Monday, 28 November 2016

Chunking and musical attention

Chunking to assist short term memory depends on organising a structure to patterns to ease the "digestion" of information. A ten number sequence could be difficult to recall, but if the set is a recognisable pattern it could be very simple indeed, e.g. 1 through to 10 or the same sequence reversed.

Two chunks like 1 to 5 and 10 to 6 are just as easy to recall. The more random the sequence the harder it is to retain, it also becomes more difficult to pay attention to other simultaneously presented information.

Fortunately great composers are very good at arranging material in ways to make the absorbing of information easier, if not easy. It seems unlikely and anachronistic to think of pre 20th century composers setting out to reveal a piece of music as chunks of information though sometimes an analysis will present information this way in order to illustrate cohesion. It is likely that composers worked their structures to aid our attention and recall from the process of their improvising and composing at the keyboard.

Chunking is less concerned with key structures and long term planning, we need only recall that STM (short term memory) is a matter of seconds to understand why. There is debate about how much evaluation and judgement can take place at the level where the primary concern is recognition, so comparing like with like is probably reserved for LTM.

In order to assess how a listener might chunk a piece of music I am going to take a Schubert sonata, written in 1817, the sonata in B, D.575. In previous blogs I have demonstrated the importance of rhythm in the opening movements of sonata form works by Classical composers, and this work makes a powerful argument for the cohesive use of rhythmic figures.

The opening three bars of this sonata are restricted to presenting the tonic chord and we wait until to fourth bar to hear a change to a seventh chord on G sharp. The musical interest lies in the dotted rhythms, see fig. A 1 to 4. The two rhythmic cells are simplified for the descending answer, using A2 only. The remainder of the opening 15 bars emphasise this figure, though A1 is used to pull the music back to lead us into the triplet bass section. The opening bars are full of alteration of texture, harmony and dynamics, but there is no doubt that the 20 repetitions of the dotted rhythm form the glue that holds our attention, particularly on our first hearing of the music.

Bars 15 to 29 place the thematic interest over a triplet bass, but our attention is quickly drawn away from the background pulse by the short (harmonically simple) melodic phrases, which extend the dotted rhythm (A2) to B1 which has 14 repetitions.

The character of the music changes at bar 30, partly through the three quaver pulse in the left hand accompaniment, but the main change of character is the addition of a grace note to rhythm A2. Bar 31 modifies the rhythm by adding a double dotted note, which gives greater cohesion to the repeated four bar phrase. These two rhythmic alterations contribute a great deal, certain as much as the harmony, to the change of character.

The following return to B major gives greater impetus to the music, the crotchet is accented, so A2 is reversed, repeated and extended with four staccato quavers and completed with the original A2 figure, see fig. C. This longer phrase is repeated and then truncated to the second half only. Cross beat accents and fz add interest, as does the dialogue between left and right hand, overlapping, phrases, all of which drives us to the repeat of the exposition and later the arrival at the development where the dotted rhythms are quickly intensified by using double dotted quaver/ demisemiquaver figures.

Having worked an excellent transition to the development and intensified the original rhythm, the remainder of the sonata reworks the rhythmic characteristics of the exposition. There are of course many subtleties to entertain the listener and these will be enjoyed with repeated exposure to the music.

It is possible to pay attention to more than one type of information, and it would make no sense to suggest that we hear only one parameter of music. Each person prioritises differently, that is why we can argue about how we hear a given piece and why some might find one work agreeable while his/her neighbour disagrees. For all that it is clear that the rhythmic design of this work offers considerable continuity which supports the variety of key changes, harmonic surprises and changes of musical character.

Gradual change characterizes a great deal of serious music up to the present day. It is an important part of the thinking behind large scale structures and is much used by Mahler, an examination of the first movement of the 8th symphony is a particularly fine example of its use. In our own time demands are being placed on our ability to absorb detail, perhaps in part offset by our ability to replay, isolate and examine sections of music in detail. Will we evolve with the music to be able to “collect” more information or chunk sections to aid our understanding of challenging music? Time will tell.

