OMS: Summary

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 OMS is a model of the experience of music. The model has 3 major parts (sub-models) as follows (there is also an overlay,  and an “optional” submodel, see sections D, E below):

The Basic model:  The Basic model is roughly equivalent to what can be done by a very good professional music critic. This model uses methods from Artificial Intelligence, its scope is broad and deep; it captures perhaps 70 – 80% of ordinary musical experience.

The Transcendental model:  There are aspects of musical experience that are very hard to describe, (which generally are missed by the Basic model,) but which can feel very significant.  These are the aspects where there is ecstasy, awe, wordlessness, a feeling of the infinite, experience beyond consciousness and so on. The Transcendental model attempts to model these aspects.  The Transcendental model draws on ideas from Bion psychoanalytic theory, Mindfulness Meditation and elsewhere.

The Wisdom model:  The experience of music is not just sonic, it is also engages the intellect at a deep level (even if the intellectual activity is vague and barely felt). Every musical experience involves profound ideas about emotion, meaning, greatness, humanity, the mind, individuality, the universe, … The Wisdom model outlines fundamental “big ideas” that seem to be continually in the background of musical experience.


What does “OMS” mean? It stands for “Organized Multi-Stimulation”. This signifies the fact that music stimulates a listener in many ways at once, and the stimulation is organized by the composer and performer. The experience of organized multi-stimulation can be massive, overwhelming, and profound. Organized Multi-Stimulation is one of the central factors of musical experience.

In sections A, B, C below we will provide overviews of the Basic model, the Transcendental model, and the Wisdom model.

A. The Basic Model

The Basic model is based on a model of human intelligence: The Society of Mind (“SOM”), developed by the great Artificial Intelligence pioneer Marvin Minksy.  The central idea of Society of Mind is that human intelligence consists of a large number of  rather primitive processing mechanisms of wide variety,  that are loosely coordinated/integrated. Although these individual mechanisms are mainly rather weak (even primitive), in combination they can produce immense intelligence.

Applying the SOM model, we have posited approximately 90 basic mechanisms for the experience of music. Since these mechanisms are mainly passive, we call them receptors. The list of receptors was developed via analysis of many musical masterpieces, classical and popular, and also by analysis of how music is typically described by top musicians and critics. It is not claimed that this list is complete or definitive; but it does seem to be complete enough to provide a broad-ranging view of musical experience. The list is a good practical tool. (There are some aspects of musical experience that seem to escape the Basic model: See B and C below.)

We give intuitive names to the receptors, e.g.: “spatial”, “colors”,  “delicious moment”, “funny sounds”, “uncertainty”, “topological”, “genesis effect”, “order/chaos”. A complete list is given here .

We posit that any piece of music (musical performance)  “plays upon” a listener’s receptors almost as if the listener is a kind of musical instrument! Think of the listener as a keyboard with 90 keys. A given piece of music strikes these 90 keys with various degrees of intensity. The listener’s experience is the result. Almost always, the listener’s experience is intense and even overwhelming, even for a simple piece of music. This is what we call Organized Multi-Stimulation (“OMS”).

In applying the Basic model to a piece of music, we posit that each receptor may be stimulated with an intensity in a range of [0,1,2,3,4]; we construct a grid that shows the intensity of stimulation for each receptor. And then to provide a more complete description of the experience, we add some simple psychological principles. Also, in a given analysis, we may add or modify a few receptors as appropriate. We have found that the resulting analyses are highly informative, and sometimes startling in their insights. An example of an important general insight: It appears that the above grid may be used to assign a composite rating to any piece of music, for any genre. For this purpose, we have designed a formula that operates on this grid, and which outputs a number (a composite rating) ranging from about 3 up to about 900. Any rating above about 350 seems to qualify as a memorable, even unforgettable experience (A very good live performance of Ravel Bolero would rate about 350).

In this website there are many examples in which the Basic model is applied to specific musical performances.

The Basic model captures perhaps 70% – 80% of ordinary musical experience. To capture additional aspects, we use the Transcendental model, and the Wisdom model.

B. The Transcendental Model

The Basic model does not work very well for certain kinds/aspects of musical experience, such as the following.:

– “Awe”, “ecstasy”, and other experiences that seem to have an unbounded intensity. E.g. I don’t think that “awe” can be delimited by a scale of [0-4].

