The Musical Mind

THE late Horatio Parker once said, in the way of a witticism, ‘There are no musicians in this country’; and to my intimation that there must be some near-musicians he replied, after some deliberation, ‘Well, there is one.’ On inquiry as to what his particular merits were, it came out that he was a composer. ‘But,’ I asked, ‘how about our great singers and instrumental performers?’ ‘Ah, they are technicians.’ From this conception of the musical mind to that of Blind Tom there is room for recognition of countless varieties of musical minds.

Avoiding as much as possible the account of technical methods of approach, analysis, and measurement, I shall aim to set up a skeletal structure in terms of which musical minds may be described and interpreted.

The outstanding feature in the point of view which I desire to present as a result of laboratory experience is the basing of the analysis of the musical mind upon the analysis of the musical medium, the physical sound. This rests upon the assumption that a musical mind must be capable of sensing sounds, of imaging these sounds in reproductive and creative imagination, of being aroused by them emotionally, of being capable of sustained thinking in terms of these experiences, and ordinarily, though not necessarily, of giving some form of expression in musical performance or in creative music. In presenting this object of approach, I desire to keep in the foreground the fundamental fact that the musical mind is not its dissected parts, but an integrated personality, and in its evaluation we must always have regard for the total personality as functioning in a total situation.

Musical talent is not one talent but a hierarchy of talents, branching out along certain trunk lines into the rich arborization, foliage, and fruitage of the family tree which we call the musical mind. The normal musical mind is first of all a normal mind. What makes it musical is the possession, in a serviceable degree, of those capacities which are essential for the hearing, the feeling, and ordinarily the expressing, in some form, of music, with a resulting drive or urge toward music.


The psychological attributes of sound — namely, pitch, intensity (commonly called ‘loudness’), duration, and extensity (‘bigness,’ as in the comparison of a high and a low tone) — rest upon the physical characteristics of the sound wave — namely, frequency, amplitude, and duration. In terms of these attributes of sound we can account for every conceivable sound in nature and art — vocal or instrumental, musical or nonmusical. We therefore recognize that the musical mind must be capable of apprehending these four attributes of sound to a serviceable degree. These capacities, the sense of pitch, the sense of intensity, the sense of extensity, and the sense of time, can be measured with a high degree of precision. For the present purpose we may set aside the sense of extensity, because, although it is of very great significance musically, it is perhaps, from the psychophysical point of view, fixedly coördinated with pitch, and therefore varies approximately with the sense of pitch.

These four capacities are, then, the four ‘windows of the musical soul.’ But in the combination of them we find an inner screen which is more significant musically, being composed of the four fundamental sensory capacities in the complex form — namely, the sense of timbre, the sense of consonance, the sense of volume, and the sense of rhythm. The four complex forms of capacity must be measured by themselves and not in terms of their elemental components; for example, rhythm depends upon the sense of time and the sense of intensity, but it also involves other factors and must therefore be measured by itself. So timbre is a pitch-complex, but the experience is unitary and involves the other attributes of sound.

We can, then, offer a complete account of the sensory capacities for hearing music in terms of the four elemental capacities, the sense of pitch, the sense of time, the sense of intensity, and the sense of extensity, and the four derived or complex forms of these capacities, the sense of timbre, the sense of consonance, the sense of volume, and the sense of rhythm. The complex forms may, however, in turn be analyzed experimentally into more specific components; for example, the sense of volume may be regarded in turn as intensity volume, extensity volume, and reduplication volume; or rhythm may be attacked in terms of time or in terms of stress.

This classification of sensory capacities is probably complete, because it is based upon the attributes of the sound wave, and it must be borne in mind that the sound wave is the only medium through which music is conveyed from the performer to the listener, and everything that is rendered as music or heard as music may be expressed in terms of the concepts of the sound wave. As in good reading we are not aware of letters or phonetic elements as such, but read for meaning, so in music we are as a rule not conscious of specific tonal elements, but rather of musical design or impression as a whole.

