Go to the profile of Ric Amurrio

Ric AmurrioMay 30


“We begin by misunderstanding the music we play: listen carefully and follow what [these voices] say to you, and you will see, you will then hear more and more distinctly, and you will know more and more about yourself”

[Dich immer besser in Dir auskennen]”.

Communication typically goes wrong because other people have, as we put it, the wrong picture of what we’re meaning. It can take an age for two people to realize divergences over quite basic things. We’re very bad at managing to make good pictures in the minds of others.


Messages get misunderstood because the way we categorize

What is taking place in our mind when we listen to music? Is it a construction of formal structures, or is it a correlation between emotional labels and musical motifs, electrical impulses in the brain and so on? This assumption, which is regarded almost as self-evident, is the starting point for all the attempts to explain the nature of the musical experience.

A lot of unhappiness comes about in this world because we can’t let other people know what we mean clearly enough. On the one hand, pure formalism, which claims that musical forms are constructed in the listeners mind while listening to the music, lacks the power to explain the importance of music to human life — the excitement evoked by a particularly marvelous performance, for example.

One of the philosophers who can help us with our communication problems is Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was a recluse. He had a stutter, paused for ages in the middle of his sentences and had a habit of storming out if he didn’t like what people were saying. It was weirdly the ideal background for someone intent on studying how easily communication between people goes wrong.

Born Vienna in 1889. The youngest child of a wealthy, highly cultured but domineering steel magnate. Three of Ludwig’s four brothers took their own lives, and Ludwig himself was frequently troubled by suicidal thoughts. After studying at Cambridge, his father died and he inherited a lot of money. He gave it all away, mainly to his already very rich relatives and went to live in spartan solitude in Norway.

His two great works, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) and Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) has fascinated artists, playwrights, poets, novelists, musicians and even movie-makers, and yet in a sense Wittgenstein’s himself realized, his style of thinking was at odds with the “Zeigeist” or “scientism,” the view that every intelligible question has either a scientific solution or no solution at all.

How do human beings manage to communicate ideas to one another?

Wittgenstein thought of this while reading a newspaper article about a Paris court case in which, in order to explain with greater efficacy, the details of an accident that had taken place a road junction, the court had arranged for the accident to be reproduced visually using model cars and pedestrians.

It was a Eureka moment. In Wittgenstein’s view words enables us to make pictures of facts. And his answer is that language works by triggering within us pictures of how things are in the world. To say: The palm tree is by the shore, paints a rapid sketch that like the model lets another person see the situation in their mind and understand.

On the whole, problems of communication typically start because we don’t have a clear and accurate enough picture of what we mean in our own heads. We say meaningless things which therefore can go nowhere in the minds of others or we read more meaning into the words of other than they ever intended or than is warranted.

You tell your partner you had a conversation with an interesting person at the hotel reception. The picture in your mind is an innocent one. But your partner swiftly forms a very different impression.

In the humanities, scientism takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies” — .

Ray Monk

Wittgenstein says that there are many questions, to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions.

Roger Penrose, has a theory, on Penroses own admission, speculative, in which he thinks that a stream of consciousness is an orchestrated sequence of quantum physical events taking place in the brain. But suppose he’s correct, would we, as a result, understand ourselves any better? Is a scientific theory the only kind of understanding? Well, you might ask, what other kind is there?

Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. It strives, not after scientific truth, but after conceptual clarity.

In the Tractatus, this clarity is achieved through a correct understanding of the logical form of language, which, once achieved, was destined to remain inexpressible, leading Wittgenstein to compare his own philosophical propositions with a ladder, which is thrown away once it has been used to climb up on.

Ray Monk

The difference between science and philosophy, is between two distinct forms of understanding: the theoretical and the non-theoretical. Scientific understanding is given through the construction and testing of hypotheses and theories; philosophical understanding, on the other hand, is resolutely non-theoretical. What we are after in philosophy is the understanding that consists in seeing connections.

Instead of thinking that language is only just about pictures, he developed the idea that language is like a kind of tool that we use to play different games, which doesn’t literally mean games, more patterns of intentions.

So if a parent says to a frightened child: “Don’t worry — everything’s gonna to be fine”, they can’t know it really will be fine.

They aren’t playing the Rational Prediction From Available Facts Game.

They’re playing another game: The Words as an Instrument of Comfort and Security Game Wittgenstein’s point is that all kinds of misunderstandings arise when we don’t see which kind of game someone is involved in.

If one’s partner says: “You never help me. You’re so unreliable.” The natural inclination might be to hear this as a part of a Stating the Facts Game; like saying: The battle of Waterloo was in 1815.

