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.

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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 http://projectdolittle.com/

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.

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.

Intelligence is NOT One-Dimensional

Why do so many people, including science writers, talk about intelligence as if it could be measured on a one-dimensional yardstick?

In “How We Evolve” Benjamin Phelan discusses the work of Bruce Lahn, who did controversial research on genetic differences among human populations that are correlated with brain size and brain function. At one point, discussing natural selection in contemporary humans, Phelan states, “…if intelligence is still under selection, that could mean that some populations at this very moment are slightly smarter than others – that, perhaps, some ethnicities are slightly smarter than others.”

Phelan is wise to be cautious and skeptical in how he reports on this subject. Basically I think this is a great article. But, like so many other writers, he makes an error in his choice of words. The use of the term “smarter”, is misguided…it is moot. The very notion that any group of humans could be “smarter” than another group is unfounded.

I would bet that this kind of misguided language has caused further aggravation to an already controversial subject.

Intelligences

I made the image above to express my understanding of intelligence as having several components, or modalities, with interpersonal included at the left. This shows just three modes, plotted in a cube – but there are many others (see below). We could see certain disorders, such as autism, dyslexia, and Williams Syndrome as examples of extreme imbalances in the mix of intelligences. An autistic savant might be plotted at the lower right, while a Williams might be plotted at the far left. Most of us have relatively normal balances, with plenty of mild variation. And NOBODY has super-powers in all modalities, as indicated by the absence of people in the upper-right corner.

There’s Really No Such Thing as “Smarter”

The term “smarter” is even less applicable when used in relation to technology. In the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, Nicholas Carr quotes Larry Page in a speech, as saying:

“The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people – or smarter”. 

I applaud the goal of making better search engines. But software cannot and should not be measured against humans in terms of intelligence. I will repeat what I have said in other blog posts: intelligence (both human and artificial) is

MULTI-DIMENSIONAL

Changing our language to reflect this fact would alleviate so many of the conflicted debates we are hearing about the “dangers of AI“.

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Are we over-thinking the dangers of AI?

Artificial Intelligence comes in many forms – just as natural intelligence comes in many forms within the animal kingdom and among human populations. The diversity of intelligence in technology is what keeps us safe from a runaway AI monster.

Diversity is healthy.

Now, why am I making such a big deal about a little bit of language? I am making a big deal because this little bit of language is the tip of an ugly iceberg: it is the cause of discrimination in the tech industry; it is the cause of discrimination in general; it is the reason people still use the IQ test, which falsely reduces one’s intelligence to a single number, so that person A can be called “smarter” than person B. And person B can be called “smarter” than person C.

IQ is not just a flawed concept: it is counter-productive.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 1.08.02 AM

The notion of IQ is MISLEADING.

Howard Gardner proposed several kinds of intelligences. Among the intelligence modalities associated with Gardner’s theories are:

Musical–rhythmic and harmonic
Visual–spatial
Verbal–linguistic
Logical–mathematical
Bodily–kinesthetic
Interpersonal
Intrapersonal
Naturalistic
Existential

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 10.29.34 AMWe could easily add more, or combine some of these. We might also include “emotional”, “symbolic”, and “narrative“.

I would even add “dyslexic” (usually considered a disorder but increasingly recognized as associated with certain skills that are advantageous in many situations).

Maybe I’m just playing with semantics – maybe I’m just being a language wonk. But I don’t think so. I think the language we use to describe ourselves and others has a major effect on how we think and how we act. Changing the way we talk about intelligence could have a positive trickle-own effect on things as widespread as public policy, education, racism, scientific research, and…gosh, just about everything else.

We’re all SMART.

SMART is multidimensional.

My Brain is In My Skull. My Mind is Everywhere Else

The brain itself has no pain receptors.

Adenovirus_4

A colleague of mine recently told me about a conversation he had with a doctor who is Indian. He was asking the doctor what he thought about identity, consciousness, and mind.

The Indian doctor said that people in the West have a different way of thinking of such things than people who have been brought up with Eastern philosophy.

If you believe that we are all a part of a larger MIND that extends beyond mere individuals – that MIND is really a property of the universe at large, or some larger system, then many of our more puzzling mysteries dissolve away.

New philosophies that bring together neuroscience, quantum physics, and theories of emergence are providing explanations for phenomena that scientists have traditionally considered to be imaginary, metaphysical, or unknowable.