On the basis of our experiments in the measurement of these sensory capacities, we find that the basic capacities, the sense of pitch, the sense of time, and the sense of intensity, are elemental, by which we mean that they are largely inborn and function from early childhood; after comparatively early age they do not vary with intelligence, with training, or with age, except in so far as the exhibition of these capacities is limited by the child’s inability to understand or apply himself.

This fact is of utmost importance in that it makes diagnosis of talent possible before training is begun, and points to certain very radical principles of musical education. We can measure these capacities reliably by the age of ten in the normal child; and this measure is likely to stand throughout life, except for the numerous vicissitudes of life which tend to cause deterioration.

To take an example, the sense of pitch depends upon the structure of the ear, just as acuity of vision depends upon the structure of the eye. As no amount of training or maturing tends to increase the acuity of the eye, so no amount of training or maturing can improve the pitch acuity of the ear. However, training and maturing in both cases have unlimited range for the enrichment of the functional scope of these capacities. The ear, like the eye, is an instrument; and mental development consists in the acquisition of skill and the enrichment of the stock of experience through this channel. This is analogous to the fact that touch and acuity of hearing are on the whole as keen in seeing persons as in the blind, who show apparently marvelous power of orientation through these senses.

The complex forms of sensory capacities also tend to be elemental to a surprising degree. That is, the child from early infancy has the sense of timbre, the sense of volume, the sense of rhythm, and the sense of consonance, long before he begins to sing or to know anything about music. It is the meaning of these forms of impression that we develop, and this meaning matures with age and enlarges in compass in proportion to the degree of intelligence.

There seem to be three taproots of the musical mind, or, to change the figure, three large trunks in the family tree of musicality, each of which may develop and ramify to a large extent independently and out of proportion to the others. They are the tonal, the intensive, and the temporal. Each is the main trunk of a musical type. The tonal are peculiarly sensitive to pitch, and dwell upon music in all its tonal forms — melody, harmony, and all forms of pitch inflection; the dynamic have a fine acuity of hearing and sense of intensity, and dwell by preference upon musical ‘touch’ as the intensive aspect of music in all forms and modifications of loudness; the temporal are peculiarly sensitive to time and rhythm, and dwell by preference upon the rhythmic patterns and all other media for the temporal aspect of music.

Of course, a great musician, or a balanced musician of any degree of greatness, tends to have these three trunks of capacity branch out in balanced and symmetrical form; but such cases are comparatively rare. Many distinguished musicians are dominantly of one of these types; their performance and appreciation and their musical creations all give evidence favoring dominance of one of the trunk lines. Furthermore, high capacity in each of these three trunk lines of talent is not essential to marked distinction in musical achievement, and very extreme sensitivity in one or more of these capacities may even be a drawback to balanced musical development.

Let me give a very striking illustration on this last point. In measuring certain phases of musical talent in all of the available living members of six of the foremost musical families in the United States, Dr. Stanton found that the brother of one of the protagonists of these musical families said he had no musical talent whatever, and this seemed to be the opinion of the family; but the experimenter found that in the four basic capacities which were measured (the sense of pitch, the sense of intensity, the sense of time, and tonal memory) he was most extraordinarily keen — indeed, conspicuously keener than his brother, the famous musician. The interesting confession came out that the reason he was not musical was that practically all the music he heard was to him so bad that it jarred upon him and was intolerable. That was why he was not musical in the conventional sense of the word; he was so keen that the ordinary humdrum of music, even in a musical family, continually jarred him. Is he in reality musical or is he not? The psychologist would say, ‘In terms of all the evidence at hand, he has extraordinary musical capacities.’ Yet in his family he was the one who had not ‘amounted to anything’ in music.

Generalizing on the basis of all types of record available, we may say that so far as the sensory capacities are concerned a balanced and distinctly gifted musical mind is one which in these capacities measures in the highest ten per cent of the normal community, but that great musical achievement is attained by persons who may have a low average sensory capacity in one of these three main lines.

But here it must be pointed out, of course, that success depends upon following the lead of natural capacity. For example, a person who has only an average sense of pitch can never become a good violinist or a great singer, but with the other two trunk lines well developed he may become a pianist or a composer of great distinction.


