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.

Thoughts on the Evolution of Communication

My dog and I engage in a lot of signaling. But it is not always deliberate, and it is not always conscious, and it is not always a two-way process.

In the morning, Otto licks my bald head. He can probably smell what I have been dreaming. I hold him and we have a nice cuddle. Just one of our many routines. He looks at me and I look at him. He is always checking me out. In the process of getting to know each other over several years we have come to read each other’s signals – our body language, interactions, responses, vocalizations…and smells.

image from

Semiosis emerges in the process. If there is a coupling of signals – a mutually-reinforcing signaling loop – two-way communication emerges. It is not always conscious – for either of us. Sometimes, a mutually-reinforcing signaling process which I was previously unaware of becomes apparent to me. When this happens, I become an active agent in that semiosis.

Otto is so intensely attentive to me – my routines (and deviations from them). He probably tunes-in to many more of my signals than I do to his. But then again, I am a human: I generate a lot of signal. Does he see this as “communication?” It is not clear: his brain is a dog brain, and mine is a human brain. We don’t share the same word for this experience (he only knows a few English words, and “communication” isn’t one of them).

I can be sure of one thing: we share a lot of signaling. And, as members of two highly-social species, we both like that.

I would conclude from this that communication among organisms in general (the biosemiosis that has emerged on Earth over the last few billion years) came about pretty much the same way that Otto and I established our own little world of emergent semiosis. As life evolved, trillions of coupled signaling channels reinforced each other over time and became more elaborate. Eventually, this signaling became conscious and intentional.

And so here we are: human communication has reached a level of sophistication such that I can type these words – and you can read them. And we can share the experience – across time and space.

Thelonius Monk’s Shapeshifting Chord


One of my part-time hobbies is being a Monk interpreter. A Monk interpreter not only learns how to play Monk’s compositions, but also makes a point of getting into the head of this eccentric man. The reason to do this is that Monk was an improvisor – and he was driven by an inner vision. If you can tap that inner vision, then you can generate Monk-like music – and improvise on it…even while playing Beatles songs.

I wrote a piece in 2013 about Monk as a mathematician.


Math can be about patterns (visual or sonic). Math does not always have to be expressed in numbers. Monk once said,“All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians”.

A Symmetrical Chord

The chord I’m talking about has four notes. It is typically used as a dominant chord – which naturally resolves to the tonic. Unlike the classical dominant-seventh, this chord has a flatted fifth – which makes it slip into a symmetrical regime – as shown in the picture above – inscribed in the circle of fifths.



According to Wikipedia, this chord is called the “Dominant Seventh Flat-Five Chord“. The cool trick about this chord is that it can resolve to either of two different tonics – each being a tri-tone apart.

So for instance, a chord with these notes:     Eb   F   A   B      can resolve to either Bb or E as the home key.

This chord also happens to contain 4 of the 6 tones in a whole tone scale, which Monk famously used (often as a dominant arpeggio).

If you are not familiar with music theory, you may still appreciate the beauty of sonic geometry and how it can generate such variety. If you apply similar concepts to rhythm as to harmony then you have a wonderfully rich canvas for endless musical expression. I like the way Monk wove these geometries together in a way that makes the foot tap and the ear twinge – and the brain tweak.

Monk was of course not the only one to apply these ideas – but he did accomplish something remarkable: the application of embodied math. If you have spent as much time as I have learning his language, listening to him improvise can cause a smile – or the occasional giggle – to pop out. Like an inside joke.

There is plenty of material on the internet about Monk. Here’s one voice among the many who have acquired an appreciation for Monk:  How to Listen to Thelonius Monk – by George H. Jensen, Jr.

“The Gene” doesn’t exist. It’s always a tangled hierarchy of genes plus environment

Maybe I’m obsessing over a tiny bit of language here, but I really believe that the language we use has a large impact on the way we think about things, and thus, the way we go about solving problems. Take the concept of “gene” for example.

Everything I’ve leaned about genetics tells me that there is no clear obvious separation of genes and environment. It’s like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set.

seepferdseepferdIf you try to untangle the source of something to determine whether it is from genes or environment (nature vs. nurture), you usually fail. And that’s because the interactions of genes with the environment is really like the boundary of the Mandelbrot Set. You can keep zooming in, but you’ll never find the boundary.

