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Music, memory and cognition: a cybernetic approach

Mark Johnson (Institute for Educational Cybernetics, University of Bolton, Bolton, UK)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 9 August 2011




The purpose of this paper is to present an approach to the perception of music and the understanding of memory using cybernetic tools.


The work uses a methodological approach based on realistic evaluation to deploy two well‐established cybernetic models – the viable system model (VSM) and Luhmann's model of social systems – together with Harré's “Positioning Theory” to show how the process of mental construction and perception might be conceived. Drawing on reflections following a musical performance experiment at the American Cybernetics Society Conference in 2010, phenomenal issues of perception and memory are considered against the background of feedback mechanisms with a material and social environment.


The model situates the process of improvising music, the experience of listening to music, and the experience of recalling musical events within the context of a dynamic regulatory mechanism involving individual agents in a material and social environment.

Social implications

The paper argues that a model for memory of co‐evolution between agency and environment has ethical and political implications, drawing particularly on recent application of Harré's Positioning Theory.


The bringing together of the VSM, Luhmann's theory and Positioning Theory helps to give more definition to the relationship between what Harré terms “engrams” and “exterograms” thus making possible more sophisticated models of distributed cognition.



Johnson, M. (2011), "Music, memory and cognition: a cybernetic approach", Kybernetes, Vol. 40 No. 7/8, pp. 1066-1077.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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