Human perception is in constant shaping and averaging of stimulus by comparison
and constant fitting into relatively simple shapes that can help us to grasp, categorize
and organize stimulus material. Sound as a complex physical phenomenon is bound
up to the same principles of perception, the human ear extract structural sound
features as shapes depending on their spectro-dynamic evolution over time. I would
refer to these shapes as mental images as they trigger complex mental images of
Mental images of motion are the main ingredients of music composition, music
performance and music understanding; they are the abstract matter of musical
imagination. If the composer of instrumental music goes from mental gesture to
graphic representation, the performer goes from graphic representation to physical
gesture and the listener re-codes the sound stimuli, once more, into mental gestures.
Evidently, this chain of events is not that simple and this communication paradigm
can be subjected to multiple interpretations and misunderstandings, but in this relay
the subjective beauty of music, and the way in which the composer deals with it is
part of the efficacy of a work.
Musical imagery was for centuries linked to musical instruments that share the same
principle of sound production (the mechanic vibration of an elastic body), and musical
aesthetics were partly defined by the possibilities of these instruments. This created an
intimate relation between music composition, human movement, physical
instrumental characteristics and ultimately, music perception and understanding. In
the past, in order to have a musical experience one had to attend to a musical
performance or to play an instrument. Moreover, musical motion was restricted by
tonal confines (at least in Western culture), predetermining our musical response by
the relationships of a learned language. These aspects created a parallel long-term
human conditioning of the musical experience and conceptualization of music, which
still resonates nowadays.
However, the appearance of new structural pitch systems as a result of the exhausting
limits of tonality in the 20th century, together with the appearance of the tape recorder
and electronic devices (originally not even intended for musical proposes) clearly
affected this listening and creative human conditioning.
The use of electronic devices, with a different principle of sound production and with
no connection with physical human energy, breaks with any reference of musical
tradition. This radical change opened up new possibilities allowing the composer to
have total control of the musical result, by eliminating intermediaries between
musical idea and product, as well as finding new means of musical expression.
Nowadays, the massive means of music reproduction and the constant increasing use
of electronic sounds (in all kinds and genres of music), have influenced musical
experience; The very well learned cause-effect movement from a live performance or
a self interaction with an instrument has to be replaced from a speaker membrane
movement in a playback situation, or the electronic generated sounds have to be
understood differently than sounds from traditional instruments since they are created
by electricity or invisible computer programs that have no physical causal relation
with the perceived sound.
It is important to notice how much this propagation of music reproduction has
affected musical experience, music is no longer created to be played or sung but
mainly to be listen to. (Iazzetta 1997)
This new model of music reception forces the listener to mentally reconstruct and
recreate the musical and physical experience based on his own knowledge and
musical context with no use of reference learned system as tonality. In this way the
role of human performance was replaced by an “inner-self’ performance in which
mental gestures help to reconstruct the actual musical experience.
Mental gesture in music then, is not a simple representation of sound movement, but
an ambiguous and multifaceted brain activity related to aspects of human cognition
and linked to emotional stimuli.