14 October 2021

Sutton-Smith—Intro to Stephenson, PTMC

William Stephenson
The Play Theory of Mass Communication
(1987 edition)
(orig. 1967)

from the introduction by Brian Sutton-Smith (1987):
The difficulty with the notion of subjective play is that there is very little systematic scholarship on how to think about it. Most modern play theory is about observable behavior, and even that which deals with subjective play...is largely about the way in which the possession of these competencies is of functional value in school or real life adaptation. It is not particularly concerned with their internal analysis; adequate description of subjective play is simply lacking.
(p. ix)

Is this perhaps
we describe only
what can be described


subjective play

is simply

not so accessible


On the one hand Huizenga's historical analyses show the multiplicity of play concepts throughout history and in language, but on the other hand, in his own criteria for play, he used the simplistic categorizations that are characteristic of modern approaches to play. ...

While [his] view is culturally relative and can be applied to watching television or reading a paper it would probably not have been so applied by Huizenga who saw contests as the major civilizing play form throughout history and was rather scathing about the world-wide "bastardization" of play forms in modern mass society. Presumably subjective play, with its vicarious and its apparently passive character (perhaps just its sedentary character), would not have appealed to Huizenga. He would certainly have had misgivings about calling the typical television watcher's interpolated activity a form of play. ...

[Conversely] For [Helen] Schwartzman [Transformations, 1978] play is a context of activity rather than a structure (with fixed spaces, times, rules and fixed emotions of voluntariness, joy, tension, differentness). It can occur anywhere, even during attendance on the mass media, and typically some transformation takes place in the receiver's mind within those media events.
(pp. ix-xi)

In hashing out a parochial academic issue, I think BSS has incidentally hit upon something with much broader implications, for which the specific issue of


is a fine proxy but hardly the only one.

Regarding my own pet issue of extrinsic and intrinsic benefits in music education, like-minded readers will recognize immediately that

observable behavior


functional value

have asserted a comparable tyranny over our efforts as well.

The final sentence above hones in on the corrective


some transformation takes place

clearly the involvement has not been merely



only where
no transformation is


is the interpretation
true passivity


Leaving aside the devil's advocate question as to whether

some transformation

necessarily equates to the very specific positive


which have been ascribed to arts education,

it nonetheless follows that:

in absence of *any*


in the student,

such (any?) benefits have not been reaped

or at bare minimum,
if no one can prove they have been reaped then we may well be permitted our skepticism in those specific cases

especially since laboratory researchers seem to have no trouble whatsoever overcoming the limits of


while at work in their (literal or proverbial) laboratories

and especially if the presence or absence
(and unfortunately it is most often the latter)
of even small


of any kind

not quite so opaque to the context-dependent


skills of
Practice-Led Researchers

(e.g. music teachers who also Can Play)

as perhaps it has been to non-practitioner social scientists
(and to music teachers whose Practice-Led Research involved little Practice and even less Research, and subsequently didn't Lead much of anywhere).

Oddly enough, I find myself in somewhat the opposite situation as BSS relates: the research is copious and effusive in its insistence that Music Makes Kids Smart, whereas upon embarking upon my most recent foray into small-group teaching I was warned only half-humorously by the band director who had engaged my services (and who incidentally was known to send mass emails linking to the most recent breathless study on the topic) that,

You're going to learn why teachers drink.

One candidate explanation for this inversion: perhaps social science and laboratory psychology have finally improved their methods to where it really is possible, now, to break through the wall of

observable behavior

and to finally access the glorious reality that music indeed engenders


in everything and everyone it touches

(and that these


are indeed of the positive variety).

This reality had already been, just by coincidence of course, loudly proclaimed for the previous 200 years by people lacking the slightest shred of scientifically-gathered evidence. But these days, anyone skeptical enough to dwell on that unfortunate history must be either a purblind empiric or a money-worshipping neocon.

I happen to think there is a simpler, classically conservative explanation

you get out of it what you put into it

and unfortunately no music teacher, social scientist, or play theorist, nor indeed any parent or guardian, has the one-hundred percent reliable magic formula to ensure that students put in anything at all. We do our Progressive best, because it's the right thing to do (I do believe that), but there is no full end run around the paradox of Individual Initiative.

What I find most striking about Stephenson's tack is that he proposes a broad, pragmatic typology of the self along precisely the lines that music teachers (among myriad others) are led to consider such questions of initiative. Instead of sorting individuals by their susceptibility to media influence, he instead proposes (I am stating this very crudely) that

everyone has

a part of themselves

that is



a part

that is



12 October 2021

Two On-the-Spectrum Vignettes

Ericsson and Pool
Peak (2016)
Francesca Happé and Pedro Vital, two researchers at King's College London, compared autistic children who develop savantlike abilities with autistic children who did not develop such abilities. They found that the autistic savants are much more likely than the nonsavants to be very detail-oriented and prone to repetitive behaviors. When something captures their attention, they will focus on it to the exclusion of everything else around them, retreating into their own worlds. These particular autistic people are more likely to practice obsessively a musical piece or memorize a collection of phone numbers—and thus are likely to develop skills in those areas in the same way the people engaging in purposeful or deliberate practice do.

