On Kinesthetic Sense In Musical Experience

by Thomas Brett

In his engagingly perceptive 2006 article on tennis virtuoso Roger Federer, the late David Foster Wallace discusses the idea of “kinesthetic sense” and its importance in successfully returning a hard hit tennis serve, a situation where one has just a split second to react and do the right thing.  For Wallace, kinesthetic sense comprises:

“the ability to control the body and its artificial extensions through complex and very quick systems of tasks.  English has a whole cloud of terms for various parts of this ability: feel, touch, form, proprioception, coordination, hand-eye coordination, kinesthesia, grace, control, reflexes, and so on.”

As in tennis, so in music: any musician who has learned to play an acoustic instrument with a high level of skill has undoubtedly spent many years practicing–usually various kinds of patterns (scales, rhythms, melodies) in an effort to train his or her body to do things (play melodies, nail rhythms with aplomb, improvise freely) in the heat of performance–smoothly, effortlessly, accurately, with feel and without thinking about it.  Expressive finesse.  In music performance, as in a tennis match, stuff happens and players are required to react, letting their body-minds move the appropriate way without deliberation.

The idea of kinesthetic sense and the skilled body trained over many years faces a new kind of competitor in the case of digital music making: the laptop running a software program.  Here, the musician with a dog’s lifetime of embodied, kinesthetic know-how is confronted with a strangely cool opponent, who, unblinking, offers a world of possibilities but with a catch: this is a disembodied game and we won’t be needing your kinesthetic sense, thank you very much, just
you’re decision-making.

I am, of course, exaggerating a bit, for electronic musicians use midi controllers (and now ipads) with their knobs, buttons, and faders to control their music.  It’s getting interactive.  But for the most part, performing music on a laptop is a whole new game that remains a strange sonic sport.

What interests me lately is how the attributes of kinesthetic sense–what Wallace described as “feel, touch…grace, control, reflexes”–are manifest in the electronic musician’s interaction with a laptop computer-based musical system.  What are the components of this sense, considering the skilled musical body is not so much in play (to continue the sports analogy)?  Is it even appropriate to use such a body-centric concept when most of the electronic musician’s labor consists of decision-making?  And anyway, can this decision-making be mapped in way English ethnomusicologist John Baily (1977) mapped the motor patterns of dutar lute players in Afghanistan, or the way American sociologist David Sudnow (1978/2001) traced the finger paths of the jazz pianist?

I leave you with two video clips of virtuosic kinesthetic sense in action.  The first is the great jazz drummer Max Roach (1924-2007)  taking a solo on a set of hi hat cymbals.  The second is the experimental electronic music duo Autechre (who can’t be seen in this clip because there are no stage lights!).  Same sport, but entirely different games!