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.)

Can we have thoughts without words?

Shube doo wap doo wap. We all think notes, tones. We remember melodies, guitar riffs, drum beats. The fact that creatures as musical as us have seriously questioned whether we can have nonverbal thoughts for so long should stun us. Should it concern us, since it indicates entire realms of human behavior bracketed from clear understanding? It does clearly show the lack of theoretical reflection we have brought to the arts and music. Such thoughts may be facilitated by our verbal ability, and such thoughts often come with many linguistically mediated memories as well. But thoughts without words are commonplace, though they do of course differ in intensity.

It is said that when Beethoven, who went deaf in his later years, wanted to hear his favorite piece of music, he would lay on his sofa and light a cigar. The notes, tones, textures of symphonic complexity would play before his imagination. Few of us have imaginations like Beethoven’s. But many of us find ourselves humming tunes, remembering melodies or moving to rhythms only playing out in our own imaginations. Music of course isn’t the only medium through which we are able to think without reliance on words. Painters often think nonverbally when deciding on textures, color schemes, patterns. Babies, too, appear to be thinking without words when they interact with us before having learned speech, signalling their wants indexically and laughing with delight when they get what they want or screaming with discontent when they don’t.

In philosophy, we have long under-theorized non-linguistic forms of communication, non-verbal forms of interaction. Yet thoughts without words surround us and permeate us. Music provides one of the most promising avenues for gaining clarity about such non-verbal communication and for challenging the prevailing linguistically centered view of rationality.


On the origin of music

There are numerous theses about the origin of music, four of which I’ll briefly discuss here: 1) It emerges as part of sexual selection. Just as the Bowerbirds seduce by building colorful nests, or bird song allures,  humans developed art and music as part of a biological phenomenon of sexual selection. Where long flowing hair, bespeaking fertility, might not have worked, the creation of artifacts or pleasing tones might have. 2) It originates prior to or along with language development, facilitating it. Tolstoy had already pointed to an artistic expression existing as long as linguistic expression. More recently, many ethnomusicologists and evolutionary theorists have maintained that music even facilitated language development. Vocalizations in pre-human animals served many purposes, to indicate to members of one’s group that one was still within distance, to indicate displeasure or pleasure at some state of affairs, often here doing what it is so known for, namely conveying emotions. The short version of this story is that the rhythmic and tonal developments expressing emotion were co-developed with or facilitated the development of language itself, where specific tones symbolize objects in the world or perceived states of affairs. 3) It develops as an aid to early child rearing. Lullabies are known in all cultures. Music may be emerged as a tool to soothe and comfort infants. 4) It emerged as a tool that facilitated social coordination. Throughout human society, we see music used to coordinate collective work of individuals in society. We also see music used in social groups–in modern incarnations from national anthems to the Internationale. Music builds bonds. It facilitates identity formation. We see this in diverse social formations (even as ethnomusicology studies the ethnic music of diverse peoples or as music defines identities of subcultures).

One need not accept a monocausal view–that music emerged for any one of these reasons alone. Perhaps it served many of these purposes from the outset. It was advantageous for humans for multiple reasons and music making has arisen as a universal characteristic of human cultural life because it has continued to facilitate multiple such purposes.

Nor is this list of reasons exhaustive. More recently, 5) neurologists have pointed to our music ability as fundamental to our human rhythmic coordination. It has also long been seen as 6) facilitating a human experience of transcendence. Music has long played a role in religion and spiritual experience, not only helping individuals to develop a sense of social solidarity as they sing together but at the same time helping individuals develop a sense of themselves as part of something greater than themselves (be that a social group, as part of a generation, or the view that they and the social group are taken up as part of a larger spiritual whole). We see this around the world in chants of Buddhist and Cistercian monks, in Sufi music and dance, in voodoo drumming.

In much of this, music allows the expression and cultivation of emotion, and is able then to be used to channel emotion toward diverse ends. Mixed with language, it also facilitates story telling in cultures. It gets taken up in dramatology and more.

Though I won’t take up the arguments that music making is a simple add on to language, as Steven Pinker suggests, the evidence seems less and less to support this. As I hope I can in part show with some greater clarity in some of these reflections: Tolstoy was likely more correct that art (and we can add music) is as old as language itself. Music is one medium of human even rational expression that has multiple uses for the individual and society.

Explorations in Art and Music

Over the past few years, I’ve increasingly done work in Aesthetics. In 2014-15 I taught graduate courses in Aesthetics at the Miami International University of Art and Design. I have done various conference papers on aesthetics over the past few years. Following up on my interest in that, I will begin blogging on different aspects of aesthetics, with a focus on music. I will especially explore questions of art and music as related to technological development and social theory.  For one thing, our technological developments affect the history of music-making similarly to the way that technological developments affect the history of science. The development of the piano opened possibilities for sonic experience and technical ability that the were not possible for the harpsichord. The same is true of the development of the electric guitar and it’s “ecosystem” of amps, foot pedals, strings, and so on. These all made new sonic experience possible and the development of new skills for playing necessary. They then made a new type of music possible. This is not unlike the development of the telescope, which enabled an extension of sense of sight and also required a mastery of the skill of using the new technological instruments. This all in turn made new scientific developments possible. Here, both music (of a certain sort) and science (of a certain complexity) are the children of technology. The affects of music on social and political life are another of my main interests here. These effects are fascinating, important, and undertheoretized, varying from the widespread view of ethnomusicolgists that the early development of music in part facilitated social life to the myriad of studies showing how music is taken up in subcultures, affecting group identity and emboldening social movements. Among other things, I’m looking forward to writing about these issues on this blog as it will provide me with a chance to work through some of my readings and develop reflections on these issues.


