3.1. Acquiring Skills, Enacting Meaning
Developing performative skills is an important (and sometimes defining) feature of one’s musical life. But how exactly do we acquire and optimize skills in actual musical contexts? What, so to speak, makes one an expert? One of the most famous models of skill acquisition was developed by Dreyfus and Dreyfus [49
], where, to put it in simple terms, learning is thought to occur through a process that begins with the novice theorizing analytically about a certain skill, and that ends with the expert displaying non-reasoned sets of processes that allow him or her to perform the skill ‘intuitively’. A beginner guitar player, in other words, might examine different possibilities for action in a reflective way, trying to remember where to put the fingers, discussing with a teacher the correct position of the right hand, or reasoning about the correspondence between an open string an its sound. Conversely, the expert guitarist has already internalized this knowledge and thus does not need to theorize about a musical situation to accomplish, say, an improvised blues solo: the best way to do a vibrato or the perfect timing for playing the ‘blue notes’ emerge naturally within the contextual flow of his or her musicking. The expert already knows what, or rather, how
to play in the context: musical directions and decisions, in a sense, are not top-down processes for the expert (similar insights have also been developed by Sudnow [50
] in his famous self-reflective phenomenological description of how he learned to improvise with a piano). We should be careful, however, not
to describe such processes as simply unconscious:
“We should therefore be suspicious of the cognitivist assumption that as we become experts our rules become unconscious. The actual phenomenon suggests that to become experts we must switch from detached rule-following to a more involved and situation-specific way of coping”.
] (p. 52); quoted in [52
] (p. 52)
As such, the emergence of ‘expertise’ can be described as evolving towards the more holistic, non-reflective, and situated/in-the-moment ability to adapt acquired skills to the context. This ability to engage in forms of ‘skilled coping’ can be found in a range of human activities—athletics, dance, craftsmanship, and more. Likewise, the proficiency of a given musical skill is shown by the agent’s ability to adapt it to the expectations and contingencies of the musical environment being enacted. Consider the following often-cited passage by Dreyfus:
“A phenomenology of skill acquisition confirms that, as one acquires expertise, the acquired know-how is experienced as finer and finer discriminations of situations paired with the appropriate response to each. […]Thus, successful learning and action do not require propositional mental representations. They do not require semantically interpretable brain representations either”.
While such non-reflective and adaptive forms of skilled coping do indeed appear to be central characteristics of expert performance, the ways novices learn such skills in institutional environments often focus on types of ‘training’ that are highly mediated by rule-following. This is so that students will emerge from such programs with the ability to perform ‘correctly’—i.e., according to standardized modes of (musical) conduct. As Høffding [52
] points out, however, this might entail a form of dualism between skilled coping and rule following, where one of the two should be constitutive of our primary awareness. A number of new approaches to musical learning aim to eschew this dichotomy. Here, novices are increasingly invited to participate freely in meaningful musical settings; to explore, create, and situate themselves within contexts associated with non-classical music; to play by ear and to improvise [54
]. Beginners are not asked first to follow abstract rules but are rather immersed in the dynamics of skillful performance starting with their very first musical lesson. We will discuss this in more detail in the following subsection. For now, however, we want to consider two examples from the existing literature that might further illustrate this point.
In the first one [60
], a behavioral study comparing memory tasks by pianists, by musicians who did not play the piano, and by non-musicians was reported. Participants from the three groups familiarized themselves with three tonally ambiguous melodies in one of the following learning modalities: (i) actually playing the keyboard, (ii) playing the keyboard with no auditory feedback, (iii) watching a video showing a hand performing the melodies, and (iv) listening to the melodies. The ability to memorize these melodies was measured by testing the participants’ capacity to recognize them among slightly variated versions. The difference across groups, interestingly, was not significant—pianists, musicians who did not play the piano, and non-musicians scored equally. What really mattered, instead, was the learning modality: regardless of their knowledge about music, participants who learned the melodies by playing the keyboard (with or without audio) performed better than the others in their task. This arguably points to a learning mechanism common to both expert and non-experts, one that supports the primacy of what we can call ‘sensorimotor exploration’. Novices and expert musicians need to be motorically engaged with the music to facilitate memorization. There are no sets of explicit rules about music (e.g., recall the stimuli were tonally ambiguous) that were given a priori or that were followed. If rules were generated, these would have been (hypothetically) self-generated by each participant. By physically exploring the sonic environment and by manipulating its properties in ways that are musically meaningful (i.e., playing the keyboard), non-musicians and non-pianists discovered how to make sense of (and memorize) the stimuli being administrated in their own way. Pianists, who had deeper knowledge of music for piano and who were familiar with its set of action possibilities, did not appear to rely on this pre-existing musical