Monday, March 17, 2008

Cognition versus creativity: a musical example

What cognitive processes occur when a pianist sits down to play Bach’s Prelude in C? Bach wrote the piece approximately 250 years ago, and left “directions” for how to play it via a musical score: basically, coded pen marks on lined paper. Today a pianist can learn the piece by following Bach’s directions and by pulling on his own domain expertise. There is little doubt that several cognitive skills will be called upon to execute the tasks: translating the meaning of symbols on the paper to certain keys on the piano, choosing the best fingers to use, making decisions about phrasing and articulation, and putting the knowledge together into a chain of movement that sounds, in the end, like music (hopefully, Bach’s Prelude). There is a certain amount of intelligence needed to achieve the performance of a such a piece of music. Was there a need for creativity?

Next, consider that the same performer wished to “do his own thing”. He has probably played the piano for some time, has listened throughout his life to music in a variety of styles. There are patterns of key strokes that his fingers have grown accustomed to executing, as a result of hours of practice. So he approaches the piano keyboard with many influences and engrained techniques. He also has certain preferences and a level of physical agility. What will be the result of this pianist attempting to improvise a song based on the Bach Prelude? Is this a more creative endeavor than the task of learning the piece as Bach wrote it? And are the skills needed similar, different, or a combination of the two? Furthermore, will a simple determination on the player’s part to produce something original yield a creative result? What will be the role of the subconscious?

The improviser has a greater chance of producing an original song if he is an expert in his field and has a large amount of domain knowledge. The larger the pool of knowledge (inputs), the more combinations he may be able to generate (for diverging). And with more experience, an improviser might also have an edge in recognizing good combinations (for converging). Of course, he might also fall into habitual modes of operating and produce similar products over and over.
However, this brings up an interesting point: in the view of Welling (in press), all new combinations are constructed from and therefore dependent on previously known elements. Does this constitute creativity? Is recombination really a valid part of the creative process?

Perhaps what really matters is how far we push the envelope. A recombination at an elemental level could have millions of permutations, and certainly from among them there might be something not seen before. If creativity is evaluated by the resultant product, it might seem that an uncreative, cognitive, linear process could result in something novel and useful.

But how can we handle the daunting test of filtering through so many variations? It’s just not efficient (or possible) to evaluate them all one by one. A computer is limited as well, as it would have to be programmed to recognize novelty and that is usually what’s unknown. We may know novelty when we see it, but computers don’t work that way! Also, returning to the pianist, how does he cope with the pressure of generating musical variations within the constraints of an improvised performance? Is it possible for him to think quickly enough to plan and execute every note?

Enter the role of intuition and the subconscious. At one level, the subconscious provides the script for the everyday routines we do. For a pianist, certain movements can get ingrained over time, and that allows him to think at a higher level of musicality while his fingers execute the technical procedures. But that also means that an attempt to be creative through improvised playing could turn out to be just a stale reiteration of notes. Again, a new combination doesn’t guarantee creativity. There has to be more.

Sometimes a musician has a feeling of being in a flow, or a feeling of metacognition. He has tapped into a higher level of processing, and he is both directing and being directed. He ceases to struggle as entire pre-assembled chunks of data emerge ready to be inserted into the improvisation. It is not a conscious process completely. It often feels like the process just “happens”. Somehow, despite conscious limitations in cognition, the musician’s mind is able to rapidly combine and evaluate perhaps thousands of musical combinations in a very short time. How is this possible?

Perhaps what seems like random outputs from our subconscious into our conscious are the signs of a hidden operating system that works below our level of awareness. At its best, it seems to serve as “judge, jury and executioner”, producing well-formulated ideas that evoke an “a-ha!”. But we don’t get all the steps along with it--just the final idea. That void can leave us with the impression that the solution was “magical”.

If we cannot connect the dots through logic, does it mean that the solution is illogical? It only implies that the steps are unknown. It also means that there is much to learn about “non-traditional” intelligences and we should keep an open mind about the things we don’t yet understand.

Please feel free to listen to the link for a musical example: The song begins on track 4 with the Bach Prelude in C presented as it was originally composed. Then the piece begins again with new material added in (composed by the performer ahead of time). The piece concludes at track 5 with a full, freestyle improvisation based on the first two measures of the prelude. Listen to see if you can “hear” the cognitive and/or creative processes occurring. Arrangement and performance by Pam Szalay.

-- Pam Szalay, Graduate Student

1 comment:

Cindy said...

Whether inspiration occurs at super-fast speeds in undetected areas of our brain, or whether we tap into a field of consciousness that extends beyond the physical constraints of our mind-- does it really matter? It feels good and right when you hit the flow. I'm more interested in analyzing how to get to that flow. You cite a reference arguing that more inputs equals more potential outputs. A popular alternative idea is to take a "media holiday"-- to reduce inputs in order to foster the peace of mind which can foster original thought. I like the idea of cross-training in sports, and of triangulating in orienteering. Gather disparate inputs, do not get engrossed too deeply in any one area, and then turn your mind towards pattern recognition and connection making. Like kneading dough in on itself, re-work assorted inputs to see what new outputs come out. If/then statements are great. If the eastern religions are right and everything is connected, then I can take seemingly unrelated inputs and make new combinations. In short, the piano composer who strolls through the prarie and sees the grass rolling in the wind, hears the sudden cry of the bird ahead, has listened to all sorts of sound -- from typewriters to exotic african drums, connects that to the feelings he is experiencing due to his life situation, and who relates this all to notes in a song, can best launch into newness.