Consciousness and Music: A Harmonic Connection

By Olivia M. Eddy, B.S., B.M., Miami University

During performance season, my friends and I used to say “head empty, no thoughts” as a way to manage performance nerves (meaning don’t think, just play). Achieving this state is as if your brain went on autopilot. Your ‘autopilot’ is your unconscious mind at work. During my internship with the Air Force Research Laboratory, I was able to synthesize my passion for music with my profession as a biomedical engineer, specifically in studying consciousness in humans and artificial intelligence.

There are two kinds of memory systems; conscious and unconscious.  Conscious memory is acquired in one-shot (i.e., remembering details from a performance). During an orchestra concert, we were playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and the main thing I remember is my back hurting, despite all the concertmaster solos. Unconscious memory (implicit) involves the recognition of patterns through repetition. When addressing performance anxiety, my teacher would always say “trust the work you’ve done in the practice room.” In other words, slow, deliberate practice of the piece hours a day in a practice room will allow me to play it automatically when performing on stage, which is a classic interaction of the multiple memory  systems in the brain. When preparing for my senior recital, I would run through my repertoire. With intense focus, I would lyrically play the famous exposition of the Beethoven violin concerto. My mind would wander off thinking about my project for my FDA Regulations class and I would suddenly realize I am at the cadenza without any recollection of playing the development of recapitulation. All the hours of deliberate practice built the muscle memory that allowed my mind to wander while still being able to play the entirety of the movement.

“The unconscious mind plays a crucial role in recognizing patterns and storing implicit memories that guide our actions and behaviors. It allows us to perform learned skills, and effortlessly execute tasks like performing the [Beethoven Violin Concerto]. On the other hand, conscious learning, characterized by deliberate practice and focused attention, is essential for intentional practice and eventually mastering new pieces of music. Both conscious and unconscious memory systems work in tandem, each serving its unique purpose in our overall cognitive functioning. Understanding the interplay between these two modes of learning can shed light on the complexity and efficiency of our cognitive processes, and perhaps lead to a position with the [Berlin Philharmonic]” (OpenAI, 2023).


OpenAI. (2023). ChatGPT (June 12 version) [Large language model].

* ​The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this presentation are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official views, position, or policies, either expressed or implied, of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the United States Space Force. The intent of this academic seminar is to discuss publicly available science with thought leaders in the field.