Music As a Language, Literally

Thoughts and responses regarding the research at
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Music As a Language, Literally

Postby zacxpacx » Tue Nov 06, 2012 8:37 pm

I finally finished reading all of Chris Aruffo's research. And Wow! Some of the entries go very far down the proverbial rabbit-hole, especially those in Phase 15. Having finished reading the research, I now have a pretty clear idea of how far everything has come and where it has to go. Hopefully, a solution can be found in a matter of years. The point of this post is to spark a discussion on a thought I had going to bed last night.

Reading on Phase 16 got me thinking about language acquisition in adulthood, and the need to create meaningful concepts for the 12 musical pitch categories. I thought, instead of creating musically related categories, why not create thought and idea categories, like we have in English? In other words: why don't we invent a language using the 12 pitches in music to convey meaning?

It could be a very simple language. For example, we could have 7 possible objects represented by the white piano keys and 5 verbs represented by the black piano keys, or vice versa. The language could be taught by playing pitches in sequence, with different timbre and octaves, only using chroma to convey the actual object and verb concepts.

The language could be taught with animation examples, teaching only one or two objects or verbs at a time.

A possible objection on the off-chance this produces categorical perception: musical concepts must be associated with chroma, not thought-concepts. My response: once a sensory input has become categorized, it is an easier task to alter interpretation, possibly just by "decoding" music.

I wanted to know if anyone thinks this approach has merit before continuing further. A lot of the details can be altered, but the primary idea is to attach thought and traditional language concepts to pitch chroma, thereby creating our own tonal language dependent on absolutes.

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Postby aruffo » Tue Nov 06, 2012 11:21 pm

It might and it mightn't. I think I wrote somewhere my suggestion that music is emotional language-- where language-language merely describes emotion, music actually expresses it, using the same essential systems of tension and relaxation as our bodies' voices would use to express. I can use the word "ecstatic" to describe to you how I feel; I can play you a snatch of a tune to literally say how I feel.

The idea of music-as-language is often suggested in what I believe is an erroneous form-- typically Peter and the Wolf is pointed to-- as though music could convey literal ideas. It can't; rather, it communicates emotional ideas.

So if you flip the emotion-word process around, so that it starts with musical sound, what do you get? Hm... a musical sound could describe a word, but couldn't express it. So in the case of words describing emotion, you can only comprehend the word if you've already experienced the emotion (I had someone yesterday ask me what "petulant" meant). In the case of emotion describing words... what kinds of words could be described? I mean, actually, literally, described?

The perspective I keep coming back to as the problem-to-be-solved is not merely the fact of categorical perception; there may be some known process (like perceptual differentiation) that is waiting to be applied. What I keep getting stuck on is the apparent requirement that a musical sound be self-evident. If someone plays a G#, and you identify it as G#, how do you know you're right? How do you test it versus the real world as an absolute value (versus other physical phenomena) instead of a relative one (versus other pitches)?

I was thinking about finding some artificial way to induce that-- somewhere else in the forum I wondered if certain pitches could be assigned to certain computer functions, and one's computer hooked up for voice-activated functioning, so that you'd know if you got the pitch wrong when the wrong function activated... but it would be more natural and far more powerful if, somehow, using the wrong pitch conveyed the wrong message-- in a way that was not some arbitrary or limited-share code, but one which any human of ordinary experience would comprehend. When you say the word "delighted", anyone will know what you're communicating. What can you communicate with a single pitch that anyone would recognize?

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The Paradox

Postby zacxpacx » Tue Nov 06, 2012 11:45 pm

Let me repeat the potential issue you've pointed out, just in case I'm misinterpreting it.

Language is the aural encoding of thought. Music is the aural encoding of emotion. If language is used to convey emotion, it can only do so in a detached, descriptive way. A word is attached to an emotion, and only those who have experienced the emotion and know of the word connection can comprehend the meaning. On the other hand, music inherently and directly communicates emotion. It is magic (in my mind, at least).

Language connections are arbitrary. We assign words and concepts randomly (okay, not totally random, but more or less). It just so happens that the characteristics of sound we assign concepts and thoughts to are in fact intervals. Phonemes and syllables all consist of different intervals. Though I don't actually know, I will meander a guess that it is the assignment of concepts to specific relative sounds and phonemes that causes us to categorize our perception of them.

I did say that the characteristics of sound we assign meaning in language are essentially relative. This is true of English. There are languages, however, that assign pitch meaning. I would assume that this assignment of concepts to language sounds is what causes people to categorize pitches. What I suggest is creating a bare-bones language that only uses the pitch characteristic of sound to carry meaning.

A more direct response to the issue: Music inherently conveys emotion. Language sounds don't inherently convey the concepts they are associated with, it is all learned. The characteristics of sound people assign meaning is arbitrary, as can be observed by the myriad dialects in the world. It just so happens that our language uses the musical characteristic to assign meaning, in the hopes that we will categorize that characteristic.

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