Music is Language. Language is Improvisation

(This article is re-published and re-edited from a previous version written on December 2004)

People are often amazed by musicians who play by ear, such as pianists who can just pick up melodies and play them on the spot, adding chords, accompanying singers who pause or change keys in mid-tune, inventing harmonies, etc.

I have found that sometimes the people who are the most amazed by improvisation are actually professional musicians who are classically trained – very accomplished musicians in fact – but they rarely engage in the art of improvisation. Many classically-trained concert pianists who can sight-read Bach and Bartok with astonishing skill do not improvise. To them, the magic of inventing musical expression on the spot is curious, impressive – even alien.

Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944): Komposition 8 (Guggenheim)

As a person who was figuring out Beatles tunes on the guitar with my brother at age nine, improvisation has always been natural – synonymous with the very idea of music. I never had the patience as a young man to interpret a bunch of tiny black dots on a page. Only later in life did I actually learn to read – and even to this day, I have to mumble under my breath: “every…good…boy…does…fine” before I can produce a single note.

Music is About Ears, Not Eyes
I believe that improvising music is no different than speaking – it is in fact the most natural form of music creation. This is because we are a language species, and therefore, we are improvisers by nature. It just so happens that we practice improvisational speaking a lot more than we practice improvisational music.

Reading A Script To Your Husband or Wife
Imagine coming home from work and walking up to your spouse, opening up a booklet and beginning to recite from page 134, third paragraph: “Good evening dear, and how was your day?” That would be ludicrous. Obviously one does not need a script to talk. We are able to construct sentences on the fly, to fit the situation, to express the mood of the moment, and to respond to what the other person had just said. We are improvisational creatures – and our brains have evolved to allow us to do this very well. Every day of a person’s life, a unique sentence – a combination of words – is generated which that person has never said, and will never say again. And of course, that is just the words – those symbolic units that dance around in abstract space. There is much more to natural language than mere words, operating on deeper levels of brain and society. There is intonation, timing, punctuation, body language – essentially, the musical dynamics of speech.

While I am referring to the musicality of speech as the basis for advocating improvised music, I am not making a negative statement about classically-trained musicians who sight-read and do not improvise. I’m just suggesting to those who are amazed by improvisation that… this is where it all started. It’s not amazing at all! It is the origin of music itself.

Playing Back an Improvisation Preserved for Eternity
It would be totally wrong for me to say that musicians who sight read are not creative, or are not engaged in the spiritual level of music. Classically-trained musicians, as well as conductors, are the ones who have allowed us to enter into the minds and souls of Vivaldi, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Satie. And they are certainly more than just technicians who scan manuscripts as if they were records in a juke box. They are interpreters of the original emotion and meaning that was present when the musical piece was composed. Many a tear shed from the eye of a violinist is the same tear that Tchaikovsky shed when he created the original melody. And the fact is, neither you nor I could ever actually hear Tchaikovsky composing. Because he has been dead for a long time. His music is brought to life by living souls. And each interpreter brings his or her mood, individuality, culture, and the technology of the times – into the experience.

Chopin and Monk Interpreters
I recall hearing a radio program about Chopin’s music in which a musical critic referred to “Chopin interpreters”, classical pianists who specialize in expressing the essence of Chopin (at least as far as critics and historians could tell). I’ve even come across the term, “Chopinist”. This is also used in reference to contemporary jazz pianists who play Thelonius Monk – “Monk interpreters”, as well as musical scribes who preserve Monk’s recordings into notation. Any interpreter of a late jazz composer deals with an extra level of interpretation due to the fact that a large part of the composers art was improvisation – performances of the same musical piece were played differently for each recording. In the case of Monk, with his unique manner of weaving syncopated rhythm and harmony and using silent pauses of “thought”, there is an individual cosmology to be understood – one must enter into his mind to see this musical machinery at work.

The Universality of Communicating with Sound
The history of music is probably as old as the history of human speech itself. Like the earliest examples of “art” we know of, created on the walls of caves, music may have had a functional aspect. It may have been a way for humans to communicate to each other in a more ritualistic and transcendent way than the average grunting of daily life.

The world has many materials which the human species has appropriated, all of which produce overtones when struck, plucked, or stroked. Some materials produce more coherent overtone spectra – in which the fundamental frequencies are easily heard: other materials produce complex overtone spectra, and serve a percussive purpose. These overtones are a part of the physical nature of our world, and they are echoed within the language-generating machinery of our brains. Why did dodecaphonic music not free music from the tyranny of harmony? Because the language of music is inherently hierarchical – and this is because of the way physical objects vibrate. And we are physical objects.

I believe that the logic of harmony emerged from two things:

1. physics
2. the need for humans to communicate.

