‘You create unusualness through interdisciplinarity’
As of March 2017, Henkjan Honing is the new academic director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (IIS). Honing is professor of Music Cognition at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Music cognition is a relatively new, interdisciplinary field of study that focuses on, among other things, the role of perception, emotion and memory when listening to music. He previously won the Distinguished Lorentz Fellowship, a prize aimed at stimulating research that bridges the gap between arts & humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Henkjan Honing is known to a wider public through his book 'Musical Cognition: A Science of Listening'.
How does a professor of Music Cognition become academic director of the IIS?
‘That probably has something to do, in particular, with recognition and connections. I see a very strong belief among people at the IIS in what they are doing. People aim for the very top. And that is, in itself, far from usual. If I apply that to my own situation: I was very much the odd man out in the field of musicology. Musicology primarily takes a historical and cultural approach (to put it simply: it’s all about composers and repertoires), while I was always more interested in the performer and the listener. How do you actually listen to music? How do you hear whether a rhythm is speeding up or slowing down? How do you perceive that something is swinging? I actually wanted to build a listening machine and I therefore sought very different methods to those that were usual in the field of musicology. I started working with statistical methods and computer models, things which were alien to musicology at the time.
Over the years, I have learned to work with various methods, various ‘toolboxes’. Later on, I started to research, among other things, why it is that people start dancing to particular types of music and why it makes us happy to move along to music. As a result, it appears as if something as abstract as music has an intimate relationship with our cognitive and biological system, just as food and sex do. While I first needed statistical methods and computer models, I now needed a toolbox with behavioural sciences, biology and neurobiology. Ultimately, interdisciplinarity is also very much about that in my opinion: not the method, but the research question. The theme is the key element. You subsequently seek the methods that are necessary to help answer that question.'
What is your role as academic director?
‘I believe very strongly in interdisciplinarity and in what science and the world can contribute. In the first instance, I will therefore be a proponent and advocate of the interdisciplinary message. A kind of ambassador. In this way, I hope to make a contribution to the sustainable, structural and stable anchoring of the IIS within the University and the academic world.
In spite of all the good work that has already been done, that will still entail much explaining about what interdisciplinarity is and what it is not. Because you still hear all too often, even at ‘higher levels’, comments such as: “We have a statistician working here, so we’re also engaged in interdisciplinarity.” However, interdisciplinarity is so much more than that. And moreover: it’s something very different.’
What can the world and science gain from embracing interdisciplinarity?
‘Each innovation begins with the unusual. And you create unusualness through interdisciplinarity, through enabling disciplines to merge with each other based around a theme. The disciplines themselves can help develop and are developed through interdisciplinarity.
In a world in which success is increasingly determined by adaptive ability, the ability to change rapidly and profoundly, interdisciplinarity has much to offer. What does this situation demand of me and in which way is this situation different than the previous one? Which tool do I need for that? Those are questions which interdisciplinarians feel very much at home dealing with.’