[Smt-talk] Classical Form and Recursion

Panayotis Mavromatis pm68 at nyu.edu
Sun Apr 5 10:16:42 PDT 2009

Hi Dmitri,

On Apr 5, 2009, at 10:34 AM, Dmitri Tymoczko wrote:
> I think we might disagree about how important the subtleties are,  
> or about the level of detail required.

First of all, it will be fair to say that I recognize a lot of common  
methodological ground between you and me.  Therefore, I offer my  
comments in the spirit of clarification, not radical disagreement.   
However, as they say, the devil is in the details, on which I will  
gently but firmly insist.

> 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.

To your above estimates, I respond by simply quoting my earlier  
comment: "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."  In other words, it may not be good enough to simply count  
measures and notes.  And the way we count could affect the answer  
even by an order of magnitude.  Memory is a reconstructive process,  
in which a chunk that has been learned schematically, and counts as  
one unit in terms of information processing load, can be unpacked to  
represent a large number of surface events, such as notes.  The  
question is: What are the chunks that are involved in music  
processing specifically?

Also, accuracy is not a direct measure of processing capacity, since  
the former also involves the strength of the relevant long-term  
memory structures evoked in parsing the stimulus.  It is indeed  
likely that we have better and quicker access to structures that  
enable us to parse a sentence than we do for those structures that  
help us parse musical structure.  So accuracy does not simply boil  
down to how big a hierarchical tree we can fit in working memory in  
each case.

> 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.

Absolutely.  I am with you!


> DT
> Dmitri Tymoczko
> Associate Professor of Music
> 310 Woolworth Center
> Princeton, NJ 08544-1007
> (609) 258-4255 (ph), (609) 258-6793 (fax)
> http://music.princeton.edu/~dmitri
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