The Language Metaphor

Common for both musicians and perhaps the public-at-large is to remark that music is the universal language. If that is the case, then it communicates poorly! An effective language conveys specific meaning that both parties understand while music plays with emotional/spiritual feelings that in only the rarest instances are shared by all listeners and performers (and composers). Of course, language may be fashioned to focus on its linguistic and musical nature as in poetry, which is a fascinating art in that it conveys literal and additional meanings, but music seems hard-pressed to cross its boundaries (tone poems often miserably attempt to do so). When John Cage said, "I have nothing to say, and I'm saying it," I do not believe that he was trying to blot out the fact that music engages others but that music very rarely (if ever) can say something, something the composer grappled with throughout his long career.

The metaphor does work, however, in some cases. While communication is not as precise as language, feelings come in a way that may exceed language's ability. But the musical information, like in language, is comprehended to the extent that certain patterns are followed. To understand something, I will need pauses to capture everything. I may need context, including an ear attuned to different dialects. I need a way to structure the information I receive. I need patterns. Many composers use small combinations of pitches, rhythms, or other ear-catching devices to create their own "language." Mostly fitting under the term "motif," a small bit of musical information can be comprehended and then expanded on throughout a piece. Popular music may use melodies that hook a listener in, but even more prevalent for comprehension is the underlying groove, which becomes the structural foundation upon which the rest of the music is built. Other music (lots of other music) may defy both of these methods. But just like in language, comprehensibility comes from there being certain principles that guide the listener from the beginning to the end (without being boring because we all have experienced conversations where our interest wanes...). Of course, some music seeks to border incomprehensibility, but the majority of pieces throughout all genres and all time seek to give us a comprehensible message, even if we can't decide on what it is.

Writing Notes

When writers have an idea, they jot their thoughts down in a notebook or in a Word document. From those first words, they formulate sentences, paragraphs, and eventually articles and books, some spanning hundreds of pages with millions of words. When music composers have an idea, they write some type of pattern of notes or rhythms on a paper. Or scribble some weird shape or texture that only they understand... or rush to a private place to record themselves singing some type of disjunct squeals (in the mind they are violins!)... They soon  find the nearest piano, only to realize that their idea is a lot more complicated than they anticipated. The rhythm is somewhere between a quintuplet and a sextuplet and the imagined colors seem impossible to render with an orchestra, let alone a woodwind trio or piano. Instead of writing in a well-understood language, composers must translate expansive ideas into something that their performer will understand and interpret well. 

Why is communicating with music notation so much harder than writing in a language? While words have a specific, distinguishable, and clear-ish meaning, the palette of existent sounds in the universe is endless (in fact, all words in every language are simply a subset of possible sounds). Music notation focuses on pitch, rhythm, and meter, and with less clarity it includes abbreviations and symbols for dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. While helpful, information is lost in the process of notation. There are twelve notes to somehow represent every frequency between a given pitch and double its frequency. Rhythms are only divisible by two and must be written as a tuplet to be more specific (except for the first subdivision in compound time, which happens to trip performers up constantly). Dynamics are represented by only 6 reasonable levels (pp-ff). And articulations are often entirely dependent on context and are to be interpreted from a combination of dots, lines, carrots, and curves above notes.

There are creative ways to expand the ability of the music notation, but performers will attest that even with these basic limitations, it is challenging to render a sophisticated piece of music well! Unlike the languages we speak that use a limited number of sounds and largely ignore pitch (at least for denotation), music may involve any possible combination of pitches and rhythms in each short gesture, which results in millions of possible combinations when only using a few notes (which is why performers are often hidden in practice rooms for several hours a day). In essence, notation cannot capture the nuanced nature of sound, but even in its limited capacity, the human mind must work tirelessly for years to communicate through it.

So what is the benefit of written music when so many cultures and notable people have created stunning artistry through an oral tradition? Perhaps all the stress about notes is because we forget they are indeed notes. However detailed or planned out by the composer,  notes do little more than give the performer instructions to enact, recalling information to complete the task. But how can a performer recall something in music they have never read before? The answer to this question is: Western music is also an oral tradition, as is all music (and all languages first and foremost)! Deeper than notes is the essence of the music itself, and musicians who expose themselves to a large and diverse selection of sounds will understand and accurately interpret this essence.

