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Understanding perception in music

This article breaks down perception and cognition and explains how perception is more than just passive reception of information.
© University of Oslo

In order to understand our musical experiences, it is essential to look into two psychological concepts: perception and cognition.

It is not easy to give precise definitions of the two terms perception and cognition. Neither is it easy to clearly explain the difference (and relationship) between the two concepts.

But we can try…

What is perception?

Perception is a broad term, involving the reception of information through our senses (hearing, sight, smell, touch, and so on).

But perception is not simply a passive reception of information. As part of the perception process, we subconsciously focus our vision or hearing towards events of interest, and we are even able to suppress unwanted perceptual stimuli (imagine what you would do if you saw someone about to make a loud noise right next to your ear).

What is cognition?

The way we think of it, cognition is mainly concerned with the mental representation of phenomena. Some will claim that cognition is a sub-category of perception; the part of the perception that occurs in the brain.

Others, however, argue that perception and cognition are two independent concepts that overlap.

What is certain is that the two are interdependent and that conscious and subconscious mental processes are active in perception; for instance, processes like our memory and our preconceptions and expectations of what we perceive.

This is where, for example, our cultural background and upbringing come into play to shape our experiences.

A traditional view on human cognition

A traditional view on human cognition has been to think of the human brain as a computer. In such a model the senses could be thought of as “inputs” to the brain, and the brain performs “calculations” to decide on an “output”.

This way of understanding human cognition implies a one-directional musical experience, shaped by auditory information from our ears being “processed” in the brain.

As such, the musical experience is “passive”, in the sense that there is a one-directional flow of information from a stimulus through our senses and to our ears.

Embodied cognition

The theoretical foundation for Music Moves is following within the tradition of what is called embodied cognition. This tradition is distinctly different from the “classical” cognition model mentioned above in that it regards the perception process as an active process.

Rather than passively receiving sensory information, the embodied cognitive approach is based on the idea that we experience the world through our whole bodies.

Fundamental to the embodied cognition model is that our experiences of living in the world shape how we perceive phenomena around us. The American psychologist James J. Gibson introduced the term affordance to explain how we develop knowledge and skills about the world around us.

An affordance

An affordance is something that is offered to the perceiver by the object one observes or interacts with. Affordances are therefore typically action-oriented.

For instance, a chair may be sit-on-able because it affords the action sitting. A cup is drinkable because it affords the action to drink. It is important to remember that affordances are always relative to the perceiver.

So, a chair may have different affordances for a child and an adult.

Also, in Gibson’s thinking, affordances are not necessarily positive: a branch on a tree, for instance, maybe both climb-on-able and fall-off-able. In 1988, the affordance concept was used by Don Norman in his book The design of everyday things.

There are slight differences between Gibson’s and Norman’s use of the term, which you may read more about in this article. Norman explains affordances in this video.


© University of Oslo
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