Tuesday, December 9, 2008

music, imagination, and play

Reichling, Mary J. "Music, Imagination, and Play." Journal of Aesthetic Educcation 31.1 (Spring

1997): 41-55.


by Megumi Okamoto


The author elaborates on the intimate relationship between play and music. She provides the history of this link, which starts with ancient times, followed by the description of their role in arts, education, aesthetics, and philosophy. She feels that Kant's statement, that the free play of imagination is the key to aesthetic judgment, is true, and that imagination at play yields a highly intellectual experience.

She provides the background issue that is laid out in the previous scholarly works on this subject. First, Johan Huizinga's theory of play is recalled. Huizinga believes that play is a multifaceted phenomenon involving several participants. "Play and work are often falsely opposed," he comments. The use of imagination is crucial in both, despite the fact that play is typically conceived as frivolous and lacking in seriousness. Huizinga believes that civilization in fact arises from the sense of play, since the essential elements of play can be related to culture.

The author then lays out her interest in four sections: the role of imagination, the thought process, symbolic aspects, and the participatory character of each. And from these categories, the emphasis is placed on the role of imagination. The role of imagination is then divided into four categories. The first is the fantasy/imagining the nonexistent. The second is imagining what exists but is not present. The third is imposing an image onto something. The fourth is perceiving things and recognizing them.

The first category, imagining what is nonexistent, refers to cases such as when a child draws a creature that does not exist, or composer writes a new melody never heard before. The second category involves making present things that exist but are not available, such as when a child imagines a shark in a playroom. In music, Gordon's notion of audiation (hearing the music internally without actually producing any sound) is one way of applying this. Also, musical borrowing- drawing upon known melodies and creating new meanings within a new context- is another intriguing example.

The third category is a figurative imagination, as when X is imagined as Y. In play, it can be a broomstick imagined as a horse. Such figurative imagination does more than mere metaphor. The notion of feeling that is imagined but not necessarily felt is a factor that is rather difficult to grasp. This refers to play, as well as in music. Personal feeling can introduce and spoil the moment, so it is preferred that the artist, like the child at play, directs the feeling rather than being controlled by it. Also, figurative imagination refers to the use of images that are crucial in music theory. Labeling a certain cadence as deceptive, and hearing a certain chord as a pivotal chord, are all examples of figurative thinking.

The fourth category is the role of imagination in perception. Author comments that in play, almost anything is possible, but the imagination connects to the perceivable ordinary life, thus mingling the fantasy with life experiences. Also, play and music are both rule-guided. Also, it involves wit and humor, which can be traced back to ancient Greek civilization. In conclusion, author states that play is set apart from ordinary life in the way that it contains its own space and time; there is a dynamic interplay among time and space. And the notion of real, physical space as playground is shared in both music and play.



I chose this article because I felt that the basic concept was pertinent to flow, the main topic for my final project. The author's describes play to be rule-guided, and comments that it blends the elements of fantasy and every-day reality in unexpected ways, and that it contains its own space and time. I felt that these descriptions match that of the six guidelines toward that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi provides in his book, "Flow."

The author mentioned Johan Huizinga's theory, which was interesting since it was something I had thought of before. I think that the role of play in life is largely underestimated, and that his concepts have a potential to open the possibilities to view play in a new light. Also, I especially agree that play and work is falsely opposed: Sure, one may put bread on the table while the other does not, but that is when we only look at the issue at surface level. Play, including music, can offer opportunities for growth that can ultimately promote survival (this will be elaborated in my upcoming response to article by Ellen Dissanayake).

I found particularly exciting that the author linked familiar notions of music with the role of imagination found in play. I have been deeply immersed in the Western music tradition since very early age, and am currently majoring in music theory. Thus, I have never questioned the ways in which I was taught to hear music. For instance, the author mentions how certain chords can be heard as "deceptive," or some as "pivotal chords." I have never been aware of the role of imagination and the figurative thinking that it requires to hear music this way. In theory classes, we are constantly encouraged to (or at least, I feel that I need to) discover every possible way to hear the piece that we analyze, even if it is a familiar piece of music. We ask questions such as, "it this ABA form, or does it contain elements of sonata form?" or "Does the key change occur here, or there?" I feel that music theory is largely like play to me in the way that we maneuver the way we hear music and explore various possibilities. The practical use of theory is really just an excuse for me to "play" with musical concepts.

Music theorists have ongoing discussions regarding the practicality of their studies, due to the separation between academics and performance that took place over time. Why should theory and performance be so distanced? In answer to this question, I would say that not only the "practical usage" of theory, but the elements of play that can be enjoyed in music theory, can be effectively incorporated into music-making.


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