Essay for Performers: Empirical Research and Artistic Expertise

Recently downloaded the latest Nosaj Thing album, Home. It’s less dub than his earlier stuff (which I also really enjoyed) but this album has been perfect background for writing and riding, while still rich enough for getting suspended in the sound. Or at least, that is its effect on me. The expert knowledge of a musician like Nosaj Thing is in the insights which enable his craft: sensitivities and controls which give inspiring opportunities and the sufficiently successful results. You might not have the same response to the shimmering pads of Home, but enough people have enjoyed his style of output to encourage a third album release, giving value and credibility to his aesthetic choices. This knowledge through practice is, in essence, coming to know the world or some topic through anecdote: instances of trial and error without systematic investigation of what should or could happen. For an individual creator, the systematic approach would be ridiculously inefficient. When your priority is to make something, having some idea of what is possible in many cases is more useful than knowing everything about very few.

The expertise of actions is extended and challenged through trying to share theories of a craft. Pedagogical exercises of varying degrees of formality give feedback to the understanding of artists, as their own perspectives on how they work are put against the confusion and distinct conceptualisations of others. Teaching and sharing allows for successful (popular, robust) conceptualisation to flourish. These are not necessarily right, and conflicting artists often do not bother to resolve their differences, but the ideas that form schools of thought and traditions continue to spread while no one (of sufficient importance) puts forward contradicting evidence. Master classes always feel a little uncomfortable (to me) when watching an expert try to communicate with someone unknown to them, struggling to convey specific insights through verbally expressed metaphors of all kinds and demonstrations. “Play through the line” I’ve heard in dozens of contexts, and never has it been obvious what was meant.

The insights of empirical study of the arts can be seen as just another perspective to be resolved with practicing creators’ understanding and experience in the same fashion as that of a peer. Any (every) knowledge network (a persons’, or a school’s) is incomplete and contains assumptions which are not supported by experience. But the insights of measurement and distributions and cause and effect arguments are often received as challenges to practiced intuition: information from a foreign source which is hard to incorporate when the debates of what is good in practice have been worked out over time through the creator’s body, rather than seeded from abstractions traced by neurones in their head.

Science is sometimes treated as the abolisher of intuition, a threatening force prescribing limits on artists. In flitting between music theory (composers/analysts/historians) and psychology, I’ve often sat simmering before someone discussing the irrelevant (according to my other academic home). With a little patience, however, it has become apparent that such judgements are usually unfair. For example, the human ear is limited in how well it can hear different frequencies: Just Noticeable Difference, JND, is the minimum frequency difference between pitched sounds which we have proven to be capable of detecting, consciously or unconsciously. Our acuity changes a little with the timbre and frequency range of the sounds heard and between individuals, but there is always a lower bound. Prior to and independent of this research in auditory perception, there has been a great deal of work put into creating and explaining different objectives for tuning instruments (dear old Newton had plans for 19 and 31 notes per octave plan for the piano, using split keys) but many of the calculable differences are nearly or absolutely undetectable to the average listener. Does all that work get brushed aside when psychophysics says we can’t hear the difference? As I hate tuning debates, I’d like to say yes, but that would be short sighted. While comparing note for note (or more likely sine tone to sine tone) differences go unnoticed, but the sounds of notes played together can be shaded in interesting ways because of these faint distinctions. How an instrument is tuned may influence how a musician plays, encouraging this vs that kind of harmonies and melodies. I might not be able to tell you whether a recording of Couperin’s harpsichord preludes are played in equal or just intonation, but the tuning of his own instrument was part of what determined his compositions, and that is enough to make it worth understanding.

Science asks very different questions than creators or critics. For one, empirical investigation is limited to the measurable, and science is limited to what we think to quantify. When I tell people I research music and emotion, their eyes alight with ideas of what that could be, and it is disappointing to explain how their experience of emotion in response to music is far away from what we can study systematically, or at least how we have been studying it. The psychologists’ default approach is to look for what is common, general across participants in experiments, but strong responses to music, the moments we remember, are rare, practically speaking, and very hard to induce while under laboratory controls. Instead of looking at the moments that inspire gasps or tears on occasion, my research community correlates heart rate with tempo across excerpts of classical music, or regresses the time series of a recording’s spectral centroid with subjects’ average reported emotional arousal. The science is slow to work out where the interesting information might be in the mix of what we have measured, and at this time most of what we can assess is not all that interesting, or relevant, to music as people experience in the day to day. So it’s OK that artists aren’t knocking on our office doors looking for insight in their art; our offering is pretty meager and slow to grow. That said, as an inbetweener, I have hope that meeting of practical knowledge with systematic study can breed transformative understanding which will give us more options for musical experiences, not less. Obviously, great music will still be made, whether or not I can model how any particular body response to a Wagner overture, but the effort may very well tell us something about what it is to be human, and musical, and give value to experiences sometimes overlooked.

There are many areas which hope to take the credibility of scientific findings to bolster their standing in the minds of policy makers. It’s an ugly truth in the American education system that misinterpreted findings about the benefits of music making are being used to plead that music not be cut in favour of testing oriented activities. While I would love to have my community’s work encourage the recognition of arts as something of personal and public value (as opposed to, say, torture or mind control, a sad possibility) I am sorry that precedence and the experience of those teaching and sharing arts are so easily dismissed. The insights of science are slow to gather and different in form than the knowledge of other methods of learning, and while it can challenge assumptions of common practice, it is no replacement for the experience of people who create.


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