Connect to Your Soul with Music
I would conclude that the joy of creating music is not for the privileged few who have gone through the rigor of seven years at the Conservatory. Music is the underlying sound of our speech. It happens all the time – every day of our lives. To improvise with sound is natural, whether it takes the form of beating rhythms on your knee or cooing to a newborn baby. It is also a way for us to connect to the harmonic logic that resides in the molecular structure of the world. And it’s a way for us to connect to each other with the sounds that lie beneath mere words.


Deconstructing Agnosticism


Take a random phrase from the left column, a random phrase from the middle column, and a random phrase from the right column. Combine them to construct a question about your belief in God. How many possible questions can you construct?

The the answer is 1080. That doesn’t include the many many possible phrases you might want to include in this list. This illustrates the expansiveness of questioning everything. Since “God” is difficult to define, and since there are many ways to represent, understand, and experience God, one can’t truly answer the question “do you believe in God” unless the asker and answerer both share the same sense of what they are talking about

One conclusion from this exploration is that we cannot escape the realm of words and language in the effort to articulate the nature of our beliefs. Can any one think about belief without using some form of (internal or external) language? 

Is belief naturally binary (I do believe vs. I don’t believe)? If it is not binary, can it be called a “belief”? Cultural/social forces and neural structures may cause a predisposition towards binarism in beliefs. In any case, I suspect that it is good to subdue these tendencies, for matters of intelligence as well as for social ease.

In my opinion (which could always change), agnosticism is (1) a good way to exercise one’s own intellectual agility, and (2) socially productive; it helps you hear and accept other people’s many kinds of beliefs, non-beliefs, assumed beliefs and believed assumptions.

True agnostics are not compelled to agree or disagree. In terms of epistemology, they are incapable of doing either.

No doubt, for many people, belief and faith are passionate and deeply-felt, and so it may not be easy to take such a dispassionate attitude. But as long as people are using language to question and express belief, the mechanics of logic necessarily come into play. 

In that case, the art of living may be the wordless expression that escapes the realm of agreement and disagreement.  Thus, God (or the absence of God) is best expressed in terms of how we live rather than what we say.

Hummingbird on a wire

hummingbirdI looked out the window this morning and I thought I saw a speck on the window pane. Upon closer look, I realized that the speck was a hummingbird perched high on a wire spanning two telephone poles.

I became the bird’s dedicated audience for about three minutes. I watched closely as the tiny bee-like creature surveyed the surroundings from its high vantage point.

What was the bird thinking? And can I use the word “thinking” to describe the activities in this bird’s mind? For that matter, does the bird have a mind? It certainly has a brain. And that brain has a special feature: its hippocampus is five times larger than that of song birds, seabirds, and woodpeckers. According to this article, “The birds can remember where every flower in their territory is and how long it takes to refill with nectar after they have fed.”

Thinking is a by-product of an animal body, which is a member of a species with specific needs, skills, and adaptations to a particular environment.

Fear (and Love) of Heights

If I were perched on a wire as high as the hummingbird, I would be terrified: “Get me down from here!” On the other hand, a bird feels perfectly at home at such high altitudes.

Consider a hawk sliding across the horizon above a vast valley. Looking down from its vantage point, the hawk may experience inner-peace – possibly moments of boredom (if you will permit me to apply these human-oriented emotion labels to a hawk’s subjective experience). A human hang-glider would experience exhilaration, and moments of fear. And maybe…moments of that same inner-peace that the hawk experiences.

Above image from:

When I have joyful flying dreams, my brain is not triggering the fear network. I am experiencing a peaceful freedom from gravity – with touches of exhilaration.

I wish I could become as light and deft (and fearless) as a bird, and watch the world from the tallest treetops in my neighborhood.

Cute Yet Creepy. Animal Yet Human.

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I have been thinking about the uncanny valley for decades. Here are some things I’ve written on the subject:

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The Uncanny Valley of Expression

Uncanny Charlie

How Does Artificial Life Avoid the Uncanny Valley?

Augmenting the Uncanny Valley

Over time, animated filmmakers have become more savvy about the uncanny problem. They are getting generally better at avoiding the creeps. According to this article, Disney learned its lesson, the hard way….

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“And that’s why realism-fetishizing technology like motion capture is much more susceptible to creeping us out than more “primitive” or stylized animation: it’s only when you’re purporting to offer that level of detail in the first place that you can totally, utterly screw it up.”

Despite the fact that animators are more savvy about the Valley, I still can’t help but notice a nagging, low-grade fever of optical realism that has crept into the lineup of popular animated characters (even as the accidental monsters get shuffled off to quarantine). Consumers of animated films may be unaware of it…because it has become normalized. The realism has increased, bit by bit, so that now we have quivering hair follicles, sparkling teeth, and eyeballs reflecting the light of the environment.

