Sunday, July 8, 2007

53. On the Origin of Tuned Pipes Music Theory and Language

What hasn't yet been considered is the possibility that blown pipes need not have been preceded by language if their invention were intimately associated with its origin. This possibility, the possibility that music and language share the same roots and developed in tandem, is what I intend to explore in this post.

What I'm suggesting, is that the process described in the Yellow Bell story, leading to the development of a set of tuned pipes, could have been essentially the same process that led to both the theory behind such a tuning system and those basic elements of language necessary to formulate such a theory. To understand the above admittedly puzzling notion, it's necessary to ask, first of all: what is a musical tone?

This is an extraordinarily difficult question, far trickier than one might suppose. What we have been conditioned to hear when we sing, or play an instrument, is very different from the purely acoustical phenomena produced, as displayed on an oscilloscope or sonogram. For one thing, the tones of music are not individual tones at all, but complexes of sound, with many elements, beginning with a set of overtones, combined with certain resonances, instabilities, possibly some degree of nasality, harshness, breathiness, raspiness, etc. What we appear to perceive, is, in other words, very much a social construct rather than a given of nature, regardless of what one might want to argue with respect to the "naturalness" of the overtone series.

This leaves the question of whether music is actually heard "the same way" by individuals from different cultural backgrounds -- the short answer being that it is not. Not any more than individuals brought up to speak English can hear, say, Japanese in the same way a native born Japanese person can. But, just as there is something in the basic principle behind all languages that remains essentially the same, there is also something in the basic principle behind all types of music that remains essentially the same. In linguistics, it is the distinction between what is called the "phonemic" and "phonetic" aspects of verbal expression. The phonemic refers to what we hear based on certain fundamental sets of oppositions, or "articulations," put into play by each individual language. The phonetic is what we actually hear acoustically, most of which we are not consciously aware of. There is no generally accepted equivalent terminology for music, but there ought to be. Charles Seeger used the term "toneme" to name the musical equivalent of the linguistic phoneme, i.e., what we hear based on the fundamental sets of oppositions, or "articulations" put into play by each individual tonal system, as opposed to what we actually hear acoustically, most of which we are not consciously aware of.

As you may have noticed, there is a strong analogy at work between what happens when we percieve a musical tone "tonemically" and when we perceive a linguistic vocable "phonetically." In my opinion, this is not a coincidence, but an important clue to the nature of both music and language -- and the relation of one to the other.

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