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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000029.txt from 2000/09

From: stewart kiritz <>
Subj: Re: [kl] Language vs. music (was Phrasing With the Harmony)
Date: Sat, 2 Sep 2000 15:02:57 -0400

This gets very complicated. Some points: the defining characteristics of a
language include grammar and representation or semantics, i.e, meaning.
For the most part, animal cries are very primitive languages, if they are
languages at all. They generally are restricted to a few meanings and very
primitive grammar. There is some evidence that parrots, dolphins, whales,
and primates may able to achieve some combinatorial grammar but not at the
level of human speech. So most who study these things would disagree that
mating calls, hunting calls, etc. are languages, though they certainly are
communicative systems.

Music does not have these characteristics. Again, with few possible
exceptions, music does not have shared meaning or representational power,
nor does it have a grammar in the exact sense that English does. It is very
abstract and sui generis. The answer to your question about why spoken
languages can carry more information than music lies in the shared
representational nature of the morphemes and the combinatorial power of
grammar. You can express a huge amount of information through these two
devices when sender and receiver both understand the same code.

For me it is still quite interesting that music can be said to be expressive
and/or have meaning. Certainly this meaning is different from the
universality of the meaning of most words or sentences. Obviously the
meanings, if they exist, are much more subjective. The meaning of the
sentence "Most Spaniards speak Spanish," is not subject to a lot of debate.
But what is expressed in the first movement of Reinecke's Undine sonata, or
in a particular phrase of same is quite subjective, even among those who
speak the "language" of Western music. Yet somehow there is some shared
meaning for listeners a lot of the time.

Stewart Kiritz

----- Original Message -----
From: "William Wright" <>
Subject: [kl] Language vs. music (was Phrasing With the Harmony)

<><> Stewart Kiritz wrote:
What is even more mysterious to me is how music expresses feelings at
all. What really is the nature of musical language and why does it have
such power over us?

I ask myself the opposite question, Stewart. Given all the
territory that language and music share in common, why have they
diverged so much?
Examples: some languages are intoned, such that pitch variation
can change the meaning of a string of phonemes (Thai language, among
others). Mating calls, hunting calls, alarm calls and other 'social'
calls of animals are certainly a language. Both forms of 'language' are
vibrations in the air, processed through the same sensory organs,
produced with the same muscles.
So why have their uses diverged?

One of the answers (IMO) is that when we restrict a 'language' to
small integers and sinusoidal waves, the vocabulary is limited. Rhythm
and pitch are both restricted in this way. We have 1/2 and l/4 notes,
but not 7/573 notes.
I suppose that someone more knowledgable about the mathematics of
information theory and human hearing could cite other ways in which
'non-musical' the waveforms of speech can carry more information than
'music" can. But the fact that a good orator often has 'music' in his
or her voice -- and uses tone of voice to say things that words cannot
communicate as powerfully -- this fact emphasizes once again that music
and language share more in common than in opposition.

Another answer is the pleasure principle. Just as sugar is more
pleasurable to humans than rotten carrion, frequencies and rhythms with
simple relationships are more pleasurable to us. There is obvious
survival value in some pre-programmed 'pleasure' responses, and once
we're wired for them, then.... well, we're wired for them and we make
use of them because it's the equipment that we have.


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