Microstructures of Feel, Macrostructures of Sound:
Embodied Cognition in West African
and African-American Musics


Vijay S. Iyer


Doctor of Philosophy in Technology and the Arts

University of California, Berkeley

Professor David Wessel, Chair


The fundamental claim of this thesis is that music perception and cognition are embodied, situated activities. This means that they depend crucially on the physical constraints and enablings of our sensorimotor apparatus, and also on the ecological and sociocultural environment in which our music-listening and -producing capacities come into being. I argue that rhythm perception and production involve a complex, whole-body experience, and that much of the musical structure found in rhythm-based music incorporates an awareness of the embodied, situated role of the participant.

The claim that music perception and cognition are embodied activities also means that they are actively constructed by the listener, rather than passively transferred from performer to listener. In particular, the discernment of entities such as pulse and meter from a given piece of music are not perceptual inevitabilities for any human being, but are strongly dependent on the persons culturally contingent listening strategies. In addition, I argue that certain kinds of rhythmic expression in what I call groove-based music are directly related not only to the role of the body in making music, but also to certain cultural aesthetics that privilege this role. Some common kinds of subtle microrhythmic variation are shown to display systematic structure, which often carries an encoded sonic trace of the music-making body.

Throughout the text are included a number of illustrative musical examples, drawn from West African and African-American musical genres. The focus on this group of cultures stems from the salient role of embodied and situated dimensions in these particular musics, and from the authors expertise in their performance and analysis. However, these musics merely form a case study for the more general claim that these dimensions are operative in all music to varying degrees.