knowledge to achieve the task. Otherwise, they would have performed better than the other groups. Accordingly, it might be argued that starting with their first musical experiences, musical learners do not first require sets of organized rules, nor internal models sub-serving decision-making. Rather, they tend to systematically explore the resources of their bodily engagement with the musical environment to optimize their possibilities, and to develop meaningful experiences and understandings (including those related to more ‘high-level’ processes, such as memory or imagination). Similar insights have been noted in the analysis of the first sound-making experiences of infants—where sensorimotor patterns are brought forth to explore and play with the sound properties of the environment they inhabit, resulting in meaningful repertoires of (proto-) musical actions that may be employed in a variety of contextually adaptive ways [61
Another example we would like to briefly consider involves a recently developed community-based project at the University of Music and Performing Arts of Graz (Austria). Meet4Music (M4M) is an informal pedagogical setting developed around the figure of a facilitator (an expert musician) who guides participants in sessions involving musical and dance improvisation [62
]. Importantly, the facilitator does not propose a specific set of rules but enables different coordinated possibilities for action and interaction that are explored by each participant in modalities that are meaningful to their personal and cultural backgrounds. Here, the specific boundaries between the participants become fluid and flexible, as they reciprocally adapt to the contingent demands of the musical moments. In the process, the participants collectively enact or, indeed, self-organize their own musical relationships and meanings. The sessions are open to everyone in the community, however a special effort is made to include recent immigrants and refugees. Research has shown that the open-ended and improvisational nature of this program provides a way for established residents and newcomers to interact, and thereby build trust and shared musical goals even when communicating in spoken language is difficult or impossible. Among other things, this program offers a positive response to critiques emerging from recent scholarship in philosophy of music education, which warns of the tendency to downplay musical knowledge and activities other than those associated with the Western canon [64
], and how this colonizing bias might promote forms of exclusion. More to the point of this paper, it is also indicative of the ethical implications of an embodied and socially extended approach to music making that takes the principles of self-organization seriously as a central aspect of the fundamentally improvisational and creative nature of living cognitive systems [25
In all, then, the dualistic model of skill acquisition described above appears too static to capture the complexity and the relational dynamics of M4M or to explain the embodied patterns of sensorimotor explorations that novices (and infants) enact to engage with novel musical melodies. The primacy of movement, action, and interaction already defines an open horizon of possibilities rather than a set of rules with which non-experts have to analytically engage. This aligns with the increasing focus put by scholars in educational sciences on interactive, improvisational, and informal kinds of musical learning [65
]. Consider, for example, the model developed by Sawyer [30
]. He also starts, like Dreyfus, with the conceptual understanding of a particular technique. Indeed, this requires exploration within a broader context, before being integrated within a more complex set of understandings emerging from practical possibilities. To do so, one needs to be able to generalize from previous knowledge, such that expertise becomes adaptive and flexible in how it responds to the specific situation. Interestingly, however, Sawyer notes that this does not only depend on the inner disposition of the single agent but also on the joint contributions of other individuals who may collaborate and successfully interact to develop the skill in question. The centrality of collaboration for the emergence of musical skills, then, is a fundamental aspect of a 4E music pedagogy. However, such aspects must be cautiously examined. This is because, as we saw in Section 2
, there is a specific tension between the inner properties of the organism and its environment, where the latter does not actually determine the inner states of the former. This implies that (i) learning is a modification of the entire brain-body-world system and that, as such, (ii) learning is a self-generating process that is not able to be captured or modified by considering it in terms of an ‘inside/outside’ duality [65
] (p. 9).
3.2. Autopoietic Musical Learning
Musical learning is a process that does not begin with the individuation of the skill to be acquired from the outside (i.e., from the teacher). This is because, as we argue, a ‘skill’ is not an abstract concept nor an objective feature of musicality that can be easily measured or obtained. Skills are acquired and developed in the sense that they are self-constituted by the entire living organism in its embodied relationship with the environment. By this view, learning is not a finite category but rather a process of indefinite self-production, which maintains the learners in a condition of open realization with their musical environment. We say ‘open realization’ because the various ways musical learners determine themselves are not able to be captured only in terms of how they meet the pre-given requirements of a specific style, genre, or cultural heritage. Beginners must maintain their musical unity—e.g., a meaningful consistency with a specific musical model—through the constant negotiation of their identity. The balance between inner norms, phenomenological requirements, and the fluidity of the musical moment is thus defined by the regulatory functions of the organism enacted within a milieu.
