The Development of Sounds of Intent

Phase 2

The models that were being constructed pointed to a music-developmental path that, in the very early stages, was common to all children, whereby an awareness of sound and music appeared to emerge from a pre-sentient state. Following this, simple proto-musical structures, such as those entailing repetition and regular change in sound, would come to be recognised, permitting anticipation and imitation of self and other. These three phases were able to account for the musical engagement of children with the most profound needs, and provided a basis on which further development could potentially be predicated.

The next music-developmental steps were less clear, though, and it was difficult to construct a model that could account for all the observational evidence. For example, some children with severe learning difficulties would play ‘call and response’ games using short rhythmic motifs on a drum, but would not copy pitches vocally, while others would reproduce the notes of a familiar melody on a keyboard, but disregarding the rhythm. Which child was displaying more advanced musical skills? The answer was found by viewing the problem from the opposite direction, through adopting a ‘top-down’ or deductive approach, using Adam Ockelford’s ‘zygonic’ theory of how music makes sense. This holds that all musical structure stems ultimately from imitation, which can occur at the level of

Frameworks are imaginary patterns of pitch and time that the brain abstracts from hearing many pieces of music in similar styles, and function probabilistically: in the simplest terms, the more often a particular transition from one note to another has occurred in the past, the more likely is its future occurrence felt to be. In the domain of pitch, frameworks give rise to the notion of ’tonality’, with examples including the major and minor keys of Western music and the ragas of Indian classical genres. In the domain of time, frameworks take the form of ’metre’, such as the three time and four time, and standard subdivisions of these, that typify music in the West, and the more complex talas of Indian music.

In performance, a further level of imitation can be identified, in which the theoretical symmetry of frameworks is systematically flexed according to the expressive norms of a given style, giving rise to subtle variations of pitch (through such devices as vibrato) and time (including rubato). Since we are not born with the fully-fledged capacity to process music, in all its manifold complexity, evidently the necessary abilities must arise in development, and observing children with severe learning difficulties, whose developmental paths were delayed, enabled the research team to isolate them relatively easily. It was also noted that, in the case of some children with learning difficulties who were on the autism spectrum, musical development was precocious, and manifested itself in so-called ‘savant’ skills.

The fusion of zygonic theory with the empirical data arising from observations of children engaging in musical activities gave rise to a distinct field of endeavour, which was dubbed ‘applied musicology’. The key finding was that the different levels of structural complexity identified through the zygonic analysis of music appear to arise sequentially in development. Together with the pre- and emerging perceptual stages observed in some children with complex needs, the four levels of structure crystallised in the Sounds of Intent framework, which came to comprise six levels of musical engagement:

  1. learning to hear
  2. sounds interesting
  3. copy me, copy you
  4. bits of pieces
  5. whole songs
  6. the world of music

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