Proceedings paper


The Mimetic Hypothesis and Embodied Musical Meaning

Arnie Cox, Oberlin College

Recall the Beethovenian theme of the last movement of Brahms's 4th Symphony, or perhaps some other favorite instrumental theme, such as the Adagio from Dvórak's 9th Symphony. As you recall either of these or some other melody, ask whether your voice is involved or activated in any, whether imagining singing, or singing along, or feeling only the impulse to sing along.

If your voice is involved in any way, as anecdotal evidence suggests that it is for many people, why this should be? Why should this form of subvocalization be a part of how one recalls an instrumental melody?

Evidence from various fields of cognitive inquiry suggest that subvocalization is part of a process of mimetic participation whereby we understand human-made movements and human-made sounds. This paper presents the "Mimetic Hypothesis," which holds that i) part of how we understand human movement and human-made sounds is in terms of our own experience of making the same or similar movements and sounds, and ii) this process of comparison involves overt and covert imitation of the source of visual and auditory information. After presenting the evidence for the hypothesis, I will suggest how mimetic participation appears to play a role in the creation of musical meaning, in terms of its relevance for the concept of musical verticality and with respect to studies of gesture, musical affect, melodic forces, semiosis, music and gender, music and drama, music and society, aural skills pedagogy, music and dance, and music therapy.

Figure 1: Process of Understanding Sounds 

 Figure 1 represents the process hypothesized whereby heard human-made sounds are understood in part via overt and covert mimetic participation.



The hypothesis holds that we understand all of the overt gestures of performers-the finger, arm, trunk, and leg movements-via overt and covert imitation. Overt forms of mimetic participation include toe-tapping, swaying, dancing to music, and singing along with music; covert forms include subvocalization and other aspects of motor imagery. Because the overt forms are generally more occasional, they are somewhat less informative than the covert forms, which, according to the evidence presented below, appear to occur regularly as an automatic part of music perception and cognition.

An important aspect of the hypothesis is the claim that we understand human-made musical sounds, whether vocal or instrumental, via covert vocal imitation, or subvocalization. As explained below, when we see that vocal sounds are products of motor activity, we can see that vocal imitation is a special case of imitating the motor activity of performers. Because subvocalization is perhaps the least intuitively relevant form of mimetic participation, I will focus primarily on the evidence for this part of the process. The tacit activation of the voice in perceiving, recalling, and conceptualizing music is part of the larger story of mimetic participation in musical experience, which in turn is part a still broader story of human cognition and learning involving imitation, whereby we participate with and understand one another. In the case of human sound production, because most of us have made vocal sounds everyday since birth, the voice becomes our central basis for understanding the sounds made by other humans.

What follows is in some ways similar to Naomi Cumming's explanation of how we hear subjectivities in music (1997); similar to Andrew Mead's "Bodily Hearing" (1996) and Judy Lochhead and George Fisher's work on gesture (1997), and similar to ideas put forth by Patricia Carpenter (1967), Thomas Clifton (1983), David Lidov (1987), and Kendall Walton (1993, 1997); however, my approach is actually most similar to that of the 19th-century philosopher Herbert Spencer (1857).

Kinds of Evidence for the Mimetic Hypothesis

Here are six kinds of evidence for the mimetic hypothesis:

1) Face-to-face imitation

- mimesis between infants & parents

- mimesis in pupil dilation

2) Motor imagery studies

- mimesis and visible gestures

- mirror neuron studies

3) Subvocalization studies

- mimesis and vocal sounds

4) Musical imagery studies

- vocal mimesis and musical sounds

5) Studies of speech as gesture

- mimesis and audible gestures

6) Vocal descriptions of non-vocal music



1) Imitation in Face-to-Face Communication

Infant studies confirm what may not seem an especially profound observation: infants imitate the vocalizations, facial expressions, and gestures of others around them (Stern 1985). This is part of how we first learn to take part in the world-by imitating those around us. But these studies show something that may not seem obvious or important at first. Not only do infants imitate parents, but parents also imitate infants. Consider the question of why we should use such voices and behavior as we do around infants-or around dogs and cats. One answer is that mutual imitation fosters mutual understanding, and if it is a basic human desire to understand and to be understood, mutual imitation helps satisfy this desire. I want to suggest, in a manner similar to Kendall Walton (1997), that the overt imitation we use as children remains a part of how we participate with and understand others in the world, and that, rather than outgrowing imitation as adults, mimesis instead becomes generally more covert.

