Representing musical experience

‘Ultimately music education should be about an experience.’ [1]

On October 1st 2015 pioneer cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner reached his one hundredth birthday.

First published in 1966 Bruner’s ‘Towards a Theory of Instruction’ offers a wealth of useable ideas about teaching and about learning. You will find depth to concepts like ‘modeling’, ‘the spiral curriculum’, ‘the personalization of knowledge’, ‘scaffolding learning’ and ‘the role of language in learning’, for example.

A good idea

I have long been attracted to Bruner’s proposal that humans represent the world in three ways – ‘three ways of capturing those invariances in experience and action that we call ‘reality’. [2]

Music teachers will be able to identify with the following:

‘We know many things for which we have no imagery and no words, and they are very hard to teach to anybody by the use of either words or diagrams or pictures. If you have tried to coach somebody at tennis or skiing or to teach a child to ride a bike, you will have been struck by the wordlessness and the diagrammatic impotence of the teaching process. (I heard a sailing instructor a few years ago engage with two children in a shouting match about ‘’getting the luff out of the main’’; the children understood every single word, but the sentence made no contact with their muscles. It was a shocking performance, like much that goes on in school.)’ [3]

Music teachers well understand how often language falls short in their teaching of others to be musical. Knowing music in the bones is what counts.

However, imagery, language and notations are thought to be part of how we re-present musical experience as an aid to cognitive growth and furthering the musical intellect – the capacity to think music and think about it. And this is where Bruner’s theory of representation may help.

The three modes of representation:

  1. The enactive mode
  2. The iconic mode
  3. The symbolic mode

‘You represent the world (e.g. musical experience) in action routines, in pictures, or in symbols.’ [4]

These are the ways in which we translate and represent experience into a model of reality. Without a model of reality we are ‘thoughtless’ and‘mindless’.

The case of music

The enactive mode – physical gestures that more or less faithfully represent the thing, the experience. E.g. pitch in space; the shape of a melody; the intensity of the beat; the roughness of a sound.

The iconic mode – visual images and language that more or less faithfully represent the thing, the experience e.g. graphic notation; poetic/expressive language.

The symbolic mode – notations and language that through their abstraction of the thing, the experience, no longer faithfully represent the thing, the experience e.g. staff notation, linguistic generalizations (technical terms) i.e. culturally determined conventions.

Bruner originally thought of moves from the enactive through the iconic to the symbolic as a progression, and that still holds to some extent, but later as the way each mode complements or re-affirms the others.

An example

Enacting a glissando with an upward or downward sweep of the arm is close to being physically faithful to the thing, the experience that is glissando. The iconic representation would capture the glissando through some kind of regular or irregular continuous rising or falling line. [5] While at a symbolic level there is a conventional symbol, a zig-zag superimposed on a stave. Not any old ziz-zag but a very specific one.

Enactive = movement representation – personalised

Iconic = visual representation –personalised

Symbolic = generally agreed convention – loss of personalisation

In moving to generalised cultural conventions, personal and poetic ways of representation give way to abstractions. Just think, the term ‘glissando’ has no faithful relationship to the thing, the experience. Glissando is a fairly arbitrary term in that it has no one-to-one relationship with the experience, the thing. Yet it is commonly agreed that it serves the musical experience that it represents.

Glissando generalizes for the countless number of particular glissandi and becomes a musical concept, a musical generalization.

An example beyond music

The case of numbers.

Physically counting with fingers = enactive

Two sticks represented visually = iconic

2 = symbolic

Some speak of ‘twoness’ which I think may be a way of holding together all three modes and preserving a feelingful conception of what ‘two’ is.

More musical examples

In this example the enactive is integrated with the iconic and melded with the symbolic.

Take the singing of the falling soh-mi interval (soh-mi = iconic), with hand signs (iconic + movement = iconic-enactive) transported onto a two-line stave as it moves towards the convention that is staff notation (enactive-iconic-symbolic).

Hand signs+ sol fa + stave = enactive/iconic/symbolic re-affirmation illustrating how the symbolic level can be reached with support.

The case of rhythmic reading works in similar fashion.

French rhythm names (faithfully representing the thing, the experience and unlike ‘coffee-tea’ etc. = low fidelity) to stick notation to conventional rhythmic notation.

Another example:

Hitting a gong represented by a large gesture (enactive), long horizontal decaying line (iconic), breve with pause sign on a stave with diminuendo mark (symbolic).

And a guitar example:

Wrist and finger pose (enactive), tablature (iconic), E minor (symbolic)

The example of glissando again

We might say ‘sliding’ or ‘gliding’ (iconic) as we gesture (enactive) before at some point arriving at glissando.

Wait a minute, do we need the word glissando? What’s wrong with slide or glide?

David Ashworth writes :

‘Guitarists tend to bob and weave: some will say slide some will say gliss – probably no consistency.’ [6]

In Indian Classical Music there is the Meend.

This reminds us that symbolic representations are bound by cultural usage. [7]

Talk of key words and musical vocabulary to be learnt and there is the ever-present danger of language being reduced to meaningless labels that become millstones around pupils’ necks, rather than language alive with imagery and enaction infected with personal meanings and which comes to be spoken and written of the pupil’s own volition meant and understood. [8]

So perhaps Bruner’s theory of representation could be helpful, and not only with the acquisition of language, but in identifying misconceived approaches to language acquisition and the mastery of music reading.

A distinguished cognitive psychologist’s view

Marion Long writes:

‘Taken individually, I feel that these concepts (enactive, iconic, symbolic) have a strangely diluting and almost trivialising effect in relation to musical experience. If they are superimposed, however they become more flexible, supple, powerful and representative of the congruency and potency with which musical experience can deeply connect us with ourselves and our sense of belonging together.

I suppose there are many examples of music acting very powerfully in the way that this model describes – perhaps singing the Marseillaise in recent weeks would illustrate this very well.

Somehow in our society we have developed a mindset that prefers concepts to be nailed down so that their “meaning” is fixed, delineated, bounded and defined. Clarity is a good thing. However, I would suggest that our cultural preference for a static and fixed perspective on building conceptual knowledge is possibly somewhat perverse – everything about our experience of life is actually dynamic and fluid in the way that music is.

The fluidity of interactions is beautifully reflected in music.’ [9]

Final thoughts

Marion had led me to think about iconic musical experiences, fixed and vivid in memory.

As with any powerful idea, such as the one explored above, there is the sense in which it is never quite understood, never tied down (Marion’s fluidity) because its endless possibilities and limitations invite testing, exploration, expanding. The conversation continues.

But for the time being, Jerome Bruner, thank you for the gift of a good idea and congratulations on reaching one hundred years.

‘Ultimately music education should be about an experience.’ (Ingrid McLean)


[1] See

[2] Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press. Page 155.

[3] ‘Towards a Theory of Instruction’ 1982 (ninth impression) Harvard University Press. Page 10.

[4] Bruner, J. (1996) The Culture of Education. Harvard University Press. Page 155.

[5] Lis McCullough, wise primary school music teacher, tells me that her pupils would likely draw this as a fine zig-zag and so representing the movement over tuned percussion bars. (email correspondence 9.12.2015)

[6] Email correspondence 9.12.2015

[7] See David Ashworth’s comments on how language can colonise at

[8] See Caroline Dearing’s comments at as an example of a dynamic classroom where there is rich musical discourse. Children like big words like metamorphosis and aquamarine.

[9] Email correspondence 9.12.2015

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