One of the best examples of this is Donny, an autistic savant who is the fastest, most accurate calendar calculator who has ever been tested. Donny can provide the day of the week for a particular date within a second of hearing the date, and he is almost invariably correct. ...

Donny is addicted to dates... The first thing that Donny does when he meets someone is to ask for the person's birthday. He has memorized all fourteen possible yearly calendars...and he has developed ways to quickly calculate which of those fourteen possible calendars applies to any given year. When asked which day of the week a particular date will fall on, Donny focuses first on the year in order to figure out which of the fourteen calendars to use, and then he refers to that mental calendar to determine the day of the week for the date in question. In short, Donny possesses a highly developed skill that is the result of years of obsessive study, but no sign of a miraculous innate talent.

In the late 1960s, a psychologist named Barnett Addis set out to see if he could train someone of normal intelligence to do the same sorts of calendar calculations that savants do. In particular, he had been studying how two calendar-calculating twins performed their feats. The twins, who each had an IQ in the 60-70 range, were able to provide days of the week for dates out to the year A.D. 132470 within an average of six seconds. Addis found that the twins' method seemed to involve finding an equivalent year between 1600 and 2000 and then adding up numbers that corresponded to the day of the month, the month, the year, and the century. With this understanding, Addis then trained a graduate student in that method to see if it actually worked. In just sixteen practice sessions the graduate student was able to calculate just as fast as either of the twins...

The lesson here is that there is clearly nothing magical about Donny's—or any other savant's—calendar-calculation abilities. Donny developed his abilities over years of working with and thinking about dates, reaching the point where he knows each of the fourteen different calendars as well as you or I know our phone numbers, and he has developed his own technique—which, in this case, researchers still have not completely understood—for determining which calendar to use for which year. It is nothing that a motivated college student in a psychology experiment could not do.
(pp. 220-222)

Steven Mithen
The Singing Neanderthals (2006)
At the age of five, Noel had been placed in a school for children with severe learning difficulties. He was autistic—unable to make contact with other children or initiate speech—and had patterns of repetitive and obsessive behaviour associated with this condition. One of these was listening to music on the radio and then playing it by ear the following day on the school piano. The psychologists Beate Hermelin and Neil O'Connor heard about Noel when making a study of autistic savants...

They examined Noel when he was nineteen years old, when he had an IQ of 61 and an almost total absence of spontaneous speech. Hermelin and O'Connor played Greig's 'Melody', Op. 47 No. 3, to Noel and to a professional musician, neither of whom were familiar with the piece. It was played from beginning to end, and then again in short sections. After each section, Noel and the professional musician had to play it back, along with the previous sections, until finally they played the whole piece from memory. Noel gave an almost perfect rendering of all sixty-four bars of 'Melody', retaining both the melody and harmonic components and making mistakes on only 8 per cent of the 798 notes. The professional musician was only able to play 354 notes, 80 per cent of which were incorrect. Twenty-four hours later Noel gave a second near-perfect performance.

By analyzing Noel's mistakes, and undertaking tests with further pieces of music, Hermelin and O'Connor concluded that Noel's musical memory was based on an intuitive grasp of musical structure. Through his obsessive listening to music, he had acquired a profound understanding of the diatonic scales in which the majority of Western music from between 1600 and 1900 is composed... Noel combined his tonal knowledge with a tendency to focus on discrete musical phrases, rather than attending to the piece as a whole as was the inclination of the professional musician. This interpretation of Noel's ability was confirmed when he was asked to repeat Mikrokosmos by Bartók under the same conditions. This piece was composed in the 1930s and eschews the diatonic scale, falling into the category of atonal music. Noel was now markedly less successful, making errors in 63 per cent of the 277 notes he played, in contrast to the 14 per cent of errors in 153 notes played by the professional musician.
(p. 294)

11 October 2021

So-Called Patterns in So-Called Jazz

Steven Mithen
The Singing Neanderthals (2006)
The most significant survival of 'Hmmmmm' [Neanderthal communication that was "holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and mimetic"] is within language itself. One aspect of this is the presence of onomatopoeia, vocal imitation and sound synaesthesia, which are probably most readily apparent in the languages of present-day people who still live traditional lifestyles and are 'close to nature'. Another is the use of rhythm, which enables fluent conversations to take place.

