone techniques, most other Europeans and Americans remain marginally a part of the theoretical development of music. Note that the title of Grout’s last chapter is `After Webern,’ attesting to the primacy of the German frame of reference.” [Ridout, Roger, "The German Model in Music Curricula," College Music Symposium Vol. 30-31, 1990, pp. 106-108.]
    The German model of music theory derives from logic and analysis — it breaks music down into motifs and harmonies. You don’t get far in a college music analysis course using intuition and hard-to-define holistic gestalts even though that might offer the best model for how a particular composition is actually experienced by listeners. (Consider, by way of example, compositions like Luigi Nono’s A Carlo Scarpa architetto, ai suoi infiniti possibili, Eliane Radigue’s Trilogie de la Morte, Larry Fast’s Computer Music Experiments Vo1. 1, Henri Dutilleux’s Metaboles, Jean-Claude Risset’s Sud, Francois Bayle’s Erosphere, or Iannis Xenakis’ Kraanerg. Notice also that a disproportionate number of these composers are French, not German.)
    In the German model of musical analysis you don’t get multiple different viewpoints of music history, you get a single line of musical “evolution” and that line isn’t contingent, it’s teleological, leading (supposedly) inevitably from one stage in music history to the next. The German concept of musical form isn’t ambiguous or hard to define; it’s clear-cut. There’s a right way to analyze Germanic compositions from the Romantic period and every other way is wrong. The concept that a musical work might not prove amenable to formal analysis, or that there might exist many different equally valid perspectives for how a given composition works, or that a composition might not be best defined by its abstract structure, are all concepts alien to the German musical tradition, and consequently unthinkable in Euro-American college music education and Euro-American music criticism.
    Notice that the way GW phrases hi/r assertion involves the apotheosis of male left-brain control-freak power gaming. My statement “is not the case,” there are only two possible options, right or wrong. Female holistic inuitive emotional intelligence might have offered an objection like this: “I feel there are other possibilities; many viewpoints coexist which may mutually illuminate the truth behind this issue…”
    I suspect that this is how women feel when they get hammered with male power games claiming their statements are “not the case.” If the woman composer/musicologist uses linguistic verbal-mathematical reasoning to rebut the claim, she loses by default because she’s just gotten co-opted into the male power game; and if she refuses to play the power game, she loses outright because she has failed to leap up and clash horns with the male composer who seems intent on playing the charging stag.
    If, instead of playing these kind of essentially male linguistic verbal-mathematical power games, we could explore the manifold possibilities of music, how would our Western musical world change?
    Imagine if, instead of awarding one composer a prize and implicitly shunning all the rest as inferior, a prize committee gathered all the composers together and celebrated them all, announcing, “All of you shine with difference kinds of excellences, and we cherish you all.” Imagine if, instead of reducing the great musical masterworks to motivic and harmonic atoms and surgically dismembering them by means of logic and math, we were to diagram great Western compositions by drawing graphs of their emotional intensity and their musical drama — what sort of new knowledge would we discover about Western music?
    Gann remarks: …I would have thought analyzing how the right-brain aspects work was a pretty left-brain thing to do.
    This exemplifies the antinomy faced by anyone who proposes an alternative to the linguistic and mathematical-rational reasoning that vaunts itself as the only mode of cognition of any value in music, or, indeed, in Western culture. Catch-22. In order to convince anyone of the importance of non-verbal intuitive modes of thinking, you have to present evidence and use logic…but the instant you do, presto! Gotcha! The critic immediately snickers “But I notice you’re using words and logic to try to refute the primacy of using words and logic! Ha!”
    So what’s the alternative? Should I present an interpretive dance as rebuttal and upload it to YouTube? If someone does that, then the acolyte of linguistic/logical-mathematical reasoning can simply retort, “Obviously this interpretive dance video presents a silly irrelevancy and fails to refute our arguments. Therefore, since no logical argument contradicts our claim and no evidence refutes it, our claim for the supremacy of verbal logical left-brain reasoning must obviously be correct.”
    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
    To escape this trap, we need to recognize that while we cannot directly explore non-verbal intuitive holistic modes of reasoning by using words, we can nonetheless powerfully suggest them. Although words can’t exactly specify the experience of non-verbal holistic thinking, they can limn its broad outlines quite vividly.
    Moreover, what we’re discussing here involves something profoundly real. Efforts to play word games that ensnare people with “gotchas” fall apart against the reality that non-verbal holistic intuitive reasoning forms an enormously important part of our mind’s operation. Many types of everyday problems get solved much more efficiently by non-verbal intuitive holistic modes of thinking — problems against which linguistic logical-mathematical reasoning often proves powerless.
    “Popular belief has it that science is the preserve of logical Mr. Spocks. A great scientific discovery must surely spring from a series of logical steps, each taken coolly and calmly, in rational order. But take some time to leaf through the pages of history and you will find the surprising truth. Some of the greatest discoveries in science were only made because logic fell by the wayside and some mysterious intuition came into play.” [Chown, Marcus, "What's Logic Got to Do With It?" New Scientist, 27 July 1996, pg. 40.]