As our world becomes more interconnected, the expectations for musicians will increase, for Charlie Parker, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sting, and the Beatles all had something to say that Mozart's style did not (and we can't ignore it!). It is the job of the composer, and always has been, to communicate what they envision in the clearest manner possible, despite the limitations of the notes. Then, with whatever intelligible scribbles are on the music stand, the performer pulls from thousands of years of culture acquired by ear and a lifetime of practice  and continues that oral tradition all musicians preserve. The reasons why composers and performers would specialize in their respective roles and not cross over is a topic for another day (and it's honestly a mystery to me), but in the end, music is much more than the notes. But I'll toil away to get them on the page anyway because, while unclear and somewhat vague, they allow performers, audiences, and me to share in the communal experience they represent--the experience we have from our cultures, life events, and perhaps from things deeper and more eternally rooted in essence than we can comprehend.

Resolutions and Rhythm

Even if, as a few cynical memes assert, the new year is an arbitrary division of time, why not take a moment to renew former efforts and plan out the future? Dividing time into chunks is hardly arbitrary; without doing so, we are forced to contemplate the eternities and its overwhelming grandeur and uncertainty (in regards to our time on Earth). To make time comprehensible to our finite minds, we have to slice and dice it. Though New Year's Day is arbitrary, it is simple to see how the passing of the sun and moon across the sky led to divisions of days (to be divided into hours and minutes) and how the repetition of larger phenomena (including length of days, change of seasons, position of stars in the sky, etc.) could divide into years (to be divided into or built from months and weeks). These divisions allow for reference points in the past from which a length of time can be measured, and they allow for projecting into the future. If divisions of time allow for projecting into the future, then why not take advantage of it and use it for planning? If still cynical about the need for these yearly resolutions, start with daily, weekly, or monthly resolutions--goal setting sessions with plans for real results. How can one plan for years if one cannot even maintain day-to-day projection? Most musicians know that playing in tempo requires consistent subdividing of the meter.

But to the disheartened, there are other ways to conceptualize time. Our Greek "logical" way of thinking supports the aforementioned time divisions because everything fits nicely into a box, but other cultures have not viewed time the same way. In other languages, including Hebrew, the tense constructions for past, present, and future are blurred to better allow for the truthfulness of time's eternal nature. Events are still identified, but they are in relation to each other and affect each other. Like a rhythm, a current event can normalize what may have seemed like a disruption in the flow of former events. In other words, while our Greek-dominated logic puts time events as absolutes, Hebrew thinking (and I assume in other cultures) sees time events as unresolved and ever-changing. This means that a mistake in the past does not leave a permanent scar if we play the corrective rhythm. Failures of years before will become the stepping stones of success in your future, if the right groove is found.

This conceptualization of time, while not useful in predicting yearly weather patterns and other repetition-based phenomena, is incredibly useful for humans who want to improve in life. We are not trapped in orbit like the moon or a satellite; we have the ability to chart our own path travel beyond the monotony of a set daily schedule.  Also unlike the moon, we are bound to be broken from our repetition, despite our choices, and understanding the inevitability of variability braces ourselves for the best and worst life has to offer.

Goal-setting and planning then gains two more dimensions (among others): risk assessment and preparation. The variables in life all present risks, so why not embrace this as a fact? Some goals will not be achieved until we are willing to take risks, but with planning, many of these risks may turn out to be smaller than previously thought. But what of other risks that may have a downfall? What about the risks that are out of our control? We prepare for the worst while striving for the best. Many residents of Miami will have hurricane shutters in storage and most Midwesterners have a basement, cellar, or evacuation route to avoid cyclones, yet they do not live in constant dread. If one is prepared to land on the beat through practice, they will not be too lost in the music to play it correctly, even if momentarily distracted.

So, the takeaways should be: 1.) Confidently plan in time chunks you can manage. 2.) Remember that the past does not permanently affect your future--unless you allow it to. 3.) The future is unpredictable, so be prepared. 4.) You might need to leave your comfort zone and take risks, but often those risks present much less danger than you anticipate, if well assessed and prepared for. Musically speaking: 1.) Subdivide. 2.) Don't dwell on a missed beat. 3.) Practice your part. 4.) Be vulnerable and make real, bold music.