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TDI-3 Marc Leman

Topic – How does embodied music cognition augment our understanding of meaning-making in digital scores?

This was the third conversation in a series of trans-disciplinary discussions with experts from a range of fields to enhance the theoretical understanding of the digital score. The aim of this series is exploratory and openness so that we expose, rather than close, new insights that help us understand meaning-making in digital score creativity. Prof Dr Marc Leman’s starting point was a challenge: How does embodied music cognition augment our understanding of meaning-making in digital scores?

Among many invaluable topics and contributions these insights emerged as critical:

– The focus is on embodied interaction rather than isolating it to solely cognition

– embodied musicking involves 2 main components: patterns (of music and their hierarchies e.g. pitch, texture, harmony, form, rhythms) and expression (movements enriching the communications of these patterns)

– the bio-signals that emerge from music performance can communicate meaning to the observer

– when we watch and listen to music performances (as audience or as another performer) we can utilize the potential of empathy to be drawn into the meaning of the music and that which is being expressed

– the human can be biased {in most cases} towards predicting the bio-signals that we take in, from which feelings of satisfaction or surprise can help us to navigate {certain} meanings through the music

– musicians can embody the music through {among other aspects} empathy and prediction of the bio-signals and the expressive qualities of the patterns made into sound. Digital representation of this (e.g. robotic movement generated from captured human movement) may also affect us in this way.

– Like Walter Murch’s notion of “dimensionality” (Chion, 1993), the individual causes the music to happen: through their perception, cognition and embodiment of the music, they push meaning back onto the event, thereby becoming the agent of its creation (to that individual)

1 thought on “TDI-3 Marc Leman”

  1. Thank you for this interesting discussion and the summary notes. I want to take this opportunity to challenge some of the ideas you present here, not in a spirit of negative criticism but rather as an academic disputation that, I hope, will help the debate to progress. The Digital Score project is terrific and these ideas are worthy of very serious consideration. But I do have a problem with several of the assertions here, because they present as universal and seem to make certain assumptions that, in my opinion, are far from settled.

    I think it is important to consider what is denoted by “embodiment”. In your notes, and indeed in the discussion, you refer to “the observer”, “the human”, “we”, and “us”, as though there is a commonly shared understanding about what it is to be human. My problem is that this takes no account of bodily and cognitive differences.

    You talk about the meaning of “bio-signals” (which I assume means body language and facial expressions), but you do not consider that this language of bodily movements is not shared by everyone. Some people cannot physically move in a predictable way. Others, such as autistic people, do not necessarily understand certain gestures and facial expressions.

    You also assert the importance of “empathy”. This is a controversial concept in the autistic world. Some theorists have argued that autistics have no empathy, whereas autistic people (myself included) argue that we have too much empathy. The “double empathy problem” is a well-known issue in autism research. See We can say at least that empathy is subject to variation amongst autistic people.

    So a statement such as “…ultimately, the human embodies the music through empathy and prediction of the bio-signals…” leaves me, and I suspect many others, feeling excluded from music itself.

    Neurological difference is real. May I suggest you watch Amanda Baggs’s ‘In my language’ to get an idea what I am talking about? How does that fit with this theory, or are you saying that she doesn’t make music? (I’d disagree with that, of course). Does the person who does not experience “feelings of satisfaction or surprise” from “prediction of the bio-signals” somehow either fail to enjoy music or, worse, fail to be human?

    To illustrate the real-world consequences of these questions, let me draw on my own lived experience. At one point in the discussion, Marc Leman says: “when we touch the piano key we have patterns of frequencies which we hear as one single pitch…”. Craig Vear nods in agreement. It seems so obvious, so foundational, as to be hardly worth mentioning.

    But I do NOT hear a piano note as a single pitch! Since my hearing was destroyed by Ménière’s in 2009, I hear every note through a fog of diplacusis. In other words, I hear two pitches, one detuned from the other, through my two unbalanced ears. Furthermore, before Ménière’s, I always heard single piano notes as a complex, albeit with a recognisably dominant fundamental. My autistic ears, endlessly focusing on detail, heard the overtones first and the fundamental second.

    Am I to be excluded from embodied musicking? This cuts to the heart of what disability advocates have to fight against every day. Of course, you do not really wish to exclude anyone, but a theory which says “this is the way things are” and then adds “oh, except for some disabled people” is not an inclusive theory and certainly is not universal. A better formulation of embodied experience is required that takes full account of all the variations of lived experience.

    One sixth of the world’s population has a hearing difference that is medically diagnosable. Every single person experiences presbycusis, or progressive age-related hearing loss, from their twenties onwards. Aural Diversity is the norm, not the exception. Everybody hears differently. See

    Andrew Hugill

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