Granting the presence of sensory capacities in adequate degree, success or failure in music depends upon the capacity for living in a tonal world through productive and reproductive imagination. The musician lives in a world of images, realistic sometimes even to the point of a normal illusion. This does not mean that he is aware of the image, as such, any more than he needs to be aware of sensation in seeing an object. But he is able to hear over a musical programme which he has heard, as if it were rendered in the present. He creates music by ‘ hearing it out,’ not by picking it out on the piano or by mere seeing of the score or by abstract theories, but by hearing it out in his creative imagination. That is, his memory and imagination are rich and strong in power of concrete, faithful, and vivid tonal imagery; and this imagery is so fully at his command that he can build the most complex musical structures and hear and feel all the effects of every detailed element before he has written down a note or sounded it out by voice or instrument. This capacity, I should say, is the outstanding mark of a musical mind at the representation level — the capacity of living in a representative tonal world. This capacity brings the tonal material into the present; it colors and greatly enriches the actual hearing of musical sounds; it largely determines the character and realism of the emotional experience; it is the familiarity with these images which makes the cognitive memory for music realistic. Thus tonal imagery is a condition for learning, for retention, for recall, for recognition, and for the anticipation of musical facts. Take out the image from the musical mind and you take out the very heart.

No one maintains at the present time that a person can be of a single imaginal type, but in natural musicians with a rich feeling for music the auditory type dominates, and perhaps largely on account of the fact that realistic imagery is always intimately associated with organic responsiveness. The motor imaginal type is ordinarily also well developed. It is not necessary for us to quarrel about the relation of kinæsthetic imagery to kinæsthetic sensation, but we can agree upon this — that the motor tendency to image the tone or execute it in inceptive movements is highly developed in the musical mind. The auditory and the motor images are normal stimuli for organic reaction in musical emotion.

This fact of the necessity of living in a world of representation tends also to bring out vivid visual imagery as well as imagery in the other senses; because there is a general tendency to reinstate, in the representation of a sensory experience, the whole of the original setting. Thus a musician not only hears the music, but often lives it out so realistically in his imagination and memory that he sees and feels a response to the persons, instruments, or total situation in the rendition represented. Without this warmth of experience music would lose its essential æsthetic nature.

It is a well-known fact that many persons who ply the art or business of music report having no developed imaginal life or concrete imagination, and it has been very interesting to observe in many such cases that, although they are engaged in the practice of music, their musical life is quite devoid of the genuine musical experience.

The power of mental imagery may be developed to a marked degree with training. There is also good evidence to show that the power of vivid imagery deteriorates with nonuse. A comparison of musicians and psychologists shows the musicians to stand very high in auditory imagery and the psychologists, as a class, comparatively low. This marked difference is probably due partly to selection and partly to training. There seems to be no doubt that there are very great differences in the nature of children in this respect. We have no exact method of measuring the degree of imagery, its vividness, adequacy, stability, and so forth, but the introspective method quite generally employed is fairly adequate for practical purposes.

But mere strength or fidelity of imagery is of little value except in so far as it is the medium for imagination. Music is an art, and he who plies it successfully has the power of creative imagination. This may be of the sensuous type, which is characterized by luxuriant and realistic imagery without much reflection; it may be of the intellectual type, in which creation takes the form of purposes, theories, postulates, as the material of musical content; it may be of the sentimental type, in which the flow of imagery is under the sway of the higher sentiments which are often nursed into æsthetic attitudes sometimes called musical temperament; it may be of the impulsive type, in which the drive or urge of emotion flares up but is not long sustained; it may be of the motor type sometimes called architectonic, which takes the form of a realistic experience of action or of mere performance. Accordingly as a person is dominantly of any one type or of a combination of these types, his personality as a whole may in large part be designated by such a pattern. Thus among others we may have as types the sensorimotor, the sentimental, the impulsive, the reflective, the motile, or the balanced musician.

