Music Cognition as a Window to the World

Semiotics:55-62 (2011)
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Worldviews are windows to the world. They can be static in referring to visual connotations as suggested by their name, but they can hold a dynamic and genetic view as well. As such, they imply a fundamental cognitive orientation, involving selection, interpretation and interaction with the world. What matters, in this view, is a kind of sense-making or semiotization of the world. The semiotization of the “sonic world”, accordingly, can be approached from different epistemological positions: is music reducible to symbolic labels that function as names, or is it only music when it sounds? And is music to be considered as an artifact that is out there or as something that must be listened to in order to make sense? Rather than joining these discussions, I propose to broaden the focus and to embrace psychological claims as well. Though psychology is not commonly considered as semiotics’ companion theory of truth, there are points of convergence with respect to the hierarchical arrangement of epistemic interactions with the sounds: there is a lower level processing of sensory input (sensation), a somewhat higher level (perception) which involves a first level of sense-making—mostly at a preverbal level—, and a higher level of sense-making which is commonly labeled as cognition. In what follows I will argue for a cumulative model with lower levels not being substituted by higher ones, but with higher levels being superposed on them. Music, in fact, is a sounding art with the richness of it sonorous unfolding as one of its major characteristics. Music processing, therefore, should keep step with the music as it unfolds over time, in a dynamic tension that does justice to the level of sensation as well as to the listener’s continuous epistemic interactions with the sounds.
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