The process of gradual change can be applied to each of the musical parameters. I once worked a piece using a particular delay programme and realised after completing the composition that there was another cohesive factor at work which I hadn't planned. Looking at the sound file of the recording I saw that the music was being automatically panned gradually from left to right in regular periods of time by the software. Did this attentiveness happen as a result of becoming aware that a sound, once on the left, was now centrally placed or on the right, or was I "rehearsing" the fact that the sound was in motion, rather like our early ancestors being aware of something moving in the long grass?

There is a great deal of time spent in educational circles about thinking about thinking as a means of improving skills. As I made my focus attending to attention while music played there is little doubt in my mind that the experience of listening was changed to my "usual" approach. On one recent occasion while listening to Schubert's final piano sonata, I started with the "attentive" approach and without noticing slipped into complete involvement with the character of the music. I discussed this with Nurtan, who I am certain has experienced the same or similar event.

While we are fortunate in having a great deal of information to draw on regarding memory and attention, and I am sure there are readers who can refine the information given in light of recent research. There is far less information on the interaction between music and attention, there are complex issues at play here, particularly in contemporary classical music which has different concerns to popular and certain types of dance music.

There is some popular interest in the use of music with regard to mindfulness, this is a different issue and has general and often unsubstantiated claims as to the relationship between the music and the listener. There are academic courses for the study of mindfulness, hopefully there is some serious academic research being done or to be done on this issue in the near future.

Saturday, 19 November 2016


Ken's fascinating discussions on memory, music and attention raised a number of questions in my mind. I thought it would be interesting to try to formulate these questions broadly and solicit interpretations, answers or further questions from the readers of this blog. First, I must confess that my knowledge of psychology in general, and cognition in specific are woefully inadequate. Thus, if some of the questions I raise are naïve or have well known and documented answers it will at least serve a few like me well to get those answers. Also, of necessity some material, ideas and definitions are redundant with Ken's blogs.

I shall start with the immense power of perception, recognition and selective ''initial fundamental attention to desired detail '' (IFADD) utilised by the human and apparently other high order species at all times. This can be described by an example. If one looks at an object, the brain immediately isolates and extracts the necessary information and discards the remaining stimuli. This information is a small fraction of all information received and transmitted by the optic nerve. In other words, when you look at a person, the brain isolates the essential features and some few additional details such as colour of the wall behind etc., but ignores most of the information received. It is not like examining a photograph in detail, but extracting the necessary information instantly. This is important for survival as well as being able to learn a task by paying ''attention'' to the essential detail. Somewhere along the line we have ''learned'' the essential details. I suppose, in the process of learning what to see, a neonate also learns how to see.

I think, we can translate this to sound as well; with the hierarchy Overall stimuli +  shape + colour Û auditory stimuli + Rhythm + Pitch with analogies: Type and degree of blind » type and degree of deafness (e.g. tone deaf » colour blind).  This observation raises the first question. The IFADD is evolutionary necessity for survival so is the aural communication in higher order species. What is music analogous to? What logical or operational or simply  heuristic construct can explain our ability to focus on music?

In this first question we can use Ken's midday meal example and or our ability to listen to, for example, radio by filtering out other sound as noise. In time, we don't even hear them. Somewhere along the developmental route, some of us learn to listen to music. Usually this is at a very early age. What are the particular determinants? What makes a young child to apply IFADD to a complicated structure as music? A close examination would suggest that so far as IFADD is concerned a piece by Ligeti or Bach is no more complicated than a jingle or children's song. Given this universality, a child must learn the IFADD of music and apply that knowledge to listen to any kind of music. This does not imply qualitative judgements as like, understand, prefer etc. It is simply ability to listen to music. Unfortunately, this construct implies that the child had learned IFADD of music through paying attention to the IFADD of music. That is circular and unacceptable logic. Embedded in this, there is a question of conformity; because without a certain degree of conformity ensemble music would be impossible, we would not be able to understand each other's music.