Heraclitus, Fragment 38

“Alterations of fire: first sea, but of sea half is earth, half is lightning-storm” (S 31a; cp. DK, R 31a, K 38, LM D86, W32).

This passage reads nearly Hegelian at first glance. The opposite of fire might be seen as water, that which can extinguish it. Here Heraclitus speaks of “sea.” For its part, sea can be seen as drying up, leaving behind earth. We can see these processes or elements as conceptually interlinked. What is perhaps surprising is what there is no talk of air. Doesn’t water evaporate into air? (For Kahn’s excellent commentary on this see 139ff.) In any case, here it is not mentioned. Instead, there is talk of “lightening-storm.”

We can imagine the allure that lightening storms would have had for Heraclitus. For one, the lightening rod is the symbol of Apollo. So, here we see another dialectic at play–the heavenly and the earthly. Heaven and earth are connected at an elemental level. Storms show a unity of heaven and earth. Earth’s waters, which have been recycled into heaven’s, are returned to earth. Lightening storms in fact rain down two of the elements upon the earth. Water falls from the sky. Fire also bolts down. The water enlivens the earth, which the fire eventually can burn. The fire in any case represents the continual transformation of earth (here heaven directed).

Robinson points out that ancient Greeks had a view that the fire of the sky was of a different, more refined type of matter than the fire of the earth. Perhaps it should be identified with heat (see Robinson, 92ff.). Heat, as if from the fireball of the sun, bears down on the earth, drying up water.

There has long been controversy in Heraclitus scholarship about whether the elements all emerge from fire, and continually change in mass, or whether there are a stable invariant number and mass of elements in the world, and fire just passes through them. This is of interest for understanding ancient science. For our purposes, however, I have followed the lead of Gernot and Harmut Boehme in Feuer, Wasser, Erde, Luft and focused on the metaphorical value of the discussion of the elements.

Fire also is the ideal element for expressing change that characterizes the process of life itself. It is born of the death of the objects consumed as it continually recreates itself. It gives off smoke signals to the heavens from which fire was bequeathed to us. Apollo, the thunderbolt, who steers all things (F119), joins the heavenly and earthly, the divine and the human, as he steers earth’s process of becoming.

Heraclitus, Fragment 37

“The ordering, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out” (K 37; R, DK, & S 30)

Ours is an eternally self-ordered world. It’s the same for all–that is, it aligns with one principle, not admitting the truth of contradictory accounts unless they are part of a more comprehensive unified account of things. The law of the excluded middle, the law of identity–philosophers will later add a myriad of concrete ideas to the list of logical features in accord with which the world orders itself.

This fragment contains many striking ideas, but many are of the type of metaphysics that most of us are content to say Kant put to rest: Is the world eternal or did it originate in time? Plausible arguments may be offered for either view. How could we know? Here, though, at odds with a Kantian or modern constructivist worldview, or even with ancient Taoism, the ordering of which Heraclitus speaks is not man made. It is not, as Kantians would have it, that the human mind simply imposes an order on a neumenal reality that we cannot know. Nor is it, as the Taoists are wont to maintain, that we apply words to reality, imposing a conventional order on it in this way. The world has its own order. Neither is this order imposed by a god. The Heraclitian view is much more that the earth is itself is internally divinely ordered.

Our intellectual task is to form sound judgments about that and to align our lives with a principle of that order. In this fragment, Heraclitus implies a distinction between appearance and reality, or at least a view of layers of reality. In accord with all appearances, we exist in a world of objects. In order to achieve sound judgment, Heraclitus urges us to look beyond that. Today, searching for an underlying true account of things, in the spirit of the Ionian natural philosophers, we would look to particle physics. Or we might point to chemical elements. The equivalent for Heraclitus is fire. Heraclitus is at times read as viewing it as the sole element, at other times as seeing it as the transformative element that passes into or through other elements–water, earth (some add air). Beyond our world of appearances, there is a world of reality, the world of elements that comprise the objects of experience. The sound judgment that we are to form is one that allows us to push beyond the common sense experience, to see the elemental level of reality. This is a view of greater objectivity, the divine sound judgment.

But the, for us, metaphorical image of fire here serves to illuminate the metaphysical: Fire is the element characterized by constant change and motion. Water, air, earth–these we can view as stable elements. Not so, fire. In all, Heraclitus points to an underlying elemental reality of things–objects are made of elements, with fire as the key element. Reality is also characterized by a process that fire for us so well symbolizes. The world is an interlinked whole that unfolds in a process of continual transformation, perhaps with a dialectical quality (as Heraclitus says, “kindled in measures, in measures going out”).