Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 56–78 | Cite as

Musical Co-creativity and Learning—the Fluid Body Language of Receptive-Responsive Dialogue

  • Eva VassEmail author


This article explores how a musical awareness of natural bodily form as an expression of receptive-responsive relationship between stillness and movement can contribute to co-creative dialogue and deep learning that reaches beyond the often superficial knowledge and praxis of intellectually constituted thought and language. It will draw especially on findings from research on the Kokas pedagogy an experiential extension of the Kodaly method of music education combining improvised movement and collective reflection. These findings highlight how the physical dimensions of this pedagogy cultivated new, embodied modes of creative ideation and connectivity, presenting unique challenges and opportunities in the observed educational contexts.


Embodied dialogue Knowledge as encounter Creative presence Flow Focused attention 


I am a researcher of education. My earlier studies focused on children’s collaborative learning in the classroom. Trained as a linguist, my specialisation and passion had been the study of talk, which involved recording and analysing paired discourse. As I was transcribing, I was often struck by the synchronicity of children’s body movement as they talked their way through paired activities. I marvelled at their collaborative ‘dance’ as they shared ideas through talk. It appeared that, just by looking at language-based communication, I was missing out on something special. One image has particularly stuck in my memory: two 9-year-old boys engrossed in writing a shared story, and swaying like trees together, from side to side. I watched the short, 30-s episode on a loop, dozens of times, for the sheer beauty of it. Their body movement was indicative of a heightened togetherness which went beyond words. There was nothing predetermined or conscious about it, yet it felt fundamental and important.

What I saw distracted me from what I had set out to look at. So I returned to the study of transcribed verbal discourse and put my curiosity about embodied connectivity to the side. Nevertheless, these intriguing observations led to an unshakeable drive to discover more about the embodied dimensions of learning, meaning and relating. Over time, I recalibrated my research (with a new context, new concerns, refreshed theoretical foundations) and allowed the following questions to rise to the surface:
  • How can we interpret conceptualisations of embodied cognition in the context of educational theorising and research? What research methods can make these embodied dimensions visible in classroom-based research?

  • How can we capture the significance of embodiment in learning and knowledge building? How can this inform educational theorising?

  • How can we facilitate the development of such embodied, affective connections in a classroom? How can we teach the art of (collective) being and becoming? If the body is the medium of collective experience, how can we tune it well?

Thus, my current work departs from the earlier focus on conversational learning. Ultimately, it challenges the explicit rationalist view which, in my earlier research, necessitated the choice of looking at transcripts of talk in order to document processes of interthinking and co-creation. It probes the underlying philosophical foundations of collaborative learning research, with its privileging of the intellect in describing educationally valuable discourse. This urgency to depart from a language-based focus has also revealed to me how set assumptions in theory and research reflect on the assumptions and broader dialogue in the surrounding culture.

Conceptual Vistas

I believe that, in our attempts to reimagine education, we need to return to the body. This is not restricted to a better understanding of the moving body in sports, the recognition of artistic expression as a form of embodied dialogue or the prioritisation of experiential encounters in environmental education. It is a more profound recognition of all human learning as fundamentally dialogic, hence embodied. Such appreciation of the somatically constituted essence of meaning is common sense in arenas of human experience where the role of the moving, interacting, perceiving and responding body cannot be denied.

Yet, positivist beliefs about knowledge have generally proved to be pervasive and lasting, aptly described by Koestler as the Cartesian Catastrophe (Koestler 1964). Although the undue devaluing of emotions, and contemporaneous separation of the mind from the body, has been challenged over time (see Koestler 1964 or O’Brien 2016 for a comprehensive overview), it has become deeply ingrained in mainstream Western philosophy. The historical residue of this is evident when we look at contemporary ‘socio-cultural’ and ‘dialogic’ pedagogies which emphasise the social basis of mind. These approaches predominantly have a language focus, with an almost exclusive interest in defining and promoting educationally valuable classroom discourse. In the process, the affectively constituted and embodied dimensions of joint meaning making and intersubjectivity (the kind of playful, somatic resonance described in the Prologue) are sidelined (Vass et al. 2014).

Receptiveness towards embodiment demands a degree of interdisciplinary insight that most of us in ‘mainstream’ education cannot afford. My work aims to contribute to the shift in perspectives and attitudes in education, by inviting interdisciplinary knowledge to inspire educational inquiry. In particular, it turns to the arts—to alternative music education—for an explorative context. It also brings in some key ideas from natural inclusionality (NI), the powerful re-conceptualisation of natural sciences by Alan Rayner (Rayner 2018, Rayner 2017). Yet, it remains essentially concerned with the general field of education. I see this as an unavoidable journey from the deceptive simplicity (imposed upon us by traditional Western theorising about cognition) through confusing complexity (as we open up to the diverse interdisciplinary insight) to profound simplicity. A profound understanding of human learning, knowing and relating fuses important interdisciplinary ‘truths’ into a powerful model for the re-imagination of education.

Embodiment and Meaning

Contemporary scientific inquiry into embodied learning is a key conceptual anchor in my current research. The central premise of the embodied approach is that bodily and emotional experiences determine our capacity for reason (Damasio 1994), our physical interactions with our environment conditioning the way we understand this environment (Lakoff and Johnson 1999). This paradigm shift has been initiated by the second generation of cognitive science. The cognitive science of the embodied mind centres on the embodied aesthetics of understanding: the study of all the ways in which meaning emerges through the body’s engagement with its environment (Johnson 2008). In particular, the enactivist approach to embodiment assumes that the constitution of consciousness and cognition is irreducibly and irreplaceably determined and mediated by the processes of the body (Gallagher 2017). This is not a reductionist ‘body-with-no-mind’ position, but a position which underlines the somatic origins and essence of cognition. Thus, meaning itself is redefined as fundamentally embodied and not propositional in structure. Even if we have the capacity to develop meaning propositionally (e.g. using language), meaning is not seen as restricted to propositions and concepts. There is a consequent push to develop thought theories which can account for such richness of thinking: incorporating intuition, sensing, spirituality or daydreaming (Gelernter 1994). The provocation is clear: ‘What would happen if we started with these empirical discoveries about the nature of the mind and constructed philosophy anew? The answer is that an empirically responsible philosophy would require our culture to abandon some of its deepest philosophical assumptions’ (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, p. 3).