So one might respond by citing facts about how actually you got the car insurance yesterday, and you bought some vegetables at lunch time, too. But actually, this person is involved in a different language game.

They’re using words not to capture facts. They’re playing The Help and Reassurance Game. So in the language game, they’re involved in, “You never help” means “I want you to be more nurturing.”

For example, if we ask a group of subjects to point at the appropriate colored rectangle when they hear the word “red,” we could come to some conclusions about the empirical link between the word and the subjects’ behavior.

In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein also wanted to draw attention to how much of our self-understanding depends on the words of others, on languages that have developed publicly and communally over many centuries long before we’re born.

To give as example, in Western cultures we roll out a red carpet for an honored guest; we do not wear loud red clothes at a funeral; a bride is dressed in white. Grasped as norms, these links constitute a meaning of these objects, and thus they are analogical to grammatical links in a particular language.


Non-theoretical understanding is the kind of understanding we have when we say that we understand a poem, a piece of music, a person or even a sentence.

How does one demonstrate an understanding of a piece of music?

What is needed, is “a culture”: “If someone is brought up in a particular culture-and then reacts to music in such-and-such a way, you can teach him the use of the phrase ‘expressive playing.’ What is required for this kind of understanding is a form of life, a set of communally shared practices, together with the ability to hear and see the connections made by the practitioners of this form of life.

The reason computers have no understanding of the sentences they process is not that they lack sufficient neuronal complexity, but that they are not, and cannot be, participants in the culture to which the sentences belong. A sentence does not acquire meaning through the correlation, one to one, of its words with objects in the world; it acquires meaning through the use that is made of it in the communal life of human beings.

We are bewitched into thinking that if we lack a scientific theory of something, we lack any understanding of it. Imagining, for example, that we will understand ourselves better if we study the quantum behaviour of the sub-atomic particles inside our brains, a belief analogous to the conviction that a study of acoustics will help us understand Beethoven’s music.

The British philosopher Alan Watts, said it best: A river is not its water, and by taking the water out of the river, you lose the essential quality of river, which is its motion, its activity, its flow.

One of the crucial differences between the method of science and the non-theoretical understanding that is exemplified in music, art, philosophy and ordinary life, is that science aims at a level of generality which necessarily eludes these other forms of understanding.

To understand a person is to be able to tell, for example, whether he means what he says or not, whether his expressions of feeling are genuine or feigned.

“Is there, such a thing as ‘expert judgment’ about the genuineness of expressions of feeling?” Yes, , there is.

But the evidence upon which such expert judgments about people are based is “imponderable,” resistant to the general formulation characteristic of science. “Imponderable evidence,”“includes subtleties of glance, of gesture, of tone. I may recognise a genuine loving look, distinguish it from a pretended one… But I may be quite incapable of describing the difference… If I were a very talented painter I might conceivably represent the genuine and simulated glance in pictures.”

“An inner process stands in need of outward criteria,” And where does one find such acute sensitivity? Not, typically, in the works of psychologists, but in those of the great artists, musicians and novelists. “People nowadays,” , “think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them-that does not occur to them.”

Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value


How is retrospection different from other memories? Why can music trigger memories in us? And how does expectation lead to the experience of emotion? Tune recognition or as I like to call it retrospection involves a number of complex neural computations interacting with memory. It requires that our brains ignore certain features while we focus only on features that are invariant.

The brain must be able to separate the aspects of a song that remain the same each time we hear it from those that are one-time-only variations. If the brain didn’t do this, each time we heard a song at a different volume, we’d experience it as an entirely different song! And volume isn’t the only parameter that potentially changes.


The relational school argues that our CPU and main memory system stores information about the relations between objects and ideas, but not necessarily details about the objects themselves.

If shown two cars that barely scraped each other, one group of subjects might be asked, How fast were the cars going when they scraped each other? Their memory output of what they actually saw had been reconstructed on the basis of a simple question the experimenter had asked a week earlier.

Have you ever tried to tell someone about a dream you had over breakfast the next morning? We naturally and automatically fill in this missing information when retelling the dream. The left brain makes up stories based on the limited information it gets.

We can change all of the pitches used in the song , the tempo, and the instrumentation, and the song is still recognized as the same song. We can change the arrangement say from blue- grass to rock, or heavy metal to classical and, as the Led Zeppelin lyric goes, the song remains the same.


how it is that songs get stuck in our heads. Scientists call these ear worms, from the German Ohrwurm. Our best explanation is that the neural circuits representing a song get stuck in playback mode, and the song or worse, a little fragment of it plays back over and over again.


