Schema Theory
as a

Music Theory Online 21.2 (2015)


0.1. Common Neural and Cognitive Substrates.
0.2. Organization of the Article.
0.3. Child Development and Conservatories.

[0.1] Neuroscience is daily finding new and quite specific connections between language and music. To cite but one recent publication, Clare E. James and colleagues (James et al. 2014, 11) report on an experiment that recorded the brain responses of children who heard realistic passages of chamber music with expected and unexpected phrase-endings. The responses to “transgressive” phrase-endings closely resembled patterns seen in response to semantic incongruities in language. The authors further noted a correlation between the working-memory capacity of children and their ability to detect transgressive phrase-endings, which “illustrates that musical cognition shares certain basic features with domain general cognitive functions.” Since “domain-general cognitive functions” (i.e., general-purpose mental processes like categorization, chunking, rich memory storage, analogy, and cross-modal association) form the common substrate of both construction grammar in linguistics and schema theory in music, the following discussion will explore how the precepts of the former relate to, and can suggest new areas of research for, work in the latter. We recognize at the outset that music and language differ in important ways, most acutely in the realm of semantics and denotation (Meyer 1956; Powers 1980). Yet were we to imagine the human brain as a large apartment complex we would find the residents named Music and Language living comfortably as close neighbors in the Auditory Wing. There they maintain separate addresses but nevertheless share the same entrance and lobby (the ear and cochlea), ride the same elevator (the auditory nerve), and spend time together in many of the public rooms (the ventral cochlear nucleus, the superior olivary complex, inferior colliculus, medial geniculate body, and auditory cortex) (Patel 2008, 2012; Fedorenko et. al. 2009). One can acknowledge the uniqueness of these neighbors without precluding an exploration of how they share many approaches to making sense of communicative patterns in sound.

[0.2] Construction grammar asserts that our knowledge of language consists of learned pairings of syntactic forms with communicative functions. The six main sections of this article each introduce a central principle of construction grammar as recently outlined by Adele Goldberg (Goldberg 2013, 15–16). Each section will discuss and illustrate how a premise of construction grammar has relevance and applicability to schema-theoretic studies of music. Construction grammar is not without controversy, given that it sits on the active side of several linguistic faultlines. "West Coast" functionalists (e.g., Lakoff) have long been at odds with their “East Coast” transformational and generative colleagues (e.g., Chomsky). Linguists who focus on the ultimate unity of human languages (e.g., Universal Grammar) will disagree on many points with linguists who stress its manifest diversity (e.g., data from psycholinguistics). These and other bones of contention will not figure prominently in our discussion. Our comparisons between construction grammar and schema theory are based on published statements from leading proponents which attempt to characterize the main issues and aims of their research.

[0.3] Because studies in child development have played such an important role in changing conceptions of language acquisition and grammar formation (Tomasello 2003), we have chosen to illustrate many of the following discussions with musical examples drawn from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conservatories. At those institutions it was common for seven- to eleven-year-old children to enter full-time study, so the thousands of surviving manuscripts can serve almost as longitudinal data from studies in language development. From the musical utterances made by students in response to exercises and contests one can infer much about the underlying grammar. We place these utterances under the microscope of a cognitively oriented philology, where even the smallest details can be important clues to past cultural traditions and to the young minds once tasked with transmitting them. An orphan at one of the eighteenth-century conservatories in Naples, the prodigy Henri Fissot at the Paris Conservatory in the 1850s, and the young Rachmaninoff at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1890s all learned the art of composition through the age-old practice of child apprenticeship. Apprenticeship meant a long-term and focused internalization of the preferred productions of adult role-models or masters. In linguistics many scholars call those utterances “constructions,” and in music many scholars have begun to call them “schemas.”

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