2) Mimesis and Motor Imagery

The strongest evidence for the role of mimesis comes from studies of short-term memory, motor imagery, speech imagery, and musical imagery. Evidence from clinical studies measuring reflex activity, EMG activity, autonomic activity, and associated brain activity measured in PET scans and fMRI scans, suggests that we understand the movements, speech, and musical sounds produced by others in part via unconscious imitation of those we observe. The "monkey see, monkey do" behavior of children can be understood as an overt form of the same process that eventually becomes covert in adults.

The importance of mimesis in human cognition is reflected in current neurological studies such as Gallese and Goldman's (1998) studies on mirror neurons and these authors' theory of mind-reading. In one of the studies that they cite, a monkey performs a certain grasping gesture, and there is corresponding neural activity in a specific part of the monkey's brain. This monkey then observes the same gesture performed by the experimenter and the same firing pattern recurs in the monkey's brain. "Monkey see, monkey do" is thus also "monkey see, monkey imagine-do." For the monkey, understanding the grasping behavior of others appears to involves covert imitation as part of the act of imagining what it must be like to perform the observed gesture. Gallese and Goldman's study, and other studies of motor imagery (Fadiga et al. 1998; Fadiga and Gallese 1997; Gallese et al. 1996; Gallese et al. 1997; Rizzolatti et al. 1996), report experimental evidence which suggests that very much the same thing happens in human cognition: understanding the observed behavior of others involves imagining performing the same or similar actions. Since human musical performance involves specific motor actions, these studies on mimetic motor imagery become relevant for conceptualization of music as performed: if Gallese and Goldman are correct about mirror neurons and cognition of observed motor activity generally, then their arguments also hold for the specific cases of motor activity and motor imagery in human musical production, perception, and cognition.

3) Subvocalization

As with understanding observed motor activity, it has long been known that comprehension of written and spoken language involves subvocalization (Gibson and Levin 1975). I want to suggest that subvocalization be seen as a form of imitation, which begins in infancy in the imitation of the speech of parents and others around us, and which continues in generally more covert form(s) throughout our lives. Gathercole and Baddeley (1993) argue that subvocalization while listening to spoken language is part of how short-term memory for speech operates: comprehension of spoken language is believed to involve rehearsal of heard speech in a phonological loop, which is reinforced by subvocal articulation. If comprehension of spoken words involves covert imitation, it seems reasonable to expect that comprehension of sung words ought to involve covert imitation as well-and this is in fact just what Baddeley and Logie (1992) suggest. Indeed, it would be strange if subvocalization were relevant to human speech but not relevant to human song. Studies such as Vaneechoutte and Skoyles (1998), linking the phylogenetic development of song and speech, strengthen the intuition that subvocalization is just as relevant for song as it is for speech.

4) Musical Imagery: Subvocalization in Music

Studies by Smith, Reisberg, and Wilson (1992) and Smith, Wilson, and Reisberg (1995) suggest that subvocalization may in fact be integral to perception and cognition of vocal music. But then what about instrumental music? Studies devoted to musical imagery by Crowder and Pitt (1992), Baddeley and Logie (1992), and Smith, Reisberg, and Wilson (1992) suggest that we also subvocalize when listening to instrumental music. This might seem counterintuitive at first: why should we subvocalize when listening to instrumental music? To answer this question, it helps to think of instrumental music as human-made sounds. As in recalling the Brahms symphony, whether listening to speech, or poetry, or sung melody, or instrumental melody, we are in each case listening to human-made sounds and recognizing human physical behavior. Vocal music and instrumental music are products of more or less specific motor activity, and part of how we understand such sounds is in recognizing the motor activity that produces them and (covertly) imitating this motor activity.