The turn towards the reconnection of the body and the mind has been grounded in philosophy—notably Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account—bringing together phenomenology, Eastern philosophy and modern Western cognitive neuroscience (Gallagher 2017). It has taken different routes across disciplines: cognitive science and neuroscience (e.g. Clark 1999; Niedenthal 2007; Damasio 1994), biology and natural sciences (Rayner 2017), education (Pastore and Pentassuglia 2015, Pentassuglia 2017), linguistics (Lakoff and Johnson 1999), dance education (Anttila 2007, Anttila 2015; Degerbøl and Svendler Nielsen 2015) music education (Almeida et al. 2017; Juntunen and Westerlund 2011) or dance-movement therapy (Meekums 2002). In educational sciences, socio-material approaches have brought a similarly refreshing take on the relationship between learning and action (Fenwick et al. 2011). Recently, these insights have started to filter into educational policy and practice. For instance, the new Finnish curriculum has incorporated embodiment in their learning concept (Anttila, personal communication, October 2016). The challenge is to convince educators about the importance of all this and facilitate the translation and realisation of these values in practice. This involves the careful instigation of pedagogical transformation, where teachers are encouraged to question the conceptualisation of learning as a primarily intellectual endeavour and develop practice-based understandings of the embodied dimensions of learning and teaching.

As noted earlier, natural inclusionality has a special significance in this array of rich interdisciplinary work on the embodied mind. Rayner’s latest book (Rayner 2017) and his paper in this volume (Rayner 2018) elucidate the details of his theory. I argue that NI provides the ultimate push for a shift in our thinking about the mind, coming from natural sciences: the re-imagination of the study of nature. The following passage from a recent exchange summarises Rayner’s message for educational inquiry in particular:

Natural inclusionality is a perception and emerging philosophy of reality that explicitly recognises the co-creative relationship between spatial receptivity and energetic responsiveness from which living, bodily form comes fluidly into being. This perception combines rather than isolates or conflates awareness of the space included within a material body with the space surrounding that body in a way that may come naturally to children as they individuate, but is prone quickly to be obscured by rigid educational praxis founded on definitive logic and language. The latter praxis is detrimental to human understanding of natural relationships between individual and group identities and their surroundings, making it of paramount importance to develop pedagogies that actively sustain and nurture receptive-responsive awareness in both mind and body. (A. Rayner, personal communication, Jan 2018)

Classroom practices offer very little to facilitate the kind of embodied capacities we talk about here. Natural inclusionality appears to be the optimal catalyst here, to connect and re-energise the different disciplinary attempts to overcome the narrow positivist mindset. Analogies from NI also help to grasp the true essence of dialogue: a mutually co-creative, receptive-responsive relationship between ‘stillness and movement’ which reaches beyond the often superficial knowledge and praxis of intellectually constituted thought and language.

Embodied Intersubjectivities and Dialogic Space

Neo-Vygotskian socio-cultural theorising considers learning and development as fundamentally social and not individual processes (Littleton and Mercer 2013). It captures the learner as active meaning maker, questioning the pedagogical value of traditional transmission models. Resonating with Bakhtinian philosophy, it convinces us that knowledge is dialogic: developed through interaction and recreated in each situation. Following from this conceptual framing, we are provoked to replace the traditional concept of individual thinking with interthinking (Littleton and Mercer 2013), expressed in the productive, co-constructive use of classroom talk.

Recent decades have seen the emergence of dialogic pedagogies. Dialogic teaching presents the introduced content as subject to critique, facilitating the emergence and discussion of alternative viewpoints. Dialogic discourse foregrounds collective meaning making, shared self-reflection and the open review of problems and misunderstandings (Alexander 2017). The purpose is to generate knowledge together, and not to reproduce knowledge. Therefore, both the teachers and students are expected to make substantial and significant contributions. Dialogic classrooms offer students an active role in shaping both the learning content (subject knowledge) and the learning process (pathways of learning and assessment). Advocates of dialogism have mainly been concerned with the links and relationships between language and thought, centring their attention on ways in which language transforms the way we think. And there is clear merit in these preoccupations. Authentic classroom dialogue grounds the appropriation of specific lexicon and collective sense making of what is already known. It also supports the evolution of new ways of making sense of the world, leading to discoveries and new knowledge. Furthermore, these connections between language, thinking and learning allow educationalists to address particular equity issues. For instance, Littleton and Mercer (2013) convincingly argue that voice, control and educational success are deeply intertwined with students’ exposure to familiarity with and expertise in educationally valuable dialogue.

A topical issue is whether such dialogic practices should remain essentially instrumental—transforming learning, redefining classrooms and restructuring social relationships through academically productive talk—or whether an ontological dialogic pedagogy is more preferable where all educational aims, processes and outcomes are fundamentally organic, emerging freely from the collective dialogue and unconstrained by the teacher or the set curriculum (Segal and Lefstein 2016; Matusov and Wegerif 2014). This paper embraces the value of both positions. We regard these as valuable starting points towards the systematic exploration of the nature and evolution of dialogic learning spaces. The relevance or empirical value of these academic positions can only be evaluated (and made sense of) in relation to actual practice, in addressing specific educational challenges. (Note however that the music pedagogy the paper focuses on leans towards the latter.)

