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Two musical episodes at the piano keyboard in the study of human information-processing: Information as ‘cognitive good’ in interdisciplinary research

Bell, Eamonn (2021) 'Two musical episodes at the piano keyboard in the study of human information-processing: Information as ‘cognitive good’ in interdisciplinary research.', 2021 Meeting of the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) Toronto, ON and Online.


In the early 1950s, the biologist Henry Quastler asked pianists to sight-read randomly generated musical scores as quickly and as accurately as possible. Quastler computed their performance as their “information transmission rate,” measured in bits-per-second across a variety of related tachistoscopic tasks. Later, Walter Reitman and Marta Sánchez, working at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, made tape recordings of a composer “thinking aloud” as they composed a fugue at the piano keyboard. Reitman (1965) analyzed this data to inspire the design of Argus, a new computer model of “human information-processing” that complemented the paradigmatic early AI research of his colleagues Newell and Simon (1956). Drawing on archival material, I argue that it was “information”—perhaps the most fungible post-World War II “cognitive good” (Bod et al. 2019)—that facilitated such interdisciplinary research in human psychology during the heyday of first-order cybernetics, integrating music into the burgeoning cognitive sciences. Musical behavior is leveraged in both experimental systems (Rheinberger 1997) as a proxy for some facet of cognition otherwise indirectly observable: a presumed human “channel capacity” and the ability to creatively solve “illdefined problems,” respectively. Where Quastler standardized experimental subjects across sensory modalities and study cohorts using the mathematics of information theory, Reitman used the radically intersubjective protocol study to probe reasoning as information-processing in a less explicitly quantitative way. The detail of such similarities and differences is disclosed by a tightly integrated view on the twinned fates of the humanities and the sciences, here afforded by the liaisons between music and cybernetics.

Item Type:Conference item (Paper)
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Available under License - Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives 4.0.
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Status:Not peer-reviewed
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Publisher statement:(c) Eamonn Bell. CC-BY 4.0 (
Date accepted:No date available
Date deposited:10 March 2022
Date of first online publication:10 March 2022
Date first made open access:10 March 2022

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