An example may help. Consider a beginner piano player, Leyla. She knows how the piano looks and more or less what she is expected to learn. She knows that her movements will entail a physical engagement with the keys, and that a sound will then be obtained. She also loves the music of Mozart, Bach, and Hindemith. A teacher might help her develop the technique necessary to better explore her potential and to better regulate her dispositions to engage with the piece she is playing. The ‘inner’ norms of Leyla include her cultural and historical background, her identity, her taste for music, her relational dynamics, her behavioral dispositions (e.g., for movement, muscular linkages etc.), her emotional life (e.g., valenced/affective motivations for action, perception, and meaning-making), and so on. Her experience while learning is constantly influenced by such aspects, and the skills to be developed become meaningful through the constant integration of various overlapping aspects of these dimensions. Leyla’s metabolic and emotional responses to the learning process are determined by such relationships, for it is only through the unification of these components into various self-organized configurations that Leyla can generate new musical understandings and possibilities (i.e., skills) that may be re-used, adapted, and further developed.
In other words, Leyla’s biological organization enacts a self-generated ecology for learning, whereby different components configure and calibrate themselves in relation to each other and to the musical environment in which Leyla participates. A Mozart piano sonata can be learned only when certain conditions within this complex nonlinear network of states and functions are met. However, we do not think that, on the most fundamental levels, such conditions necessarily involve the generation of concepts [10
] or the adherence to rules. Instead, we claim Leyla’s cognitive ecology organizes itself first and foremost through processes of sensorimotor exploration involving the interplay between the structural organization of her body, the dynamics and affordances of the environment, and the emotional/affective processes associated with regulating her corporeal states. In doing so, skill emerges through the significances and valences that are enacted in each musical action. Exploring a musical world, as Leyla does every time she plays the piano, is a manifestation of the global state of the system, which seeks for a stable relational domain by constantly shifting goals, intentions, relations, emotions, and motivations. Accordingly, learning is best understood as a process where the entire brain-body-world network dynamically changes itself. Yet, these changes are not simply defined by the shifting musical landscapes that Leyla creates and is exposed to—these can only trigger responses. A change in the network depends on the biological and phenomenological norms inherent to the system itself. From here it follows that the entire system participates constitutively in the development of musical skills, such that elements of the body, the world, and the brain constantly develop new states and configurations to define the learning trajectories Leyla experiences.
4ECS can help us better capture the structural and organizational dynamics central to such an interplay. Let us first consider the role of the body. The body-in-action becomes the ultimate source for meaning ascription in the learning process. Consider how a cello player uses her body to facilitate certain aspects of her performance of a scale and uses her bodily proportions (e.g., the relationship between the cello, her hand, and her arm in a given position) to remember the correct fingering. Or imagine a novice drummer learning how to play a newly acquired double bass drum pedal. The way the body feels the pedals, the position of the drummer’s back and seat, and then the way the drums respond in feeling and sound to the bodily action as integrated with the pedals are all part of the cognitive ecology constituting the learning process. Any set of rules the learner might encounter in the process—e.g., those imposed (or suggested) by a teacher or by the learner herself—will need to be incorporated in terms of bodily knowledge to drive the learning process successfully. This transforms the conception and function of ‘rules’ into fluid entities that stimulate explorations and new discoveries (rather than fixed categories to be either respected or violated). This does not mean that teachers should not intervene, discuss, suggest, and facilitate the student in achieving a particular musical goal. A repertoire of options and open possibilities to perform a scale (or a set of suggestions about playing the double bass pedals) is certainly an important resource for beginners to familiarize themselves with the instrument and its relationship to the body—learning technique is important and highly useful. However, there is an important difference between fostering self-generative forms of discovery and more prescriptive forms of exposure. By including the kinds of open-ended, exploratory, embodied, and improvisational action with instruments and sound that learners naturally tend to produce [32
], an open horizon of relationships and possibilities is disclosed and enacted: the body does, the body feels, the body predicts and anticipates; it has certain layers of autonomy that can lead to new meaningful interactivities with the musical instrument, without involving mental plans, rules, or normative domains [66
If the body plays a key role in determining musical learning, so does the socio-material and cultural environment in which it is embedded. However, these dimensions are not separated from the body. Rather, they become manifest through the body and are co-determined by actions and interactions with other bodies and things in socio-culturally meaningful contexts [47