If we accept the argument that music is extension of speech (e.g. Leonard Bernstein – Harvard Lectures – The Unanswered Question) we either have to deny the fact that only a subset of each society is musically inclined or there is a drive, desire, talent or genetic make-up that induces a child to pay attention and continue to learn the skills required to pay attention to music. What could be a plausible explanations for this? How would one explain the talented progeny of a musically not talented couple or the other way around? What is musical talent? Is it inherent or somehow imparted?                                                              

It was said many times that music is an ephemeral art and takes place in time. To be as such, the IFADD of music is changing completely, albeit at times only in detail. In order to be comprehensible, the mind has to select a finite interval over which the IFADD is defined. We do not hear music continuously but over intervals that are sufficiently small to define the ''motion'' but sufficiently large to define the timbre, pitch etc. I assume that these intervals are nearly the same for each individual. I think, otherwise, it would be difficult if not impossible to communicate musically. This difficulty does not exist in visual perception even at a reasonably close distance. This is because visual structures are not time dependent for reasonably long intervals.

 The questions these observations raise are many. Even if we accept very loose definitions such as talent, training, interest as fundamentally necessary definitions, we still need to depend upon even more woolly definitions such as mood, distraction, etc, in defining attention and / or attention span in listening. I am deliberately excluding performance, those who were fortunate to take part in public performances would be able to tell a story or two about pure adrenalin based performance on occasion.

I hope some, hopefully, many readers will have answers, further questions, conjectures or thoughts on this subject   and willing to contribute to this blog. One or both of us will continue the emerging discussions as appropriate. If nothing else, all of us can learn from each other.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Attention is a process by which we actively engage with specific information from our environment. For listeners this could be a symphony playing on the radio with random additional material such as a pressure cooker steaming away as you prepare your midday meal, the postman delivering letters and two crows squawking outside your window. I imagine many of you will ask the relevant question: how do we manage to experience all of these sensations and still focus on just one element? In order to get to terms with this, and determine whether we can focus on a preferred element, we must understand the process of withdrawal, bottlenecks and shared tasks.

There must be a number of musicians who have experienced the wonderful sense of rapture arising from listening when we are so engaged on the “primary target” that all secondary inputs have zero impact, we have tuned in to one element and seemingly tuned out all others.

Readers of these blogs who have taken on the psychological arguments in relation to music will be well aware of the basic requirements of attention for survival. Here our interest is directed towards limitations on our ability to stay on task, and what we can do to maximise contact with music, especially as we know instinctively that our attention is limited in terms of both capacity and duration. How selective can we be and what do we miss when we are selective? Are certain senses more powerful than others, is there a peak point at which visual or aural material creates an overload on attention?

Posner and Boies (1971) suggested that attention has multiple sensory functions, for musicians the two of significance are detecting signals for focused processing, and maintaining a vigilant or alert state.  Other psychologists have used terms such as arousal, effort, capacity, perceptual set, control, and consciousness as synonymous with the process of attention, I am sure that performers and composers alike feel comfortable with these terms.

Attention involves selecting some information for further processing while inhibiting other information. Understanding attention is as much about filtering information as selection. This creates two states change blindness (Simons & Rensink, 2005) and change deafness (Vitevitch, 2003). In examining how partial our attention can be, psychologists are exploring the notion of top-down processing, a flexible and dynamic approach to attention as what is important at one moment may no longer be so at the next, and our goals shift accordingly.

Knowledge, beliefs, goals and expectations can alter the speed and accuracy of the processes that select meaningful or desired information; what we might think of as scanning and selecting material. However, because of the variety and quantity of information available in (say) a concert hall, top-down attentional selection does not always lead immediately to your goal, in our case focused listening. The recognised term for our attempts to direct attention is “mental effort” which accepts that given two sources of information we are not able to give equal weighting to both.

Just as there are limitations on the quantity of information that can be processed simultaneously in space, there are limitations on the speed with which information can be processed in temporal sequence. There are suggestions that we are limited by sensory overload, a bottleneck of information, certain critical mental operations have to be carried out sequentially (Pashler & Johnston, 1998).