And this is fundamental to how nature operates.

Both Environment and Genetic Makeup Influence Behavior

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From Wikipedia:

Nature versus nurture debates assume that variation in a trait is primarily due to either genetic differences or environmental differences. However, the current scientific opinion holds that neither genetic differences nor environmental differences are solely responsible for producing phenotypic variation, and that virtually all traits are influenced by both genetic and environmental differences.


it is rarely productive to talk about a “gene” in the singular. “Genes” is almost always a plural concept. And the reason is because the interaction of genes and environment (the fundamental basis for evolution) goes all the way down to the level of the genes themselves. In other words:

At a Basic Level: Genes are the environment for genes

The way a gene is expressed is influenced by the other genes who take part in the choreography of expression.

I originally learned this from reading Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. From the point of view of the single gene, being the most atomic unit of selection, EVERYTHING other than itself…constitutes the environment. That includes other genes.

So, when you hear a science writer claiming that “Researchers determine that there is no ‘math gene’…”, you should conclude that the author is (1) correct, and (2) ignorant about biology.

Of course there is no math gene. Math skill (or any skill) grows out of a tangled interaction of inherited instinct (genetic makeup) and environmental factors (experience, learning, outside influences). The “nature vs. nurture” debate is counter-productive. The question should not be about determining which is the cause. It should be about determining the way these two factors come together to continually bring the natural world into being.

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Because it’s a tangled hierarchy of influences, people get uncomfortable. Science is supposed to untangle these things, right? Not always. Science can help us understand that tangled hierarchies are actually the norm. That’s nature.

This is not to say that there are no culprit genes for certain diseases or observable traits. They do in fact exist in certain cases. For instance: there do exist “single gene disorders“. But these are usually mutations – deviations of an otherwise natural situation.

John Oliver recently made a compelling rant against science journalism, and how perfectly valid science often gets trivialized, simplified, and even rendered false…for mass consumption.

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There is no single bullet theory in nature. Science writers should spend less time looking for a simple story to catch people’s eye with a punchy headline. Nature is complex…like the Mandelbrot Set. And that’s awesome.

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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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The Information EVOLUTION

I remember several decades ago learning that we were at the beginning of an information revolution. The idea, as I understood it, was that many things are moving towards a digital economy; even wars will become information-based.

The information revolution takes over where the industrial revolution left off.

I am seeing an even bigger picture emerging – it is consistent with the evolution of the universe and Earth’s biosphere.

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At the moment, I can hear a bird of prey (I think it’s a falcon) that comes around this neighborhood every year about this time and makes its call from the tree tops. When I think about the amount of effort that birds make to produce mating calls, and other kinds of communication, I am reminded of how much importance information plays in the biological world. The variety and vigor of bird song is amazing. From an evolutionary point of view, one has to assume that there is great selective pressure to create such energy in organized sound.

money+gorilla+teeth+omg+weird+primatesThis is just a speck of dust in comparison to the evolution of communication in our own species, for whom information is a major driver in our activities. Our faces have evolved to give and receive a very high bandwidth of information between each other (Compare the faces of primates to those of less complex animals and notice the degree to which the face is optimized for giving and receiving information).

Our brains have grown to massive proportions (relatively-speaking) to account for the role that information plays in the way our species survives on the planet.

Now: onto the future of information…

Beaming New Parts to the Space Station

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Guess which is more expensive:

  1. Sending a rocket to the space station with a new part to repair an old one.
  2. Beaming up the instructions to build the part on an on-board 3D printer.

You guessed it.

And this is where some people see society going in general. 3D printing will revolutionize society in a big way. Less moving atoms, More moving bits.

To what degree will the manipulation of bits become more important than the manipulation of atoms?

Not Just a Revolution: Evolution

My sense is that the information revolution is not merely one in a series of human eras: it is the overall trend of life on Earth. We humans are the agents of the latest push in this overall trend.

Some futurists predict that nanotechnology will make it possible to infuse information processing into materials, giving rise to programmable matter. Ray Kurzweil predicts that the deep nano-mingling of matter and information will be the basis for a super-intelligence that can spread throughout the universe.

Okay, whatever.

For now, let’s ride this information wave and try to use the weightlessness of bits to make life better for all people (and all life-forms) on Earth – not just a powerful few.