Thursday, 24 November 2011

Music and embedded cognition

My friend and colleague Brian Garvey gave a work-in-progress paper yesterday about embedded cognition and the evolutionary explanation of morality. I'm not going to do justice to it, because I want to pick up on one small issue that intrigued me.

Embedded cognition occurs when we outsource cognitive work: when we write things down instead of remembering them, or use a calculator to do sums. One of Brian's other examples was the organisation of orchestras: the players outsource the cognitive work of keeping a beat, moving together, balancing different instruments, and musical interpretation, to a conductor; they outsource thinking about what notes to play, in what order, to a score.

I frivolously suggested that this explains why jazz is better than orchestral music. That claim is silly as it stands, of course, and I don't mean it. But there is an interesting difference here: jazz players do far less outsourcing than orchestral players. Jazz is centrally music in which the players are individually doing the cognitive work to produce a communal piece, without conductors or scores. (Not entirely: several features of jazz can be thought of as outsourcing techniques, or at least as techniques for reducing cognitive load. Part of a jazz musician's education, for example, is learning heads and changes - snippets of melody and sequences of chords which shape improvisation. That's what a jazz standard like 'Body and Soul' or 'Stella by Starlight' is: a melodic head plus chords over which players improvise, often in an alternating chorus/solo form. Free jazz, if we think this way about it, is an attempt to outsource as little as possible: to return all of the work of music-creation to individual cognition.)

That difference between jazz and orchestral music offers a way to defend a less silly version of my silly claim: jazz is better than orchestral music at engaging and interconnecting the many different cognitive capacities involved in music-creation. Where an orchestral player is using just some of her own musical faculties (at a very high level of skill and effort), a jazz player is using many more of those faculties, as well as meta-cognitive faculties to organise and coordinate them. So, if we think that the purpose of playing music, like the purpose of other human activities, is fully to express human and individual faculties, and jazz is better than orchestral music at fulfilling that purpose, then jazz is better than orchestral music.

That's a big 'if', of course...

1 comment:

  1. I think what you're saying makes sense - I believe Jazz is better than orchestral not on the grounds that one type of music is less impressive than the other but simply on the grounds that unlike orchestral music that any talented enough orchestra can bring to life by simply reading score, Jazz is caught in the moment - it retains the fingerprints of the original composers who performed the piece in such an indestructible fashion. For example it's hard to imagine a song from Miles Davis' 'Milestones' appearing as a ringtone on a Nokia mobile phone because it is not imitable in the same way - so in a sense I couldn't say one is better than the other, but I certainly admire and appreciate jazz more.