Imagine if our favorite classic characters were rendered like this.


But the discomfort we call the uncanny valley doesn’t only occur when the thin veneer of visual realism unexpectedly reveals a mindless robot where “nobody is home”. The phenomenon could be seen in a larger context: it is caused by the clash of any two aspects of an artificial character that operate at incompatible levels of realism. For instance…

Can Animals Become Too Human?

I recently saw Zootopia. I really enjoyed it. Great film. But I must say, I did catch a glimpse of the Valley. There’s no denying it.

I also recently saw Guardians of the Galaxy, with Rocket Raccoon, who exhibits two very different kinds of realism: (1) Raccoon! (2) A tough guy with attitude – and a very human intelligence.

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 9.55.27 PMCan contradictory behavioral realism create a different sort of valley? Technology for character animation has enabled a much higher level of expressivity than has ever been possible, with fine detail in subtle eye and mouth movements. One might conclude that since behavioral realism has caught up with visual realism, the uncanny valley should now be a thing of the past. But then again, that depends on whether the behavior and the visuals apply to the same species!

Nothing abnormal about a cartoony raccoon throwin’ shapes and talkin’ tough. But when this animal is rendered in a hyper-realistic manner, AND evoking high-res human expression, things start to feel odd.

Silvery-marmoset-6Pandas, ants, lobsters, bison, eels … in order for all of these various animals to assume the range of human emotion needed to deliver a clever line, they have to be equipped with a face with all the expected degrees of freedom. The result is what I call “rubber mask syndrome”.


One example is the characters in Antz, whose faces stretch in very un ant-like ways in order to express very human-like things. More and more animals (unlikely animals even) are being added to the cast of movie stars. They are snarky, sly, witty, sexy, clever…and oh so human. It has all gotten a little weird if you ask me.

Science writers who say machines have feelings…lack intelligence.

I saw an article by Peter Dockrill with the headline, “Artificial intelligence should be protected by human rights, says Oxford mathematician”.

The subtitle is: “Machines Have Feelings Too”.

Regarding the potential dangers of robots and computers, Peter asks: “But do robots need protection from us too?” Peter is apparently a “science and humor writer”. I think he should stick with just one genre.

Just more click-bait.

There are too many articles on the internet with headlines like this. They are usually covered with obnoxious, eye-jabbing ads, flitting in front of my face like giant colorful moths. It’s a carnival – through and through.

I could easily include any number of articles about the “terrifying” future of AI, “emotional machines”, “robot ethics”, and other cartoon-like dilutions of otherwise thoughtful well-crafted science fiction.

Good science fiction is better than bad science journalism.

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Here’s Ben Goldacre:

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Now, back to this silly subject of machines having feelings:

Some of my previous articles express my thoughts on the future of AI, such as:

No Rafi. The Brain is not a Computer

The Singularity is Just One in a Series

Why Nick Bostrom is Wrong About the Dangers of Artificial Intelligence

Intelligence is NOT One-Dimensional

homunculusbI think we should be working to fix our own emotional mess, instead of trying to make vague, naive predictions about machines having feelings. Machines will – eventually – have something analogous to animal motivation and human states of mind, but by then the human world will look so different that the current conversation will be laughable.

Right now, I am in favor of keeping the “feelings” on the human side of the equation.

We’re still too emotionally messed up to be worrying about how to tend to our machines’ feelings. Let’s fix our own feelings first before giving them to our machines. We still have that choice.

And now, more stupidity from Meghan Neal:

“Computers are already faster than us, more efficient, and can do our jobs better.”

Wow Meghan, you sure do like computers, don’t you?

I personally have more hope, respect, and optimism for our species.

In this article, Meghan makes sweeping statements about machines with feelings, including how “feeling” computers are being used to improve education.

The “feeling” robots she is referring to are machines with a gimmick – they are brain-dead automatons with faces attached to them. Many savvy futurists suggest that true AI will not result from humans trying to make machines act like humans.  That’s anthropomorphism. Programming pre-defined body language in an unthinking robot makes for interesting and insightful experimentation in human-machine interaction. But please! Don’t tell me that these machines have “feelings”.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 3.44.18 PMThis article says: “When Nao is sad, he hunches his shoulders forward and looks down. When he’s happy, he raises his arms, angling for a hug. When frightened, Nao cowers, and he stays like that until he is soothed with some gentle strokes on his head.”


Pardon me while I projectile vomit.

Any time you are trying to compare human intelligence with computers, consider what Marvin once said:

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