Hearing with the Mind: Proto-Cognitive Music Theory in the Scottish Enlightenment

 This book explores the school of thought that coalesced around the music-theoretical writings of John Holden (1729–1772), arguably the earliest writer to theorize the perception of music as dependent on unconscious mental acts and to propose a detailed account of exactly how the human mind perceives music. In his Essay toward a Rational Theory of Music (1770) Holden provides a complete account of how we perceive music: not its emotional effects, but rather its intrinsic, intramusical relationships, the subconscious analysis that allows us to hear chord function or ascertain a given passage’s key. He does so by hypothesizing that the act of perception itself entails an ongoing analysis of incoming sensory impressions—whether visual or auditory—into smaller groups of equally sized units limited in number to the small primes of 2 and 3 (and to a lesser extent, 5 and 7). Throughout his treatise, Holden invokes a number of familiar mental faculties, such as memory and attention, and also posits certain, more specialized, innate cognitive operations, such as the aforementioned activity of grouping, and describes how these work together in order to produce different experiences within us. This is a radically new account of musical perception, one that would have no analog in Continental Europe till many decades later.

This book studies the emergence of Holden’s proto-cognitive music theory as well as its afterlife in the writings of a pair of Scottish siblings, Walter (1745–1814) and Anne Young (1756–1813?), the latter of whom invented and patented a remarkable music-theoretical game set in 1801. It does so by embedding their biographies and writings within the broader social, musical, and philosophical contexts of the Scottish Enlightenment— contexts testifying to a period of remarkable socio-economic transformation that made it possible for these three unusual figures to author works of music theory.

Related publications:

Carmel Raz, “‘To ‘Fill Up, Completely, the Whole Capacity of the Mind’: Listening with Attention in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland.” Music Theory Spectrum 44.1 (2022): 141-154.      Link

Carmel Raz, “Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics,” Public Domain Review, May 16, 2019.   Link

Carmel Raz, “An Eighteenth-Century Theory of Musical Cognition? John Holden’s Essay Toward a Rational System of Music (1770),” Journal of Music Theory 62.2 (October, 2018): 205–248.        Link

Carmel Raz, “Anne Young’s Introduction to Music (1803): Pedagogical, Speculative, and Ludic Music Theory,” SMT-V: Videocast Journal of the Society for Music Theory 4.3 (October, 2018).       Link

Carmel Raz, “Anne Young’s Musical Games (1801): Music Theory, Gender, and Game Design,” SMT-V: Videocast Journal of the Society for Music Theory 4.2 (September, 2018).      Link



Listen to a BBC Radio 3 feature about the project here (the segment starts about 11 minutes in).