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CLASSICAL  October 2006

CLASSICAL October 2006

Subject:

Re: Music As Language

From:

Frank Wales <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 17 Oct 2006 19:49:21 +0100

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text/plain

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Karl Miller wrote:

>Others suggest that our thinking might be limited to that which
>we can articulate. ...

This sounds like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the notion that what we can
think about is limited by the languages we have learned.

This has always seemed obviously bogus to me, because I have sometimes
been in a situation where I couldn't remember the words for something,
but I knew what the 'something' was.  If language determined thinking,
I could never end up in the situation like this, yet having something
"on the tip of my tongue" is surely a commonplace experience.

Plus, it doesn't account for the clearly different frame of mind one can
be in when thinking highly visually, such as when painting.  I believe
one of the reasons why so many artists have trouble articulating how
they arrived at a piece of art is because they just didn't use any part
of their brain involved in language to work on it, and so simply cannot
describe, in words, what they did.

>I have often wondered if the notion of "pure thought" (whatever that
>might be) is better expressed in music.  I would think that the limitations
>of the notation of sound might be akin to the limitations of language,
>yet, computer music allows us to create sounds without notation and the
>"limitations" of acoustic instruments.  Of course one can argue, with
>historic precedent, that the "vocabulary" of music has been limited by
>notation and that notation has evolved through the need to provide
>expression to a wider range of musical thought, a parallel to the analogy
>of spoken language and thought.

I think the major reason for the existence of notation is communication
across space and time; with the advent of recording and distribution
technologies, notation becomes less important.  "If you hum it, son,
I'll play it," and all that.

However, notation was only ever a short-hand for the essential information
necessary to let performers know what they were expected to do, and for
allowing composers and their ilk the ability to capture thoughts and
ideas in a tangible form.  I've always thought of music notation as
fairly under-specified and awkward for its role, which is perhaps why
there can be so much latitude in performances of the same piece.

I'd be very surprised if notational short-comings actually limited how
musicians thought about music, since I don't know anyone who learned
about music solely through working with the notation, rather than hearing
or performing it.

>This preface being perhaps a long introduction to the question...is it
>possible that the appeal of music could be its attempt to articulate
>"pure" thought?

I don't think so.

I think music is the interaction of two things: the natural rhythmic and
periodic activities that are at the heart of us as living creatures, and
that permeate biological life generally; and our inherent pattern-
matching skills that provide the basis for our intelligence.

We're comforted by rocking and bobbing and other repetitive behaviours,
and many other animals clearly are too; music provides us with an excuse
to bob along, and is perhaps why toe-tapping is so easy and infectious
for us when we hear music, and also when we hear rhythmic sounds or
sensations generally.  It's part of what we are.

When we see the Man in the Moon, or animals and faces in clouds,
or dancing images in fire, or hear a ringing phone in the shower or
approaching menace in the dark, it's because we're wired to find patterns
in the world around us, to remember them, and to recall those patterns
to remind us what to do.

Even where there's just noise, we try to find signals.

Music contains patterns, both intricate and crude, subtle and blatant,
that tease our abilities to follow them, and predict them, and remember
them.   We can't help but be intrigued by music, because pattern-searching
is another part of what we are.

Having those patterns come in the form of comforting rhythms only
serves to strengthen their appeal, which is why I think music is
so pervasive throughout human history.

Does that make sense?

Frank Wales [[log in to unmask]]

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