However, the traditional Western classroom is not only monologic (as proponents of dialogism argue), but also deeply disembodied. This is a major concern, which literature on dialogism does not seem to address, even though it is visible in Vygotskian or Bakhtinian philosophy. Indeed, the concept of bodymind resonates with the elusive concept of perezhivanie. This Russian term appears in Vygotsky’s later work (1935/Vygotsky 1994), to convey the fundamental role of emotions in the framing and interpretation of human experience and illuminate the interrelationship between emotion and cognition in resourcing and mediating imagination and creativity (Smagorinski 2011). Vygotsky also problematised the dualistic approach to the person and their physical environment, arguing that ‘consciousness must not be separated from its physical conditions: They comprise one natural whole that must be studied as such’ (1996 p. 228 in Smagorinski 2011). Yet, Vygotsky’s departure from a fundamentally linguistic psychology in his later writings has received little attention so far (Hedegaard 2016). In particular, there is a paucity of research exploring the embodied and affective dimensions of dialogue, which would seem especially relevant in creative contexts (Chappell and Craft 2011).

In my earlier work (Vass et al. 2014, Vass et al. 2008; Vass 2007), I problematised such overemphasis on explicit argumentation and visible reasoning, arguing that intersubjectivity and sharedness may be constituted via strategies that go beyond logic. I also noted the need to extend our assumptions about what such successful togetherness entails and how it is achieved. I concluded that conceptualisations of the path towards deep intersubjectivity need to acknowledge both the rationally and affectively constituted aspects of interthinking.

Although there is now a general understanding that language itself is deeply embodied—see the seminal work of Lakoff and Johnson on this—we also need to recognise that meaning goes beyond—and most often does not start with—language. Indeed, we can teach children to talk and reason together, with undeniable educational benefits. We can also guide them in developing conscious use of specific thinking strategies (e.g. divergent, convergent or possibility thinking) to facilitate a creative mindset. But can we also encourage them to learn and create together through collective being and becoming?

Importantly, the phenomenological roots of dialogism, powerfully presented in Wegerif’s recent writings (Wegerif 2017), point us in this direction. Wegerif re-orients us to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, arguing that no real dialogue or learning is possible without a shared space of mutual resonance—or dialogic space. This is a crucial argument, which basically reconnects the dialogic with the embodied. Essentially, the emergence of dialogic space requires an identity shift from being on one side of the fence (engaging in a discussion in order to win an argument) to the ‘space of the in between’ (Buber 1958) where the collective takes priority (Wegerif 2017). Dialogic pedagogies support this relationally centred shift towards a dialogic mindset (or dialogic presence) and encourage students to open themselves to change.

A more embodied understanding of dialogism—the expansion of dialogic space through mutual resonance—connects well with the theory of natural inclusionality. NI challenges the discontinuous perceptions of space and boundaries, proposing that distinctiveness (e.g. that of an individual within the group) is not an illusion, but it is dynamic, perpetually evolving. Just like living cells, individuals can be seen as centres of receptive stillness, which exist and evolve in a mutually inclusive relationship with their environment, constituting ‘fluid-dynamic localities’ and not ‘rigidly self-contained units’ (Rayner 2017). This re-definition also provokes us to critique the Western insistence on language as the exclusive medium for the social construction of knowledge and problematise the privileging of intellectually constituted thought in the development of intersubjectivity:

The space we move into is not a three dimensional space of physics. This homogenous space is a subsequent abstraction. Our motions move originally into this intersensory, intersubjective depth, when different senses and different subjects work together, but they can’t be presented, or translated from one to another. Nevertheless this multidimensional pregnancy forms the vivid unity of our reality: “We function as one unique body”. (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 215)

Creativity and Embodiment

Creativity theories have long emphasised the role of unconscious mentation in new discoveries (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi 2000; Gelernter 1994; Koestler 1964; Arieti 1976). Gelernter (1994) associates creative analogy formation with low focus thinking—stream of consciousness or daydreaming—and has coined the term affect-linking to describe the process by which logically unexpected, yet still coherent associations. Csikszentmihalyi (2000) describes the creative process as an autotelic flow experience, which involves the merging of the self with the environment, the ‘merging of action and awareness’ (p. 38) and the loss of self-consciousness to a transcendental extent. Trance-like concentration and daydreaming may be different in many ways, but in both cases, the mind is liberated from the constraints of conscious control (Koestler 1964). Thus, both the extreme centring of attention and the self-abandonment of daydreaming result are a state of consciousness where the mind simply takes over. (I would like to link this to the notion of pre-reflective self-consciousness discussed later in “Analytic Considerations”.) Therefore, the heightened focus and undivided attention characteristic of flow experience are rather similar to the diffuse thought processes of daydreaming in terms of the creative potentials it affords. In this, language may become superfluous.

On the other hand, research on the creative collaborations of adult artists also highlights the salience of affectively constituted thinking in creative collaborations. Concepts such as creative attunement (Seddon 2004), collective entrainment (Clayton 2007) or group flow (Sawyer 2007) have been developed to capture the establishment and maintenance of creative intersubjectivity in the observed improvisative contexts. These concepts convey the emotional, intuitive, embodied aspects of creative connectivity.

Towards Embodied Dialogism—Through Experience-Centred Pedagogies

In conclusion, the notions of dialogue and co-construction should not be restricted to the language-based modality and should also encompass considerations of collective being and becoming. I interpret the notion of bodymind as a co-creative relationship with the environment. Thus, musical awareness of natural bodily form (in my research, children’s active musical listening) is seen as an expression of receptive-responsive relationship between stillness and movement, which can contribute to co-creative dialogue and deep learning. This includes opportunities for ‘co-experiencing’ with others. Whilst there is a lot of powerful work done on embodiment in cognitive sciences, our understanding of teaching and learning as embodied practice is rather limited. Thus, I see this as a perfect angle from which some core, perennial concerns and criticisms raised about education can be addressed: the embodied dialogism angle.

Consequently, I seek out experience-centred (or explorative) pedagogies, mostly seen in arts-based education (Anttila 2007, 2015) but also appearing in environmental education (Payne 2010). I use this term to distinguish these approaches from experiential education in general. Whereas the experiential education literature often sees experience as a well-defined preliminary step towards learning and teaching (Beard and Wilson 2013), I argue that experience in itself can potentially constitute learning and teaching. The translation of the experience into language is not an unavoidable necessity: it may lead to valuable verbalised reflections, but it may also be, at times, superfluous. Experience-centred pedagogies engage students’ intellect, senses and emotions without placing arbitrary boundaries around these or forcing them into a hierarchy. Thus, experience-centred pedagogies facilitate complex, creative, dynamic forms of learning and teaching, and promote the open, explorative mindset which is so central to my interests.

