Saturday, March 26, 2016


Steven H. Cornelius
Music and Stroke
Posted on March 19, 2012

Music psychologist Eric Clarke takes an “ecological approach to perception.” He writes that, “Perception is a self-tuning process” in search of resonance, and that resonance is a “perceiving organism’s active, exploratory engagement with its environment” (Ways of Listening: An Ecological Approach to the Perception of Musical Meaning 2005:17-19). For him, strategies for achieving resonance are necessarily adaptive, influenced by both our physical and cultural environments.

I am sympathetic with Clarke’s ecological framework and the idea of achieving emotional/social resonance (or proper “fit”) through environmental engagement. But I would have been much more comfortable with his ideas had he put thinking at the front of his argument, although he perhaps includes thinking as a part of perception. (We do perceive our thinking, after all.)

Clarke writes, “We detect a sound and turn to it.”

Yes, of course we do. Or we don’t. We only turn to the sound if it interests us (pushes into our consciousness and seems relevant). And still, we turn only if we seek context or require more information. We turn not because of the sound, but because of our thinking. To me, thinking is the “perceiving organism’s active, exploratory engagement with its environment.” If the thinking is strong, resonance might be achieved with an environmental event, but only if thinking outweighs other factors (desires, conflicting interests, bias, pre-conceptions, etc.).

Our thinking adds information beyond the sensory. For example, as I wrote these last sentences my daughter’s dog came into the room, sniffed about, then lay down behind me. I know she was content by the sounds she made (or didn’t make), and now by the slow breathing that indicates she is already asleep.

Right now I hear a bird outside my window. By the sound I know the bird’s color, approximate size, general location, and, if I knew more about ‘caws,’ perhaps why the crow is making such a fuss. Have I achieved Clarke’s resonant ideal? To the extent that I am in tune with the environment, I suppose so. But only because of my thinking, thinking that went well beyond sensory perception.

It seems to me that achieving some sort of “deep resonance” (my term) requires constant, emergent, and engaged thinking. Of course, such thinking might spark increased perceptual awareness and differentiation and the potential for greater resonance. But if we stop seeking to clarify perception in the moment (and stop for even a moment), then we necessarily rely on remembrances or stock cultural perspectives. Without clear and engaged in-the-moment perception, we re-present and continue to enable potentially incorrect understandings (or false resonances).

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