Steps towards a Generative Theory of Dance Cognition
Isabelle Charnavel
June 2016

In recent years, the formal methods used in generative linguistics have proved fruitful for the study of music cognition (see esp. Lerdahl & Jackendoff 1983: Generative Theory of Tonal Music). At the same time, a wealth of studies has emerged on sign languages, investigating the impact of a different modality (visual vs. auditory) on linguistic systems. These two recent developments taken together raise the following question: is there a gestural counterpart of music, the study of which could shed new light on human cognition? The hypothesis that this paper investigates, using formal methods, is that there exists a grammar of dance, i.e., cognitive structures underlying the understanding of dance movement, a counterpart of music in the visual modality. Specifically, we ask: what are the primitive elements of dance (cf. phonology)? What are the rules of combination (cf. prosody/morphology/syntax)? What is the meaning of dance if any (cf. semantics)? The paper is a first attempt to address the first two questions by examining some organizational principles of the mental representation of dance perception. Specifically, the grouping structure of dance is explored in details, based on Gestalt principles and their adaptation to music by Lerdahl and Jackendoff (1983), while other types of hierarchical structures such as metrical structure are briefly discussed. Ultimately, the goal is to elaborate a theory of dance cognition, which should shed further light on cognitive systems by distinguishing between general cognitive properties and modality-specific or domain-specific properties. In particular, the specific cognitive relation between music and dance should be clarified.
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Reference: lingbuzz/003137
(please use that when you cite this article)
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keywords: dance cognition, grouping structure, music cognition, sign language, syntax, phonology
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