May I Share My Earworm?

Voilà: my new Philosophy & Music videoclip, which should warm you up to my three lecture course on music — how it moves us, why it matters.

Don’t forget to turn on the sound. Unless you’re allergic to earworms: the music I made to go with it has been playing in my mind for two weeks, barely going to rest at night.

Memorability is an essential feature of what we tend to call a “good tune” (not, of course, of good music). Memorability and “catchiness”, which implies memorability, but also something seemingly contradictory — the feeling that it is new, yet familiar — the déjà-ouï.

Certainly music may be both. Often the familiarity will derive from some background pattern (primarily harmonic), the novelty from foreground features — typically, melodic. Most of the world’s music is based on prefab patterns. The scope for creating new melodies to a given harmonic pattern is not infinite. So, an appealing, potentially popular tune will never be 100% new, or even 50%, I would say, though there is no way of measuring musical novelty.

And the catchier it sounds — the stronger the feeling that it has a right to be there (as I feel it, from the maker’s perspective) — the greater the risk that actually it has already been there. You may carefully and deliberately craft your tune from scratch, changing a note here and there, but still have no guarantee that the unpredicted and unpredictable end result (voilá) won’t happen to be a duplicate of something that has been out there all along.

But that’s no reason to silence the worm.

Waking up into a Nightmare

On with life, under the scary prospect of an unscrupulous and dick driven sociopath ruling the USA.

How to stem the rising tide of populism? — is now the concern of all of us who worry about the global repercussions. All of us who don’t include ourselves among those targeted by “populism” — which is, etymologically, “the people”. An uncomfortable singular that separates an ill-defined group from a plural (people) that includes me, you, and everybody else.

In Dutch there is the old-fashioned gepeupel. Denigrating like the Latin synonyms of populus: vulgus, plebs. Words that are obviously politically incorrect. Though it is hard to find a better coverall for everything DT says and does than “vulgar”.

It automatically stamps us (his adversaries) as “elite”. A vast elite, not defined by wealth and only weakly by higher education. Most worrying about DT’s rise to power is that it has made all basic virtues elitist: love and respect for truth, for science, for rational thought and logic, for nature, cultural diversity, you name it. By consequence, all the dirty behaviour of which he is so proud (“being smart”) has become a kind of anti-virtue, rather than simply vice.

Eager to trade one political class of “liars” for another, whose lies are much dirtier, “the people” are in for a disappointment. It’s hard to package that message nicely — the message that voting for this Führer or another is stupid. But maybe this is not the time to package the message nicely. Maybe we should just call it stupid, and say it loud.

But equally important are good tunes. Listen to the inane repertoire programmed for HC’s campaign: I can’t imagine it has done her much good.

Reverend Father Adam, Whence Didst Thou Get Music?

What is the origin of music? — And how does music relate to language? Scientific research into these questions is booming. Psychologists, neurologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and musicologists are in the origins business. Despite the fact that we’ll never have the kind of evidence that may lead to a scientifically valid answer.

Theories may be fables. They still can be evaluated by how well they connect the things we know, and by their power to inspire new enquiries.

One idea that may seem obvious and common sense is that there are aspects of language — more particularly, of speech — that can be called ‘musical’ and expressive: the ‘rhythm’ and ‘melody’ of speech, or prosody. Rudiments of melody, or intonation, are present in the most basic human and animal vocal expressions — screams, calls, sighs, grunts, and so on.

So maybe before there were language and music there was vocal expression, a kind of primitive communication that with growing complexity developed into true language on the one hand, into music on the other. Or, as it has often been put, into the ‘language of ideas’ and the ‘language of feelings’. It being understood that linguistic prosody belongs with the latter rather than with the former.

This sounds like a common sense idea, and it is a quite popular hypothesis in recent scientific research. It inspires more specific inquiries into the musical features of language,  into the linguistic features of music, and into the question how both are processed by our brains.

Not every idea that strikes us as obvious must always have been so. What seems trivially sensible today may be yesterday’s nonsense, or revelation.

