Dealing with Music Towards an Operational Approach

Musicology as a discipline has many topics of research. There are, in fact, prevailing paradigms such as historical research, music analysis, and performance studies. On the other hand, new paradigms are evolving which challenge these traditional approaches by focussing on four major claims: (i) music as a sounding art; (ii) the process of dealing with music; (iii) the role of the musical experience; and (iv) the process of sense-making while dealing with the sounding music. As such, there is a major turn in contemporary musicological research which argues for the broadening of the field from a 'structural approach' to music - with a major emphasis on the delimitation of musical units and their interrelations - to a 'processual approach' that also takes into account the 'musical experience' (see Blacking, 1955; Maattanen, 1993; Westerlund, 2002; Reybrouck, 2004). Dealing with music, in this view, is a processual experience which is related to the definition of music as a 'sounding' and 'temporal' art. Hence the importance of the listening experience which is both sensory driven and time consuming. Listening, moreover, can be defined in ecological terms as 'coping with the sounds', encompassing several levels of processing such as the perceptual, the computational/representational, and the behavioural one (for an elaboration of the terms, see below). All these levels can be treated in isolation but they can be integrated in a more encompassing framework as well. As such, it is appealing to argue for an 'operational' description of the major moments of dealing with music with at least two major claims: (i) the definition of music should be broadened from a rather restricted and limited category - the classical Western art music - to a more encompassing definition of music as a subset of the sonic environment; and (ii) the process of dealing with music should be approached from the positions of cybernetics and systems theory (Reybrouck, 2005a, 2006b,c). The latter, especially, provide a useful 'operational' terminology for describing the multiple interactions of an organism with its environment, relying on some very basic functions such as perceptual input, internal processing, effector output, and feedback.

The major moments of this interaction are exemplified in the 'cybernetic' concept of a control system (see Fig. 1). Cybernetics, as a whole, is a unifying discipline

Fig. 1 The basic schema of a control system

that brings together concepts as different as the flow of information, control by feedback, adaptation, learning. and self-organisation (see Bateson 1973, 1978, 1985; Brier, 1999; Cariani, 2003). It has reintroduced the role of the observer into science, and has stressed the major role of subjectivity as well. This has been emphasised particularly in 'second order cybernetics', which typically conceives the observer as a participant and as part of the observed system (see Luhmann, 1990, 1995; Maturana and Varela, 1980; Pask, 1961a,b, 1992; von Foerster, 1974, 1984). There is, in fact, a lot of freedom in the way observers construct their knowledge as the outcome of their interactions with the environmental world.

Dealing with music, accordingly, can be considered as a kind of 'knowledge acquisition'. It allows us to conceive of music in epistemological terms and to conceive of listeners as observers who construct and organise their knowledge and bring with them, their observational tools (Maturana, 1978, pp. 28-29). The central point in this approach is the role of subjectivity and the way it influences our reactions to the environment. Living organisms, in fact, behave as subjects that respond to 'signs' and not to 'causal stimuli'. This is a major claim of semiotic functioning that stresses the emancipation from mere causality and time-bound reactivity.

The latter has been advocated most typically by the pioneers of Russian objective experimental psychology in what they presented as reflex theories (Bechterev, 1917, 1933; Kornilov, 1930; Pavlov, 1926). Both Kornilov's reactology - which held the view that an organism is nothing but a bundle of responses to the environment - and Bechterew's reflexology, which studied reflex responses, especially as they affect behaviour, were major exponents of a naturalistic and mechanistic view on the relation between subjective experience and the material world. Both approaches also tried to offer a needed alternative for mere idealistic psychology. They have proven, however, to be somewhat inadequate in being too behavioural and too reductionistic in their methodology. Reactive activity, for example, involves a direct coupling between sensory input and resulting effects, based on a 'history-less transfer function' of a particular automatism (Meystel, 1998). Such a mechanism, however, seems to be inadequate for the explanation of goal-directed behaviour with deliberate planning.

Arguing on these lines it is obvious to question also the role of direct perception. This conception of the perceptual process - as elaborated in ecological psychology

(Gibson, 1966, 1979, 1982) - holds that perception is possible without the mind intervening in the process. It involves presentational immediacy of the sensory stimuli and launches immediate reactions to the solicitations of the environment, proceeding mainly in real time. There is a lot of empirical support in favour of this claim, yet it is possible to go beyond the constraints of mere reactivity and to put intermediate variables between the sensory stimuli and the reactions which are triggered by these stimuli (Paillard, 1994; Reybrouck, 2001b).

The position I hold is a biosemiotic and ecosemiotic one. Rather than relying on wired-in circuitry with well-defined reactions to well-defined stimuli, I argue for the introduction of mechanisms of sense-making and epistemic autonomy, as music users do not merely react to sounds, but to sounds as signs which are the outcome of current and previous epistemic interactions with the sounding world (Reybrouck, 1999, 2005a). Music knowledge, in this view, is to be 'constructed' and 'acquired' rather than being merely 'innate' and 'wired-in'. The mechanisms of knowledge construction, however, are not totally autonomous: there are perceptual, ecological, and psychophysiological constraints which function as filters with respect to the information that listeners can actually pick up and process.

As such, we should consider the biological bases of musical epistemology (Reybrouck, 2001a) with a corresponding tension between 'nature' and 'nurture' -referring respectively to the neurobiological claims of wired-in circuitry (innate and natural mechanisms) for perceptual information pickup - as against the learned mechanisms for information processing and sense-making. The claims may seem to be diverging at first glance, but they are complementary to a great extent. To quote Damasio:

as we develop from infancy to adulthood, the design of brain circuitries that represent our evolving body and its interaction with the world seems to depend on the activities in which the organism engages, and on the action of innate bioregulatory circuitries, as the latter react to such activities. This account underscores the inadequacy of conceiving brain, behavior, and mind in terms of nature versus nurture, or genes versus experience. Neither our brains nor our minds are tabulae rasae when we are born. Yet neither are they fully determined genetically. The genetic shadow looms large but is not complete. (1994, p. 111)

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