The interdisciplinary connections emerging from the literature discussed so far are visualised in Fig. 1. Figure 1 shows lived, embodied connections (relationships, experiences, insights) to be deeply connected to creative presence (creative disposition, exploratory mindset, Vass and Deszpot 2015), dialogic presence (coined to capture the phenomenological roots of the dialogic mindset) and receptive presence (taken from natural inclusionality, Rayner 2017). These distinct terms (dialogic, creative, receptive) have emerged in different disciplinary conceptualisations, to capture highly valuable modes/levels of psychological functioning. In my framing, these concepts are deeply interrelated (e.g. a creative mindset is dialogic in nature, or receptive presence is essentially creative, and vice versa) and they are all rooted in the embodied human experience. They share an orientation towards embodied connectivity as foundational in knowing, thinking, understanding, creating or relating. Presence is not conscious mentation. It is the mind’s co-creative, active sense making in and with its context.
Fig. 1

The centrality of embodied connections

The Kokas Pedagogy as Research Context

The Kokas pedagogy has become my research context for such deliberations. Klara Kokas was a musicologist, psychologist and writer and an inventive and charismatic disciple of Zoltan Kodaly. Her approach to music education combines active music appreciation with the singing-based music pedagogy of Kodaly, mainly targeting the early and primary years. The pedagogic aim is to enhance students’ somatic understanding or experiential knowledge of classical music, thus going beyond the structural analysis or science of music.1

The sessions start and conclude with collective singing. Embedded in this framing, there are two music-focused phases: active listening and collective reflection. Children listen to carefully selected and edited short segments of classical music (1–2 min in length) on a number of occasions (about 5–10 times). They are encouraged to move freely and respond to the music with spontaneous, improvised, free movement combinations. As Kokas explained, the aim is the ‘full integration of imagination, motion, and music into a single, unified experience’ (Kokas 1999, p. 31).

Responding to the metaphoric qualities of music, children transform themselves and the world around them and often dramatise elaborate stories with gestures and movement. The collective reflection phase invites children to share these transformations and narratives through demonstration (showcasing their movement) or verbalisation (sharing thoughts and reflections). Thus, the experience remains fundamentally movement-based but it can be translated into and expanded through verbal accounts. Yet, there is no expectation of such verbalised report. Alternative reflective contexts are regularly offered using visual modalities (drawing or painting). The pedagogic imperative is that the teacher remains a catalyst, and scaffolds through receptive presence not impositional presence. This dialogic-receptive openness is a significant challenge for both teachers and students, especially when the Kokas sessions are embedded in the context of more traditional school life.

Recent reforms to the Hungarian national curriculum promote the inclusion of alternative pedagogies in primary music education, including the Kokas approach. Capitalising on these new opportunities, I planned and implemented a school-based observational study in two primary schools which have already incorporated the Kokas approach in their regular music education programme. My project was developed as part of my ongoing collaboration with colleagues at the Kodaly Institute of the Liszt Academy of Music, in particular Gabriella Deszpot, with whom I regularly co-author.

This project was informed by educational research building on classroom ethnography (Barnes and Todd 1995). I observed and recorded ongoing teaching and learning processes in their own context, for the duration of one school term (with 10–13 observed Kokas sessions of a selected group/class in each school, involving 23 7–8-year-old children, and resulting in about 35 h of video-recorded data).2 My original goal was to investigate the significance of the Kokas pedagogy in fostering children’s open-mindedness: imagination, other orientation and collective creativity. However, there were new themes emerging during the process.

Analytic Considerations

The Kokas pedagogy builds on students’ repeated encounters with music. Participants develop a deep somatic understanding of a short musical piece through repeated, active listening. There is a distinction between this kind of knowing (knowledge as an encounter, carnal, organic, ever evolving, dynamic knowledge) and factual, analytical knowledge (static, repeatable and repeated meaning) prioritised in education and dominating classroom work (Johnson 2008).

This is an experiential pedagogy, where the aim is to move students from the periphery towards the centre of experience. Expressions such as hiding the music into ones body or wrapping the body around the music are used to visualise the development of a dialogic relationship with music. A particularly valuable proposition by Johnson (2008), especially for my own current work, is that musical experiences are the optimal context in which the embodied essence of the mind can be evidenced as well as nurtured. According to Johnson, music does not translate into experience (and therefore is not simply a re-enactment of experience) but constitutes lived experience. In this sense, musical encounters are like meeting and growing to understand another person. (In human-to-human encounters, such an experience of attunement, resonance and synchronicity requires unconditional communicative openness towards the other.) As they progress, children display a deepening sense of interconnectedness—or synchronicity—with the music, and the boundaries between themselves and the musical environment become fluid.

It’s important to note the characteristic absence of conscious mentation here. This is what Gallagher and Zalavi define as pre-reflective self-consciousness:

By calling the type of self-consciousness in question “pre-reflective”, we wish to emphasize that it does not involve an additional second-order mental state that in some way is directed in an explicit manner towards the experience in question. Rather, the self-consciousness must be understood as an intrinsic feature of the primary experience […] I can, of course, reflect on and attend to my experience, I can make it the theme or object of my attention, but prior to reflecting on it, I wasn’t ‘mind- or self-blind’. The experience was already present to me, it was already something for me, and in that sense it counts as being pre-reflectively conscious (Gallagher and Zahavi 2008, p. 46).

