Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are there four beats or only three?

You are browsing, let us imagine, in a music shop, and come across a box of faded pianola rolls. One of them bears an illegible title, and you unroll the first foot or two, to see if you can recognize the work from the pattern of holes in the paper. Are there four beats in the bar, or only three? Does the piece begin on the tonic, or some other note? Eventually you decide that the only way of finding out is to buy the roll, take it home, and play it on the pianola. Within seconds your ears have told you what your eyes were quite unable to make out — that you are now the proud possessor of a piano arrangement of “Colonel Bogey”.

This is the opening paragraph of an article that was printed in 1979 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. It came out as part of the book Mental Processes: Studies in Cognitive Science by H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins in 1987.

The chapter on music —of which the citation above is part— made a lasting experience on me, and actually made me decide that music cognition is worth dedicating all of one's research to. It made me realize that all those things musicologists and music theorists considered mere axiom’s —such as a meter, an upbeat, or a syncopation— were extremely interesting in themselves, and could be studied using methods from this developing field called ‘cognitive science’.

It is now precisely twenty years ago since H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins’ book was published: An impressive collection of papers with topics ranging from music and language to vision and memory.

It also includes his comments to the Lighthill Report, published in 1973, in which he proposed ‘Cognitive Science’ as a label for what he saw, then, as an emerging interdisciplinary field.

Unfortunately, you have to go to the library to read it: it has been out of print for quite a while.

(See also a text in Dutch —Nieuwsbrief 102— on the same topic.)

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