5) Speech As Gesture

One perspective that helps with this last point is from a recent book by Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox (1995). While it may seem that comprehension of overt physical gestures, and comprehension of speech and song, are categorically different aspects of cognition, these authors argue that, in a fundamental sense, speech is embodied gesture. It just happens to be made for the most part with body parts that we cannot normally see, and it happens to produce lexicalized sounds. They cite Neisser (1976), who writes that

To speak is to make finely controlled movements in certain parts of your body, with

the result that information about these movements is broadcast to the environment.

For this reason the movements of speech are sometimes called articulatory gestures.

A person who perceives speech, then, is picking up information about a certain class of real, physical, tangible. . . events (156).

Comparing overt gestures and speech, Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox write that. . . the difference is not in the form of production (both are articulatory movements of the body), but in the form of the signal. Some articulatory movements result in primarily acoustic signals. Others, including semiotic "gestures" as well as natural signed language, result in primarily optical signals (45).

Think of it this way: when you see someone waving their hand, how do you know that they are waving their hand? If you are sighted, the evidence of this motor action comes to you in the form of light waves; the light waves are evidence of specific motor activity. If this same person claps their hands, the evidence of this motor action comes to you in the form of both light waves and sound waves; both the light waves and the sound waves are evidence of specific motor activity. Similarly, when a person speaks, there is both visual and auditory information, although most of our conscious attention may be given to the auditory portion of the information. Although most of the sounds that we hear in listening to speech and song may be words, in an important sense every word is acoustic evidence of specific kinds of motor activity. Because speech, song, and acoustic musical instrument sounds are all produced via motor activity, we can see that speech imagery and musical imagery are actually special cases of motor imagery in general. The evidence from mirror neuron studies then strengthens the intuition that each of these three kinds of motor imagery involve covert mimetic participation.

6) Instrumental Voices

One question that is integral to the mimetic hypothesis and it implications for musical meaning is whether and to what extent subvocal mimetic participation is relevant to the perception and cognition of instrumental music. There is some evidence for this in terms of subvocalization in musical imagery (see section 4 above), but there is another kind of evidence in terms of how we describe vocal and instrumental sounds.

For most of us, the voice is our primary medium for making sounds which we mean to communicate to others. When others speak or sing, we understand these sounds partly in terms of our own experience of making the same or similar sounds. When others make sounds on musical instruments, evidence cited above suggests that we understand these human-made sounds not only in terms of covert imitation of the gestures of the performer(s), but also in terms of our own vocal experience, by way of subvocalization. Why should this be? Imagine that we automatically attempt to understand human behavior in terms of our own behavior, as far as experience allows; this is in effect what the mimetic hypothesis holds. The imagination looks for any basis for comparison: one is the experience of making the same or similar gestures; another is the experience of making sounds that are in some way(s) acoustically similar to those heard. In this sense, anyone with vocal experience has a basis for understanding most instrumental sounds, without having to have ever played any of the various kinds of instruments, to the extent that vocal sounds are acoustically similar to instrumental sounds. This seems plausible, and if it is the case, then there should be evidence in how we describe instrumental sounds. That is, if the voice is the basis whereby we understand musical sounds generally, whether vocal or instrumental, then we ought to find that instrumental sounds are regularly described in vocal terms. In addition, we ought to find that the opposite case-of describing vocal sounds in terms of instrumental sounds-is relatively rare. This does indeed appear to be the case.

