Monday, 28 November 2016


Chunking and musical attention



Chunking to assist short term memory depends on organising a structure to patterns to ease the "digestion" of information. A ten number sequence could be difficult to recall, but if the set is a recognisable pattern it could be very simple indeed, e.g. 1 through to 10 or the same sequence reversed.

Two chunks like 1 to 5 and 10 to 6 are just as easy to recall. The more random the sequence the harder it is to retain, it also becomes more difficult to pay attention to other simultaneously presented information.


Fortunately great composers are very good at arranging material in ways to make the absorbing of information easier, if not easy. It seems unlikely and anachronistic to think of pre 20th century composers setting out to reveal a piece of music as chunks of information though sometimes an analysis will present information this way in order to illustrate cohesion. It is likely that composers worked their structures to aid our attention and recall from the process of their improvising and composing at the keyboard.



Chunking is less concerned with key structures and long term planning, we need only recall that STM (short term memory) is a matter of seconds to understand why. There is debate about how much evaluation and judgement can take place at the level where the primary concern is recognition, so comparing like with like is probably reserved for LTM.



In order to assess how a listener might chunk a piece of music I am going to take a Schubert sonata, written in 1817, the sonata in B, D.575. In previous blogs I have demonstrated the importance of rhythm in the opening movements of sonata form works by Classical composers, and this work makes a powerful argument for the cohesive use of rhythmic figures.



The opening three bars of this sonata are restricted to presenting the tonic chord and we wait until to fourth bar to hear a change to a seventh chord on G sharp. The musical interest lies in the dotted rhythms, see fig. A 1 to 4. The two rhythmic cells are simplified for the descending answer, using A2 only. The remainder of the opening 15 bars emphasise this figure, though A1 is used to pull the music back to lead us into the triplet bass section. The opening bars are full of alteration of texture, harmony and dynamics, but there is no doubt that the 20 repetitions of the dotted rhythm form the glue that holds our attention, particularly on our first hearing of the music.




Bars 15 to 29 place the thematic interest over a triplet bass, but our attention is quickly drawn away from the background pulse by the short (harmonically simple) melodic phrases, which extend the dotted rhythm (A2) to B1 which has 14 repetitions.

The character of the music changes at bar 30, partly through the three quaver pulse in the left hand accompaniment, but the main change of character is the addition of a grace note to rhythm A2. Bar 31 modifies the rhythm by adding a double dotted note, which gives greater cohesion to the repeated four bar phrase. These two rhythmic alterations contribute a great deal, certain as much as the harmony, to the change of character.

The following return to B major gives greater impetus to the music, the crotchet is accented, so A2 is reversed, repeated and extended with four staccato quavers and completed with the original A2 figure, see fig. C. This longer phrase is repeated and then truncated to the second half only. Cross beat accents and fz add interest, as does the dialogue between left and right hand, overlapping, phrases, all of which drives us to the repeat of the exposition and later the arrival at the development where the dotted rhythms are quickly intensified by using double dotted quaver/ demisemiquaver figures.

Having worked an excellent transition to the development and intensified the original rhythm, the remainder of the sonata reworks the rhythmic characteristics of the exposition. There are of course many subtleties to entertain the listener and these will be enjoyed with repeated exposure to the music.


It is possible to pay attention to more than one type of information, and it would make no sense to suggest that we hear only one parameter of music. Each person prioritises differently, that is why we can argue about how we hear a given piece and why some might find one work agreeable while his/her neighbour disagrees. For all that it is clear that the rhythmic design of this work offers considerable continuity which supports the variety of key changes, harmonic surprises and changes of musical character.

Gradual change characterizes a great deal of serious music up to the present day. It is an important part of the thinking behind large scale structures and is much used by Mahler, an examination of the first movement of the 8th symphony is a particularly fine example of its use. In our own time demands are being placed on our ability to absorb detail, perhaps in part offset by our ability to replay, isolate and examine sections of music in detail. Will we evolve with the music to be able to “collect” more information or chunk sections to aid our understanding of challenging music? Time will tell.



The process of gradual change can be applied to each of the musical parameters. I once worked a piece using a particular delay programme and realised after completing the composition that there was another cohesive factor at work which I hadn't planned. Looking at the sound file of the recording I saw that the music was being automatically panned gradually from left to right in regular periods of time by the software. Did this attentiveness happen as a result of becoming aware that a sound, once on the left, was now centrally placed or on the right, or was I "rehearsing" the fact that the sound was in motion, rather like our early ancestors being aware of something moving in the long grass?

There is a great deal of time spent in educational circles about thinking about thinking as a means of improving skills. As I made my focus attending to attention while music played there is little doubt in my mind that the experience of listening was changed to my "usual" approach. On one recent occasion while listening to Schubert's final piano sonata, I started with the "attentive" approach and without noticing slipped into complete involvement with the character of the music. I discussed this with Nurtan, who I am certain has experienced the same or similar event.



While we are fortunate in having a great deal of information to draw on regarding memory and attention, and I am sure there are readers who can refine the information given in light of recent research. There is far less information on the interaction between music and attention, there are complex issues at play here, particularly in contemporary classical music which has different concerns to popular and certain types of dance music.



There is some popular interest in the use of music with regard to mindfulness, this is a different issue and has general and often unsubstantiated claims as to the relationship between the music and the listener. There are academic courses for the study of mindfulness, hopefully there is some serious academic research being done or to be done on this issue in the near future.