(musical) time and machine musicianship (part 0)

HZ: ‘wind-chimes’ (click to hear…)

HZ: ‘wind-chimes’ (click to hear…)

Melanie L. Marshall, in asking questions about musicality, takes a Foucauldian track and asks about musicality’s opposite, and in doing so, discusses and critiques some modern attempts at drawing a boundary between the musical and the unmusical. Melanie pulls up research by Henkjan Honing as an interesting, if problematic, example of such an attempt at drawing the boundary. Honing sketches out some provocative research as part of his TEDxAmsterdam talk. Honing suggests that we have inbuilt, hard-wired musical abilities.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the issues of whether we (scientists, researchers) have access to these pre-cultural, intrinsic abilities (as Bruno Latour might point out, we, at best, have access only to mediation—graphs, charts, sensor data, etc.), and whether our cultural tools, technology and language might make us observe phenomena in specifically cultural ways (can Honing’s ‘beat’ be defined para-culturally?), I think there’s a secondary problem: is ‘beat detection,’ however defined, an intrinsically musical ability? or, put it another way, what kind of ‘beat detection’ might be musical, and does it resemble, or require, the infant ‘beat detection’ as studied by Honing?

A couple of (personal) experiences lead me to be skeptical of the proposition that such simple ‘beat detection’ might be foundational to practical musicality in general, and to latter-day improvised musics in particular.

  • A big part of teaching real-time interactive performance or group improvisation, I found, was getting students not to lockstep; for them to ‘hold their ground,’ to ‘find their own rhythm,’ to express, embody and perform autonomy. (Once we can do that, lock-stepping becomes a choice, but that’s a story for another time…)
  • In group improvisation, input parsing is not an unambiguous matter. There isn’t one correct answer to, say, where the beat is. Furthermore, creative (mis)understandings may be a significant component of the generative engine in improvisation. (I’ll return to the subject of ambiguity in stimulus-response in the context of machine improvisation in a future post.)
  • I’ve been fascinated by creative improvising drummers’ ability to simultaneously generate multiple senses of time (e.g. Oxley, Sanders), to switch and morph between multiple pulses (e.g. Cyrille, Hayward), or blur the boundary between in and out of time (e.g. Black). Inspired, I found a way to do this on guitar by delegating timekeeping to my limbs, joints, digits—to my body and its interaction with the instrument. Charles Hayward talked about drumming as an interaction between physiology and physics. Might the cognitive dimension of Honing’s ‘beat’ be peripheral, perhaps irrelevant, to this cyborgian practice of musicking?

It seems to me that the assumed importance of beat detection as a marker of musicality is itself a form of, in the Foucauldian sense, regulation. Perhaps the assumption of a foundational importance to musicality of a simple ‘beat detection’ stems from subscribing to a command-control model of musicality. In this model the mind is the central hub of the musical. In this model, rhythm is constant, inherited, external and which must be followed. This model, in turn, arises from certain, widely held to be sure, cultural assumptions about desirable and ‘natural’ social and political interactions. What do these assumptions blind us from?

[Continued in part 0.1…]

This entry was posted in construction, software, theory and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted February 20, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    1. The boundary between musical and unmusical is always drawn within the individual, since music ultimately resides in the perception.
    2. Your skepticism about beat detection is not at all opposite to the proposition that such simple ‘beat detection’ might be foundational to practical musicality.
    In my personal experience as improviser I am at all times very aware of the “conventional” rhythms and beats, and I choose to ignore them the best I can, except for when I choose not to ignore them and play with them. The tendency for regulation exists within me, but I have control over it. This control though is something that I acquired through practice. And this is where improvisation as a practice comes into play, where we can leave conventions behind, learn to “stand our ground”, as you said.
    3. The musical hub is not in the mind. The hub of being is not in the mind. The hub of life is not in the mind. It is in the we, it is in the common experience, one could argue that therefor the musical hub is simply in this universe. This, of course, makes it very difficult to write a thesis about, doesn’t it?

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment, Bernd.

      Taking your second point, what does it mean to “choose to ignore” “‘conventional’ rhythms and beats”? Might it be possible to envision a musical practice in which “‘conventional’ rhythms and beats” might not exist to be ignored?

      Interestingly enough, the idea of the control as you describe it (“tendency for regulation exists within me, but I have control over it”) is pretty much exactly the mechanism (as Foucault described) that birthed of the Western subject.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Markus Wenninger
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Wholeheartedly supports this scepticism. All like attempts to find a hardwiring for any form of the arts is methodologically naive & prey to the fallacy of metaphysics – “the truth is out there”, whether this spot of innocence is located inside the brain organ, inside a cultural teaching or consuming place, or even in the structure of the world (: the illusion of being able to pry the natura naturans from the natura naturata). Honestly I don’t get the point of interest in such a, e.g. “there’s beat detection in humans, and that’s where music comes from!” naiveté?! There’s no outside to naturans, & these followers of behaviourism & metaphysics should better learn to live with the fact that music can & will crop up anywheres & at any time & in any form, beat or no beat- drop that idea of anticipation & lexicality, that’s structuralism, & we’ve had that already.

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      Honestly I don’t get the point of interest in such a, e.g. “there’s beat detection in humans, and that’s where music comes from!” naiveté?!

      Naivete? Perhaps… but it’s also a form of political/ideological regulation; closing off some forms of politics, reenforcing others.

      Thanks for the comment, and for reading!

3 Trackbacks

Post a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.