Consider how commonly we map human vocal qualities onto instrumental sounds. Figure 2 shows a set of mappings from the domain of vocal sounds onto the domain of instrumental sounds. For example, we commonly describe instrumental melodies metaphorically in terms of cantabile. The cross-domain mappings demonstrated by these examples are so fundamental to how we understand instrumental sounds that we may not even be aware that we are speaking metaphorically when we use such terms to describe instrumental sounds. These mappings are captured by the conceptual metaphors MUSICAL SOUNDS ARE VOCAL SOUNDS and INSTRUMENTAL SOUNDS ARE VOCAL SOUNDS. Note that this does not say that all musical sounds are vocal sounds, or that they all musical sounds are necessarily understood as vocal sounds. The conceptual metaphors simply identifies the fact that one of the fundamental ways in which we regularly understand instrumental sounds is, rather than in terms of instrumental sounds, in terms of vocal sounds.

Figure 2: Instrumental "Voices": Mappings of the Human Voice onto Instrumental Sounds

Source Domain: Human Voice

Target Domain: Instrumental Sounds

singing voice


whispering voice

'sotto voce'

medium voice

'mezza voce'


jazz trumpets


rock guitars


notes sounding clearly


jazz improvisation

(muffled voice)

('muted' strings, brass)


'singable', 'songlike'






single polyphonic part


piano hammers, organ pipes


sets of string-'voices'


Notice that the mappings are one-directional, from the source domain of the human voice to the target domain of instrumental sounds. Although singers may sometimes speak of their "instrument," this reverse mapping of instrumental sounds onto the voice is far less common. Now if it were simply a matter of vocal and instrumental sounds being alike, then the mappings might go in either direction. But in addition to whatever acoustic similarities there may be, the voice provides most of us with an experiential basis for understanding the majority of instrumental sounds. The unidirectionality of the mappings, from this generally applicable vocal experience onto the more specific cases of instrumental sounds, are consistent with the mimetic hypothesis. The mappings of the conceptual metaphors MUSICAL SOUNDS ARE VOCAL SOUNDS and INSTRUMENTAL SOUNDS ARE VOCAL SOUNDS indicate that part of how we understand musical sounds generally is in terms of our own vocal experience, while the mimetic hypothesis holds that the process whereby we perform these cross-domain mappings involves, and is perhaps motivated by, mimetic participation on the part of listeners.


If the mimetic hypothesis is correct, it holds fundamental implications for various aspects of musical meaning. At a broad, philosophical level, it helps show explicitly what role embodied experience plays in the imagination of what might otherwise seem like autonomous, objective musical properties, such as musical verticality. We normally treat the concept of musical verticality as if it were literal-"music-literal," to use Guck's (1991) term-while perhaps acknowledging that on some level it is metaphoric. One problem with this is the implicit suggestion that musical tones simply have some property, which we understand metaphorically as "high" and "low," and which we perceive in ways that only incidentally involve embodied experience-a position that might be put, "Yes, we have ears with which we hear, but this does not determine the property of the tones which we understand in terms of verticality." The mimetic hypothesis and analysis of the metaphor, however, say something quite different.

Tones are neither "high" nor "low," and they neither "ascend" nor "descend," and yet so much music discourse and meaning depend on the imagination that they somehow do. As I have explained elsewhere (Cox 1999), we can understand the logic of this metaphor in terms of the conceptual metaphor GREATER IS HIGHER (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) and the folk theory to increase is to raise, whereby we regularly understand greater and lesser quantities and magnitudes in terms of vertical relations. In the same way, "higher" notes are produced by and large via greater quantities and magnitudes of air, effort, and tension. There are exceptions of course, but when we recognize the role of vocal mimesis, the exceptions become even fewer. If we understand musical sounds in general in terms of our own vocal experience, and that vocal experience involves greater and lesser amounts of air, effort and tension, then we have a basis for understanding sounds in general metaphorically in terms of "higher" and "lower." This view of things brings together embodied musical experience, in terms of mimetic participation, and the embodied metaphoric reasoning that we use everyday, in order to account for the fundamental concept of musical verticality which heretofore has not been explained beyond the level of identifying it as a metaphor. The further implication of this view is that any concept and any claim about music based on the concept of verticality-whether in terms of melodic motion or shape-describes not a property of the music itself, but an interpretation based in part on the imagined (re)production of the sound described, understood via the logic of the conceptual metaphor GREATER IS HIGHER. Musical properties that might otherwise seem to be located in the music itself are instead shown to emerge in the imagination of listeners, as we draw on embodied experience and the logic of metaphoric thought. This claim has further philosophical implications with regard to the autonomy of musical works and related issues, but I will proceed to the more directly musicological implications suggested at the outset.