]. It follows, then, that if learning is a self-producing activity involving the development and adaptation of patterns of sensorimotor engagements that allow us to make sense of the world we inhabit, then the sociocultural environment that we live through and that we play an active role in shaping will have to be taken into serious consideration when developing any pedagogical strategy. For example, consider how a beginner rock guitarist might learn a solo by watching a video of her favorite guitarist. What strategies will she adopt to imitate the solo and (at the same time) develop her own musicianship? There is a sense here in which the notion of self-imposed rules becomes either too general (e.g., she will follow the rule of imitating the movement of the guitarist’s fingers) or too strict (e.g., she will systematically select the motor programs adequate for the given musical phrase through the analysis of different parameters from the video, her instrument, and her bodily posture). In both cases, however, motivated sensorimotor explorations are hindered. She will probably begin by exploring the instrument, experience how it feels in a certain way, try out different phrasing possibilities. Aspects of her musical identity, cultural understanding, and musical taste are engaged and developed through such explorations, informing how it will unfold. Does this distortion pedal make the sound more similar to a style she does not like? Or does it make it sound more in line with the guitarist she wants to imitate? The instrument itself offers possibilities for learning that can be discovered and experienced through action. Sensorimotor exploration allows the guitarist to gain familiarity with the instrument and the music through non-systematic configurations of the entire system, as its global state is determined by variables the learner may not be aware of (e.g., the structure of the musical phrase, the option to use a different fingering, etc.). Indeed, in the process, the guitarist might discover possibilities for sound and action that go beyond imitation. And this might lead to the development of original musical creations that push against or advance how and what rock guitar playing entails, for the learner and perhaps even for the broader socio-cultural milieu (e.g., see the discussion of Coltrane and Hendrix in [70
Additionally, as we have suggested above, the self-generating properties associated with musical learning also involve the ways tools and devices from the environment are coupled to the entire system. This allows the creation of hybrid extended cognitive systems where musical instruments, scores, and technological devices are often exploited in novel and sophisticated ways. Such encounters also shape the learning trajectory of a novice. We have touched on this above in our discussion of the guitarist who, as she develops greater proficiency, is able to offload various musical tasks to the instrument. These patterns of activity are only effectively recalled in direct interaction with the object (the inclusion of delay effects, sampling, or sequencing software takes this a step further). This can also be understood in terms of interpersonal learning. The concept of autopoiesis associated with 4ECS can thus be helpful to describe and interpret a number of music-specific practices. Consider how a developing ensemble must learn to adaptively take on and offload various tasks to each other—providing or entraining with a rhythmic pulse, leading and following phrasing and intonation, or constructing improvisations. Even when the music they are performing involves a clear leader-follower schema, a closer analysis might show how the follower is in fact an integral, constitutive part of the leader and vice versa. Again, the entire musical system self-organizes and modifies its own structural components to reach its optimal configuration (e.g., a leading internal voice that is clearly distinguished from the ensemble, but that is nevertheless supported and given meaning and context by the background texture). This idea has implications for pedagogy, as it gives equal status to the components that do not immediately manifest as playing leading roles for the musical event. Accordingly, it can inspire students and teachers to further explore ‘hidden’ (e.g., relational or structural) aspects of a score, create novel ways to learn a scale more musically, or interact and freely improvise, beginning with timbral, rather than with melodic or harmonic material.
Similarly, one might also consider how a composition student may gain relevant knowledge of the harp by asking a professional harp player about its main features (e.g., the double-action pedals). The developing composer gains understandings of the possibilities of an instrument she does not play by interacting with the harpist as an extended cognitive resource. Likewise, when the harpist prepares and performs the piece, she too becomes part of an extended cognitive network, including the composer, instrument, the audience, and the other musicians. As we considered above, sets of rules and norms associated with traditional practice could initially inform such learning processes. However, these need not be understood as prescriptive. For example, harps and guitars can be prepared, detuned, or played in unconventional ways; ensembles can experiment with various configurations and approaches. Thus, norms and rules might be conceived of as transitory affordances that can stimulate further discoveries and engagements with musical instruments (or other objects), and other people. Again, this has concrete implications for music pedagogy: novel ways of interacting with a musical instrument can be developed, explored, and enacted. Here, the self-producing and regenerating resources adopted to develop such new agent-instrument interactivities extend the operational possibilities of the living system, allowing the emergence of a novel musical world. Indeed, through the structural reconfiguration of the brain-body-world coupling, the global action of the learner entails an open horizon of musically meaningful conducts, one where learner and learning become two aspects of the same autopoietic process. In addition, because of the seemingly paradoxical openness of such self-organizing networks—which, on one hand co-emerge with(in) the environment, and, on the other hand, maintain their autonomous identity—different structural couplings with the socio-material environment can entail a variety of strategies, options, and possibilities that are hardly reducible to a list of instructions. For this reason, the possibility of open communication between the learning environment and the developing student represents a vital resource for the latter’s flourishing as a musical agent. This also leads us to consider the different impacts formal (more prescriptive) and non-formal music (less prescriptive) environments can have on the internal balance of the autopoietic network in development (i.e., the learning musician) and how these lead to different learning trajectories and outcomes. We suggest that this understanding of learning as continuous with the self-organizing properties of living beings might enrich our knowledge of music pedagogy and support calls for the inclusion of more open-ended and creative environments for music education.