Supporters of this view argue that memory is like a tape recorder or digital video camera, preserving all or most of our experiences accurately, and with near perfect fidelity. Experiences are stored as traces, they said, that are reactivated when we retrieve the episodes from the CPU and memory.

We also know anecdotally that people can recognize hundreds, if not thousands, of voices. You can probably recognize the sound of your mother’s voice within one word, even if she doesn’t identify herself. You cccan tell your spouse’s voice right away, and whether he or she has a cold or is angry with you, all from the timbre of the voice.

We can hold in memory the sound of famous peoples voices, often as theyre uttering specific content or catchphrases: Im not a crook, Say the magic woid and win a hundred dollars, Go ahead — make my day, We remember the specific words and specific voices, not just the gist.


In order to survive, to find edible food, water, shelter, to escape predators, and to mate, the organism must deal with three scenarios.


Objects that may create identical, or nearly identical, patterns of stimulation on our eardrums, retinas, taste buds, or touch sensors may actually be different entities.


Second, objects, though in presentation they may be different, are inherently identical. Although I may be used to hearing your voice in person, through both ears, when I hear you over the phone, in one ear, I need to recognize that you’re the same person.

The first two are perceptual processes: understanding that a single object may manifest itself in multiple viewpoints, or that several objects may have identical viewpoints.


The third problem states that objects, although different in presentation, are of the same natural kind. A red apple may look different from a green apple, but they are both still apples.

Leonard Meyer notes that classification is essential to enable composers, performers, and listeners to internalize the norms governing musical relationships, and consequently, to comprehend the implications of patterns, and experience deviations from stylistic norms.

Our need to classify, as Shakespeare says in A Midsummer Nights Dream, is to give to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name.

Aristotle laid the methods by which modern philosophers and scientists think about how concepts form in humans. He argued that categories result from lists of defining features. For example, we have in our minds an internal representation for the category “triangle.” It contains a mental image or picture of every triangle we’ve ever seen, and we can imagine new triangles as well.


How do we get out of this reliance on definitions? Is there an alternative? Wittgenstein proposed that category membership is determined not by a definition, but by family resemblance. We call something a heavy metal if it resembles other things we have previously called heavy metal.

Although most heavy metal songs have distorted electric guitars, so does Beat It by Michael Jackson — in fact, Eddie Van Halen plays the guitar solo in that song. Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin is a heavy metal anthem, and there are no heavy, loud drums in 90 percent of that song.


Is a robin a bird? Most people would answer yes. Is a chicken a bird? Is a penguin? Categories do not always have clear boundaries. Questions of membership are a matter of debate and there can be differences of opinion:

Certain stimuli hold a privileged position in our perceptual system or our conceptual system, and that these become prototypes for a category: In the case of our perceptual system, categories like “red” and “blue” are a consequence of our retinal physiology; certain shades of red are universally going to be regarded as more vivid, more central, than others because a specific wavelength of visible light will cause the “red” receptors in our retina to fire maximally. We form categories around these central, or focal, colors.

Rosch tested this idea on a tribe of New Guinea people, the Dani, who have only two words in their language for colors, mili and mola, which essentially correspond to light. When shown a bunch of different shades of red, we don’t pick a particular one because we’ve been taught that it is the best red, we pick it out because our physiology bestows a privileged perceptual position on it.


(a) categories are formed around prototypes; (b) these prototypes can have a biological or physiological foundation; © category membership can be thought of as a question of degree, with some tokens being “better” exemplars than others; (d) new items are judged in relation to the prototypes, forming gradients of category membership (e) there don’t need to be any attributes which all category members have in common, and boundaries don’t have to be definite.

Think of “Revolution 9” (an experimental tape piece written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with no original music, no melody or rhythm, which begins with an announcer repeating, “Number 9, Number 9,” over and over again) how far is it from a prototype song?

There are three eras of Fleetwood Mac: the blues years with Peter Green on guitar, the middle pop years with Danny Kirwan, Christine Mc Vie, and Bob Welch as songwriters, and the later years after Buckingham-Nicks joined. Although Mick Fleetwood and John Mc Vie, the drummer and bassist, are the only two members who have been with the group from its beginning, neither of whom sings or wrote the major songs.


Most musicians cannot start playing a piece of music they know at any arbitrary location; musicians learn music according to a hierarchical phrase structure. Other experiments have shown that musicians are faster and more accurate at recalling whether a certain note appears in a musical piece if that note is at the beginning of a phrase or is on a downbeat, rather than being in the middle of a phrase or on a weak beat.

