Thoughtful melodies

Musicologist Larry Zbikowski traces the “cognitive grammar of music.”

By Steven Yaccino
Photography by Dan Dry

Thoughtful melodies
Zbikowski is documenting rules for music that mirror those for language.

Larry Zbikowski says his last name with a rat-tat-tat of syncopated syllables: Zva-KAWF-ski. The cadence is fleeting, a flash of tempo in his all-American, Midwestern delivery. It’s the beat of a melodic mind.

An associate professor in music at the University, Zbikowski, a classical guitarist for more than 40 years, sometimes finds himself thinking in music. “I can translate it into words, and I can translate it into symbols, but it’s first and primarily about arrangements in sound,” he says, describing those thoughts. “I can remember situations where I came up with a musical idea that I didn’t have any other conceptual framework for. It was entirely music.”

And yet in the short history of cognitive science—which since the 1970s has attempted to understand the mental processes that help us acquire, understand, and exchange information—music has played second fiddle. A 1997 book by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker called music little more than “auditory cheesecake”: from an evolutionary perspective, dessert but not dinner.

Zbikowski is using his sabbatical to write a book that counters what he considers this oversight. Sifting through established theories about how thought and language interact and recontextualizing them within musical theory, he is part of an emerging discipline of musicology that he calls “the cognitive grammar of music.”

Zbikowski first started exploring the cognitive sciences in the mid-1980s, while earning his doctorate in musical theory at Yale. The study of cognitive linguistics was still emerging, as scholars first discovered that language is shaped by how our brains process information. The organization of music, if mentioned at all, was lumped into the same category as speech and writing. “If they had the same function, they wouldn’t both exist,” he says, pointing out that all known human cultures have developed music and language, not just one or the other.

In 2002 Zbikowski published this observation as part of Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis (Oxford University Press), a book that identified human cognitive capacities important to music, such as the ability to categorize, map associations, and understand metaphor. “I started reading over the shoulders of cognitive linguists,” he recalls. “If they thought a particular cognitive capacity was important for language, I would ask myself if it was important for music. Sometimes the answer was yes, and sometimes the answer was no.”

Language, for instance, can point to something in a direct way. In speech we use the pronouns “this” or “that” to draw attention to an object in the room. Cognitive scientists call this relationship “form-function pairing”—that is, how we construct sentences to serve a specific purpose. Its more infamous modus operandi: grammar.

Music, on the other hand, is better at imitating action, creating sound analogies for internal or external perceptions, such as emotions or movement. Zbikowski calls them “analogs for dynamic processes”: “If one imagines a leaf fluttering down … musicians can come up with any number of ways to show that,” he says, zigzagging his finger through the air while scatting a series of descending notes. To convey and interpret this function of music, our brains use the same motor processes involved in gestures, not those we use for speech. 

Language’s and music’s separate sets of form-function pairs led Zbikowski to wonder: if linguists can develop grammatical rules for language, why haven’t musicologists tried documenting musical syntax in the same way? By Crystal Fountains, which he expects to finish this spring as a Fulbright visiting research chair in cognitive music theory at McGill University, will stop short of becoming a sonic version of Strunk and White. It will, however, make the initial effort to lay the theoretical foundation for future empirical research on musical organization. 

Zbikowski admits that his first examples are simplistic. Trying to understand the grammar used in artistic masterpieces by Bach or Beethoven would be like learning when to use a comma by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Still, By Crystal Fountains dissects a composition for solo guitar by Argentinean guitarist Julio Salvador Sagreras. Zbikowski notes the piece’s quick pace, its repetition of notes (eight per second), and its “fragmented compositional style.” When he reveals its title, “The Humming Bird,” the song makes sense. It takes on new meaning. Zbikowski cites academic papers by cognitive scientists to explain how the notes of “The Humming Bird” represent visual movement and why humans are the only species (with the possible exception of dolphins) that can connect Sagreras’s finger tapping with an imaginary bird fluttering from flower to flower.

Although Zbikowski hopes to persuade cognitive scientists to pay closer attention to rhythmic sound, he also has larger purposes with his book. For musicians, his goal is to craft a better understanding of musical arrangement, providing guidelines for composers to someday layer, bend, and break in the name of creativity. And for scholars, “it might push us into new areas,” he says, “and pull us away from thinking that language and words are the only way that we can structure thought.”


Return to top