[Smt-talk] Classical Form and Recursion

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at Princeton.EDU
Sun Apr 5 07:34:50 PDT 2009

On Apr 5, 2009, at 10:03 AM, Panayotis Mavromatis wrote:

> I agree that this is ultimately a scientific question that should  
> be addressed in the framework of cognitive psychology.  One thing  
> to keep in mind is that the notion of "capacity" cannot be simply  
> quantified, and there are active debates in psychology circles  
> about this issue.  However, it is generally agreed that this  
> capacity depends on the specific type of mental coding involved,  
> and cannot be simply defined in terms of the symbolic content of  
> the stimulus at the surface level.
> Our psychologist colleagues who study other domains have developed  
> their expertise for mental codings different from the ones relevant  
> for music (although I agree there may be some commonalities).  As a  
> result, these colleagues may not have accurate estimates on the  
> limits of music information processing, at least not at the level  
> of detail that we should be engaging in our music conversations.   
> Other disciplines can offer useful methodological models, and often  
> help us in formulating our hypotheses.  But the burden of answering  
> musical questions ultimately falls on us, and should be pursued  
> with empirical research specifically designed for that purpose.

I think we might disagree about how important the subtleties are, or  
about the level of detail required.

Typical spoken English contains syntactic units that are about 13  
words long, as compared to written English, in which the syntactic  
units are 22 words long.  This contrasts with the length of classical  
movements, which can be 20 minutes long, and can contain hundreds of  
measures and tens of thousands of notes.  Furthermore, the accuracy  
of linguistic perception is significantly higher than that of musical  
perception -- any way you slice it, there is an enormous amount of  
information loss in musical perception, whereas linguistic perception  
is remarkably accurate.  The differences here are dramatic and not at  
all subtle -- we're talking orders of magnitude, rather than factors  
of 2.

If it could be conclusively demonstrated that recursive perception in  
music outstripped recursive perception in language, by an order of  
magnitude or more, I believe it would literally be front page news,  
maybe even Nobel prize territory.  It would potentially revolutionize  
our understanding of the mind's capabilities and about the evolution  
of the species.  I suspect that any cognitive scientist who thought  
they had a chance of proving this experimentally would immediately  
drop everything and hop to it.

All I'm trying to say is: if we really believe we have good evidence  
for such an important claim -- that recursive perception in music far  
outstrips that in language -- then we let's get serious and try to  
prove it conclusively, and communicate it to the wider scientific world.


Dmitri Tymoczko
Associate Professor of Music
310 Woolworth Center
Princeton, NJ 08544-1007
(609) 258-4255 (ph), (609) 258-6793 (fax)

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