Perhaps of most significance, however, is our propensity to use holistic utterances whenever the possibility arises. Although the creative power of language certainly derives from its compositional nature—the combination of words with grammar—a great deal of day-to-day communication takes place by holistic utterances, or what are more frequently called 'formulaic phrases'. This is the principal argument of Alison Wray's 2002 book entitled Formulaic Language and the Lexicon... She describes formulaic phrases as 'prestored in multiword units for quick retrieval, with no need to apply grammatical rules'. In my chapter 2, I give the example of idioms, such as 'straight from the horse's mouth' and 'a pig in a poke', while Wray provides many more examples which are often phrases used as greetings or commands: 'hello, how are you?', 'watch where you're going', 'keep off the grass', 'I'm sorry', 'how dare you!'

Critics of Wray's views about the prevalence and nature of formulaic phrases have noted that the majority do actually conform to grammatical rules and are evidently constructed from words. They rely, therefore, on the prior existence of compositional language. This is true, but misses the point. Even though we have compositional language, we have a propensity to slip into the use of formulaic phrases/holistic structures whenever appropriate occasions arise. These are frequently the oft-repeated social situations, such as greeting friends...and sitting down to meals...especially in company with people with whom we already share a great deal of knowledge and experience, such as the members of our close family. One might argue that we use such formulaic phrases simply to reduce the mental effort of having to put together words with grammatical rules whenever we wish to say something. But to my mind, their frequency in our everyday speech reflects an evolutionary history of language that for millions of years was based on holistic phrases alone: we simply can't rid ourselves of that habit.
(pp. 276-277)

Even though we have compositional language, we have a propensity to slip into the use of formulaic phrases/holistic structures whenever appropriate occasions arise.

The notions of the

appropriate occasion
and of the
slip[ping] into




some element of subjectivity might be
(or should be)
vis-a-vis the sizing up of occasions,


that we can break the pattern-habit
if we really want to
and are willing to work a little harder for it

And if we do

really want to,


one option among several


the oft-repeated social
(and/or musical)


05 October 2021

Heigh Ho, Pomo

Gerald Graff
"The Myth of Postmodern Breakthrough" (orig. 1979)
in Critical Essays on American Postmodernism (1994)
ed. Stanley Trachtenberg
pp. 69-80
In an essay that asks the question, "What Was Modernism?" Harry Levin identifies the "ultimate quality" pervading the work of the moderns as "its uncompromising intellectuality." The conventions of postmodern art systematically invert this modernist intellectuality by parodying its respect for truth and significance. ... It appears that the term "meaning" itself, as applied not only to art but to more general experience, has joined "truth" and "reality" in the class of words which can no longer be written unless apologized for by inverted commas.

Thus it is tempting to agree with Leslie Fiedler's conclusion that "the Culture Religion of Modernism" is now dead. The most advanced art and criticism of the last twenty years seem to have abandoned the modernist respect for artistic meaning. The religion of art has been "demythologized." A number of considerations, however, render this statement of the case misleading. Examined more closely, both the modernist faith in literary meanings and the postmodern repudiation of these meanings prove to be highly ambivalent attitudes, much closer to one another than may at first appear. The equation of modernism with "uncompromising intellectuality" overlooks how much of this intellectuality devoted itself to calling its own authority into question. . . .

(pp. 70-71)

With no scruples whatseover about repeating myself, I must say that following my trip to art school the ultimate archetype of these "highly ambivalent attitudes" and of the "deliberate avoidance of interpretability ha[ving] moved from the arts into styles of personal behavior" (71) will always be, for me, the radical conceptual art grad student who drives a gas-guzzling motor vehicle and listens exclusively to top-40 radio.

My unconsidered gut reaction to Graff's final sentence above is that "modernist" musicians tended more towards reasserting/recovering/recreating some lost "authority" and were usually not too interested in questioning themselves. Also that the principals of the eventual postmodern backlash are quite comfortable slipping into the tattered robes of "authority" whenever they think they can get away with it. Hence this whole question of exposing shams of undue authority is what inclines me toward a positive self-identification as a "postmodernist." I can't really say so in casual conversation, however, because there are too many other associations with the term which don't fit me at all.

Conspicuous among them: I do believe that rational, just authority exists. It's just that, in music, I am typically most skeptical about its possibility on the level of "meaning;" and yes, those scare-quotes are so totally necessary anytime that warhorse word is trotted out of the stable.

04 October 2021

signals have meanings but stimuli need not

Roger J. Watt and Roisin L. Ash
4th European Conference on Philosophy and Psychology, 1996


The meaning of a signal


the intended and agreed mental action
of that signal.

is bound up with

, so that

signals have meanings

, but

stimuli need not


The meaning of a signal is
not just the action of that signal

meaning is reserved

for cases where

the action is intended


It would not make

much sense to allow

the sender


claim some meaning

to a signal


no recipient would be


of that meaning

, and so

meaning is restricted

to cases where

the recipient


the sender



what the intended action should be

None of the actions of music
considered above,
per se,
would indicate that music has meaning

music does not mean tapping feet just because it has that action

music does not mean a cup of coffee
in Lochinver because that is what it is
associated with for some listeners

music does not mean the sea because that is what it is taken to express by
some listeners
or what it was intended to express by
the composer