My research focuses on the dialogic qualities of children’s musical encounters. Cultural anthropology has a long tradition of analysing non-verbal communication (kinesics)—see for instance the complex movement analytic system developed by Birdwhistell (1970). However, most of this work connects the analysis of bodily expression (use of space, posture, gestures, facial expression) to the analysis of verbal communication. Instead, I needed an analytic model where the body’s movement repertoire is seen as constituting—and not complementing—meaning and expression. Such models are available in dance education and research, for instance the Laban notational system (Laban and Ullmann 2011). However, this may be too detailed (and not particularly dialogic) for the present purposes. So, in collaboration with the Kodaly Institute, I oriented towards the analytic model developed by Hungarian musicologist Zsuzsa Pasztor, which situates movement analysis in the context of the music:

The movement analysis can capture the process of learning, by which the movement serves as the leading thread towards deeper and deeper immersion in musical understanding. The initial Kokas sessions show movement which is incidental, haphazard, contingent, showing little connection with the music. As the short musical segment is played repeatedly, more and more movement features show correspondence with the musical elements, and eventually a unique, comprehensive musical interpretation is presented in a cohesive movement-repertoire (Pásztor 2003, p. 2, translated from Hungarian by Vass).

I collaborated with Gabriella Deszpot to develop the analytic model (Vass and Deszpot forthcoming). What emerged from my preliminary analysis of the observational data is the centrality of focused attention (receptive presence) in establishing the music-movement dialogue. Naturally, one cannot presume that embodied encounters with music always involve movement. The active immersion in the lived musical experience also entails a capacity to embrace the silence. So the observance of movement also incorporates manifestations of quiet, calm, motionless immersion. Musical immersion may also remain motionless throughout—if this feels right for the child. The images in Fig. 2 illustrate this point. The top right corner image is a dramatic, triumphant ‘the end’ gesture. The rest of the images are of inspired anticipation, or gestures signalling restful closure at the end of the musical segment.
Fig. 2

Embodied encounters with music—working with silence (primary school 1)

As Fig. 3 explains, I envisaged the first layer of analysis to target the relationship between opportunities for free, musically inspired movement and centredness of attention. The next analytic layer unpacks the relationship between such emergent centredness of attention and the autotelic flow experience—leading to deep, almost transcendental encounters with music, and to imaginative transformations (metamorphosis) often expressed in movement.
Fig. 3

Layers in the movement analysis

The analysis of the primary school data shows that regular embodied musical experiences support students’ gradual progress from a typically fleeting, sporadic attention towards inner/outward centredness, when the whole body starts to listen to and interact with the music. It documents how, through repeated opportunities for free movement, students progress towards such centredness of attention. This receptive presence is the gate towards the autotelic experience of flow (Csikszentmihalyi 2000) which I see as the platform for deep, embodied musical dialogue and for experiences of imaginative being and becoming. In what follows, I will unpack some of the key analytic insights and findings.

Towards Dialogic Encounters with Music

For the first phase of the movement analysis in the primary school setting, I used layers of concentric circles to visualise the children’s journeys towards dialogic affinity with the music. This journey was envisaged as three-dimensional, as Fig. 4 conveys. Close encounters with music were understood as elevated receptive and creative presence in the musical moment.
Fig. 4

Levels of musical immersion in the Kokas sessions

Note that the children’s musical encounters did not appear to form a linear progression. There were cycles of getting closer to and moving away from the music within one session (as they listened to the same short musical segment repeatedly) or over consecutive sessions (as their movement conveyed a fluctuation of attunement to different musical segments). Students’ progression thus involved forward/backward and upward/downward directionality. The free-flowing nature of this learning process—the infinitude of possible responses by students—poses a significant challenge for the pedagogue and for the researcher. What are the indicators of progress, of musical learning? The body-movement repertoire of a student consistently shows a deeper level of focus and attunement than before? Or rather, when the potentiality of a new level of understanding is instantiated in the body movement during one particular encounter of a session—thus indicative of some sort of a breakthrough in the student’s affinity and orientation? Also, how can we document (and make visible) the journey from potentiality to established understandings?

The movement analysis of the first session of one of the primary school groups illustrates the complexity. Figure 5 visualises the key points of the analysis, displaying the overall movement repertoire of the children. (This session involved 10 repeated listenings of the musical segment.)
Fig. 5

Movement analysis, session 1, primary school 1

The body-movement repertoire of the individual children shows a range of focus and attunement. Several of the children remain on the periphery during the first session. Whilst five children show sporadic attention (and mostly playful movement improvisations which have little or no connection with the music), two actually remove themselves from the activity. On the other hand, five other children already show the potentiality of musical focus in their use of body and space (hence placed on the border between two levels of musical immersion), and one particular child (whom I identify with the fictional name Szilvi) demonstrates a deep encounter with the music in her gestures and bodily expressions. Such diversity will remain a defining feature of the sessions. Even though there is an observable movement from the periphery towards the centre when we look at the individual children’s journeys, there is also fluctuation, as discussed above.

Sporadic Attention

Based on the first phase of analysis, the following movement features were identified for sporadic attention, indicative of a superficial encounter with music, or lack of receptive presence (Vass and Deszpot forthcoming, with English translation here by Vass) (Table 1).
Table 1

Sporadic attention in movement

During the brief (5–10 s) period of silence before the music starts, the body movement does not show inner-outer calm or peaceful anticipation. The hands and feet move almost uncontrollably, even when the children are in a lying position on the carpet.

During the first listening of the short musical segment, the body is restless. (Note that during this initial listening, children are typically asked to lie down on the floor in a resting position—‘just before going to sleep’—and take the music in without much movement.) There is a constant buzz: small, involuntary and seemingly uncontrollable movement features, which are not connected to the music. If the body is still, it appears to be tense, bursting with the energy to move.

During the later listenings of the musical segment, the movement is playful but disconnected from the music: incidental, haphazard, contingent. The freedom to move drives the action; the music becomes the backdrop to free play. The movement does not correspond to even the most accessible musical features (e.g. tempo) and does not stop at the end of the musical segment. The body seems to be moving unstoppably, irrespective of (and seemingly oblivious to) the music.

The child seems to be seeking new stimuli constantly. The movement reflects this thirst for new stimulus: we see the quick succession of a random set of movement actions which are picked up and then abandoned in search for something new. Movement motifs do not form a cohesive, musically infused structure.

Play with others is a priority. Children often distract each other away from a musical attention: even if there are individual moments of attentive, receptive presence, the child choses to disconnect from this and to follow the others into play instead.