While retentive and serviceable memory is a very great asset to a musical person, it is not at all an essential condition for musical-mindedness. A person may have naturally very poor memory of all forms and get along well in music, just as an absent-minded and forgetful philosopher may get along very well in his field. Furthermore, the possibility for the development of memory has such a very large range that with careful training a person with very poor memory capacity may improve this many fold and attain fairly serviceable command in memory. The musical mind that can reproduce several full programme repertoires with precision is, however, a different mind from one which has neither large scope nor fidelity in retention or reproduction. But both may be musical. The personal traits in memory and imagination color and condition the musical life and often set limits to achievement in music.


So far as the power of reflective thinking is concerned, musical intelligence is like philosophical, mathematical, or scientific intelligence; it is good reasoning power. Intelligence is musical when its background is a storehouse of musical knowledge, musical interests, musical tasks, and a warmth of musical experience.

Here, as in the case of imagination, the type and the degree of intelligence may characterize or set limits to the musical achievement. The great composer, the great, conductor, the great interpreter, live in large intellectual movements. They have the power of sustained thought, a great store of organized information, and the ability to elaborate and control their creative work at a high intellectual level. At the other extreme are the various kits of small musicianship in which reflective thinking does not function: the experience and the performance are on a sensorimotor level. Such music is to real music as phantasy is to creative imagination. Between these extremes we may sort musicianships into markedly different qualities and levels in terms of some sort of intelligence quotient. Thought is, however, not limited to the difficult and ponderous in music. For, as in all other realms of reflection, the highest and most beautiful achievements of thought often have the charm of simplicity.

We should not infer from this that a great mathematician or philosopher, for example, who plays the violin or sings beautifully does so as a great thinker. The violin and the voice are often a relief to him from the dull strain of sustained cogitation. He may not create music at all; he may not even interpret at the level at which he philosophizes; yet his sensuous and his imaginative experience are chastened, mellowed, and balanced by the fact that he is a contemplative man.

Again, the great intellect in music may dwell so exclusively upon the musical forms and upon conceptions of new musical structures as to become calloused to the more spontaneous appreciation and expression of music. He becomes hypercritical and may even lose the sense of enjoyment of music. The penetrating critic often derives more pain than pleasure from music as it is.

My main point, however, is that, as is the intelligence of a man, so is his music. If he is in a school for the feebleminded, his music may be spontaneous and appealing to a high degree, but it will be, nevertheless, feeble-minded. If it is the expression of the philosophical and highly trained composer or conductor, it will be a thought creation whether or not it has the more elemental musical appeals which reach the masses.


Music is essentially a play upon feeling. It is appreciated only in so far as it arouses feeling, and can be expressed only by active feeling. On the basis of the degree and the kind of feeling, we may again classify persons into characteristic types. The emotional responsiveness of the musician may be regarded from several points of view. In view of the fact that everything that the musician conveys to the listener as music is conveyed on the sound wave and that we now have methods of intercepting the sound waves by the camera and reproducing them with as fine detail as we may wish, it is possible to represent in scientific terms every shade of feeling, sentiment, or emotion as expressed in music.

As a fundamental proposition we may say that the artistic expression of feeling in music consists in æsthetic deviation from the regular — from pure tone, rigid pitch, rigid intensity, rigid time, rigid rhythms, and so forth. All of these can be measured so that we can now compare singers quantitatively in terms of their use of a particular one of the countless devices for deviating from the regular or rigid, including also adherence to the regular as a means of expressing emotion in music.

In other words, expression of musical feeling is effected through the countless possible changes in sound waves; and all of these are recordable and measurable. The emotional medium at one moment may be primarily tonal timbre, at another moment rhythm, at another moment dynamic value, and each of these in countless forms of sublimation. In the ensemble of such deviation from the regular lie the beauty, the charm, the grandeur of music. When Tetrazzini catalogues, among the chief faults of singing, ‘faulty intonation, faulty phrasing, imperfect attack, scooping up to notes, digging or arriving at a note from a semitone beneath,’ she is of course right, but may fail to realize that in just such variables lie the resources for beauty and power of music.

