I know the world through its sounds – and I hear those sounds through my hands.
My first indelible memory of playing piano is embedded most distinctly in my hands. It is not the usual image of a young child flailing with wild abandon at the keyboard. True, playing entirely from instinct, I had not the slightest idea what I was doing. What I remember so clearly is the weight of the keys giving way beneath my fingers. The ivory giving way to the weight of my fingers as I press down into the keys. I can feel it right now in my muscle memory as I think about it and write. What I recall is that it felt like moving mountains, sheer satisfaction of making my imprint on the world. What seemed like a huge wooden expanse, dark hammers and shiny strings before me responded together to my effort – the piano made sounds; I made sounds. Amazing, I thought. Let’s do this some more!
Playing the piano has always been a fundamentally physical activity for me. Feeling the keys resist my finger pressure is at the core of the experience. When I listen to music, the sounds echo in my hands as I hear them in my ears. As I listen, I have a sensation of weight, of sounds evoking muscle memories–whether or not their source is a piano. I do not have perfect pitch, thank goodness; instead, musical sounds evoke in me a kinesthetic awareness. Often my musical decisions are driven by the physicality of the means of making sound. It is no wonder that in my late teens, I so loved cutting and pasting magnetic tape. While some speak of composing as an ethereal experience — some composers hear sounds in their imaginations — it rarely works this way for me. I feel it in my hands and imagine it in a very physical way.
Consider my first experience listening to John Coltrane during college; the recording was A Love Supreme. I was with a group of people sitting in a darkened room. The volume was turned up loud so that the floor rumbled. The kinesthetic image I imagined was of Coltrane carving his melodic lines into a sheet of steel. Grasping a broad knife in his hands–again the hands–the saxophonist gauged into the metallic substance. I had a similar perception the first time I heard pianist Cecil Taylor incising phrases, insistently repeating groupings of notes, twisting and turning them, again like a knife in hand, cutting into steel, a chisel scraping stone, focused weight breaking through the resistance of a physical surface, carving a fine, deeply etched line. I could visualize it as patterns and shapes projected onto a wall.
As I sit at the piano, I am aware of my spatial relationship with the instrument. I am at the center of a contiguous array of white and black keys. Towards the right, the pitches rise and to the left they fall. Each key has a front-back orientation: to their rear is the main body of the piano; directly in front of me, the white keys are closer to my torso. As my hands hover over the keys I’m aware of the differences in height between the black keys, which lay to the rear, further “into” the keyboard, and the lower white keys closer to my body. To touch the rear portion of the white keys requires placing my fingers in between the black keys. To play any of the keys I employ my arm, and shoulder muscles to strike the surface with my fingers, bringing sufficient weight to trigger the hammer action.
I have recently been exploring how musicians listen and respond to band members through the work of Lakoff and Johnson (1980). I would like to better understand how I process musical information through my hands, and more generally, conceptualize the world through bodily experience. For these two writers, human thought and language are each constructed of metaphors. This is how we translate “our bodily movements through space, our manipulation of objects, and our perceptual interactions… [into] structures for organizing our experience and comprehension” (Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind, 1986).
A relevant example Lakoff and Johnson offer for a metaphor based upon somatic experience is “center-periphery”. As I sit at before the keyboard, by the center of the keyboard array, I am intuitively aware that the most physically natural way to play is to reach for the keys right before me, at the center of the keyboard. To reach the lower or higher ranges requires either moving my arms outward or moving my body in one or the other direction.
My physical position at the center of the keyboard aligns with a more general human perception of the world around us. From our vantage point, we are looking, leaning, feeling as if we are positioned in the central position of our world. We perceive ourselves within concentric circles of proximity to a center point. We sense that our torso and the organs within our bodies are at the center (literally “the heart”) of our physical being. In contrast we call our hands and feet “extremities,” a reflection of their distance from our center but also an acknowledgment that our blood flows outward from the center. We project this inward perception of our physical being into spatial relations around us. “He stood in the middle with his friends forming two circles around him, the outermost on the periphery.”
We translate this physical dimension into how we conceptualize sonic “frequency”, commonly perceived as pitch. Pitched sounds are relative to one another, along a spectrum of “lower” to “higher.” Of course there are non-pitched sounds, for instance those generated by membranes such as drums, or sounds we define as noise, such as a rushing stream; think of water. When playing more than one note at a time, we perceive pitch relations. On the simplest level, we conceptualize these are higher and lower. An individual note situated within a group of notes, a chord for instance, sounds higher or lower than its surrounding notes. But it can also be situated in terms of the “center-periphery” metaphor: “The note she played on her saxophone was in the middle of a dense chord played by the horn section; way on top was the piccolo and on the bottom, the bass clarinet.”
At the piano, lower notes in a chord, when played with the right hand, are most easily accessed by fingers closest to the thumb; higher notes are played by fingers more to the periphery of my hand. The left hand is a mirror of the right. Thus, the way a chord (or, if speaking of non-harmonic structures, a tone cluster) sounds is reflected in the way it “feels” to my fingers and hands. I am somatically aware of how close the notes are situated together or, conversely, how far apart they are spread, and whether the notes are evenly distributed. Some chords or clusters may have two contiguous notes on the bottom, but upper notes further separated in distance (perceiving physically as a greater muscle stretch). To play notes louder requires exerting more energy to propel the hammers at a higher velocity. Muscle activity translates into the production of pitch, loudness, articulation (for instance how percussively a note is struck), chord/cluster density and composition (and thus harmony).