Experiences of sporadic attention (or superficial musical encounters) in the initial sessions were not surprising: they are often an unavoidable part of the journey. The Kokas sessions are fascinating, liberating learning experiences for most children. However, the pedagogy may be challenging initially, as children need to grow familiar and comfortable with the pedagogic orientation: the lack of prescription or didactic teaching, the freedom (only to be constrained by the music) and the spirit of openness and collective acceptance. This may explain the reactions of the two children who removed themselves from the activity during the first session. The challenge of active musical listening was—for these children at least—too demanding or too unusual at this point. The task of entering into a dialogue with the music was also made difficult by the presence of others, who often stood as a distraction. When play got prioritised, music simply became the ‘background’ or ‘stage’ for the playful romp. (Figure 5 shows boys fighting, girls skipping, hopping and bouncing around in groups, without much engagement with the music. The movement of these children generally lacked musical focus.)

Evidencing Receptive Presence

There are, however, indications of dialogic openness in this first session. As Fig. 5 shows, two girls describe their joint movement as ‘dancing ballerinas’. Taking dance classes is a routine for these kids. Their choice to explore the familiar territory of dance is a meaningful, though somewhat predictable response to the task. Whilst trying to do ballet to the musical segment, these girls inevitably make some embodied explorations of the piece. (Indeed, the interpretation of the context as an opportunity to dance will remain the ‘default’ response for some of the girls in the group.) Similarly, two boys seem to break away from the more predictable theme of play fighting. They remain solitary for most of the session and seem to move with some tentative exploration and curiosity towards the music. One of them pretends to be a rock guitar player. This may not be the most obvious link to the soft classical music they are working with, but it nevertheless shows the boy’s openness to a very personal musical encounter. In fact, he is so pleased with the idea that he volunteers to showcase his movement choreography to the others. These are examples of tentative orientation to music, where the openness is visible in the movement. Deep correspondence between movement gestures and musical features is not achieved, but the child is already moving away from a ‘play-for-plays’-sake’ orientation and has opened themselves towards a co-creative, mutually inclusive relationship with music.

However, one particular girl (Szilvi) goes beyond this, with an immediate affinity with the activity in her first session. Her movement shows inner concentration and musical immersion. Her movement gestures follow the music and are indicative of flow experience. Her reflections also convey an imaginative inner transformation connected to her deep musical immersion (she describes the experience as becoming the wind).3

Szilvi’s embodied encounters with music will remain consistently deep and often transcendental throughout the 13 observed sessions. The following images were chosen from session 4, to capture her repeated embodied encounter with a new musical segment (Claude Debussy, Arabesque No. 1, E Major). Figure 6 shows Szilvi’s movement during listening 1, when children were asked to lie down and take in the music in a restful position. Szilvi is nevertheless not motionless. Her movement response to the music (rolling around on the carpet) is inspired and almost transcendental. The movement she creates—or finds herself executing—indicates that the physical connectivity with the music is irresistible to her. She gradually moves from her chosen, solitary positioning in the corner of the room towards the centre. Her measured, inspired body movement is perfectly in line with the flow of the music and anticipates the end of the segment with an open, restful closing gesture. This is in sharp contrast with the sporadic attention expressed in the body positioning and movement repertoire of other children around her (some of whom are visible in the background, having raised themselves to their elbows and kicking restlessly with their feet).

This rolling motif allows her to experience and to express the characteristic pulsation of the music, and it will become a recurring motif in her movement repertoire for the rest of the session. Again and again, she will be drawn back to this movement motif, either lying down or by slowly swirling around in an upright position. Two images in Fig. 7 show her engaged in the rolling movement motif in the midst of children running, skipping, and moving around her. The image in the bottom right corner shows her doing something very similar—a swirling movement—in an upright position.
Fig. 6

Primary School 1, Session 4, Listening 1 – The emergence of Szilvi’s rolling motif

Fig. 7

Primary School 1, Session 4, Szilvi’s rolling-swirling motif in Listening 2-7

I see Szilvi’s encounter with the music as an instantiation of receptive, dialogic, creative presence. She opens herself to change and enters into a beautiful dialogue with the music, displaying unconditional communicative openness. Her body language shows that she is ‘in the flow’—removed from the here-and-now. What we see is her ‘willingness to go on an adventure with someone else, to influence and to accept influence’ (Gottman 1986, p. 156). The only difference is that she is in a co-creative relationship with her musical environment. For the teacher of this pedagogy, this is the ultimate goal and achievement: the student knows how to be present with the music, how to be and to become with the music. Szilvi’s felt experience is the fountain of musical knowledge. Each Kokas session carries the potentiality of such musical insight, but these encounters cannot be expected, prescribed or enforced.

The images reveal that Szilvi is completely oblivious of her surroundings, including the other children. Indeed, initially, peers often seemed to disrupt such personal, embodied musical encounters. So dialogue with the music remained a solitary experience for Szilvi (and for others in similarly deep encounters) most of the time. In order to enter and remain in this state of intense focus, children may have needed to ignore invitations or stimulation from others. Yet, over time, there was also an observable, gradual shift towards collective movement improvisations, and towards collective flow, reflected in episodes of collective being and becoming. The detailed analysis of this transition is beyond the scope of this paper. (See Vass and Deszpot 2015 for a discussion of empathetic and creative attunement during Kokas sessions.) However, it is important to note particular steps documented in the data. Children’s feeling awareness and receptive presence towards music seemed to precede (and ground) their dialogic encounters with others. When such collective dialogic space emerged, the boundaries between self and others became fluid, offering opportunities for creative attunement, nurtured almost exclusively through multi-sensory modes of collective meaning creation. Table 2 in the next section shows how the analysis of the data served to identify movement features that correspond to such individual or collective musical dialogues.
Table 2

Movement motifs indicative of deepening musical focus (Vass and Deszpot forthcoming, translated by Vass)

Evidencing Deep Musical Focus

The pedagogic framing—the repeated listening of the same, short musical segment—gives children opportunities to restart the process of the musical encounter. The ritual of repeated musical encounters has become a familiar routine for the group. Over the 13 observed sessions, the group journeyed from their mostly peripheral positioning towards the practice of focused attention and deep engagement with the music. Particular features that were identified as indicative deepening focus are presented in Table 2.