Herbert Spencer was a popular philosopher of the Victorian age. In a somewhat prattlesome essay on The Origin and Function of Music, published in 1857 in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Spencer pointed out that vocal sounds are expressive because we recognize them as the product of the bodily effort of making them. A happy, open, relaxed sound is made by a happy, open, relaxed body. An anguished sound is made with tensed muscles. And so on. Human shouts, sighs and cries are, just like those of animals, a primitive but effective medium of expressive communication. In music this is developed into an a full-fledged “emotional language”, which is “only second in importance to the language of the intellect; perhaps not even second to it” (p. 407). Spencer thought this expressive-communicative potential of music could explain its evolutionary function. Here he disagreed with Darwin, who thought singing was most likely to be explained as courtship display.

In recent scientific literature Spencer has got a lot of credit for his idea — particularly for establishing a link between muscles and the sound we make. If your muscles contract, you squeak; of they relax, you may yawn or produce another low pitched sound. It even has entered the literature as Spencer’s Law. That is, one of Spencer’s Laws: because there is also Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom, Spencer’s Law of Cognitive Development, Spencer’s Law of the Survival of the Fittest (also known as social Darwinism), and the equally sinister Spencer’s Law of Why We Shouldn’t Worry. Leaving aside what looks like a Wild West pulp novel titled Spencer’s Law.

Too much credit for Spencer, at least within the realm of music. For Spencer, who cited no sources, did little else but echo an eighteenth-century commonplace. In 1746 Étienne Bonnot de Condillac had proposed the term ‘action language’ (langage d’action) for what linguists nowadays call protolanguage. He thought of it as the common precursor of music and language, consisting of spontaneous cries along with gestural elements. That roughly similar ideas were proposed a little later by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is well known. And that high and loud taxes our muscles more than soft and low has, no doubt, been known since times immemorial.

The idea that prosody is an evolutionary link between music and speech has resonated strongly through the European intellectual world, around 1750. We may find its echo in unexpected places, such as the writings of a German-Dutch musician and writer with the jolly name of Jacob Wilhelm Lustig, who for more than six decades played the organ in Groningen.

In the sixth of his Twelve Discourses on Useful Musical Subjects (Twaalf redeneeringen over nuttige muzikaale onderwerpen, 1756), Lustig too adopts the theory of the expressive protolanguage, casting it however in an orthodox Christian creationist framework. The inventor of music is Adam, and since Adam began his life in Paradise, the first sounds he produced could not have been anything else but “resounding joy and admiration”, “praise and thanksgiving to his Creator” (p. 278).

It may be noted that Rousseau too located the origins of music and language in paradise, albeit a secular paradise, complete with palm trees and fountains. “There, around those fountains, the first discourses were the first songs”, Rousseau wrote sometime in the 1750’s (it wasn’t published until 1781). Here’s Lustig in 1756 (p. 281): “it is not unreasonable to conclude that the two first singers [Adam and Eve] were also the first poets”.

Like Spencer, Lustig bluntly assumes that (in Spencer’s words) “All music is originally vocal”. The inventor of music is therefore not the biblical Jubal, “father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes” (Genesis 4: 21). Jubal has only done what Scripture says he did, inventing musical instruments. It is to Adam, his great-great-great-great-grandfather that Jubal poses the question I’ve quoted in the title. And here is Adam’s answer, taken from Lustig’s Introduction to the Theory of Music (Inleiding tot de muziekkundesecond edition, 1771, p. 125-6) — I won’t try  to reproduce the weird flavour of the eighteenth-century Dutch:

Jubal. — Reverend Father Adam, how did you get music? […]
Adam. — I noticed that I was capable of making many various vocal inflections, which on different incidents I gradually changed, and therefore produced by song rather than speech. […] Also, love, joy, grief and other passions often elicited all kinds of inflections and intonations: in this we simply followed the prescription of nature, in such a way as the passion inspired in us. From this originated the first known melodies. They were reproduced by one singer after another, following our innate tendency to imitate, disseminated everywhere, and used as a basis for novel ones.