In improvised music, where the goal is not the realization of a notated score, perception on a muscular level can be important, even central; certainly it is underrated. True, it can also be overstated. It is difficult to assess the place of physical perception in John Coltrane’s choices of melodic lines in A Love Supreme. I spoke earlier of my own metaphorical interpretation as a listener. Coltrane was a highly analytical, mathematical thinker. He constantly rehearsed numerous combinations and permutations of note groupings. It may — or it may not — be accurate to suggest that the physical perception of his fingers played a role in his choices. It would not be possible for Coltrane’s muscle memory to have not played any role here. But might some of what he conceptualized musically have evolved within his fingers on the keys, his hands supporting the saxophone, his mouth and tongue on the mouthpiece, his lungs breathing air into the instrument?
These physical elements surely figure prominently in my own playing and, by extension, in how I personally perceive Coltrane’s work. Certainly, to play a minor third at a particular position on the piano keyboard requires a certain calibrated muscle stretch. One may create that musical sound by thinking “I am going to play a minor third at the center of the keyboard, C-Eb” and adjust the fingers accordingly. But I am equally likely to select those notes not as the consequence of mathematically conceptualizing the musical interval — from sensing and creating a muscle stretch and hand shaping that just happens to result in playing that interval. There is an intimate relationship between the two acts, the cerebral/intellectual and the physical/somatic. Improvising repeated patterns of notes can reflect choices from the perspective of mentally chosen notes or intervallic relations, and from the pure physicality of muscle and tendon experience and, might I say, decisions.
But how might this metaphor of center-periphery or high/low translate into a concept more meaningful than “which note might I hear or play” – and to what degree? Let me suggest something beyond the two translations I offered above (of pitch or the placement of a note in a chord or cluster). In the center, I feel at home, at rest. My hands in that position are the least physically stressful. As I extend my arms outwards from the center, my muscles contract; this is a less restful position. It is a comforting spot to be. My elbows drop, my back curves, my head sometimes drops forward from my neck. This is somewhat akin to settling into a comfortable sofa, at least compared with moving my arms left and right. I feel safe and secure. I’m not surprised to hear many pianists use the center of the keyboard as a reference point to place grounding chords while playing jazz tunes. It is more than convenience or convention!
“Center” is in fact our emotional reference point for everything in life. How many stories are built upon a narrative that begins at home and involves travel – physical, emotional, existential – away and then returning home? We return, having learned from our experiences away from home, and we then consolidate and reflect upon them when we are back in the center.
We all know what it is like to be at the center of a group of people or in the periphery. We feel a sense of greater belonging at the center than in the periphery. True, some of us are loners and may prefer (or seem to prefer) standing outside and there is power in having the perspective of an outsider. But one may look in from the periphery, with mixed emotion, even longing, at the embrace of those who sit in the center. The center can also be a source of negativity; it can be home to callousness towards others outside the circle, hostility to those on the periphery. This is a risk of being in the center.
Moving away from the center is where adventure unfolds. Life’s journeys take place when we leave home and explore the world. OK, this may sound like a truism, but I’m not sure how else to articulate the idea. When I lift up my arms at the piano and they move outwards towards notes a distance from the center, there is a level of expectancy. I honestly cannot tell exactly where they will land. Yes, I have trained myself to know in my body how to find certain keys, and when I learn notated music, this is a necessity. But I can never know for sure. And when I am improvising, I privilege the potential for “mistakes” or unintended landings, upon which I will musically expand and build. I celebrate those moments because they are the source of much creativity and an antidote to over planning and rehearsal.
When I hear – rather than play — music, I often listen through my body. In a sense, I am never a passive listener; listening activates my playing instincts and muscles. In addition to my ears, my receptors include my fingers and arms. I feel those parts of my body activated as I listen. I can completely lose track of the aural aspect of music yet find myself continuing to perceive it in my body. One of the things I feel in my bones when I listen is the position of my arms, where they rest in space, whether they are anticipating or at rest. When I pay close attention to how I am perceiving music, one of the ways that I “hear” in my body is through the center/periphery metaphor.
I am not suggesting that every time a pianist plays at the center of the keyboard – or hear musical sounds in a center register – s/he is expressing a thought about being at home or away. None of this is really about “thoughts” per se, but about unconscious processes. I am exploring, with Lakoff and Johnson, the possibility that thinking is not separate from our embodied lives. Certainly, shared, inherited conventions play a substantial role in how we speak and play, but even these are not things that arise out of a disembodied history. We have no history that is not in some close relationship to our bodies. Humanity has never existed outside of our bodies.
We know something on a somatic level when our hands are placed at different locations on the keyboard relative to our center. Parts of our body, not the cognition we identify as thought, just might be the site of this aspect of intelligence and knowing.
We lump our somatic knowledge and metaphor together — when we are even aware of any of it – under the rubric of intuition. Our musical experience seems so mysterious to us until we begin to take closer note of our bodies and fleeting thoughts and reflect upon them. Much of it can never be cognitively interpreted. The power of metaphor is that it resists interpretation; it is multiple, elastic, and not specifically defined. The idea of home, for example, is multiple and contextual. It means different things to us dependent upon context: our momentary mood, the period in our lives, memories evoked, our physical location, who we are with, what we are thinking about… What is wonderful about music is how it, too, resists concrete cognitive meaning. Music is suggestive and malleable. It moves us in ways we cannot cognitively comprehend.
Yet one of the ways we can experience musical knowledge is through our bodies. The many metaphors our bodily experiences evoke may provide access points to how we listen and how we play, individually and in groups. A question I wish to consider is how metaphor may provide a key to understanding how musicians perceive and respond to each other’s musical ideas.
What about you?