Thinking words

For a writer, words are obviously the ultimate product of expression, and expressing oneself in words becomes some sort of goal, for better or worse. Moreover, there is a suggestion in some areas of anthropology that higher thought is essentially defined by words, and that linguistic construction is thinking in essence. While such suggestions gain in stature, not least of which because they themselves require linguistic construction to refute, they also serve to circumscribe creative expression rather too tightly.

For myself as a writer, translating my thoughts into words can be the most challenging step, or so it seems. Apparently, the notion that I have thoughts without words makes me either unusual or deluded. Who can say? To share my thoughts, I must first convert them from the sort of spatial-graphical mapping in which they naturally occur to words. I can also "think" directly in words, either as a superficial reaction to verbal stimulus, or in response to routine situations. Of course, with age & experience, more situations become routine, and the former is essentially banter. To actually feel as though I am thinking, however, words are not involved.

The analogy to music is obvious. Conceiving a melody as other than a melody, and certainly as words, is a counterintuitive notion, especially as the only way to think. There have been various extra-musical methods for constructing tunes over the years, but they have always been seen as quirky minority approaches. The linguistocentric might want to attach melodic conception to the idea of a song line, with words. For the period when vocal music was the primary musical medium, this type of association does make sense. Most melodies were associated, somehow, with words. Moving forward in history, how often did composers of the classical era associate their instrumental melodies with words, consciously or unconsciously? It is an interesting question, I think, but one whose answer is almost certainly other than "most of the time."

Must we even accept the idea that a melody has a linguistic conception because it also has lyrics? In the days of epics & bards, it seems that much more of what we now consider purely verbal communication was tied to music. The link between word & tune was seemingly much higher, so perhaps that connection is apt. Languages such as Chinese still contain tonal components. What then of counterpoint? Even when using words, its conception can hardly be tied to words. Moreover, it seems to have been similar expository impulses which led to the notion of "layered" composition in medieval music. It was generally denied in the 20th century, without any real evidence, that medieval composers conceived of their counterpoint at once. Rather, they were considered to have written one line of melody at a time, building up a piece line by line. A correspondence between this notion and "thinking is synonymous with words" is easy to make.

What remains is the idea of musical notation as language, something a linguist would generally accept. In the realm of music, however, the idea of music as a language usually meets with resistance. It suggests something concrete, rather something which can be stated in words, that music is trying to communicate. Such notions have not been considered sensible since the rise of instrumental music. However, this is really a separate question. After all, musical notation is intended to directly communicate a piece of sound. It is linguistic in that sense — and so might be my mental pattern-thought, for that matter. A widespread implication in that arena is that musical conception was constrained by available notation, a thought I have frequently resisted. When dealing with epochal composers, it is difficult to believe that their imaginations were constrained by what they were ultimately able to write. We have, perhaps, a shadow of their conception.

Do you like a particular piece of music? Why do you like it? How about food? What does trying to answer those questions — in words — do to the process of enjoyment? There is a widespread feeling in the general population that such analysis leads directly to the destruction of enjoyment. It is often difficult to argue otherwise. Translating visceral response into verbal language can be a strain, and it can be a distraction. It is not so much a question of whether that translation introduces some negative features into the directness of experience, because it must, but whether it introduces enough positive features to produce a net improvement. Analysis can be entertaining of itself, even if it necessarily involves dissolution.

Once we say that subsequent analysis is more significant than the original impulse, we end up with notions such as "Machaut did not conceive his polyphonic lines simultaneously." We cannot pinpoint or invert such a conception, so the thinking becomes that it must be coincidence. In later music, as rules of counterpoint became more established, we are willing to believe that composers are following the rules. Never mind that the great composers transcend the rules, almost by definition. Once we say that thinking is words, well, where are the words to show that they were thinking? If words come only later, of course, we lose the ability to discuss conception as conception. The result is an uneasy sense that there was some procedure to follow.

If we let thinking be more than words, perhaps we lose the ability to hear ourselves think. We certainly lose the ability to write essays such as these with any real sense of authority. If words are a snapshot of a more fluid thought, they necessarily calcify on the page. Or at least they become something else, something other than our thoughts. I had previously suggested the same for collections of recorded sound — caged music, we might say. Is notating, capturing, a thought more challenging than having it in the first place? Perhaps so, and perhaps that is the real impulse behind the idea that thinking is about language. Is the very idea of "challenge" already moving out of the moment, though? Such a goal easily becomes a desperate final grasp at relevance.

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Todd M. McComb