A Long Perspective on Music and Attention: From Liturgical Listening to the Neural Orchestra
In the past decade interest in economies, histories, and cognitive modes of attending has bloomed in disciplines ranging from cultural studies to computer science, philosophy, and medicine. However, the fields of music and sound studies have only recently begun to explore corresponding issues, and the scholars who have done so have largely focused on the long nineteenth century (see, e.g., Riley 2004; Steege 2012; Mathew 2018; Brittan & Raz 2019). With the proposed panel we hope to contribute to this vibrant intellectual trend by bringing to light three key moments in the long history of auditory attention, thereby enabling new insights into the various conceptions of focus and distraction which have been bequeathed to the modern-day listener.
The richness of attention as a site of historical enquiry is indicated by the breadth of the papers in our proposed panel: Elizabeth Lyon Hall discusses the puzzles of attention, distraction, and sin in listening to music which St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) examines in his De musica and Confessions. In their paper, Carmel Raz and David E. Cohen explore the account of attentive, durational listening implied in René Descartes’s Compendium musicae (1618/1650), a theory which was directly influenced by De musica. Bringing attentive listening from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, Francesca Brittan examines a metaphor first articulated by Descartes in L’homme (1632): that of the brain and nervous system as a musical instrument, and traces its influence (via phrenological notions of the brain-orchestra) on neuroscientific notions of attention, cognition, and subjectivity in the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries.
Though the papers in the panel explore distinct arenas of attention’s history, they also intersect, grappling with overlapping questions concerning the ethical valuation of concentrated or distracted listening, the attentive capacities of listeners and performers, and the importance of cognitive modalities in shaping auditory subjectivities.
Presentations of the Symposium
Augustine on Attention, Concupiscence, and Liturgical Song
Augustine of Hippo is noted by philosophers and historians of psychology and cognition as an early theorist of attention. Delving into the phenomenology of cognitive-perceptual issues now referred to as fixation, involuntary distraction, and motivational aspect (picking out certain objects in a perception in preference to others), Augustine anticipates early modern and modern discussions of attention more familiar from thinkers like Descartes and Leibniz. Interestingly, Augustine’s most detailed investigation of attention occurs in his treatise on music, the De musica. Yet the salience of Augustine’s theory of attention for his thought on attention in music in particular has not been thoroughly addressed. In this paper, I show how Augustine’s theory of attention in the De musica can illuminate his notorious description of liturgical song as an arena for psychomachy in Confessions X.33: the contest between involuntary distraction and willed intent that Augustine experiences when he listens to artfully performed song in church is just one manifestation of the postlapsarian disorder of the soul only ultimately cured at the resurrection of the body. Augustine eventually approves of liturgical song, I show, because the soul’s disordered response to beautiful sound can nonetheless result in spiritual benefit. Liturgical song properly fulfills its function when it directs the attention of the intellect and the affections to the meaning and objects of scripture, overcoming other potential distractions and lethargy of spirit. Situating Augustine’s theory of attention within his understanding of concupiscence, sin, and salvation not only elucidates his own views on liturgical music, but can better enable us to appreciate the many centuries of monastic performers who based their musico-spiritual practices upon them.
Attending to Attention in Descartes’s Musicae Compendium (1618 / 1650)
In the initial pages of his first treatise, the Musicae Compendium (1618 / 1650), René Descartes famously lays out a series of eight psychological axioms pertaining to sensory perception, and continues with a remarkable passage describing the experience of perceiving and synthesizing musical rhythm, meter, and form. These introductory pages have garnered considerable scholarly attention, and writers have interpreted them as reflecting the young Descartes’ thought on topics ranging from geometry, proportion, representation and resonance to material culture and the body. But it is not only the treatise’s opening that is striking: the rest of the work contains significant novelties as well, particularly with regard to the psychology of the listener. Surprisingly, however, the work’s subsequent innovations have thus far attracted little notice (perhaps in part as a result of H. Floris Cohen’s rather casual dismissal of the treatise as “Zarlino, more geometrico”).
As we show, a close reading of the Compendium demonstrates that Descartes was concerned with cognitive and processual aspects of musical perception centuries before these topics would move to the forefront of music-theoretical discourse. Specifically, we argue that Descartes consistently differentiates between the faculties involved in acts of perception at short, mid-range, and long-term scales, and that clarifying this tripartite distinction allows us to recognize that the Compendium in fact provides a psychological and subjective descriptive account of the experience of music in time, not only with regard to the perception of musical form, but also, albeit less explicitly, in its treatment of more elementary relationships in the domains of rhythm and pitch. The significance of this treatise thus lies less in its association with the emerging physico-mathematical science of its age—as has so often been claimed to its detriment—than in its startlingly prescient character as a harbinger of the modern field of music cognition.
Attention, Instrumentality, and the Orchestration of Mind
The last several decades have seen an explosion of texts by psychologists and cognitive scientists detailing the erosion of our attentive capacities and the rise of “disorders” including ADHD. In explaining this apparent crisis, many draw on the metaphor of the “neural orchestra’ popularized by (among others) the neuroscientist Elkhonen Goldberg. According to this model, individual areas of cortical specialization are troped as players in a large-scale ensemble who must be well-conducted in order to operate at peak levels of efficiency. Absence of a strong cognitive leader generates chaos, unproductivity, and—in the most apocalyptic accounts—a collapse of the attentional networks that denote human “civilization.”
This paper interrogates the origins and ideological resonances of the brain-orchestra. Although the metaphor was embraced as a novelty in the mid-1990s (a substitute for computational models of cognition), it has much older roots, traceable to a variety of comparisons between musical instruments and the human brain resonating back to Descartes' pneumatic organ and Thomas Willis's celestial harp. With the advent of phrenological theory in the early nineteenth century, these single-instrument models were replaced by multi-instrument metaphors reflecting newly modular brains. Fusing ancient metaphysical concepts of harmony with theories of hierarchical cerebral organology, theorists including Franz Joseph Gall and Mariano Cubi y Soler likened the focused mind to a centrally-organized orchestra. The concept of attention was crucial in both arenas, conceived as a controlling force yoking players into powerful cognitive, musical, and political wholes. The orchestra in the brain was also a brain in the orchestra. Instrumental music itself, as it accrued cultural capital through the early nineteenth century, was redefined in terms of cognitive theory, demanding the intensely conducted forms of attention first celebrated by Wackenroder and enforced by newly powerful podium leaders. Today, the historical and neuropolitical forces that generated the Romantic mind-orchestra have been largely forgotten, but they continue to exert a spectral influence, hovering behind our fetish for cognitive focus and our psychopolitical fear of distraction.