Music and Reason

Humans are verbal communicators. But we are also nonverbal communicators. A glance can convey anger, delight, or a myriad of other things. With a nod of the head and a certain pointing of the finger an expression can often indicate something close enough to “please pass the coffee cup” to get us a cup of coffee. Communication with toddlers is dominated by indexical references, gestures and the like. A pointing at a ball will often rightly be interpreted as “give me the ball.” If wrongly interpreted a baby’s crying may let you know soon enough.

But nonverbal communication permeates music as well. Members of a band develop an ability to read one another and extend a solo or close out a song. Successful performers acquire an ability to read a crowd, to tailor their performance to the mood.  These aren’t precisely analytical verbal exercises. But they are not for that non-rational.

Susan Langer famously argued that music is the language of the emotions. Despite certain limitations to the analogy, music does share some characteristics with language. One of the similarities is precisely that music allows second-order thinking processes similar to those used in speech. When constructing sentences, we draw on a repertoire of words, intonations, inflections. So too, when playing music we draw on a repertoire of notes, tones, timbres. We make decisions similarly to the way we do when forming sentences. We pull from the respective repertoire of ideas to give expression to our thoughts.

For these reasons, I would argue, along with the German philosopher Matthias Vogel, that we should not view music-making as irrational, but as one rational form of communication among others. Our verbal communication has made it possible for us to develop more complex analytic thought that benefits music-making. But linguistic thought and musical thought are not the same thing. Nor is the one clearly derivative of the other. Humans rationally communicate through different media. Language is premiere among them. But music and the arts are other media for thinking. The fact that music shares the possibility for second-order thinking processes with language is not sufficient to make music a language.

We could perhaps be as well justified in saying that language is the music of logical analysis. Both music and language allow second-order decision-making processes, drawing on the elements in the respective repertoires of words and structures in the one case or tones and timbres in the other. Yet both, like most characteristic of music, employ rhythmic devices. Both employ intonation.

It has been said a picture paints a thousand words. But as a literal statement this is as confused as saying a song plays two thousand words, or twenty thousand. In fact, no number of words can convey what a picture or a song conveys. You can’t just keep talking until the same ideas of a musical piece are conveyed to someone. Tactile images are conveyed through pictures. Tones are conveyed through music. Words are conveyed through language. None of these is reducible to the other. All are fundamental forms of human communication. All are possibilities of communication for those endowed with reason.

(Most of the ideas conveyed here are either based on or strongly aligned with the views of Matthias Vogel, whose book Media of Reason I translated in 2014 for Columbia UP.)

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