The final image in Table 2 shows how the intense focus leads to deepening affinity with music—resulting in enriched musical understanding. This musical understanding is competently conveyed in a coherent movement repertoire. This is not necessarily a ‘dance’ in the traditional sense, but one could describe it as a fully developed choreography to portray the child’s relationship with and understanding of the music. The final image in Table 2 also illustrates the creative flow experience and makes the child’s imagination in the making visible.

Embodied Dialogue and Creative Flow

The autotelic flow experience is foundational for creativity and peak performance (Csikszentmihalyi 2000). In the Kokas sessions, flow manifests itself in transcendental musical connectivity and imaginative, transformative movement experiences (metamorphosis). Children’s spontaneous movement often signals the emergence of creative images, stories and narratives. The 4-month-long observation period proved to be too short for the full emergence of this level of creative connectivity, as most children were working their way towards centred attention. Nevertheless, the observational data afforded some opportunities to explore such spontaneous, emergent, musically inspired moments of flow. Note that the collective singing phases (framing the music sessions) were equally rich in such experiences (see Vass and Deszpot 2015 for a discussion on collective signing). It is important to avoid any straightjacket categorisation of creative expression, yet the following movement features were identified as analytic pointers, reflective of individual or collective imagination in the making (Table 3).
Table 3

Flow experience made visible through movement (from Vass and Deszpot forthcoming, translated by Vass)

Awe, transcendence, transformative experience manifested in facial gestures and body language. Eyes often closed.

Body positioning and movement reveals that the child is oblivious to their surroundings, as if they were somewhere else. This is often in the midst of the hype: a sense of peace and quiet in a characteristically rowdy, highly energetic social context.

The movement of the child/children tells a story, which appears to emerge from/inspired by the music. The music may dictate the story line, though this may neither be conscious nor voluntary.

The narrative (told through individual or collective movement) gets developed and refined through the repeated listening of the musical segment. The child returns to the choreographed story in each listening and often explores different movement variations to the emergent core theme (embellishment, refinement, testing alternatives). This is how the movement-based narrative becomes finetuned and integrated with the music.

The child/children regard what they have developed as their own unique creative achievement, creation. They volunteer to showcase it and may be able to share their verbalised accounts of the imaginative transformations.

It is important to reiterate that these are not prescribed outcomes. Musically inspired movement does not unavoidably lead to imaginative transformations or stories. The intense musical attunement, the ecstatic music-joy (agape), is in itself of value. Such experiences presuppose deep focus and attention, building on the structural foundations of the flow. Deep music-movement synchronicity is therefore a significant achievement: it signifies an optimal response to a challenging task, leading to increased musical knowledge. Nevertheless, children’s characteristic transformations and creative stories (embodied in movement) signify the potentials for creative development. They are instantiations of free association and imaginative play where music is the medium.

Note also the problems with reducing embodied experiences to movement. This is the point where observational data, on their own, prove to be insufficient. In our phenomenological explorations, introspective, self-reflective dimensions are essential. In particular, children’s verbalised reflections (an integral part of each Kokas session) are especially valuable in providing introspective data on their experiences of creative transformation. For instance, in Table 2, deep music-movement dialogue was illustrated with a coherent movement repertoire showcased by Szilvi in session 5 (listening to a segment of Beethoven: Symphony No. 3. Op. 55, Scherzo. Allegro Vivace).

Szilvi’s movement repertoire is closely aligned to the music. After her showcasing (which took place at the end of the session), she explained to the class that she created a choreography whereby she alternated being a cat and a mouse. Her double transformation aimed to convey different musical features and corresponded to the louder and quieter parts of the musical segment. With her hands on her hips, she engaged in some powerful stomping for the ‘folkdancing cat’ (corresponding to the louder parts of the musical segment) and then she had her finger on her lips, with a crouching, lurking posture and movement for the scared little mouse. Our analysis confirmed that Szilvi used these motifs at particular points in the musical segment, evidencing her musical anticipation, musical memory and deepening somatic understanding. These motifs, emerged early in the session, were repeatedly experimented with during each listening of the segment and eventually showcased to the rest of the class. Her reflections make this dialogic relationship with the music fully transparent.

The centrality of introspection is not simply a methodological but also a philosophical issue. To evidence this, I will use a more elaborate example of a child’s reflective account of a collective transformation, presented by Klara Kokas:

Marta acted out a scene involving gophers and lots of running about with Orsi and Boroka. I asked Marta, the gopher’s mother, “How did you know how much you’d have to wait for your sons to arrive back with the wheat?” Marta: “The music told me.” “And what if you’d have arrived at the gopher burrow before the music ended?” The reply came in a most natural way: “Well, what else? I’d have sat down in the field not far from the burrow and waited for the music and I’d have twirled my whiskers till the right moment.” Kokas (1999, p. 43)

In the passage above, the child’s reflections challenge the traditional assumption that the agency is in the self. Instead, agency appears to emerge in between people and in the interaction. In this sense, agency is portrayed in the children’s reflections as both distributed and emergent/dynamic. Such reflective data support the philosophical critique of the traditional assumptions about the disembodied, rational mind—e.g. that the abstract mind makes decisions regardless of the body. The passage illustrates how agency is distributed in the system that includes bodies.

The introspective passage also reveals the importance—and inseparability—of physical and inner opening up. The storyline develops in this dialogic space of communicative openness. The children’s transformation and the unfolding events of their gopher lives are instantiations of this dynamic, nuanced and complex web of embodied connections. Embodied dialogue—collectively enacted responses to music—is indeed the catalyst of deep cohesion and creative connectivity.

