Music and Language

Posted: June 19, 2011 in Consciousness, History, Music, Philosophy
Tags: , , ,

Back to book blogging. Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary has a discussion of music and language as they relate to brain activity and cognition. He never really defines either term, music or language, so their usual definitions presumably apply. However, while the meaning of language as a system of communication using symbols, syntax, and inflection is fairly standard, I infer that McGilchrist’s concept of music does not refer necessarily to familiar Western musical forms (some highbrow, some populist) with which most of us are familiar. Rather, he appears to reference a more global style of expression that uses primarily pitch and rhythm, typically vocal in production. In fact, he cites evidence that music has a significant role in human prehistory, long before language developed, and that language may actually have grown out of vocal utterances called musilanguage not wholly dissimilar to birdsong.

Sloppy thinkers often call music a language or wax poetic, saying that music is the language of pure emotion. McGilchrist calls out these mistakes in a number of passages. For example, he points out that while language reveals meaning, music frequently conceals it. That may be surprising to some, yet is should be obvious that music does not use well-understood symbols as spoken language does and accordingly does not mean anything in particular outside of itself (except, of course, when music uses words). Music communicates, in a sense, but is preverbal and abstract. It’s worth pointing out that McGilchrist treats music as a mode of expression or style of thought but so far ignores the question of artistic merit, which is irrelevant.

McGilchrist also supplies this interesting tidbit at p. 105, which foreshadows discussion later in the book (so he says):

The predominance of language, and, above all, of the effects of the written word, may itself have contributed to the decline of music in our culture … We may find it initially hard to accept the primacy of music, since we are trapped inside a culture that is so language-determined and language-dependent that we cannot imagine it being any other way.

In my experience, nearly everyone considers him- or herself an expert in music by virtue of a profoundly intimate connection with it as a listener. Music is ubiquitous, and we identify strongly with songs, dances, and styles that fit our tastes. The subset of people who are musicians (usually meaning performers) on any level, either through formal study or being self-taught, is fairly broad, and the subset who have made music the subject of serious academic study to qualify them as experts is fairly narrow. Those, like McGilchrist, who view music in terms of science and cognition are extremely few, and their approach and conclusions seem strikingly foreign to how most of us relate to music. So when McGilchrist mentions the primacy of music and its decline due to the effect of the written word, how is that to be understood in the context of a thriving music scene and our enjoyment of music?

This is a difficult question to answer unless you adopt his frame of reference and view music in terms of cognition. The dominant sense (of the five senses) is sight, but the dominant mode of thought is verbal or textual. Thinking without using words (nonsymbolic thought) occurs all the time, but it tends to be submerged below awareness. Cultural critics often say that as society reads less and less (e.g., watching TV news rather than reading newspapers), facility with language is declining, and thus, we’re in the process of shifting away from the typographic mind to a more visuospatial orientation. McGilchrist says that writing helped to shift us away from an earlier, more musical orientation, presumably sometime in antiquity with the advent of writing. His discussion is brief, and he doesn’t mention the Gutenberg Revolution, but for well-read persons, it’s pretty obvious to extrapolate that the printing press catalyzed modern science and scientific thinking in much the same way the Agrarian Revolution catalyzed civilization.

If his overarching thesis is correct, that the conflict between left- and right-brain ways of apprehending the world is currently manifested in destructive left-brain dominance, a shift away from text and verbal acuity (like, ya know, um, like, sorta something stuff) to visuospatial dominance may ironically restore in some measure the master (the right brain) to its proper position of control. How that will play out, assuming the trajectory persists, is a big, open question.

  1. halsmith says:

    I recommend to you the poem Music by JUHAN LIIV in poetry magazine:

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