Embodied music cognition

Embodied music cognition

Embodied music cognition is a concept within musicology.

A direction within systematic musicology interested in studying the role of the human body in relation to all musical activities.

The human body is thereby considered as the natural mediator between mind (focused on musical intentions, meanings, significations) and physical environment (containing musical sound and other types of energy that affords human action).


Given the impact of body movement on musical meaning formation and signification, the musical mind is said to be embodied. Embodiment assumes that what happens in the mind is depending on properties of the body, such as kinaesthetic properties.Embodied music cognition tends to see music perception as based on action. For example, many people move when they listen to music. Through movement, it is assumed that people give meaning to music. This type of meaning-formation is corporeal, rather than cerebral because it is understood through the body. This is different from a disembodied approach to music cognition, which sees musical meaning as being based on a perception-based analysis of musical structure. The embodied grounding of music perception is based on a multi-modal encoding of auditory information and on principles that ensure the coupling of perception and action.

During the last decade, research in embodied music cognition has been strongly motivated by a demand for new tools in view of the interactive possibilities offered by digital media technology.

With the advent of powerful computing tools, and in particular real-time interactive music systems, gradually more attention has been devoted to the role of gesture in music. This musical gestures research has been rather influential in that it puts more emphasis onsensorimotor feedback and integration, as well as on the couplingof perception and action. With new sensor technology, gesture-based research has meanwhile become a vast domain of music research, with consequences for the methodological and epistemological foundations of music cognition research.


The scientific apparatus draws upon an empirical and evidence-based methodology, which is based on measurement of sound (via audio-recording), human movement (via video-recording, kinematic recording), human biology (via bioparameter-recording) and semantics (via questionnaires). Using a scientific apparatus for measurement, statistical analysis and computational modelling, music embodied cognition aims building up reliable knowledge about the role of the human body in meaning formation.


Research in embodied music cognition has a strong connection with technology development, more particularly, in fields related to interactive music systems, and music information retrieval. Mediation technology is the technology by which the human body, and consequently also the human mind, can be given an extension in the digital musical domain.

Difference with (disembodied) music cognition

Descartes' dualism had a tremendous impact on cognitive science and in particular also on cognitive musicology. Influenced by Gestalt psychology, music cognition research of the last decades of the 20th Century was mainly focusing on the perception of structure, that is, the perception of pitch, melody, rhythm, harmony and tonality. It considered music perception as a faculty on its own, completely dissociated from musical action. Instead, in studies on embodied musical activity (such as listening and music performance), subjects are invited to actively engage in the signification process. This engagement is articulated by means of corporeal expression which can be measured, analyzed, modelled and related to the musical stimulus. The idea of René Descartes, that mental activity is of a separate order from body movement is refuted and, in fact reversed.

Difference with traditional musicology

The difference with the traditional phenomenological and hermeneuticapproaches to musical meaning formation is that embodied music cognition has a focus on an empirical and evidence-based methodology, rather than on subjective first-person descriptions. Embodied music cognition aims at giving a full account of the subjective involvement by taking into account the role of the social-cultural context, subjective background (involving gender, age, familiarity with music, degree of music education).

Embodied music cognition adopts a scientific methodology but its aim is not to reduce music to physics, nor to reduce gesture and embodied meaning to the biomechanics of the human body. Instead, embodied music cognition fully recognizes the contribution of all mental and bodily systems including subjective feelings, emotions and coinaesthetic (or body image) awareness.

See also

* Musical gestures
* Music philosophy

External Links

* [http://www.ipem.ugent.be/ISSSM2007 Summer School in Systematic Musicology, focus on embodied music cognition] , Ghent University (Belgium)

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