On the Training of Perception

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I recently eavesdropped on an interesting conversation. It was between the tutor and another participant on a wood-carving course I’d gone on, and it was about the teaching of visual art. They were discussing how the focus on a conceptual approach means people don’t necessarily learn specific technical skills. A particular anecdote was of a drawing class in which the instructor demonstrated how to draw a foot, using a method that produced a generic foot, rather than a specific representation of the actual foot of the person modelling for the class. People aren’t taught, they agreed, how to look.

The conversation moved on from there to a variety of techniques and exercises each of them had experienced that trained you to see what was in front of you in terms of the relationship between its constituent parts – the angles, the planes, the proportions – rather than in terms of your knowledge of what it actually is. You see most accurately, they suggested, when you dissociate vision from content.

This got me thinking about the process of perception, as described by Lisa Feldman Barrett in How Emotions Are Made. We don’t process all the data from our senses as they come in, she contends, because that would take up far more processing power than our brains have capacity for. Instead, we maintain an internal model of what we expect the world to be like, and then use the incoming sensory data to update it.

Mostly the world is pretty stable – as I look up around this room, much of it looks exactly like it did five minutes ago, so I need to expend minimal energy on maintaining my internal representation of it. This reserves my cognitive resources for the important task of dealing with discrepancies between perception and expectation. Who’s been eating my porridge? (That’s an illustrative quote, btw, nobody has snuck in to eat my porridge while I was writing this.)

The discussion of ‘learning to look’ thus described a process of consciously suspending this continual intuitive perceptive mechanism. The brain is wired to make sense of shapes, to interpret, to project meaning on the world, so to deliberately refuse input from our internal model and focus solely on external sense data is not only counter-intuitive, it is also highly resource-intensive. No wonder it is a specialist activity.

Of course I also found myself reflecting on the musical equivalent of this process. Just as learning to look is central to drawing, learning to listen is vital for musicians.

And here’s the thing: most of what we do in aural training is actually focused on building our internal model soundscape, rather than dissociating from it. The Kodaly method is explicitly all about the ‘inner ear’, and the traditional aural training focus on dictation is exactly about organising incoming sense data into forms that represent meaningful musical syntax.

We might, on the surface, nod sagely and agree with visual artists that we both place training our primary perceptual skills at the heart of what we do, but, in terms of what we are actually training, apparently we take very different approaches.

It is however useful to think about how and when we find the skills of dissociating from expectation musically useful. In my earlier years at Birmingham Conservatoire I was involved in teaching an advanced aural course that did some work on this, in particular in focusing the ears on continuous, non-notatable elements of music such as timbre, and both I and the students found these exercises challenging and extremely engaging. But they were advanced skills, which relied upon a substantial previous background in building the inner ear to be possible.

Perhaps the difference is that children in our culture grow up drawing pictures all the time – both in play, and in school - so the basic skills of building your visual model of the world are put in place as a matter of course. If we normalised singing and musical activities as standard elements of life in childhood in the same way, we might not need to invest so much of our formal education in building perceptual skills as they’d be there from informal learning in daily life.

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