– Sometimes a piece of music can take over a listener, can saturate, envelope, be life-altering. E.g. for me personally, there is a work by Bach (Bach-Busoni BWV 564) which has been central in my life for over 30 years. It has affected how I experience other music, in a way it is almost always “with me”. It conveys to me the apparently unlimited possibilities of music (and life!), with suggestions of spiritual and religious dimensions.

– The Basic model does not address the “networked” aspect of musical experience. By the networked aspect, I mean that: My musical experience is affected by other people in the audience, and by other external factors. Musical networks can be very far-reaching.

– There are musical experiences that simply don’t map into the receptors of the Basic model. There are experiences so subtle and evanescent, that I don’t see how they could be characterized in terms of a few “receptors”. There are probably situations where a new kind of receptor is formed spontaneously (this seems possible, given that receptors are generally more like software than hard physical things).

– There are musical experiences that are extremely individual, personal, intimate – which the Basic model does not seem able to characterize (“Prince’s new albums make me feel like a different person.”)

The Transcendental model is intended to address items such as the above. I call it the Transcendental model, partly because it goes beyond the Basic model, but also it seems to deal with certain issues of  “unboundedness” that can arise in musical experience. I am alluding to things like: Unbounded intensity; saturation and life-alteration; extreme intimacy and mutability; effects across vast networks; spontaneous genesis of new kinds of perception, and so on.

It is not easy to model the above materials. But there are methods that  we have adapted from Bion psychoanalysis, mindfulness meditation, and academic philosophy; these provide at  least a good start on a transcendental model.

C. The Wisdom Model

One part of the Wisdom model is a series of what I call “The Great Questions of Music”. These are profound, time-honored questions which seem to be always in the background of musical experience. Some of the Great Questions:

  • What is music?
  • Does music convey meaning?
  • Does music convey or express emotion? Is musical emotion its own kind of emotion (different from emotion in everyday life)?
  • Is music a language?
  • What constitutes greatness or excellence in music?
  • What is beauty in music?
  • Can music be described in words?
  • Why is music deeply significant to human beings?

Another part of the Wisdom model are “The Big Ideas in Music”. Many of these come from musical tradition, a few have emerged as OMSModel has been developed. Not all Big Ideas are definitively true, but I think they all are profound, compelling, and at minimum plausible. Some examples:

  • Musical experiences can never be accurately described in words, because musical experiences are more detailed and specific than language. (Mendelssohn)
  • Musical experience is an “organized delirium”. (Pierre Boulez)
  • Musical experiences are somewhat like a primitive form of a mother’s love.
  • Musical experience is highly intimate and individualized.
  • “Music is the healing force of the universe” (Albert Ayler) or similar ideas about music and the universe.
  • Every musical experience involves “wonder”.
  • Even the simplest musical experiences are usually highly stimulative and pleasurable, almost no exceptions.
  • Group experiences of music are very different from individual experiences.

A final part of the Wisdom model is a collection of quotations from top musicians. These quotations are significant information not because musicians are always great intellects (they are not), but because they are deeply connected and sensitized about the musical environment.

D. “The Delirium”

In addition to the 3 sub-models above, there is an overlay which I call “The Delirium”. This alludes to the fact that the way that we actually experience the many factors above is not as a set of discrete experiences but rather as a complex “wash” (Pierre Boulez called it a “delirium”). Included in The Delirium are complex shifts and various focus in attention, domino effects from the many stimuli, mind wandering, dozing off, and much much more. I do not know of a good word to accurately denote what goes on overall, I use “The Delirium” as an approximation.

To put it another way: The natural way for most people to experience music is somewhat as a fog, delirium, wash. Not as something that is analytical and discrete.

The analytical work that we do with OMS is difficult. It reflects the opposition between: [a] respect for the delirium, the mystery of music, and [b] the natural desire to analyze it and talk about it.

E. (“optional”) The Live-Performance Model

When music is performed live, there are additional things going on, having to do with the dynamics of live performance. For instance: Performer “presence” and charisma; audience dynamics; interactions between performer and audience; visuals; the effect of the physical environment; and much more. We consider all of this “optional” in that one might prefer to consider this ancillary to the musical experience, not part of the musical experience in some sense (although I am not saying this is a good idea). In the present version of OMS, we are doing only minimal analysis of the Live-Peformance aspect of music – only because we have not studied it carefully enough yet. A good reference on the subject is: Taking It to the Bridge: Music as Performance  (Nicholas Cook, Richard Pettengill editors).