Electroacoustic Music as Embodied Cognitive Praxis: Denis Smalley’s theory of spectromorphology as an implicit theory of embodied cognition

Brian Bridges, Ricky Graham

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


As a result of the advent of recording technologies and a developing experimental ethos, twentieth century music composition underwent a ‘bottom–up’ revolution, placing environmental sound materials at the centre of what had previously been a form more concerned with abstract materials and structures. Beyond the environmental derivation of the raw materials themselves, the structure of electroacoustic music is frequently seen as being related to environmental logics. One of our most influential theories of electroacoustic music, Smalley’s (1986; 1997) spectromorphology, approaches musical structure from the perspective of apparent physicality and causality. This parallels a more recent ‘bottom–up’ revolution within cognitive science, the rise of embodied cognition, which posits that cognitive processes are based on familiar bodily actions and environmental affordances. Embodied image schema theory (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; 1999) proposes that cognition is based on schematic structures which are abstracted from common sensorimotor experience. These ideas have previously been applied to common practice music (Brower, 2000; Johnson, 2007; Wilkie, Holland and Mulholland, 2010). However, we consider these theories to be even more directly applicable to electroacoustic music and related forms. We identify parallels between many of Smalley’s formal structuring and dynamic principles and image schema theories. Given these parallels, we believe that an examination of electroacoustic music may support the development of theories of embodied cognition. However, more significantly for our own field, we propose that a thorough consideration of image schema theory could contribute to extending unifying theoretical and descriptive frameworks for electroacoustic music. Such an approach also has the potential to inform developments in other areas, including the design of music performance and production systems and human–computer interaction.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUnknown Host Publication
PublisherElectroacoustic Music Studies Network
Number of pages0
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2015
EventEMS15 The Art of Electroaoustic Music - University of Sheffield, UK
Duration: 1 Oct 2015 → …


ConferenceEMS15 The Art of Electroaoustic Music
Period1/10/15 → …
Internet address

Bibliographical note

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Barrett, N. (2015). Creating tangible spatial-musical images from physical performance gestures. Proc. NIME 2015. Louisiana State University.
Brower, C. (2000). A Cognitive Theory of Musical Meaning. Journal of Music Theory, 44,2, pp.323–379
Godøy, R. I. (2006). Gestural-Sonorous Objects: embodied extensions of Schaeffer's conceptual apparatus. Organised Sound, 11(02), 149-157.
Graham, R., & Bridges, B. (2014). Gesture and Embodied Metaphor in Spatial Music Performance Systems Design. Proc. NIME 2014. Goldsmiths University of London.
Johnson, M. (2007). The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Patton, K. (2007). Morphological notation for interactive electroacoustic music. Organised Sound, 12(02), 123-128.
Roddy, S., & Furlong, D. (2014). Embodied Aesthetics in Auditory Display. Organised Sound, 19(01), 70-77.
Wilkie, K., Holland, S. & Mulholland, P. (2010). What Can the Language of Musicians Tell Us about Music Interaction Design? Computer Music Journal. Winter 2010, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 34–48


  • Spectromorphology
  • embodied cognition
  • schemas
  • environment
  • form
  • structure
  • music
  • theory


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