Mr. Eamonn Bell (Columbia) Guest Lecture


Mr. Eamonn Bell (Columbia) will be visiting the Computational Auditory Perception Research Group from January 16-23. As part of his visit, Mr. Bell will give a talk on "Information theory at the keyboard: Henry Quastler's 'Studies of Human Channel Capacity' (1956)" (January 22 at 16:15, room 352).


When Claude Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” was published in 1948, engineers had already made ample use of the new quantity of information defined therein to build more secure and more efficient communications systems. A critical–interpretative tradition that sought to expand the explanatory domain of information theory began almost immediately. In a short but profoundly influential essay, Warren Weaver asserted the broader applicability of Shannon’s theory to a variety of fields of cultural production, including “music, the pictorial arts, the theatre, [and] the ballet.” Revisiting reports of laboratory research into musical behavior dating from the first decade of the age of information, I explore whether such optimism about the generality of Shannon’s theory was justified.

In this talk, I focus on the physician Henry Quastler’s “Studies of Human Channel Capacity” (1955). In one series of tests, carried out at the Control Systems Laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, Quastler asked pianists to sight-read scores that were generated according to the outcome of controlled random processes. Both the set from which pitches were drawn and their rate of presentation were varied independently, “coaxing the subjects into greater and greater speed until they were obviously way beyond their capabilities.” Quastler quantified his subjects’ performance as “information transmission rate”, measured in bits per second, thus proudly using Shannon’s definition of information to precisely describe the limits of his subjects’ abilities across a variety of tasks, including sight-reading at the piano.

I argue that, despite (or perhaps, because of) its many methodological oversights and flawed assumptions, the turn to information reflected in Quastler’s study views pianism a specific manifestation of a more general capability for information “transmission” at or close to a putative human “channel capacity”. This assumption motivates Quastler’s description of a hypothetical modular framework for understanding “simple sequential tasks”, on which the influence of cybernetics is keenly felt. In designing this research program for the study of musical behavior under the sign of Shannon’s information, Quastler’s research evidences the dual of what Brian Lennon has recently called Weaver’s “culturalization of information”: the twentieth-century’s informatization of (musical) culture.