Musical Thought

William Forde Thompson and Paolo Ammirante

in The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning

Published in print March 2012 | ISBN: 9780199734689
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

Musical Thought

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  • Psychology
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience



Listening to music entails processes in which auditory input is automatically analyzed and classified, and conscious processes in which listeners interpret and evaluate the music. Performing music involves engaging in rehearsed movements that reflect procedural (embodied) knowledge of music, along with conscious efforts to guide and refine these movements through online monitoring of the sounded output. Composing music balances the use of intuition that reflects implicit knowledge of music with conscious and deliberate efforts to invent musical textures and devices that are innovative and consistent with individual aesthetic goals. Listeners and musicians also interact with one another in ways that blur the boundary between them: Listeners tap or clap in time with music, monitor the facial expressions and gestures of performers, and empathize emotionally with musicians; musicians, in turn, attend to their audience and perform differently depending on the perceived energy and attitude of their listeners. Musicians and listeners are roped together through shared cognitive, emotional, and motor experiences, exhibiting remarkable synchrony in behavior and thought. In this chapter, we describe the forms of musical thought for musicians and listeners, and we discuss the implications of implicit and explicit thought processes for musical understanding and emotional experience.

Keywords: music; performance; composition; improvisation; emotion; listening; mood; arousal; rhythm; expression; timing; melody; harmony

Article.  11066 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Cognitive Psychology ; Cognitive Neuroscience

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