The language of music

Con­sid­er­a­tions for the future of wind bands, part 1

Aris­to­tle was the first to explain the fact that the words we speak are only sym­bols of some­thing else. When we speak the word “dog,” it is a sym­bol for a four-legged ani­mal; the spo­ken word “dog” is not an actu­al dog. The art of writ­ing came much more recent­ly than speech and Aris­to­tle point­ed out that when we write “dog” it is only a sym­bol of the spo­ken word, “dog,” which in turn is only a sym­bol of the actu­al ani­mal. Thus the real point he made is that when we write “dog” we are two gen­er­a­tions away from the real thing.

This great prin­ci­ple has been lost when we teach music. We have for­got­ten that the nota­tion on paper is not music; it is only a writ­ten gram­mat­i­cal sym­bol of real music. The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem that fol­lows here is that we tend to teach stu­dents and adult play­ers to read music, which car­ries the impres­sion that music exists for the eye. But this is clear­ly wrong, music is for the ear! The way we teach makes no more log­ic than tak­ing the stu­dent to an art muse­um to smell some paintings!

In addi­tion, a very impor­tant aspect comes into play due to the bicam­er­al nature of our brain. Writ­ten words are a form of data found in the left hemi­sphere of the brain; they can be found in a dic­tio­nary and have iden­ti­cal gen­er­al mean­ing for all read­ers. Thus when a poet writes just the word “dog” he is using only the gen­er­al dic­tio­nary mean­ing of “dog.” But on hear­ing the word “dog” the indi­vid­ual lis­ten­er, or read­er, will imme­di­ate­ly think of some dog he has known from his own expe­ri­ence and not the one the author had in mind. If it is impor­tant to the poet to cre­ate the impres­sion of a spe­cif­ic dog he has in mind then he must add an exten­sive addi­tion­al descrip­tion to over­ride the lis­ten­er’s per­son­al expe­ri­ence to com­mu­ni­cate that what he has in mind is a brown dog, with white feet, and is small and friend­ly, etc. Wag­n­er has point­ed out that this is the same thing which hap­pens in the per­for­mance of music. The com­pos­er, through the per­for­mance on stage, com­mu­ni­cates only a gen­er­al, quin­tes­sence, of an emo­tion, such as “sad,” but when the music goes out into the hall each lis­ten­er sifts this through their own expe­ri­ence and thus each lis­ten­er hears some­thing dif­fer­ent and personal.

This has been one of the most impor­tant dis­cov­er­ies of the past cen­tu­ry of bicam­er­al brain research: that when we write the words we use reflect only a gener­ic form of agreed-upon lan­guage and are noth­ing but data. But, when­ev­er we speak the right hemi­sphere of the brain adds to what is heard the ele­ments of col­or and empha­sis which cre­ate mean­ing for the words. For exam­ple, one can utter as mere words, spo­ken in a flat voice, “I love you.” The result is heard only as data and com­mu­ni­cates no spe­cif­ic mean­ing to the lis­ten­er. But if one empha­sizes either the sec­ond or third word, or both at once, sud­den­ly there is mean­ing. [Empha­siz­ing only the first word might lead to an unfor­tu­nate result.] 

This great genet­ic role of the right hemi­sphere is also what cre­ates mean­ing in music and is the basis of inter­pre­ta­tion and what we mean by “musi­cal­i­ty” in performance.