In other words, our concept of feeling as expressed in music may become concretely scientific; so that, if the musical critic praises or blames a singer for a certain emotional quality, it need no longer remain a question of dispute or opinion; for, just as we could snap the profile of the singer with the camera, we can get the profile of the sound wave and settle the dispute about the musical quality. The musical critics have, of course, not yet adopted this technique; but the next generation will make a beginning. The expression of feeling in music, that mysterious and enchanting retreat for all things musical, is being explored; trails are being blazed, and the musical critic will soon talk about the expression of feeling in music in terms of precise and scientific concepts.

This very sweeping assertion about submitting the expression of æsthetic feeling to scientific analysis and measurement is so radical and far-reaching that it deserves some illustration of proof in support. Bearing in mind that scientific procedure ordinarily requires the isolation and control of one specific factor at a time,— not feeling as a whole, but specific factors in turn,— I may cite as an example the definition, description, and evaluation of the vibrato. This quiver of the voice is one of the countless media for deviation from the regular for æsthetic effect. It is distinctly an expression of feeling.

What is the vibrato? What causes it? Is it desirable? If so, what form is desirable? Is it spontaneous? Can it be taught? Can it be eradicated? Can we establish norms of beautiful vibrato? What does it mean in the language of emotion? How does it develop from childhood? Do primitive singers have it? In what respect does the vibrato vary with each type of emotion? How does it vary with register, with sex, with emotionality and temperament? What is its relation to emotional instability? How do different singers differ characteristically in their vibrato? What are the typical faults or shortcomings of the vibrato? Answers to all these questions and many other questions about this specific medium of expression of emotion have been sought boldly, confidently, and with success in the laboratory in terms of measurements as recorded on sound waves. Thus in answer to the first question, calling for a definition of the vibrato, we find that, generalizing from a vast variety of concrete data at hand, we can express it in scientific terms. In calm and beautiful singing the vibrato is a synchronous pitch and intensity oscillation, ordinarily at the rate of from five to eight oscillations per second, in which perhaps the most beautiful effect is obtained when the pitch oscillation does not exceed one fourth of a tone and the intensity oscillation is as barely perceptible as the pitch oscillation and both take the form of a smooth sine curve.

Countless descriptive features may be added to such a definition for specific purposes, and qualifications may be added as new information accrues. The point is that we are now enabled to define, describe, measure, and control such a subtle aspect of the expression of tender emotion as the slightest change in the character of a vibrato.

When Madame Kurenko, who seems to have a beautiful vibrato in all registers, sings in New York and the critics opine about the technique of quivers in her voice, we may have at the footlights a recording instrument which photographs every sound wave and enables us to preserve for all time the form of her expression of emotion. Not only so, but when she sings in New York I can now sit in my home in Iowa City and hear her, through the marvelous performances of the radio, or go to my laboratory and take moving pictures of her song, and preserve and make an objective study of any specific aspect — for example, her vibrato. Ages of opinions and quarrels about what the vibrato is have taken us nowhere. Five years in the laboratory have laid the foundations of a science of the vibrato which, in turn, will lay foundations for the pedagogy and the æsthetic appraisal of this specific phase of the expression of feeling.

We are, of course, here not thinking about that mystic inner something which is spoken of as feeling as such, but of the expression of feeling; and, in modern psychology, to feel is always to do, to express something — action of the organism. The expression does not take ethereal, magical, or even mystic forms, but comes to us through the media to which our senses are open.

There are two other aspects of feeling in music. One is the nature of æsthetic experience, and the other is what we may call the creative feeling as it operates in the composer. It is evident that both of these will stand out in an entirely new light the moment the conception of the concreteness, describability, and tangibleness of the expression of emotion in music is recognized.


Musical performance, like all other acts of skill involving unusually high capacity, is limited by certain inherent and inherited motor capacities. For example, a child is slow and sure, quick and erratic, or may be found in any other combinations of the two series from the extremely slow to the extremely quick, the extremely precise to the extremely erratic. And, as a child is found, so will be the youth and the man. It is often like stature or a color of hair, a personal trait.

