What is Cognitive-Parameric Music?

“Notre perception est relative; elle compare sans cesse l´ objet qu´elle vient d´appréhender à un autre perçu auparavant ou encore virtuel, localisé dans notre mémoire. La différence ou l’absence de différence qualifie toute perception”
(Gerard Grisey)

The best way to explain something is by making a comparison to another, more familiar, area. With this in mind, I want to begin by explaining cognitive-parametric music through a very different sense of hearing: the sense of taste.

All of us have, at one time or another, enjoyed this simple experiment. If you drink a glass of sweetened milk, it tastes sweet. If the next day you eat a piece of toast with jam and then drink a glass of milk, you will realize the glass of milk no longer tastes sweet – it tastes different. We might even say that it tastes more bitter. However, the milk is the same. If we apply this experiment to sound, it is what we name cognitive-parametric music. In parametric music jargon, this phenomenon is called parametric neutralization.

The fundamental idea of the cognitive-parametric approach is that the meaning of the materials that form artistic works is relative to the context (as we’ll see with the parametric context) instead of being determined by its own objective qualities as an entity.

Parametric neutralization studies (2001)

Another example, this time taken from the visual world, would be to view a graph through a color filter. If we see a graph through a blue filter, the blue color remains undifferentiated (i.e., meaningless and neutralized in parametric jargon), and equal to white colors. Now compare this paradox that a color is undifferentiated when it is observed with a filter of the same color. This paradox, when applied to sound, is another foundation of the cognitive-parametric approach. We can thus derive from these examples a basic cognitive rule. If we eat two foods, we tend to ignore (or neutralize) what is the same in both, instead focusing our attention on what is different. This rule is the foundation of parametric neutralizations and, hence, of parametric modulations. Intuitively, we can understand that if we present a series of objects that have the same sound or taste, its meaning is related to the differences between them, contrasting with respect to the previous one. We only perceive what differentiates them, staying meaningless (or neutralized) in regard to what they have in common.

To put it simply: an object (a glass of milk) tastes different (or means something different in the cognitive-parametric music terminology) according to the context.

Cognitive-parametric music is based on the idea that the importance of musical events depends not on its physical objective properties but on its significance. And, in turn, this significance is relative to the way in which the interaction of some parameters with each other determines their meaning in a particular cognitive system.

Three chants for computer (2014)

I will explain this idea slowly. Milk is an object that has the ability to be more or less sweet than other foods. “Sweetness” is a parameter (or property) of food. We have seen that if two foods with different sweetness levels are ingested, the second one is seemingly less sweet than it actually is (i.e., a form of parametric neutralization). But what happens if we define additional properties of foods and see how their interaction influences their significance?

Let’s consider several properties of food as parameters, such as bitterness, temperature, and spiciness. If we make very spicy food, the sweetness will be masked. If we try a very spicy food, any other thing we eat afterwards will lose its flavor (i.e., it will lose the signification) and be meaningless in regard to the spicy context. Thus, the significance of certain properties is conditioned by others; in this case, the significance of sweetness is conditioned by the spiciness. The significance of a property is relative to another; in the context of the cognitive-parametric approach, the significance of the process that occurs in a parameter depends on the process that happens in another parameter.

Furthermore, each type of cuisine can be defined by a central parameter that determines the other guidelines. In Mexican cuisine, for example, spiciness is prioritized overall.

So far, we still have not made any progress regarding the nonparametric conception. Studying these creative metaphors in such a way, however, leads to an important question, which until now had not been answered, and is the fundamental question for the cognitive-parametric music: Is it really necessary for a central parameter to determine the significance of the other parameters all the time?

Cognitive-parametric music generates a  musical discourse in which there is not any central parameter. We have seen that there are different types of cuisines, each based on a single central property; they can be based on the spiciness (Mexican), sweetness (pastries), or bitterness (Chinese) of the food. What differentiates a parametric cuisine from a nonparametric one is the equal importance of all properties in the former, whereas the latter contains a hierarchy of parameters in which a certain parameter is dominant.

Cognitive dissonance (2013)

Thus, cognitive-parametric music is characterized by the fact that there is no central or dominant parameter that determines the sound stream. For example, in tonal music, the pitches are the central parameter; the structure of a tonal work specifies how a departure from the original key generates tension, which then relaxes when the piece returns to the original key. In nonparametric music on the other hand, tension is associated with the characteristics of a particular parameter. In Xenakis´ stochastic music, for example, a sense of tension and relaxation is produced by increasing and decreasing the densities of sound masses. In general, the tension of a work is produced through the concept of dissonance that is associated with a given parameter.