Conclusive Comments

The research described in this paper attempts to work with conceptualisations of embodied cognition in educational theorising, research and practice. It describes the analytic orientations which were developed to make such embodied dimensions of meaning creation visible in classroom-based research. It also explores ways in which we can capture the significance of all this. Furthermore, it showcases an explorative, experience-centred music pedagogy—a pedagogy which nurtures receptive, dialogic and creative presence in students and facilitates the development of such lived, embodied, dialogic experiences in the specific context of music education.

The Kokas pedagogy exemplifies how we can teach the art of (collective) being and becoming. The ultimate challenge of the pedagogy is the fostering of centred attention: the structural foundation of optimal learning situations, and of all creative potentialities. Yet, such intense psychological state is recognised as essentially autotelic—internally driven, and rooted in itself—and not amenable to direct instruction. If this is so, we need to rethink our pedagogic approach towards fostering and maintaining students’ capacities for deep, creative attention.

This experience-centred pedagogy also exemplifies how we can re-define what we mean by learning, knowing and relating. Here we see movement—embodied encounters—as the pedagogic route towards (musical) understanding, a route enriched by creative experiences of being and becoming. Paradoxically, the child becomes receptive and focused because they can move freely. Their movement is not without constraint though. Music inspires and structures this process. Centred musical attention, in turn, becomes the toolkit, the entry point to individual or collective flow experiences. (The child conveys their musical explorations and discoveries through their bodies/movement. Musical attention/receptiveness becomes action, and so the child develops a physical, deeply dialogic relationship with music. The Kokas pedagogy is thus successful in working towards particular learning outcomes as per the curriculum, but it does so by centring around a very unique modality of (musical) knowledge. The necessary partnership between such exploratory knowledge and the more traditional conceptual ‘science of music’ needs to be emphasised here, to elevate embodied modalities of learning/teaching to a central but not necessarily exclusive positioning.

Furthermore, the Kokas pedagogy makes bodily experience the key in fostering children’s explorative, open mindset: both in the individual sense (creative presence) and for the collective (creative attunement). The predictable, stereotypical play choreographies (e.g. fighting or ballerinas) give way to more unique, imaginative ‘becomings’, where children do not simply default to familiar roles and schemas, but find themselves transformed into something less predictable: a cat and mouse, an expert step dancer, snowflakes, a team of superhero animals that dominate different elements of the world, a swirling dancing leaf falling from an autumn tree, a fire fighter putting out fire or white, fluffy, dancing cloudlets. Imagination and creativity flourish through the body. Whether we call this dialogic, receptive or creative presence depends on what aspect of the phenomena we wish to focus on. Underneath these terms is the open-minded curiosity and authentic, co-creative relationship with the world—the very process by which knowledge comes into being.

Deep resonance with the music is also foundational for the deep empathetic and creative attunement with others. This was less frequent in the data discussed here but consistently documented elsewhere in the literature (Kokas 1999; Vass and Deszpot 2016). The feeling awareness through which the child envelopes (and is enveloped by) the music spreads to envelope the others, teacher and peers alike. The children’s musical knowledge evolves from the emergence of such mutually co-creative relationships. Considerations of the embodied dimensions of intersubjectivity should not be restricted to music or the arts though. Dialogic pedagogical approaches need to encompass bodymind—again, not in reductionist but holistic ways. Embodiment entails dialogue and dialogue entails embodiment. With such fresh recognition of the embodied essence interthinking, dialogism can become the theoretical foundation for a much needed paradigm shift in educational theorising, research and practice. As this study demonstrates, NI theory provides a useful philosophical framing for this, with its subtle but radically different conceptualisation of the science of nature, and deep implications for the science of the mind. A shift in theory is necessary to make the phenomena this paper touches upon visible to the Western eyes, as well as recognise their value and relevance for educational research and practice.

An important methodological conclusion is that our outward looking inquiry needs to be combined with the inward looking, contemplative inquiry, which can become a precision tool for explaining the phenomena in focus: the actual nature of the embodied mind and consciousness. In social science, we have been conditioned to an approach to research with a sharp boundary between the objective world of the physical universe and the subjective worlds of individuals’ personal experience. Fresh insight can be gained from the strategic use of reflections or introspections, as my research in other contexts has evidenced (Vass and Deszpot 2016), and methodologies using a first-person perspective indicate (Francesconi 2017). To conclude with Nietzsche’s powerful reflections on the challenges facing Socrates (that is, Western positivist thought),

“Perhaps” —thus he had to ask himself—“what is not intelligible to me is not therefore unreasonable? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is banished? Perhaps art is even a necessary correlative of and supplement to science?...” In the sense of these last portentous questions it must now be indicated how the influence of Socrates (extending to the present moment, indeed, to all futurity) has spread over posterity like an ever-increasing shadow in the evening sun, and how this influence again and again necessitates a regeneration of art,—yea, of art already with metaphysical, broadest and profoundest sense,—and its own eternity guarantees also the eternity of art. (Nietzsche, 2016/1910, 195-196)


  1. 1.

    Note that the music-movement sessions based on the Kokas pedagogy have been implemented in various settings over the past 50 years. Although the pedagogy has mostly been used in the early and primary years, it was not developed as an age- or stage-specific music pedagogy. Klara Kokas introduced it to older age groups too, including adults. For example, the post-graduate accreditation programme for the Kokas pedagogy itself is grounded in such experience-centred learning and teaching.

  2. 2.

    This study has been approved by the Western Sydney University Human Research Ethics Committee (approval number H11728) and the Ethics Committee of the Liszt Academy of Music. The participants’ (and legal guardians’) informed consent was obtained for the use of small video segments and images in publications and presentations disseminating the findings. In order to protect the anonymity of the participants, fictional names are used. Images and video segments have been distorted.

  3. 3.

    In Szilvi’s case, imagination and musical focus are intertwined. This is different from the imaginative experience of the solitary boy in Fig. 5, who says he was the sun. In the case of the young boy, there is no observable correspondence between movement and music—and his imaginative experiences will remain disembedded during subsequent sessions.


Funding Information

The research reported here was supported by Western Sydney University’s Academic Development Programme.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationWestern Sydney UniversitySydneyAustralia

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