Bucky Fuller once said: “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.

Up until recently, I thought of “my mind” as something non-physical that emerged only from my brain’s activities. But, after learning how intimately linked human brains are to each other, and to the culture that is evolving in the context of all the brains that exist and that have ever existed, I have started to see “my mind” as inseparable from the matrix.

Here the cool part: my mind is not only being created from my own brain: other brains are also creating it.

Mandelbulb_minus_sinus_version_by_KrzysztofMarczak

Unlike my brain, which has a container called “skull”, my mind has no boundaries – there is no membrane that separates “my mind” from the aggregate of all minds.

And why should there be a membrane? The mind is not physical.

The Indian doctor told something to my friend, who had been brought up with Western philosophy. My friend had an epiphany – a miniature jolt from a Western perspective to what he described as a Taoist moment.

Paint a picture in our mind of your brain inside of your skull. Now: outside of your skull, add some color patches, images, words, and connections. This represents something that has no physical place, no physical time. It can traverse space and time without effort. It is not “owned” by you or me or anyone else. It is the emergent information aggregate that got its real kick-start when Earth’s biosphere began to self-regulate, billions of years ago.

We are Nouning the Big Verb that is Mind.

Bucky Fuller, Where are You? (On the Boxiness of Corporate Employment)

Bucky

“Okay, but…if you had to choose between calling yourself a designer or calling yourself an engineer, which would you choose?”

boxes

Specialists and Generalists

I have often needed a specialist to do a specific task for me. This is normal. Specialists have a role in the economy and one could argue (along with Adam Smith) that specialization is the very basis of economy.

But too much specialization comes at a cost to innovative tech companies…and to creative individuals. Especially now, and increasingly – into the future…

Here’s an article in the Harvard Business Review on that topic:

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 10.43.34 PM

Nourishing My Inner Bucky

Interviewers have often asked me how I rank myself in terms of software engineering skill. As if there were a one-dimensional yardstick upon which all engineers can place themselves.

When one is evaluated with a one-dimensional yardstick, one usually ends up with a low grade.

For the same reason that there are multiple dimensions to intelligence, why not use more than one yardstick to evaluate an engineer?

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The space that lies between all these one-dimensional yardsticks yields great connective knowledge. This is the domain of the COMPREHENSIVIST.

I lament the boxiness of the standard company recruiting process – even within companies that claim to employ people who think outside the box (like Google). Here’s a Google employee admitting to their deplorable interview process); “Pablo writes that his best skill is product design, but that his Google recruiters only showed interest in his ability to code.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-02 at 9.17.30 PMWe hear of how generalists and right-brain thinkers are in such demand these days.

Bullshit. When it comes to finding employment in companies, we are still confronted with an array of boxes, and we are still expected to show how well we fit into (one) of them. Consider Linked-In.

linkedinMy Linked-In profile has the following as my “industry”:

SHIPBUILDING

Why did I choose Shipbuilding? LinkedIn REQUIRES that I choose ONLY ONE of the industries from its list, and it DOES NOT allow me to choose more than one industry. Shipbuilding was the furthest thing I could find from what I do. Instead of trying to use a single box to characterize myself, I prefer to go in the opposite direction.

Linked-In = Boxed-In

Now I want to say a few things about being an older person who has faced difficulty fitting into the workforce.

We Are All Multi-Dimensional – Increasingly as we Age

Experienced (i.e., older) programmer/innovator/designers should be contributing more of those intangibles to the tech industry that Google is so bad at seeking out.

The tech industry has a fundamental problem: software plays an increasing role in people’s lives. The world’s population is aging. Young engineers who know the latest buzzwords of the last five years are hired quickly and eagerly. An aging population tries to keep up with fast-changing software interfaces. And more and more of this aging population consists of software engineers who have something the young programmers don’t have: wisdom, experience, perspective.

We are exactly what Silicon Valley needs.

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No one in particular is to blame for ageism in high-tech startups. The problem does not stem from any particular favoritism of young people: it is due to the short-sightedness of the tech industry, and the emphasis on the quick-thinking, risk-taking attributes associated with youth.

People who are professionally multi-dimensional should play a key role in human-centered software design. The cultural divide, identified by C. P. Snow in 1959, is still with us. Boxes breed boxes. That’s why we’re in the box we’re in.

-Jeffrey