Monoglot and Polyglot

When I was growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the mid-nineteen fifties, my father ran his own appliance and television business. This was long before the days of consumer electronics and digital information technologies. At that time television broadcasts were in black and white, and viewers were delighted to have two channels. If someone needed a set in order to watch Uncle Miltie or Your Show of Shows, they did business with my Dad, and he would deliver, setup and tweak the television, in addition to climbing on the roof and putting up the antenna. In the back of my father's store was his workshop, where he experimented with the arcane development of high fidelity sound equipment, speaker design, and amplifier technology, and where he designed and built homegrown music reproduction systems that rattled the entire house. I never learned how to tie a fishing fly from my father, but I did learn the differences between amplitude and frequency modulation, what analog waveforms were and how sound frequencies affected the structure of the ear. Additionally, on weekend mornings, my sleep would be interrupted by the records that he played, (monophonically, stereo came along when we moved to Pittsburgh): Mozart's Coronation Mass, Bach's Mass in B Minor, Beethoven's symphonies, Holst's The Planets, all these pieces, and many others, were part of the ambience of my life at the malleable age of five. At the same time that I was learning how to speak and act like a human being in a human world, I was receiving a musical education by simply listening. The most familiar works of the classical compendium were firmly cemented in my brain, and though I passed through other musical worlds over the years (I vividly remember the first time I heard the Beatles singing She Loves You), the musical instinct that I received from my father's workshop never left me.

 

[noam] Since that time, in addition to the development of more sophisticated music delivery systems, satellite technologies, and inexpensive personal computers, the scientific discipline loosely labeled as cognitive science has theorized that our facility for language is instinctual. Noam Chomsky fomented a revolution (and great controversy) with the concept of a Universal Grammar, an underlying set of simple rules that enables the construction of sentences with the same discrete combinatorial system in all languages. Simply put, this means that children learn language rapidly because the structures that make up a language system are innate; the language itself, whether it be English, Japanese, German, Swahili or Hopi, is a variable, possessed of its own prescriptive grammar rules, yet fitting precisely into the structures of cognition defined by the Universal Grammar. All of us who have been parents have been amazed by the facile ability of children to learn a spoken language. Could this same ability exist with music? Could there be a musical gene in each of us as well as an instinct for language?

 

Thinking back on those days in my father's workshop, I realize that the patterns of music that were fixed into my consciousness remain the same today. As an adult I can theorize my head off about why music affects me as deeply as it does, yet there comes a moment where I simply have to say that there are things that I cannot rationally understand. I can only accept the fact that a tingle runs up and down my spine like electricity when I hear the Bach Chaconne or the Largo from Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, or for that matter, the guitar solo at the end of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb. Spoken and written language have the advantage of existing for the purpose of objective communication; you and I would agree that the noun "dog" refers to canine creatures that make a barking sound, that can be trained to fetch the newspaper and that is a popular domesticated animal. We would have a harder time agreeing on what the opening measures of Mozart's 40th symphony are really referring to, if any one thing in particular. And yet we would also probably agree that those notes of music stir something in our minds, perhaps emotions, or dreamy images of one kind or another, or maybe nothing at all. (There are those who do not care for Mozart. Perhaps they don't care for dogs either.)

 

The point is that music can be contemplated as language. While undergoing a disciplined study of music gives us a clearer and deeper response to its communication abilities, at some level music of all types affects all people. I would like to think that in each of us there is an area of sensitivity that is provoked into responding to music, regardless of a particular music's discipline; thus, while I don't much care for Garth Brooks, I have to admit the fact that some people enjoy him and respond to his warbling. (I do however like Mozart, and dogs, except for the small yappy type.)

 

In the same way that different languages use phonemes, words, and idioms to express the same objects and actions, different types of music use the structures of music (melody, harmony, rhythm, polyphony, etc.) to produce similar reactions, whether they be ethereal, physical, emotional or dull. It is fortunate for us that listening to music is unlike language in the sense that languages have to be learned in order for us to be able to communicate with them, (i.e., cave canem), but music, by its very nature is more ubiquitous. This is not to say that an understanding of form may give pleasure in and of itself, but the "listening" is the important factor. I may enjoy lending an ear to someone reciting Baudelaire in the original French, but to really understand the poetry I need a translation. (I suppose that makes me monophonic.) This does not happen with music. I like to listen to Indian ragas, though I know virtually nothing about their construction, or for that matter their true cultural meaning, but it communicates something, albeit very subjective. And that fact leads us to a broader conclusion.

 

All these things, the communication of ideas in language or music, are innate to the human mind, and thus there must be a broadly human nature within all of us. Steven Pinker, a disciple of Chomsky, and the author of The Language Instinct says, "Just as there is a universal design to the computations of grammar, there is a universal design to the rest of the human mind - an assumption that is just not a hopeful wish for human unity and brotherhood, but an actual discovery that is well motivated by evolutionary biology and genetics." As the world gets smaller and more populated, I take comfort in the thought that I am related to just about everyone else on the planet by the fact that our minds are built on similar foundations, and that the languages that we speak and the music that we hear come from the same soulful area within us; a place that is not totally a part of the physical world, and that perhaps may never be wholly understood by scientific methods.


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