Gesture. One may notice that the gestures of performers seem somehow relevant to musical meaning (Mead 1996; Lochhead and Fisher 1997), but theorizing about exactly how this might be is difficult. The motor imagery evidence of the mimetic hypothesis suggests that we understand these gestures via mimetic participation and that these gestures are relevant as a normal part of music perception and cognition. The hypothesis suggests that the reading of gestures is neither occasional nor ancillary and it thus provides evidence for gesture studies.

Musical Affect. One of the difficulties in theorizing about musical affect is the very basic question of how it is possible for musical sounds to elicit any kind of affective response in the first place. The mimetic hypothesis holds that musical experience involves motor imagery, including the memory and the activation of muscular activity. If this is correct, it means that muscular tension and relaxation, of kinds that would produce sounds similar to those heard, are integral to music perception and cognition, regardless of whether we are conscious of this motor imagery. To the extent that emotional states are tied to muscular states, and to associated memories of similar states and their contexts, we can better account for, for example, the dynamics of tension and release in music: the build up of tension in some music is not simply a property of the music itself, but is rather a tension that we feel in part as a result of mimetic participation in the creation of such sounds. The hypothesis suggests that muscular-emotional response to music is not something that occurs occasionally, in certain kinds of music, but that is instead integral to how we normally perceive and understand music, because we normally imagine (most often unconsciously) what it is like to make the sounds we are hearing.

Musical Forces. Larson (1993) has shown that we appear to think of some music as if it were subject to the melodic forces of gravity, magnetism, and inertia-not only in how we describe melodies, but also in how we tend to complete a melodic prompt: we behave musically as if melody were subject to these imagined forces. Larson suggests that we understand melody metaphorically in terms of our own experience of moving in and through the world, where we observe and experience gravity, magnetism, and inertia. The mimetic hypothesis suggests a more basic account. Because melody is understood in part through the motor activity of its production, the basis for the metaphoric reasoning is in the dynamics of muscular exertion and relaxation in the sound-producing musculature. What needs to be shown is how our experience of gravity, magnetism, and inertia involves analogous or identical motor activity, perhaps by way of some motor image schemata. Additionally, it seems clear that the logic whereby we imagine these musical forces also integrates the concept of musical motion (Cox 1998), which we then understand in terms of the motor activity involved in moving through the world.

Semiosis. As with musical affect, the mimetic hypothesis offers a physiological basis for the construction of signs in music. While some signs may indeed be arbitrary, mimetic participation motivates, and to some extent constrains, the construction of particular signs, and so the hypothesis offers a way of grounding semiotics in basic embodied experience.

Music and Gender. If a culture defines certain kinds of motor activity as feminine and others as masculine (Young 1990), then listeners will be motivated to understand replications of the same, similar, or analogous motor activity in music in terms of these same gender categories. (This is of course apart from any consideration of whether and how a culture ought to gender embodied experience.) Mimetic participation provides the basis and initial motivation for understanding music in terms of gender, and culture provides the categories for interpreting the motor information. In an important sense, hearing music in terms of gender is no more and no less metaphoric than hearing music in terms of verticality. The mimetic hypothesis helps explain how, by showing that we regularly and automatically understand music partly in terms of our own embodied experience.

