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Embodied Cognition

No one's better at embodying the sound of music than Maria!

No one’s better at embodying the sound of music than Maria!

What with Bacchanal fast approaching and the impending release of Kanye’s seventh LP, “The Life of Pablo,” Columbia’s students are rightfully excited about new musical developments. But yesterday evening, the Heyman Center for the Humanities hosted a symposium-style exploration articulating another reason why we should get excited about music: musical embodiment.

Yesterday’s second annual workshop on Embodied Cognition focused primarily on the interplay between music and movement with regard to embodiment, examining first how music can be embodied through the listener. Mariusz Kozak, an assistant professor of music at Columbia, started the symposium by positing that “we think and act the way we do because we have particular kinds of bodies,” extrapolating from this to support how music serves to regulate the ways in which we both think and act. In this regulatory function, Kozak argued music is both an expression and an extension of human cognitive capacity, leading into a larger question: “What does how you hear reveal about what you hear?” As anyone who learned the recorder in elementary school would know, music is made up of “musical objects”: various pitches, harmonies, and rhythms. Much of Kozak’s research into this question has been dedicated to examining how people react to music that lacks one of those distinct objects of music, tracking movements and patterns of responses to musics that have no set pattern or rhythm. His findings indicate that people, sometimes, can apply a pattern to completely un-rhythmic music. Working this back around to the concept of musical embodiment, Kozak argued that maybe we, the listeners, can find musical objects that don’t exist in sound but rather only in our own bodily resonance; listeners embodied music through movement.

The symposium shifted tack following Kozak’s talk with Luc Nijs, a post-doctoral researcher from Ghent University, presenting his views on the musician-instrument relationship and its effect on embodiment. Nijs opened by showing the crowd a video of his son, Tristan, playing the violin, pointing out to us how Tristan sways in time when not playing but stops swaying as soon as he has to focus on the violin. He contrasted this with another video of a professional violinist dancing around while playing an extremely complicated piece. Relating this to the musician-instrument relationship, Nijs argued that there is a balance between expertise and the level of bodily motility a musician can exercise when performing. Nijs then applied this to the process of learning music; in order to truly master an instrument, and gain expertise and bodily motility, a musicians must allow themselves to see the instrument as an extension of their bodies, thus embodying the instrument.

The final two speakers of the symposium were Andrew Goldman, a Presidential Scholar of Society and Neuroscience, and Carmel Raz, a fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities. Goldman’s response focused primarily on an activity called “live-coding,” where a coder creates music by writing code to produce a variety of musical objects and sounds. For Goldman, this represents a unique phenomenon whereby the musician is wholly disembodied with regard to the music they’re creating. Raz’s response and contribution to the discussion focused on the history of music performed by automatons and animals, addressing the ways in which musical ability was programmed into machines that then acted independently or taught into animals who couldn’t otherwise learn the ability. Again, there is an element of separation between the “true musician” (the machinist/teacher) and the music that is being created, a certain element of disembodiment in the music.

Although I gave up my pursuit of music during my sophomore year of high school, I still managed to appreciate this symposium and how it addressed the concept of musical embodiment. As a listener, the way I react to a piece of music gives the abstract musical objects a grounded sense of embodiment within me, and as weird as that sounds, it’s really just an interesting academic explanation for why ‘just losing yourself in the music’ is such a common (and enjoyable) experience. This symposium made me proud of human curiosity; these musicologists and philosophers and neuroscientists got together to try and understand why humans get so involved with the creation and listening process of music. For them, music enables people to reach a higher state of mind when they embody the sounds and rhythms, whether playing or just listening to music.

Look at all the Sounds I Hear via Drafthouse

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  • luc nijs says:

    @luc nijs Hi all,
    my son’s name is Tristan…
    Thanks for the article.

    1. Mason Amelotte says:

      @Mason Amelotte Our apologies––we’ll fix that now. Thanks for letting us know!

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