    Moreover, the different modes of musical cognition aren’t as straightforward as left brain or right brain thinking. Although the right and left brain hemispheres do process music differently, it’s an oversimplification, because the right brain hemisphere does on occasion perform some linguistic functions, while the left brain hemisphere sometimes activates when dealing with holistic or non-verbal tasks. The difference between these two modes of musical cognition is more like “contemplative” versus “analytic” or “intuitive” versus “deductive.” It’ very hard to talk about this stuff in words because what we’re discussing is by definition a non-verbal mode of thinking that fails to fit into neat categories of Aristotelian logic.
    “Recent scientific evidence shows convincingly that the more patient, less deliberate modes of mind are particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy, or ill defined. Deliberate thinking…works well when the problem it is facing is easily conceptualized. (..) But when we are not sure what needs to be taken into account, or even which questions to pose — or when the issue is too subtle to be captured by the familiar categories of conscious thought — we need recourse to the tortoise mind. (..)
    “It is only recently, however, that scientists have started to explore the slower, less deliberate ways of knowing directly. The newly formed hybrid discipline of `cognitive science,’ an alliance of neuroscience, philosophy, artificial intelligence and experimental psychology, is revealing that the unconscious realms of the human mind will successfully solve a number of unusual interesting and important tasks if they are given the time. They will learn patterns of a degree of subtlety which normal consciousness cannot even see; make sense out of situations that are too complex to analyse; and get to the bottom of certain difficult issues much more successfully than the questing intellect. They will detect and respond to meaning, in poetry and art, as well as in relationships, that cannot be clearly articulated.” [Claxton, Guy, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, The Ecco Press: Hopewell, New Jersey, 1997, pp. 4-5]
    The evidence supporting these conclusions piles up, and continues to mount — see, for example:
    Implicit Learning and Tacit Knowledge: An Essay on the Cognitive Unconscious, Arthur Reber, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
    “On the relationship between task performance and associated verbalizable knowledge,” Lewicki, P., Hill, T., and Czyzweska, M., Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 36A, 1984, pp. 209-231.
    “Knowledge, nerves, and know-how: the role of explicit versus implicit knowledge in the breakdown of a complex skill under pressure,” Master, R. S. W, British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 83, 1992, pp. 343-358.
    “On the possibility of `smart’ perceptual mechanisms,” Runeson, Svrker, Scandanavian Journal fo Psychology, Vol. 18, 1977, pp. 172-179.
    “Intuitive prediction: biases and predictive procedures,” Kahneman Daniel, and Tversky, Amos, in Kahneman, D., Slov, P. and Tversky, A. (eds), Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1982.
    “Activation and metacognition of inaccessible stored information: potential bases for incubation effects in problem-solving,” Yaniv, I., and Meyer, D.E., Jounral of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Vol 13, 1987, pp. 187-205.
    “Intuition in the context of discovery,” Bowers, K.D., Regehr, G., Balthazard, C. and Parker, K, Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 22, 1990, pp. 72-110
    “Intuitive antecedents of insight,” Bowers K.S., Farvolden, R. and Mermigis, I., in Smith S.M. et. al. (eds), The Creative Cognition Approach
    “Thought beyond words: when language overshadows insight,” Schoolar J., Ohlsson, S, and Brooks, K., Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 122, 1993, pp. 166-183.
    “Perception without awareness in the stream of behavior: processes that produce and limit nonconscious biasing effects,” Pittman, T. in Bornstein, R. F. and Pitt, T. (eds), Perception without Awareness: Cognitive, Clinical, and Social Perspectives, New York: Guildford Press, 1992.
    “Implicit Perception,” in Bornstein and Pittman, op. cit.
    “Peripherally presented and unreported words may bias the perceived meaning of a centrally fixated homograph,” Bardshaw, J., Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 103, 1974, pp. 1200-1202.
    “Telling more than we know: verbal reports on mental processes,” Nisbett, R. and Wilson, T.,
    Psychological Review, vol. 84, 1977, pp. 231-259.
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  10. GW says

    Two articles from 20 years ago do not describe what was taught in graduate level music theory 20 years ago, let alone what is being taught in graduate level music theory today. Neither was intended to do so, as they are from a journal of undergraduate music teaching, the first written by a composer specializing in the design of electronic music instruments, the second written by a professor of school music education.
    Could mclaren please give examples of contemporary, research-level US Universities Music department which teach the music theory curriculum that he describes? Roger Bourland doesn’t teach that way at UCLA. Ian Quinn doesn’t treach that way at Yale. Klarenz Barlow doesn’t teach that way in California. Kyle Gann probably doesn’t teach that way either.
    From here, in the library of my Musikhochschule, looking at my professors comments on a Harmony exercise, this idea of a “German model” only makes me laugh. My professior does listen for parallel quints and such, but most of the comments are qualitative and subjective, about the shape of the line or the feeling of the harmony sequence, all “right brain” as you say. I think most theory is taught this way, except for popular music and jazz, in which you learn lists of scales and chords and label everything this way. Most German music schools use de la Motte’s textbooks which are 100% praxis. Counterpoint without abstract species, etc.
    Also, I laugh when I read this:
    “Since the German model labels tonality (post-1901 Schönberg) bankrupt and defines the future as serialism and other twelve-tone techniques, most other Europeans and Americans remain marginally a part of the theoretical development of music”
    Those techniques were never taught widely in Germany. Even after the Nazi time, they were some places forbidden, and everywhere else kept like secrets you could maybe only hear about in Donaueschingen or Darmstadt. And even when they were taught, students also learned of Schönberg saying that the was still music to be made in C major and actually composing his late tonal pieces.