Music and Drama. When McClary (1991) describes the recapitulation in the first movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony as "horrifyingly violent," one might question the basis for making such a description, despite the arguments she brings to bear. But we already know that descriptions of musical motion and space are metaphoric, so that a description of this same event as, for example, a "return" is in one sense just as metaphoric as a description in terms of violence. There is good reason to describe music in terms of motion and space, and the mimetic hypothesis helps explain why. By the same token, the hypothesis strengthens the reasons for describing music in terms of violence and other kinds of drama. Mimetic participation is part of the motivation in each case, and in the case of musical drama, the hypothesis shows that part of how we understand music is in terms of muscular tension and relaxation, and to the extent that our experience of drama involves the same or analogous dynamics of muscular states, there is motivation and reason to hear music as drama.

Aural Skills Pedagogy. According to the mimetic hypothesis, we understand melody partly via subvocalization, suggesting that musical imagery for melody is very much, if not primarily, grounded in vocal motor imagery. This in turn suggests, not surprisingly, that the development of aural skills, and aural skills remediation, benefit from the experience of singing aloud, with a full voice, which provides a basis for aural imagery for melody. The hypothesis suggests that the development of aural skills-the ability to recognize and imagine musical phenomena-is fundamentally a matter of learning to imitate, which in turn suggests that aural skills pedagogy benefits from activities that involve regular full-voice singing and regular production of otherwise rhythmic and harmonic patterns. It does not suggest that simple attentive listening practice is of any less value, but it does suggest that practice in producing the sounds to be recognized and understood may be more important than they might otherwise seem.

Music and Society, Music and Dance, and Music Therapy. From Plato's warnings, to the current warning labels on recordings, there has long been concern over music's effect on the minds and bodies of those who listen to it. On the mimetic hypothesis we can see that music invites us to participate-both in our imagination, which is automatically informed by embodied experience via tacit mimetic participation, and overtly in the form of such things as toe-tapping, swaying, dancing, and singing along. The hypothesis suggests that music listening cannot be a neutral activity, and that music is necessarily understood at least partly in terms of embodied experience and the experience of being in the world. It adds evidence to the intuition that music invites us to participate-to engage with it and its performers physically, both covertly and overtly. To whatever extent and in which ever ways we respond to the invitation to participate is part of how we define ourselves and society, as is the question of whether we even recognize the extent of the power that music listening exerts in inviting us to participate..

In trying to account for musical meaning, it can be appealing to look to the music itself, as if musical meaning were something to be discovered in musical sounds. Although it may be recognized that perception, cognition, and interpretation on the part of listeners is crucial to certain aspects of meaning, it seems that there remains a belief that some aspects of meaning-the most objective and thus the most valuable-are properties of the music itself and only incidentally involve human embodiment for their comprehension. Musical verticality is one of these properties, and the mimetic hypothesis allows us to pose and solve a fundamental problem of music epistemology that has heretofore gone unsolved. The problem is that much of music is explained in terms of concepts based directly or indirectly on the metaphor of musical verticality. Why do we have this metaphor (those of us who do in fact have and use this metaphor)? A strong account of the motivations behind it and the logic of the metaphoric reasoning has not previously been offered, but the mimetic hypothesis gives us a way of accounting for the metaphor and in so doing shows embodied experience, perception, and cognition to be fundamental to verticality and its related concepts. It shows how verticality is not a property of tones but is rather a product of embodied, metaphoric reasoning. This is important for philosophical interests, but it is also important for the relationship between studies of perception and cognition on the one hand, and text-based musicological studies on the other. It shows how studies of perception and cognition are relevant to musical meaning, not only for some aspects of specialized interest, but for aspects at the very foundations of musical knowledge. It is my hope that this hypothesis will speak to people's intuitions and that further investigations will show more clearly the relevance of covert mimetic participation in various aspects of musical meaning.

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