Heres a demonstration, done by Daniel J Levitin based on an experiment that Andrea Halpern conducted: Does the word at appear in the American national anthem ?

If you’re like most people, you scanned through the song in your head, singing it to yourself at a rapid rate, until you got to the phrase What so proudly we hailed, at the twilights last gleaming.

 Now, a number of interesting things happened here.

First, If you were only able to play back a particular version you had stored in memory, you wouldnt be able to do this.


Your memory is not like a tape recorder; if you want to speed up a tape recorder or video or film to make the song go faster, you have to also raise the pitch.


When you did finally reach the word at in your mind your target in answering the question I posed you probably couldn’t help yourself from continuing, pulling up the rest of the phrase, the twilights last gleaming. This suggests that our memory for music involves hierarchical encoding not all words are equally salient, and not all parts of a musical phrase hold equal status. We have certain entry points and exit points that correspond to specific phrases in the music — again, unlike a tape recorder.

Daniel J Levitin


We need a theory of category formation that will account for

(a) categories that have no clear prototype,

(b) contextual information, and

© the fact that we form new categories all the time, on the spot.

If Im only storing abstract, generalized gist information, how could I construct a category like songs that have the word love in them without having the word love in the title ?

The distinguishing feature of exemplar theory is that every experience, every word heard, every kiss shared, every object seen, every song youve ever listened to, is encoded as a trace in memory.


As we attend to a melody, we must be performing calculations on it; in addition to registering the absolute values, the details of its presentation details such as pitch, rhythms, tempo, and timbre we must also be calculating melodic intervals and tempo-free rhythmic information.

We are storing both the abstract and the specific information contained in melodies. They preserve context, multiple-trace memory models can also explain how we sometimes retrieve old and nearly forgotten memories. Have you ever been walking down the street and suddenly smelled an odor that you hadn’t smelled in a long time, and that triggered a memory of some long-ago event?

Wittgenstein uses understanding music as a model for understanding language. Understanding what it means to understand music can give us a clue to understanding language. The issue is particularly challenging when instrumental music absolute music, as Wagner was the first to name it is at issue: How could a collection of pure musical sounds express anything?

It seems obvious that people understand music when they listen to it,

However, understanding music is not a mental event that occurs in the listener’s mind as a reaction to musical sounds. We therefore cannot understand what it means to understand music through psychological or statistical studies of mental reactions.

We cannot answer questions about aesthetic impressions through empirical experiments or statistics as to people’s reactions and the agreements among them,

Rather, to describe a musical taste we have to ask about the whole musical tradition:

Did children give concerts in that musical culture? Did women give them or only men? Did widening the audience circle from the nobility to the bourgeois have any influence on these matters?

In the Brown Book Wittgenstein mobilizes music to clarify this idea:

Understanding and explaining a musical phrase. -Sometimes the simplest explanation is a gesture; on another occasion it might be a dance step, or words describing a dance. — But isn’t understanding the phrase experiencing something whilst we hear it? . . . Are we supposed to imagine the dance, or whatever it may be, while we listen? . . . If seeing the dance is what is important, it would be better to perform that rather than the music. But that is all misunderstanding.

Explanations of music, according to Wittgenstein, do not rely on decisive evidence, on justifying conditions.

We can whistle, draw something, do some movement with our hand or make a comparison with a clown walking a tightrope and almost falling. If we don’t succeed in explaining it in one way, we can always try another.

Thus, this is not the right way to approach the question of musical meaning. What is the right way, then?

We have to know music. We have to learn to play an instrument, learn harmony, forms and structures; we have to know the history of music, the history of its theory and aesthetics. We cannot explain or understand how we understand music without knowing music, as we cannot explain or understand how we understand language without knowing a language. We cannot really talk about understanding music without some degree of musical ability.

The more comprehensive one’s musical skills, the deeper one’s understanding. It is always possible to deepen it even more by practice.

Another language game that we can imagine is a music lesson: the teacher explains a musical phrase to the student through an image or gesture. From the student’s reaction — a light in his eyes, something he says and especially the way he now plays — the teacher can know whether he understood or not. If not, the teacher can try another explanation. Understanding music, according to Wittgenstein, is a matter of learning; that is what explanations in music are aimed at.

The clue to understanding Wittgenstein’s philosophy of music is, more than anything else, music itself. It is doubtful whether one can understand what he says about music without having significant musical skills. At a time when the humanities are institutionally obliged to pretend to be sciences, we need more than ever the lessons about understanding that Wittgenstein — and the arts — have to teach us.