Black Swan, the design of everyday things, and the extended mind

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I’ve been very nervous of trying out the orchestral reduction I made in January 2015  of the Black Swan female variation for real-life principals in companies  in case I became too distracted by the unfamiliar feel of the arrangement to concentrate on what the dancer was doing (see this  entry about the terrors of playing for this variation). Finally, this summer I had the chance to play it many times for repertoire classes at the International Ballet Masterclasses in Prague.

The result? Though I say it myself, I was delighted to find that I actually forgot I was playing this variation at all—I usually hate it—to the extent that I enjoyed the rehearsals without any dark interior monologues.  There is something about the way that you get to spread your hands properly over the keyboard that literally helps you to “get a grip” on the solo; when it’s thin and whiny like the piano version, it has no body, it runs through your fingers, away from them.  

The design of everyday things: including orchestral reductions

As I was playing it and thinking about these things, I was reminded of a section in Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things   about the importance of physical constraints in design, and how these enable us to take the right actions without having to think about it:  

“Why the apparent discrepancy between the precision of behavior and the imprecision of knowledge? Because not all the knowledge required for precise behaviour has to be in the head. It can be distributed—partly in the head, partly in the world, and partly in the constraints of the world.”

There are four reasons, Norman says, that precise behaviour can emerge from imprecise knowledge: information in the world, great precision is not required, natural constraints are present, cultural constraints are present. Of natural constraints he explains: 

The world restricts the allowed behavior. The physical properties of objects constrain possible operations: the order in which parts can go together and the ways in which an object can be moved, picked up, or otherwise manipulated. Each object has physical features—projections, depressions, screwthreads, appendages—that limit its relationship to other objects, operations that can be performed to it, what can be attached to it, and so on.  

An arrangement of Black Swan plots out specific combinations of piano keys that have implications for how hands can move around in time. My arrangement is much more constraining physically than the original piano piece. The presence of Drigo’s countermelodies, for example, introduce a secondary web of semiquavers that keep time, keep the fingers occupied in finding a way to play the melody and countermelody, keep the brain occupied by introducing the difficulty, and keep your spirit challenged and alert. All of this automatically constrains the possibility of rushing individual beats or moving too fast generally. (Conversely, though, my simplified version of the final chords—without those ridiculously unnecessary repeated spread tenths—frees up your mind and eye to concentrate on the much more important task of seeing how the dancer is doing on her diagonal.) 

The extended mind

It’s taken me since August to actually go to my shelves and find the book and page, so I could write this post. The impetus for doing so is probably because I recently bought Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension .  Clark’s book is a huge elaboration on this idea that some of our “thinking” is in the world, not entirely in our heads. It’s at once rather mind-blowing, yet persuasively simple. 

In turn, I finally bought Clark’s book because I was re-reading my notes in my computer on Tia DeNora’s work where she introduces the notion of musical affordances, and the musically extended mind (for a recent conference paper on this concept, see Joel Krueger’s  “Musical Worlds and the Extended Mind.

And as it happens, the reason I’m writing this post, the reason I have a website at all is increasingly because it’s a useful place to offload things like this into the world, so my brain has more room to remember where my glasses are, and which bit of my bag I put my umbrella in. I also get tired of thinking “It’s like that bit in that book by whatshisname, it’s a concept called I can’t remember, I’m not sure where the book is.” Occasionally, when I go back to look, I find that I have misremembered or misinterpreted, but in this case, I’m delighted to see that it’s not the case. 

ANT and Swans

Belatedly (I’m adding this in 2021) I’m wondering if you could also take an Actor-Network Theory perspective on this. What caused me to wonder was a passage in Reassembling the Social , where Bruno Latour gives the example of two car drivers who both slow down near a school, one because she sees the 30 mph sign and obeys it, the other because he doesn’t want to ruin his suspension on the speed bumps. Latour’s point (or one of them at least) is that the speed-bump is not “merely” material and objective, it needs to be somehow drawn into an account of the social.

A piano arrangement doesn’t compel you to play slower to avoid injury, and I suppose if you could bring your technique to bear on it so that you can speed up anyway, like those people who buy 4x4s so they can drive faster over speed bumps in London (yes, they exist—I heard them phoning Clive Bull on LBC once). So it’s not the same thing, but there is something ANT-like about the issue that I’m still working through in my mind. Playing a lot of Bach this year has made me realize that you don’t need a metronome to practice Bach, because his music seems to just keep itself in tempo through its design, whereas with Romantic piano pieces like those Tchaikovsky miniatures, you’re constantly needing the equivalent of speed bumps to keep you in order.


Clark, A. (2011). Supersizing the mind: embodiment, action, and cognitive extension. Oxford Univ. Press.
Krueger, J. (2016, December 8). Musical Worlds and the Extended Mind.
Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the social: an introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press.
Norman, D. A. (Donald A. (1990). The design of everyday things (With a new introduction by the Author (1989)). MIT Press.
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