When our attention requires a physical response this will create a bottleneck, good sight-readers have developed the knack of shifting attention back and forth at a rapid pace. As with multiple sensory inputs, coordinating two output responses is more difficult than simply making a single response. It is not impossible to do two things at once, and as musicians are well aware, we can get better at this with practice, but there is usually some associated cost or failure even when one is skilled.

As suggested the effective strategy for multitasking is to switch quickly back and forth between the two tasks rather than try to deal fully with both simultaneously. Before becoming expert sight-readers we may break down the process into smaller units with longer periods of rest to determine levels of accuracy and regions of faults (rhythm, wrong notes, lack of articulation etc.). We still do not know whether it is possible to perform two tasks at exactly the same time or, if it is, what happens to the quality of the attention paid.

Now that we have an outline of memory from the previous blog and a general understanding of attention it is time to turn to how some people absorb music and problems faced with attention when listening.

Several years ago I worked with a youngster who had a number of difficulties with learning, without going into details his literacy and numerical skills were very weak as was his retention of factual material. It came as a great surprise to me one day when I heard him reciting streams of rap along with stylistic gestures and intonation. I asked him to perform in front of his peers and he did without hesitation or any signs of anxiety, (unlike many of the more gifted performers I had worked with). It would seem that he had been involved in a high level of rehearsal having given considerable attention to performance detail picked up from audio and video sources. His passion for this style of music cut through the obstacles which were inhibiting his other learning. I can attest to the fact that he wanted to be equally able with other studies, particularly his numeracy, but for both of us this was an uphill struggle.

The Welsh have a tradition of storytelling and reciting and I have observed the capacity for some people to absorb large quantities of verse with little apparent effort. (In medieval times the expectation for any storyteller was to know 10,000 lines of verse). To be able to recite or sing in this way there has to have been detailed contact with the subject matter, but not necessarily all at once. The content may have been absorbed in chunks, starting with the gist and then adding to this until a complete performance is absorbed.

Chunking material is part and parcel of music, we are well aware of the role of repetition which contributes to our attention and recall of larger works, but chunking works on small scale events as well as larger formal units. Musicians are adept at matching and comparing related phrases through transposition, inversion and a whole host of methods of variation.

As can be seen from the wiki definition below the psychological definition is adaptable to the musicians approach:

Chunking in psychology is a process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole. A chunk is defined as a familiar collection of more elementary units that have been inter-associated and stored in memory repeatedly and act as a coherent, integrated group when retrieved.

In a design like sonata form we have motives and rhythmic elements repeated many times within a section then aspects of these elements extended before a recapitulation. This provides the listener several opportunities to refresh his/her contact with the music, and this is important because our attention is in a constant state of disruption.

Over the past few months I have kept a diary of my listening, or to be more explicit, a diary of how often my attention has wandered while listening. It could make for depressing reading in that every session has a number of breaks which paints a poor picture of the contact I have with music. On the up side I know that I have a good recall of many musical works and can replay significant sections in my head, or match a score with an “aural impression” of the sound without a recording. In the early years of listening to Classical music I know that I would pick out significant details and build onto these, gluing a number of parts together to form a more continuous experience of the musical logic. At this stage of my life I have a little more difficulty in absorbing music, but my listening experience helps me to form a stronger set of references on which I can draw to build up familiarity, so one loses a little and gains a little. 

The diary was particularly useful in showing what sorts of interference came between me and the music, it was nearly always involved with problem solving. In the middle of a piece I would become absorbed by any tasks that were incomplete, sometimes musical, sometimes far more trivial. Having become aware of this I tried to resolve any issues before listening only to find that my mind would conjure up issues from further back in time or of less significance. In other words I had formed a habit.

For many people music is regarded as a form of relaxation, in this state turning inwards to problem solving is acceptable as long as the listener is aware that the attention to the music is diminished. We can attend to two tasks, but never equally.

Don’t be harsh on yourself if you discover that your attention has lost its focus, go back (if you can) to the point at which you lost contact. It may be that there is an issue at that point which requires detailed observation and dealing with it may be of use in the future. Sometimes several returns are necessary, but remember rehearsal is vital to our long term memory.