What distinguishes this and similar Enlightenment fantasies from Spencer’s is mainly, maybe, the latter’s interest in animal behaviour. Eighteenth-century thinkers, and particularly orthodox Christians, may not have been so eager to put human singing on one line with the howling of dogs, the mooing of cows, and the screaming of monkeys (nor were, of course, many nineteenth-century aestheticians).

Does it matter to present-day research when these ideas originated, and how credible they seemed at a given time? — To make a long answer short, I think it matters. Because ideas need a context, and narrowing the context narrows our perspective on that idea and our ability to develop it. In other words, I think that research into human psychology cannot ignore the history of ideas.

The Wötzel Puzzle

The word ‘declamation’ is likely to evoke negative associations — pompousness and a swollen tone. It was no different two centuries ago. At least in the German-speaking world, where, despite a widespread anti-declamatory prejudice (or sensible aversion) declamation as a stage art boomed around 1800.

This has been the subject of my research of the past few months. And that’s how I came across Dr. J.C. Wötzel’s Outline of a General and Comprehensible Doctrinal Edifice or System of Declamation (1814). It took me some time to get through its 840 pages even in hop-skip-and-jump fashion. For Wötzel uses three words were anybody else would use one.

It took a while too before I found out the reason: it’s that Dr. Wötzel wrote his books by copying from those of others, wötzling them into his ‘own’ simply by adding words. Unnecessary, redundant, superfluous words. I realized this when a paragraph looked all too familiar — indeed it had been copied from a well-known earlier work on declamation, Outline of Bodily Eloquence, by Hermann Heimart Cludius (1792). It even shows in the title: Cludius’ Grundris der körperlichen Beredsamkeit: für Liebhaber der schönen Künste, Redner und Schauspieler becomes Wötzel’s Grundriß eines allgemeinen und faßlichen Lehrgebäudes oder Systems der Declamation nach Schocher’s Ideen, für Dichter, Vorleser, Declamatoren, Redner, Lehrer und Kunstschauspieler aller Art, für deren Zuhörer und Zuschauer zur richtigen Würdigung der Erstern.

I’m always curious about the man or woman behind the book (see my previous post on Gustav Anton von Seckendorff), but Wötzel was something special. In fact, he had been exposed as a plagiarist years before he pasted his Outline together. More recently an American scholar has revealed that he illegitimately carried the title Dr., had appropriated the name of another, more famous author (J.C. Wezel), and had heaped ridicule upon himself with an ‘experiment’ in spiritism, Veritable Appearance of My Wife After Death (1804).

Ghost stories and fraud — it looks like an entertaining mixture. In fact any reader of Wötzel is likely to be discouraged by the sheer amount of empty verbiage he pours over any subject he lays hands on. Still, unravelling the Wötzel web makes for an interesting story, and I’ve told it in a short article that I’ve just put online.*

Cludius, one of the many victims of Wötzel’s plagiarism, is also an interesting subject for man-behind-the-book studies, and I will add a few words about him. Cludius was a Lutheran pastor and dean in Hildesheim who grew fruits as a hobby, and his name lives on in four apple cultivars. His Outline (Grundris) stands out from the mass of similar works by its scrupulous references. And yet Cludius too was a sort of con artist or con scholar, but a nice one. Whereas Wötzel may have incorporated a lost work by Wezel into his own, Cludius actually wrote an original work masquerading as another author’s lost book, the fourth book of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods. It was published in Latin (a very decent Ciceronian Latin, it seems) by a ‘Pater Serafinus’, after a manuscript allegedly found among the rubbish in a book stall. Its true authorship has long remained uncertain, but the ascription to Cludius has recently been confidently made by its German translator. The deceit is quite transparent, and no doubt satirical: Cicero is made to utter views strangely resembling Roman-Catholic doctrine, views that can never have been his, nor those of the Lutheran pastor.

* Schocher’s Ideas and Wötzel’s Words: Notes Along a Sidetrack
— Alternative location.

