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Musical Development as a Cognitive Ability

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Musical Development as a Cognitive Ability

Cognitive Psychology


This paper discusses theories of cognitive development and its relationship to musical development. Cognitive development is closely related to musical development and learning. Jean Piaget developed theories of the cognitive development in children. Musicologists have developed theories on how musical development has cognitive components. Cognitive development is acquired through interaction with an environment, just as musical development is acquired through interaction with a musical environment.

Jean Piaget on Cognitive Development

Cognitive development is the investigation of how mental skills build and change with increasing physiological maturity (maturation) and experience (learning) (Sternberg, p.444). Cognitive development involves qualitative changes in thinking, as well as quantitative changes, such as increasing knowledge and ability (Sternberg, p.444). Most cognitive psychologists agree that developmental changes occur as a result of the interaction of maturation (nature) and learning (nurture) (Sternberg, p. 444).

According to Sternberg, despite the differences in theoretical approaches, there are some basic principles that that crosscut the study of cognitive development (Sternberg, p.446).

First, over the course of development, people seem to gain more sophisticated control over their own thinking and learning. As people grow older, they become more capable of more complex interactions between thought and behavior. Second, people engage in more thorough information processing with age. Third, people become increasingly able to comprehend successively more complex relationships over the course of development. Finally, over time, people develop increasing flexibility in their uses of strategies or information. (Sternberg, p.446)

He explains that as people grow older they become less bound to using information in just a single context, and they learn how to apply it in a greater context (Sternberg, p.446).

One of the most influential contributors to developmental research is Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896- 1980). His theory of cognitive development is one of the most comprehensive in the field (Sternberg, p.446). Piaget believed that the function of intelligence is to aid in adaptation to the environment (Sternberg, p.447). In his view the means of adaptation form a continuum ranging from relatively unintelligent means, such as habits and reflexes, to relatively intelligent means, such as those requiring insight, complex mental representation, and the mental manipulation of symbols (Sternberg, p.448). Piaget further proposed that with increasing learning and maturation, both intelligence and its manifestations become differentiated- more specialized in various domains (Sternberg, p.448).

Piaget believed that development occurs in stages via equilibration, in which a child seeks balance (equilibrium) between both what they encounter in their environments and what cognitive processes and structures they bring to the encounter, as well as among the cognitive capabilities themselves (Sternberg, p.448). Sternberg explains that in some situations, the child's existing schemas are adequate for confronting and adapting to the challenges of the environment; the child is thus in a state of equilibrium (p.448).

However, at other times, the child is presented with information that does not fit with the child's existing schemas, so cognitive disequilibrium arises; that is, the imbalance occurs when the child's existing schemas are inadequate for new challenges the child encounters (Sternberg, p.449). In this type of situation the child attempts to restore equilibrium through assimilation- incorporating the new information into the child's existing schemas (Sternberg, p.449). In contrast if the child is not able to assimilate the new information s/he will go through a process of modifying the existing schemas called accommodation- changing the existing schemas to fit the relevant new information about the environment (Sternberg, p.449).

According to Piaget, the equilibrative processes of assimilation and accommodation account for all of the changes associated with cognitive development. (Sternberg, p.449). In Piaget's view, disequilibrium is more likely to occur during stages of transition; that is, although Piaget posited that equilibrative processes go on throughout childhood as children continually adapt to their environment, he also considered development to involve discrete, discontinuous stages.

Musical Development


In his paper, "Musical development theories revisited", Keith Swanwick suggests that theories of musical development should meet certain criteria (p. 229). Theories of musical development should:

- have musical validity;

- have relevance across different musical activities;

- take account of both maturation and cultural settings;

- identify qualitative, sequential, and hierarchical changes;

- have widespread cultural application;

- be supported by reliable data (Swanwick, p. 229).

He discusses the musical development theories of Mary Louise Serafine, Howard Gardner, and L. Davidson & L. Scripp.

Serafine offers a direct challenge to traditional psychological models and her approach is concerned with underlying cognitive processes (Swanwick, p. 229). She poses the question, 'what is the nature of musical thought?' (Swanwick, p. 230) She attempted to present a meta-psychological model that stood outside of specific and different musical activities or modalities (Swanwick, p. 230). The main characteristic of this universal cognitive activity is awareness of movement in time. Whereas, musical tomes are not heard in isolation or in pairs of stimuli to be identified or discriminated, but are sensory experiences from which the listener constructs musical properties (Swanwick, p. 230). Gardener's theory focuses on the concept of symbol systems, which he defined as follows: 'symbolism requires appreciation of an object and the capacity to link the object to a known picture, label, or kind of element that denotes it' (Swanwick, p. 231).



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