Singing involves the possession of a favorable structure of the vocal organs and motor control. Playing various kinds of instruments calls for a high order of natural capacity, for speed and accuracy in control. Motor capacities can be measured before musical training is begun. Musical action is, of course, also limited by limitations in each and all of the talents heretofore discussed — for example, a person who is low in sense of rhythm will of necessity be low in rhythmic performance. In the next generation the music student and the music teacher and theorist will rate progress and quality in musical performance in relation to capacity, just as at the present time we are beginning to consider it reasonable not to expect as much from a moron as we do from a philosopher.

It is quite possible to recognize fundamental types of motor resourcefulness in musical performance, but for the present purpose the main thing to be stressed is that there is nothing indescribable about it and that individual motor fortes or faults of a basic character often determine the character of the musician.


This, in brief, is the skeletal structure I promised. In many respects it is but dangling and rattling dry bones. ‘ Atomistic!' some of my confreres will say. Now, atoms are not roses; but with atoms, and with atoms alone, Nature flushes roses, resplendent in bloom, fragrance, and Gestalt—living roses! The æsthete, whiffing and raving about the beauty of the rose, can ignore the atom, but the botanist cannot. It is to the botanist that we look for a true revelation of the origin, the growth, the essential character, and the rôle of roses in the economy of Nature. It is the botanist that can make verifiable and permanent distinctions among roses.

Forty years ago Wundt was asked, ‘What have you learned from the reaction experiment?’ — to which his whole laboratory force had devoted its first three years. His reply was, ‘It has given me a new conception of the human mind.’ Speaking for those who take the scientific point of view for a psychology of music, I may say that experiment has given us a new conception of the musical personality as a whole — its infinite richness in capacities, the intimate relationships among these capacities, the marvelous range of possible training, growth, and substitution, the sublimation of musical interests in daily life, the necessity of viewing the personality dynamics as a whole.

Does this point of view oversimplify the musical mind? The argument I have made is that it can and should vastly enrich and deepen the concept; for, if you ask one question of Nature in the laboratory, Nature asks you ten, and each of these when pursued in turn multiplies into tens of tens of tens. For laboratory procedure is but the setting of conditions for more and more precise observations of specific, concrete, verifiable facts or features. What I have said is after all merely a point of view. The details remain to be worked out, filled in, modified as science progresses. My whole appeal is to and for verifiable facts.

What shall it profit? Perhaps I may bring together in a constructive way some of the features which seem to me to be involved in the acceptance of scientific procedure in the interpretation, evaluation, and education of the musical mind.

It gives us a psychology of music in that it furnishes describable and verifiable facts as a basis for classification. The particular data I have presented are just plain psychology; not any particular brand, but rather an attempt to select and consolidate what is usable in the various modern points of view and from all investigators.

It furnishes us a technique for the development of musical æsthetics. The armchair deductions about the nature of beauty in music must give way to experiment, and conclusions must be limited to factors under control. Musical æsthetics will soon loom up as one of the applied and normative sciences.

It forms a basis in individual psychology for the analysis and evaluation of musical talent and will furnish helpful data for vocational and avocational guidance in music.

It develops an intimate relationship between music and speech. It may be that speech, a long-lost art, may gain recognition in æsthetics on the ground of its close relationship to music.

It lays the foundations for musical criticism, musical biography and autobiography, and musical theory in general — even for intelligent parlor conversation about musical thrills.

It furnishes the foundation for the psychology of musical education in that it furnishes essential facts for the construction of the curriculum, for the selection and motivation of the musically educable, for the evaluation of progress in training, and for countless improvements in the technique and economy of teaching. If a committee of scientifically trained musicians should make a survey of the economies or wastes involved in current methods of teaching music and should be free to set forth the pedagogical consequence of facing the new scientifically known facts about the musical mind, very radical changes would follow.

It helps to give music its true place and influence by enhancing the musical life for the musically gifted and thereby furnishing a natural drive for the effective functioning of music in the life of the people.