Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Getting Beyond Standard Terminology

I finally seem to have built up some momentum in my efforts to read Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel. I was drawn to it because the author wrote it while on a fellowship at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, and I have been interested in that facility as a result of my following Gerald Edelman's efforts to develop a viable model of consciousness. Patel has been very thorough in writing this book, and his thoroughness makes reading it a difficult slog. However, for all of its academic technique, I fear it may be missing the forest for all the the trees it tries to take into account.

One of the things the appealed to me about Edelman was that he was willing to abandon familiar terminology in trying to grasp the nature of mind. The words we use tend to influence our thinking; and, when we adopt words from the legacy of others, we run the risk of adopting the worldview of that legacy as well. Edelman had the courage to rethink worldview; and, even if his current round of conjectures do not survive validation, there is a lot to be said for his method.

As one might guess, the thesis Patel is trying to pursue is one of identifying one or more relationships between how mind thinks about music and how mind thinks about language. He approaches this task by examining a different aspect of music in each chapter. My reading thus far has taken me through the following topics:
  • Sound elements
  • Rhythm
  • Melody
  • Syntax
Several things trouble me about this strategy. Most important is that the book does not seem to acknowledge that listening to music should be considered in terms of its relations to making music, rather than just from the "audience point of view." This may be because science has traditionally shown a bias in favor of matters of perception in preference to matters of action, and this raises another point. Anything having to do with sound, such as music or spoken language, only exists in the time domain. It is a product of action, rather than some static image that we can analyze without knowing a lot about its source. As Edmund Husserl observed, music does not exist in the mind unless the mind has time-consciousness. Edelman recognized that time-consciousness is not axiomatic; and he put a lot of effort into relating it to the other components of his model of "primary consciousness."

With all of those disclaimers, it seems necessary to dispense with "standard terminology" until we can try to fix what it is we really mean when using those terms, impeded by as little technical baggage as possible. This is the sort of thing I mean with respect to the above four topics:
  1. When we talk about "sound elements," we are actually talking about those basic signals that form sensory impressions, signals that only exist in the time domain.
  2. Thus, we are actually talking about the sensation of events; and, at a further level of time-consciousness, it is through rhythm that we recognize how sequences of events are structured.
  3. When we then subject those signals we associated to sound elements to sequencing structured by rhythm, we have melody.
  4. However, in the broader scheme of both listening to and making music, structure involves more than linear ordering. Embellishment, for example, involves some level of hierarchy (and, if we believe Heinrich Schenker, many levels). Counterpoint involves the sophisticated interplay of sequencing within voices and the harmonies that emerge when those voices are superposed. We tend to associate the noun "syntax" with such higher-level structuring; but, where music is concerned, this is a far cry from diagramming sentences.
Of course the proposition that these alternatives may facilitate our arriving at a better understanding of what mind does with music is still conjectural. However, I am a firm believer in documenting conjectures. You never known when you may be able to validate one of them!

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