Research Group: Histories of Music, Mind, and Body

Understandings of music, the mind, and the body have been closely allied since antiquity, their mutual influence inspiring idealized concepts of health as harmony, models of nervous transmission, theories of learning, and conceptions of sympathy and affect. A number of shared threads link ancient notions of harmonia with Boethius’s musica humana, Descartes’s comparison of the workings of the nervous system to a bellows-operated church organ, and Berlioz’s account of the embodied effects of the sounds of the Aeolian harp. This research group investigates the long history of using music to theorize the workings of the mind and body from antiquity to the present day, as well as the ways in which understandings of the mind and body have been historically applied to explain the effects of music. In parallel, it studies the pre-history of the modern field of music cognition, understood as the interdisciplinary intersection of psychoacoustics, psychology, and aesthetics, as they pertain to music. The group will explore these areas of inquiry over a period of five years, working in conjunction with visiting researchers in the fields of music, the history of science, and philosophy, as well as with scientists specializing in music cognition and auditory neuroscience. In addition, the group will regularly convene working groups in order to undertake short-term research and publication projects with collaborators on various related subjects.

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The group comprises four main areas of inquiry:

  1. Music, Emotions, and the Body: The goal of this branch of the project is to study the cultural conditions that structure our experience of certain sounds or repertoires as having particular effects upon the mind or body.
  2. Histories of Music and Cognition: This research area examines the role of sound, music, and musical performance in the emergence of key concepts in philosophy and modern psychology, ranging from theories of memory to habit, volition, and attention.
  3. Nature and Culture: This branch of the project will explore the extent to which our perceptions of various psychoacoustical phenomena (such as consonance and dissonance, or octave equivalence) have been influenced over time by cultural and historical factors. One goal of this area of inquiry is to generate historically grounded research questions that can eventually be explored empirically in collaboration with other researchers at the institute.
  4. Harmonia, Psychê, and Musica humana: This research area investigates what is perhaps the oldest site of discursive interaction between music and the human organism: the constellation of ideas and theories that, from antiquity through the eighteenth century, clustered around the concepts of harmony, the soul, and the harmonious temperament of the body (musica humana and the Galenic theory of the humors).

 

 

Projects

"Music, Mind, and Body, 1650-1900"

This book traces the role of music in theories of the mind and body, as well as the ways in which understandings of the mind and body have been historically applied to explain the effects of music during the period bookended by Descartes and Charcot.

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"The Hammers and the Bow: Western Polyphony, the Metaphysics of Unity, and the Concept of Harmony"

Heraclitus, invoking the tensed string of a bow, conceived harmony as the stasis and equilibrium of conflicting forces held in continuing tension. Plato in the Symposium rejects this view in favor of a concept of harmony in which all conflict must already have been resolved.

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"Music Theory in the Scottish Enlightenment"

This book project focuses on the emergence of a proto-cognitivist strain of music theory in late eighteenth-century Scotland. It examines theories of music (and approaches to musical cognition) advanced by John Holden (1729-1771) and Walter Young (1745-1814)...

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"The End of Pythagoreanism: Music Theory, Philosophy, and Science from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment"

The core beliefs of “Pythagoreanism”—that the order of our finite cosmos is provided by simple numerical ratios and proportions, and that these exercise a causal effect on the natural world, including the human organism, while simultaneously standing as exemplars of rationality...

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News

Prof. Nathan Martin will be a visiting scholar in residence with "Histories of Music, Mind, and Body" from August 29-October 9. 

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Dr. Christopher Florio (Columbia University) will be visiting Histories of Music, Mind, and Body from August 3-7. 

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Prof. Molly Lester (USNA) will be visiting Histories of Music, Mind, and Body from August 3-7.

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