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Seeing Sounds and Neisserian Songwriting

The following short essays were short assignments based our learning journals I completed in my undergraduate degree in Psychology.

The Nature of Music

In my spare time I am a musician, songwriter and producer. I have a small studio in my attic and in that studio, I am surrounded by technology that allows me to create and record. Aside from guitars and microphones, one of the most valuable pieces of studio kit is the computer software that allows me to record individual instruments into one cohesive piece of music. The software essentially allows me to see the sounds I have made. I often try to explain that in listening to a piece of music I can ‘see’ the sounds and all the different textures, tones and frequencies. Not that I physically see things emanating from a speaker, it is that the thousands of hours spent turning sound into colourful blocks on studio software has possibly trained my mind to absorb music in this additional way.

To briefly explain the digital recording process, the sound recording generates a ‘thread’ which is a digital display of a sound wave. Interestingly, the visual representation of recorded sound on the screen is what Eric Fromm would call ‘biophilic’, meaning that we recognise its shape from nature (Stevens, 2015). Guitars and vocals are used extensively in my music and they produce a sound wave which gets its name from the wave shape produced by its high-volume peaks and lower volume troughs. This is very unlike the type of visual thread produced from a digital instrument such as a synthesiser. These produce what is called MIDI files and these MIDI files are digitally created rectangular blocks of sound with straight edges. To me, digital music represents the urban and analogue music represents the natural.

Look closely at the sound wave of a human voice and see the fractal nature of analogue sound. The term fractal was first coined by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot (1982) who used it to describe structures showing self-similarity or repetitive patterns across different scales in vision or sound (Stevens, 2015 p.336). Studies by Richard Knopf (1987) show that humans have a preference for natural patterns and landscapes with a clear fractal appearance over less fractal, linear patterns of urban landscapes (Stevens, 2015 p.336). Though the studies mentioned have primarily concentrated on visual fractal preference, when one has spent as much time as a musician has using sound to formulate a perception of the world, auditory fractal patterns become just as stimulating. The fractal nature of music can be heard in the patterns that make up most songs. Put simply, instruments play notes, notes form chords, which form sections which repeat to form songs. I much prefer the fractal nature of blues music over the straight edged sounds of electronic music and one thing that struck me in the study of this phenomena is how my preference of music is much like my preference of visual stimulus. One could say my taste in soundscape is as biophilic as my taste in landscape. Attention Restoration Therapy (ART) as purported by Roger Ulrich (1991) and the many forms of ecotherapy highlight the positive effects on wellbeing that exposure to natural stimulus can bring (Stevens, 2015 p.341-352). I happen to believe that the stimulation I get from listening to the fractal patterns of the blues is akin to the effects of visually absorbing nature. Perhaps the sounds of modern pop music and its digitally generated soundscape are contributing to our nature deficit disorder?

The voices of the self in songs

The second experience I journaled was the experience of writing lyrics for songs. Many things have brought me to the study of psychology but one thing that fascinates me is the mind of a songwriter and musician. I have met, collaborated with and befriended musicians of all types over the years and one thing that always strikes me is their innate understanding of the psychological role of their art. That is to say that they are profoundly aware of the emotions which are stimulated by a piece of music they create. For example, a songwriter who writes an upbeat song is aware of the joy that song brings them and could potentially bring a listener. Conversely the ballad writer is are aware of the pain that they tap into when creating a song about heartbreak. I often thought of song writing as the most expressive way of communicating the self in all its forms.

So interested am I in this topic that songwriter psychology is a niche I would eventually like to practice in and most of what I study I instinctively apply to this relatively unexplored area of research. Consequently, I found the study of Neisser’s (1988) ‘five areas of the self-knowledge’ particularly apropos. It made me reflect on how this model applies to the songwriter and how they explore these areas of self-knowledge to come up with new ways to sing about the human experience. Neisser’s 1988 paper on the ‘five kinds of self-knowledge’ discussed what he believed were the different layers of self-knowledge that co-exist within the adult mind to form the overall self. Neisser suggested that although these layers do not always function singularly, they are likely to grow independently through different experiences and periods of one’s life (Bishop, 2015 p.292). Neisser named these ‘selves’ the ecological self, the interpersonal self, the private self, the extended self and the conceptual self (Neisser, 1988). I believe that looking at the lyrical content of songs reveal which ‘Neissarian’ self was engaged at the point of writing. Allow me to explain what each self encompasses and give some contemporary examples where songwriters have given voice to each self.

