‘What can be learned about the perception and production of music through the exploration of these processes in people with conditions or cognitive styles? Your answer should refer to at least one condition or cognitive style.

 

Musical processes are complex activities that are predicated upon non-verbal, physical, and mental processes. The multi-faceted nature of both musical perception and musical production means that it has often been understood as offering an interface with a wide range of health problems (MacDonald and Wilson, 2014). Whilst there are a vast range of factors that feed into musical perception, Unemoto (1990) suggested four fundamental interacting musical dimensions that are essential to the successful perception of music: the identification and discrimination of tones; the perception of melody, rhythm, and harmony; comprehension of compositional structure by analysis; emotional cognition and empathic understanding of meaning. As well as these four musical dimensions, many would also argue that some sort of musical memory or reference point is crucial to the perception of music: as Peretz (1996) argues, ‘The perceptual input must be processed along the melodic dimension and the temporal dimension, and then mapped onto a stored long-term representation that captures some of the invariant properties of the musical selection’. The process of musical production rests upon a similar group of interrelated musical dimensions, however some form of motor control is also a required tool. Through this essay, I will explore a few of these processes though the exploration of cognitive styles such as amusia, dyslexia, agnosia, and autism. These processes form an interesting and informative tool with which to study the foundational processes of musical perception and production as they enable one to link parts of the brain to certain musical features and aspects.

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A fundamental aspect of music perception and production is the ability of an individual to process and perceive pitch variations. The cognitive style amusia, a clinical disorder of music perception and performance, whereby one’s musical processing skills are faulty, is useful in exploring the role of pitch within musical perception and production. This cognitive style was first reported in 1878, whereby an individual was unable to discriminate the pitch of two successive tones, was unable to recognise and perceive familiar melodies, and was unable to produce and carry a tune (Grant-Allen, 1879). The disorder is music specific, with congenital amusical individuals successfully processing speech, speech prosody, environmental sounds and human voices. Ayotte et al (2002) studied 11 adults with congenital amusia in a series of tests that were designed to assess the presence and specificity of musical disorders in brain-damaged patients and found that the cognitive style of amusia is related to severe deficiencies in processing pitch variations. The participants were all severely impaired in musical discrimination and recognition tasks. However, these impairments could not be explained by hearing losses or by a lack of exposure to music. Instead, the participants were unable to recognise musical patterns and identify familiar songs solely through melody. This was studied by Peretz et al., (1994) whose participant suffered with agnosia and was unable to discriminate melodic patterns. The participant was able to discriminate temporal or rhythmic patterns and some (Lennenberg, 1967) have argued that this is sufficient to recognise familiar tunes. However, the temporal perception alone is a poor tool for music recognition and the individual was unable to recognise familiar music; the notion of pitch recognition and processing, then, is fundamental in the perception of music.

As well as the ability to perceive pitch, the production and perception of music also relies on timing skills and motor control. Dyslexic children often have difficulties in the rhythmic and rapid aspects of language processing, and some theories propose that deficient timing skills, particularly rapid timing skills, may be the underlying factor causing. Overy et al (2003) found in their study that, in 7 out of the 9 tests regarding timing skills, the dyslexic group performed less successfully than the control group, thereby reinforcing this belief. Due to the temporal difficulties faced by dyslexic children, many have proposed that a remediation method focused upon timing skills may be of benefit to dyslexic children and music has been understood by many as offering an ideal learning environment for such remediation (Overy, 2003). Indeed, Overy (2003) explored this proposal and found that classroom music lessons helped to significantly improve dyslexic children’s phonological and spelling skills; thus, timing skills are a fundamental aspect of musical perception and production, and through lessons within the musical domain these skills can be actively worked upon, improved, and enforced within different domains.

Whilst the technical concepts concerning pitch and rhythm are clearly fundamental processes for musical perception and production, there are other subtler processes at play which are also crucial within the musical domain; the notion of communication is one of these processes. Children and adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulties with social interaction and communication, and thus ASD is a useful cognitive style with which to explore the notion of communication within musical production and perception (Geretsegger et al., 2014). Children with autistic spectrum often present limitations in the development of verbal language and conventional forms of non-verbal communication such as eye-contact, gesture, and body language (Kasari et al. 1990; Sigman & Kasari 1995; Robertson et al. 1999), leading many experts to recommend music therapy due to the complex range of expressive qualities, dynamic form and dialogue that if offers, as well as the its communicative nature that can be employed to achieve engagement, interaction and relationships (Trevarthen 1999; Wigram 2002a); in particular, improvisation is often employed as it offers a balance of fixed and creative music-making, helping children with ASD to work through their need for control (Kim et al., 2008). In Kim et al.’s, (2008) investigation into the role of music and communication with children with ASD, they found that improvisational music therapy was more effective at facilitating joint attention behaviours and non-verbal social communication skills in children than in a play session. The session analysis from this investigation showed a higher number, and lengthier episodes of eye contact and turn-taking in the musical therapy session than the play sessions; not only this, but the study found that the majority of participants showed a marked improvement in joint visual attention skills after the music therapy. These studies into children with ASD have shown that musical production is a process which entails communicative aspects and often provides these children and adolescents with a means of self-expression and communication that can be more easily assimilated than many other mediums.

In conclusion, the perception and production of music are processes which depend on the ability of individuals to be able to perceive pitch and rhythm. Furthermore, they are processes which, although they do not necessarily depend upon this, often entail communicative aspects. These three aspects of musical perception and production have been explored through the conditions and cognitive styles of agnosia, amusia, dyslexia and autism, however there are many more processes at play within these musical domains that have not been covered in this essay, such as emotion, harmony, and memory among others. An exploration of these processes within the context of cognitive styles offer an interesting perspective onto musical processes, as well as allowing one to connect certain aspects of musical processes to certain parts of the brain. With a deeper exploration into these cognitive styles and into a wider variety of cognitive styles a greater understanding of the processes at play within the musical domain would be uncovered.

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