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Presented By: School of Music, Theatre & Dance

Attention, Instrumentality, and the Orchestration of Mind” - Dr. Francesca Brittan, Case Western Reserve University

Distinguished Lecture in Musicology

“Attention, Instrumentality, and the Orchestration of Mind”
The last several decades have seen an explosion of texts by psychologists and cognitive scientists detailing the erosion of our attentive capacities and the rise of diagnoses including ADHD. In explaining this apparent crisis, many draw on the metaphor of the “neural orchestra’ popularized by (among others) the neuroscientist Elkhonen Goldberg. According to this model, individual areas of cortical specialization are players in a large-scale ensemble that must be well-conducted to operate at peak efficiency. Absence of a strong cognitive leader generates chaos. This paper interrogates the origins and ideological resonances of the brain-orchestra. Although the metaphor was embraced as a novelty in the mid-1990s (a substitute for computational models of cognition), it has much older roots, originating in phrenological theory of the 1810s. From the craniology of Franz Joseph Gall to the phreno-magnetism of Mariano Cubi y Soler, orchestral cartographies of mind flourished. Replacing (or fusing) metaphysical concepts of harmony with theories of hierarchical cerebral organology, they likened the focused mind to the centrally-organized orchestra. The concept of attention was crucial in both arenas, conceived as a controlling force yoking players into powerful cognitive, musical, and political wholes. The orchestra in the brain was also a brain in the orchestra. Instrumental music itself, as it accrued cultural capital through the early nineteenth century, was redefined in terms of cognitive theory, demanding the intensely conducted forms of attention first celebrated by Wackenroder and enforced by newly powerful podium leaders. Today, the historical and neuropolitical forces that generated the Romantic mind-orchestra have been largely forgotten, but they continue to exert a spectral influence, hovering behind our fetish for cognitive focus and our psychopolitical fear of distraction.

Francesca Brittan is Associate Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University. Her scholarship focuses on music and sound cultures since 1800, often at the intersection of science, magic, and aesthetics. Her first book, Music and Fantasy in the Age of Berlioz (Cambridge, 2017) traces intersections between musical enchantment and romantic science from Berlioz to Stravinsky. Current projects include two edited volumes: The Attentive Ear: Sound, Cognition, and Subjectivity (University of Pennsylvania Press, co-edited with Carmel Raz); and Berlioz and His World (University of Chicago Press, co-edited with Sarah Hibberd). Her second monograph, Instruments of Mind, examines entanglements between musical and neural organologies from Descartes to the present, bringing together sonic, cognitive, and neuroscientific histories. Her work has been bolstered by fellowships from the University of Cambridge, the University of Amsterdam, the NEH, the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada, and the American Musicological Society. She is co-founder of the Music and Attention Working Group at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt.


  • Free - no tickets required - In Person

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