Seckendorff, alias Peale

Is speaking a kind of singing? Are we talking tunes?

The common sense answer is: evidently not. Music — most music at least — has fixed pitches, pitches that make up a scale. If we speak of ‘speech melody’, we’re simply using the word ‘melody’ in a broader sense.

Seckendorff shows the expression belonging to a toothache (after a drawing by Wilhelm Tischbein).

Seckendorff shows the expression belonging to a toothache (after a drawing by J.H.W. Tischbein).

Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff was not a common sense man. Seckendorff thought that speech too has its scale, though with much smaller intervals. Singing is a kind of speaking, but louder, and in the effort of producing volume we loose the finer pitch distinctions of speech. In fact, all speech is a kind of music – he called it ‘the concert on the musical scale of speech’.

This allows us, Seckendorff thought, to bridge the gap between speaking and singing. He demonstrated this by declaiming poems to his own piano accompaniment, producing a kind of speech-song, or rather song-speech.

Seckendorff was active as a professional declaimer around 1810, when a fashion for declamation was reaching its peak in Germany. Many actors were touring around with programmes of poetry and drama, performing in musical concerts, or in their own ‘declamatoria’. Seckendorff was not an actor, but a dropout government official, and acting was not considered a suitable profession for a Freiherr. This may explain why he performed under a stage name, Patrik Peale, though it doesn’t explain why it should be an English one. (It may have something to do with his earlier visit to America.)

In the same period flourished a very peculiar fashion for mime, living statues, and tableaux vivants. Here too Seckendorff went along (or took the lead), showing himself and his family members on stage in such compositions as Christ Praying on the Mount of Olives and A Father Protecting His Child from the Attack by a Wild Animal. It must have looked rather like a ghostly cabinet of living wax figures.

If Seckendorff is remembered nowadays, it is mostly for his two volumes (plus appendix) of Lectures on Declamation and Mime (1816). These are clearly indebted to the rhetorical tradition, with its cultivation of speech and gesture (or body language), as well as to the study of paintings. The images (in the appendix) show various kinds of facial expressions and postures, ranging from a ‘toothache’ to ‘false admiration’.

As for the problems of speaking and singing — and the broader issues of language and music (what are they? how do they relate?) — these cannot be resolved with common sense alone. Unfortunately, where Seckendorff departs from common sense, his ideas tend to be crackpot rather than constructive. But the few available biographical data were intriguing — and as I delved into period journalism and the memoires of contemporaries, I discovered that the story of his life was well worth telling.*

*Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff, alias Patrik Peale: A Biographical Note
— alternative address

Whose mine?

The first instance of this peculiar abuse I encoutered was a beginner’s piano book. Not the one from which I myself learned the notes and keys – decently titled First Piano Book (Het eerste pianoboek, by Jan Bouws). Its abusive competitor was My First Piano Book (Mijn eerste pianoboek), by somebody calling himself Folk Dean.

Whose book is Folk’s? Folk’s, of course. Not mine or yours.

Despite, or thanks to its irritating title Folk’s (actually Theo’s) book seems to have been a commercial success. Its pronominal abuse (My first …) may have been fashionable on the pedogogical market when it first came out in 1957. But it truly boomed after Windows 95 put My Computer onto your desktop. Nowadays there is hardly a commercial or public website which does not have a corner reserved for you not called yours but mine. It feels both idiotic and intrusive – them using my word for what’s supposed to belong to me.

If you say I and I say I
you mean you, but I mean me.

Indexicals – those words that change meaning depending on who’s using them, or where, or when – are sophisticated and disconcerting. They subvert the desire, instinctive and infantile, for a stable relation between word and object.

And that’s maybe the main reason why this abuse of the possessive pronoun is so annoying – it addresses me (and you) as an infantile kind of person, a halfwit without powers of generalisation, a toddler for whom all mine is mine, as mother can only mean one mother: its own, not anybody’s female parent.

It even reaches down into my private parts (and yours). Chilling.
Nel mio intimo