Outlines of a Cognitive Musicology
Ole Kühl, M.A. Royal Academy of Music, Aarhus; Center of Semiotics, Aarhus University.
Per Aage Brandt, prof., dr. phil. Center of Semiotics, Aarhus University; Case Western
Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.
Outlines of a Cognitive Musicology
Music is a form of symbolic communication. Through music we share vital
information about ourselves and the world. We feel that music is talking to
us, even if it does not produce a well defined referential content: music
moves us emotionally, bodily and mentally.
Cognitive science offers a new perspective on the content structure of the
musical message: musical experience can be seen as embodied. According to
such a view, music is drawing on pre‑verbal layers of meaning.
Musical structure (as dealt with in traditional musicology) belongs on the
objective side together with the socio‑cultural background‑framing (which is
the topic of ethnomusicology and popular music studies). But, furthermore,
the functional structure of the process “making‑sense‑of‑music” has stable
properties across individual and cultural boundaries and can be described
Such a description would not only make cognitive musicology a sparring
partner for neuromusicology, providing interpretative models for empirical
data; it would also offer the possibility of grounding musicological tools in
1. Defining the Field of Study
Musical experience Background framing
Mental 3: Personal
Cognitively we experience music as imagined movement (“gesture”) and as
emotional and mental activity. These three levels of response interact with
each other in certain ways. The musical experience is framed in ways that are
mostly shared ‑ the situation and the socio‑cultural history ‑ as well as in
more personal ways.
2. The Musical Sign Function The relations between the three main
components of the musical content structure can
be determined through a semiotic analysis, in
which the signfunction is seen as having an
expressive level and a content level.
The musical phrase is an auditive event
Musical (expression level), which iconizes an imagined
phrase gesture (content level). This means that we
experience musical events as internalized
movements or gestures (mental imagery).
IC The expressive gesture, while being a common
denominator between several aesthetic modes, is
Auditive Gesture itself a signfunction. It has movement in space
event and time as the expressive level and emotion
(affect) as content level: The movement
SY symbolizes an emotion.
The experience of an emotional content brings to
Movement Emotion mind the idea of a subject who is part of an
unfolding story. The symbolic linking of an
auditive event to an emotional content through
expressive gesture indicates a narrative in which
IN gesture/emotion is embedded.
Agent Narrative This “sign‑cascade” sums up the musical
experience in a semiotic perspective, bringing
together the gestural, the emotional and the
narrative level of the music. Neurobiological
evidence as well as theories from cognitive
science confirm this view.
3. Temporal Architecture of Musical Cognition
Music is not an amorphous entity without generic structure, but, being humanly organized, it is
subject to certain biological constraints. These constraints are not only determined by the ear, but also
by the temporal organization of the brain.
Although it largely remains a mystery how afferent and efferent streams, memory systems and other
cognitive functions interact with each other in the temporal dimension, there is considerable evidence
supporting the view that the temporal architecture of the brain is tuned into interaction with the world
on a meso‑level. Temporal activities, such as talking, gesturing and making music, seem to be
organized around what is sometimes called the 3‑second window.
According to this view, human cognition stratifies the flow of temporal perception in three layers. On
the micro level there is a perceptual stream of discrete auditive units or musical sounds. These are
organized ‑ through binding ‑ into musical phrases or gestures, which constitute the meso level. The
gestures are then integrated in higher order structures and become parts of musical narratives.
Both of these processes, the binding and the integration, show strong top‑down influences.
4. Conceptualizing Music
Musical thinking is preverbally organized, and it is reasonable to assume that a
number of well‑known cognitive functions are involved. Among these are
categorization, which is a simple biological function found in many species,
proto‑narrativity and some form of conceptual integration process also known
The blending model employed here is adapted from Fauconnier & Turner to
include situatedness, introduced from the base space via the relevance space.
a) The musical notation system can be explained as a blended structure: The
melodic curve in one input space maps onto a temporal schema in the other.
Overall tonal and metric structure from the relevance space stabilizes the blend.
b) The musical sign functions will be conceptually integrated in the following
way: Gesture maps onto emotion, and they are integrated as inner subjective
movement in the virtual space. Informed by the overall musical narrative, some
understanding of the musical phrase emerges in the blend.
4a. The Musical Phrase
Base space Presentation Reference
Relevance Virtual space
4b. Conceptualization in Music
Basespace Input space I Input space II
Music Gesture Emotion
Relevance space Virtual space
5. Preverbal Meaning Construction
Rhythm Body gesture
Text elements Semantic content
Musical Metrical form Spatial maps Musical
Vocal quality Affective resonance
Specific elements Acquired memory
The structure of musical semantics can be described in the following way:
We have an outer presentation of sounding causes, which can be called the musical
object, and an inner representation of effects, which we call the musical experience.
Salient features of the music will resonate in the human body in certain ways:
•Rhythm resonates as body gesture (“Dancing in Your Head”) with
•Text elements evoke specific semantic content.
•Metrical form is experienced as spatial maps, routes through space.
•Musical phrases are expressive gestures.
•The quality of the human voice has strong affective resonance.
•Certain elements in the music will call upon acquired personal or cultural
Some of the elements that arise as musical experience seem to map onto each
other, forming meaningful networks and emerging as musical semantics. These
processes need more detailed study. (The list is far from complete but merely
shows some of the more common examples.)
1) Daniel Stern (1985, 1998): The Interpersonal World of the Infant, London. Antonio Damasio
(1999): The Feeling of What Happens, London.
2) Rolf Inge Godøy and Harald Jørgensen (2001): Musical Imagery, Lisse.
3) Louis hjelmslev (1961): Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, Madison. Umberto Eco (1976):
A Theory of Semiotics, Chicago.
4) John Blacking (1973): How Musical is Man? , Seattle.
5) Ernst Pöppel (1994): “Temporal Mechanisms in Perception” in: International Review of
6) Lawrence M. Zbikowski (2002): Conceptualizing Music, Oxford.
7) Colwyn Trevarthen (1994): “Infant Semiosis” in Winfried Nöth (ed.): Origins of Semiosos,
8) Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2002): The Way We Think, New York
9) Per Aage Brandt (2004): Spaces, Domains and Meanings, Bern.