Monday, 14 November 2016


Attention is a process by which we actively engage with specific information from our environment. For listeners this could be a symphony playing on the radio with random additional material such as a pressure cooker steaming away as you prepare your midday meal, the postman delivering letters and two crows squawking outside your window. I imagine many of you will ask the relevant question: how do we manage to experience all of these sensations and still focus on just one element? In order to get to terms with this, and determine whether we can focus on a preferred element, we must understand the process of withdrawal, bottlenecks and shared tasks.

There must be a number of musicians who have experienced the wonderful sense of rapture arising from listening when we are so engaged on the “primary target” that all secondary inputs have zero impact, we have tuned in to one element and seemingly tuned out all others.

Readers of these blogs who have taken on the psychological arguments in relation to music will be well aware of the basic requirements of attention for survival. Here our interest is directed towards limitations on our ability to stay on task, and what we can do to maximise contact with music, especially as we know instinctively that our attention is limited in terms of both capacity and duration. How selective can we be and what do we miss when we are selective? Are certain senses more powerful than others, is there a peak point at which visual or aural material creates an overload on attention?

Posner and Boies (1971) suggested that attention has multiple sensory functions, for musicians the two of significance are detecting signals for focused processing, and maintaining a vigilant or alert state.  Other psychologists have used terms such as arousal, effort, capacity, perceptual set, control, and consciousness as synonymous with the process of attention, I am sure that performers and composers alike feel comfortable with these terms.

Attention involves selecting some information for further processing while inhibiting other information. Understanding attention is as much about filtering information as selection. This creates two states change blindness (Simons & Rensink, 2005) and change deafness (Vitevitch, 2003). In examining how partial our attention can be, psychologists are exploring the notion of top-down processing, a flexible and dynamic approach to attention as what is important at one moment may no longer be so at the next, and our goals shift accordingly.

Knowledge, beliefs, goals and expectations can alter the speed and accuracy of the processes that select meaningful or desired information; what we might think of as scanning and selecting material. However, because of the variety and quantity of information available in (say) a concert hall, top-down attentional selection does not always lead immediately to your goal, in our case focused listening. The recognised term for our attempts to direct attention is “mental effort” which accepts that given two sources of information we are not able to give equal weighting to both.

Just as there are limitations on the quantity of information that can be processed simultaneously in space, there are limitations on the speed with which information can be processed in temporal sequence. There are suggestions that we are limited by sensory overload, a bottleneck of information, certain critical mental operations have to be carried out sequentially (Pashler & Johnston, 1998).

When our attention requires a physical response this will create a bottleneck, good sight-readers have developed the knack of shifting attention back and forth at a rapid pace. As with multiple sensory inputs, coordinating two output responses is more difficult than simply making a single response. It is not impossible to do two things at once, and as musicians are well aware, we can get better at this with practice, but there is usually some associated cost or failure even when one is skilled.

As suggested the effective strategy for multitasking is to switch quickly back and forth between the two tasks rather than try to deal fully with both simultaneously. Before becoming expert sight-readers we may break down the process into smaller units with longer periods of rest to determine levels of accuracy and regions of faults (rhythm, wrong notes, lack of articulation etc.). We still do not know whether it is possible to perform two tasks at exactly the same time or, if it is, what happens to the quality of the attention paid.

Now that we have an outline of memory from the previous blog and a general understanding of attention it is time to turn to how some people absorb music and problems faced with attention when listening.



Several years ago I worked with a youngster who had a number of difficulties with learning, without going into details his literacy and numerical skills were very weak as was his retention of factual material. It came as a great surprise to me one day when I heard him reciting streams of rap along with stylistic gestures and intonation. I asked him to perform in front of his peers and he did without hesitation or any signs of anxiety, (unlike many of the more gifted performers I had worked with). It would seem that he had been involved in a high level of rehearsal having given considerable attention to performance detail picked up from audio and video sources. His passion for this style of music cut through the obstacles which were inhibiting his other learning. I can attest to the fact that he wanted to be equally able with other studies, particularly his numeracy, but for both of us this was an uphill struggle.



The Welsh have a tradition of storytelling and reciting and I have observed the capacity for some people to absorb large quantities of verse with little apparent effort. (In medieval times the expectation for any storyteller was to know 10,000 lines of verse). To be able to recite or sing in this way there has to have been detailed contact with the subject matter, but not necessarily all at once. The content may have been absorbed in chunks, starting with the gist and then adding to this until a complete performance is absorbed.



Chunking material is part and parcel of music, we are well aware of the role of repetition which contributes to our attention and recall of larger works, but chunking works on small scale events as well as larger formal units. Musicians are adept at matching and comparing related phrases through transposition, inversion and a whole host of methods of variation.

As can be seen from the wiki definition below the psychological definition is adaptable to the musicians approach:



Chunking in psychology is a process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole. A chunk is defined as a familiar collection of more elementary units that have been inter-associated and stored in memory repeatedly and act as a coherent, integrated group when retrieved.



In a design like sonata form we have motives and rhythmic elements repeated many times within a section then aspects of these elements extended before a recapitulation. This provides the listener several opportunities to refresh his/her contact with the music, and this is important because our attention is in a constant state of disruption.

Over the past few months I have kept a diary of my listening, or to be more explicit, a diary of how often my attention has wandered while listening. It could make for depressing reading in that every session has a number of breaks which paints a poor picture of the contact I have with music. On the up side I know that I have a good recall of many musical works and can replay significant sections in my head, or match a score with an “aural impression” of the sound without a recording. In the early years of listening to Classical music I know that I would pick out significant details and build onto these, gluing a number of parts together to form a more continuous experience of the musical logic. At this stage of my life I have a little more difficulty in absorbing music, but my listening experience helps me to form a stronger set of references on which I can draw to build up familiarity, so one loses a little and gains a little. 

The diary was particularly useful in showing what sorts of interference came between me and the music, it was nearly always involved with problem solving. In the middle of a piece I would become absorbed by any tasks that were incomplete, sometimes musical, sometimes far more trivial. Having become aware of this I tried to resolve any issues before listening only to find that my mind would conjure up issues from further back in time or of less significance. In other words I had formed a habit.

For many people music is regarded as a form of relaxation, in this state turning inwards to problem solving is acceptable as long as the listener is aware that the attention to the music is diminished. We can attend to two tasks, but never equally.

Don’t be harsh on yourself if you discover that your attention has lost its focus, go back (if you can) to the point at which you lost contact. It may be that there is an issue at that point which requires detailed observation and dealing with it may be of use in the future. Sometimes several returns are necessary, but remember rehearsal is vital to our long term memory.