In tonal music, tension is produced by certain dissonant intervals like the second, the tritone, and the seventh. In masses music, dissonance occurs through the superposition of events. The tension in the musical processes occurs in a way that is relative to the parameter or property that dominates the others. However, there is some music, such as Cage´s chance one, that does not consider tensioning processes, but cognitive-parametric music comes before this need to liberate tensioning processes from the work’s qualities that are associated with a particular property or parameter of musical materials. For this purpose, it was necessary to avoid the dominance of any parameter over the other ones. The research process ultimately revealed that this could be accomplished by the creation of a series of parametric materials such as the scale of parameters which, unlike traditional musical materials, are not related to a particular parameter. This process bore a series of new music materials based on the concept of parameter, which is then used to create cognitive-parametric music.

By separating traditional materials from their dependence on a property or parameter of sound, the tensioning process can also become disassociated with a particular parameter. Therefore, cognitive-parametric music tensioning is based on the idea of cognitive dissonance rather than dissonance associated with a type of material based on a parametric centrality. Cognitive dissonance and cognitive tension are based on processes of tension and relaxation that occur as a result of the listener’s ability to recognize certain patterns or regularities or to predict what is going to happen. When the association of the tension with an object’s property is relatively objective, as is the case in cognitive-parametric music, then the tensioning depends on the cognitive processes produced in the listener’s brain, and therefore the public can freely interpret the music.

Cognitive-parametric music’s ultimate purpose is to release the public from the composer’s intentions. It is a solution to the problem of how to ensure that the public can be an integral part of the artistic magic. Cognitive-parametric music achieves this through a few materials whose tension is dependent on the cognitive processes that occur during listening rather than on a parametric centrality, allowing the listener to invent his own meaning of the work since the act of listening is a cognitive process that is not associated with the author’s intentions. Other composers have tried other strategies, like Cage through total randomness.

It is very common in musical literature that certain works are described as visual or spatial when they suggest or facilitate understanding through a graphical representation.

It is also common to base classifications of listening experiences on the way in which several listeners of the same work understand the music through visual, emotional, or textual explanations. Some people understand music as an emotional experience (emotional understanding), while have a more intellectual understanding of the piece and represent the work as a figure (visual or intellectual understanding). There are even those who understand music by aligning it with a story (textual understanding). It is used as a vehicle to try to explain cognitive-parametric music in another way.

Parametric modulation studies (2004)

Another way to understand cognitive-parametric music is in an intuitive manner, based on the concept of synesthesia. Synesthesia is used in neurophysiology for studying the phenomena of cross perception, and explains one’s ability to hear colors or to see flavors. The neurological reasons for these phenomena are still being studied today, but are typically associated with certain temporary or permanent neuron dysfunctions that occur as a result of any alteration of perceptual systems. Since cognitive-parametric music is based on the idea that parameters can be inter-defined, it can be, in some ways, explained by these phenomena: in the same way that a synesthete can taste colors, we can perceive pitches through rhythm. Unlike with synesthesia, however, these inter-definitions are not real but semiotic; it is essential that there is no any central parameter for them to work.

As seen from the perspective of synesthesia, cognitive-parametric music attempts to gain insight through the parameters considered in the work. Synesthesia crosses the perception of the senses, just as parametric music crosses the properties within the same sensory perception, permitting us to perceive the dynamics through the pitches or the dynamics through the timbre.

[ youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2E89sda8JFs ]

You can see an example of this parametric inter-definition thought the concept of parametric morphing. In this example, we begin hearing a pulse (an object perceived as temporal). By making an upward glissando, we get a voice-like sound (an object perceived as timbral). Thus, we have a sound object that is either perceived as a temporal or timbral object, depending on its frequency. In this way, we can gradually convert an object perceived as temporal to one perceived as timbral by slowly increasing the frequency.


January 2013

Rev  4.0 (April 2021)

 This text  was published in the 11 V!RUS journal

More information

Introduction to Cognitive-Parametric Music


Towards an Aesthetics of Cognitive-Parametric Music

Divulgation writings

Divulgation writings about Parametric Music