The ecological self is that which is related to the direct environment and how the human experiences that environment. There are many examples of songwriters who use the natural environment for content but one song which gives an example of how the writer absorbs an environment is ‘Walking in Memphis’ by Mark Cohn. Cohn wrote the song after a pilgrimage to the home of the blues and the legendary Graceland home of Elvis Presley. Cohn was so inspired by the environment that he set his heart on being a songwriter then wrote this song about that experience.

The interpersonal self relates to the relationships we have with others. I could write all day about songs that have been written in retrospect of successful and unsuccessful romantic relationships. But one song that I find to a be stunning example of the interpersonal self expressed in song is ‘Grandmas Hands’ by Bill Withers. Withers wrote the song when his Grandmother passed away and the lyrics highlight the profound interpersonal nature of this relationship.

The private self is described by Neisser as the personal discovery that our conscious experiences are exclusive to us. Most people find it difficult to talk about personal matters, but the songwriter will often express their personal struggles in their work. The vulnerability that comes from expressing these private matters in song is possibly the most cathartic form of song writing and when used correctly, it can connect with an audience who have found themselves wrestling with those same private matters. Suddenly a song comes along that makes the listener realise they are not alone. One example of this is ‘Hunger’ by Florence Welch of ‘Florence + The Machine’ who wrote this song to recount her past eating disorder and depression.

The extended self is our anticipation of future self and reflection of past self. Ballads are often written by the reflective half of the extended self where those who write about future plans and aspirations will often write inspirational songs. The ultimate extended self song has to be Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. The song starts off reflecting on a past experience then changes gear into the inspirational future focused song we all know.

The conceptual self is the self that I think is possibly the most debilitating self to the art of song writing. This self is how we conceptualise ourselves, or in other words the mental ideal we have of ourselves and our place in the world. In my experience, identity is often a problem for songwriters as their musical ‘style’ comes with a personality they find difficult to separate from their own. For example, the cliched punk rocker is angry at the world and everything in it. This has a place in their art but can be a problem in day-to-day life. As the angry punk becomes say, a gentle parent, their rage lacks authenticity, and this can often lead them to an identity crisis which stifles their creativity. It is a skill of the songwriter to be able to switch between emotions for the purpose of the song. I have personally written some of my saddest songs when I have been at my most happy. ‘Hand in my Pocket’ by Alanis Morrisette is a terrific example of this contradiction of thoughts that songwriters go through daily.

As discussed in the first experience, the human voice produces a sound wave that is biophilic in appearance which appeals to the human ear as much as a mountain appeals to the human eye. When coupled with expressions of emotion and reflection of experience that can be conveyed in song lyrics, it is easy to see why we have such a profound connection to music as an artform. As a student of both music and psychology, it is at least easy to see why I personally find theses connections so fascinating.


Bishop, S. (2015) ‘Boundaries of the self’ in Turner, J. Hewson, C. Mehendran, K and Stevens, P. (eds) Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Oxford, Oxford University Press Milton Keynes, The Open University. pp.287-317.

Neisser, U. (1998) Five kinds of self knowledge, Philosophical Psychology, 1 (1), 35-59 DOI: 10.1080/09515088808572924

Stevens, P. (2015) ‘Relationships with the natural world’ in Turner, J. Hewson, C. Mehendran, K and Stevens, P. (eds) Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Oxford, Oxford University Press Milton Keynes, The Open University. pp.327-362.

Stevens, P. (2015) DD210 Week 12: Boundaries of the self [Online]. (Accessed 20 January 2021)

Stevens, P. (2015) DD210 Week 13: Relationships with the natural world [Online]. (Accessed 20 January 2021)

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