Music, Language, and Capitalism[*]
I was thinking about how music and language are alike and yet different, and this is the train of thought that came to me.
We might think of music as structuring time. Music exists in time, and moves through time by changing pitch, volume, tempo, rhythm, and timbre. By combining different pitches, chords are created which modulate through time. A beat is established – a grid against which tempo and rhythm occur –variations of pitch, structured in time, creating melodies. And every pitch has a timbre, a sound quality, like the difference between a cello and a saxophone, and when two or more instruments are combined, as with a symphony orchestra, there are many variations of sound quality.
All of this is produced and received by thinking and feeling creatures whose experience of life is temporal: we live and act and feel in time. We desire, fear and plan for what we see coming over the horizons of our lives, we are excited or relaxed, which are ways of feeling ourselves in time. The patterns of music intersect and interact with the patterns of our feelings, with the risings and fallings of our vitality, amplifying and encouraging or guiding us in new directions, opening up unsuspected possibilities for thinking and feeling about the world.
Could this way of thinking about music have any bearing on how to think about language? Language that is spoken, or sung, comes at us in time, and has a lot in common with music – tempo, rhythm, even variations in pitch, and these qualities matter in literature, especially poetry. But language has the added dimension of cognitive meaning; it tells us how things are, or could be, in the world, either in fiction or in reality. We respond emotionally to stories, but not as directly as we do to music. Music reaches out and into our emotional lives, grabbing us by the heart strings. But words have to be understood in terms of what they say about how things are or will be in order for them to have emotional impact. There is an additional moment of processing between the words and their cognitive and emotional uptake.
What can we say about the cognitive content of language? How does it say things about the world? One idea about this is that the things we say to each other represent the world, rather as maps or pictures do, and these help us organize our lives together. This is the practical dimension of language. By way of language, we lay out a map of our world which we can use to give guidance to each other about what is to be done. But just knowing how things in the world are laid out is not enough; we also want to know why things are the way they are. We want understanding, explanation, and this gives rise to science. We could call this enterprise making sense of the world. And before there was modern science, there was the desire make human sense of the world, to know the purpose of it all. We want to know not just what causes things to be as they are, but what the purpose of it all is.
Religions have always had answers to this question: for example, our purpose is to live as our heavenly father intends us to, and thereby to be loved, and not condemned, by him. Great music has come from this idea – the great masses by Bach, Faure, and Brahms, for example, or hymns and gospel music. But religion is often divisive, and many people can no longer believe our lives have any overarching purpose established from above by a god. Yet lives lived without any sense that they mean something, that they are of value, are often lived in despair and end in suicide.
How, then, do we give purpose to our own lives, personally and collectively?
We don’t need the Buddha to tell us that to live is to suffer: we all know this from our own experience if we have lived long enough (though most people on our planet learn to suffer almost from the beginning). Our bodies can inflict pain and disability on us at any age, and will certainly do so in the end. Floods, fires, and earthquakes can undo our lives, not to mention accidents that can happen anywhere and anytime. The universality of suffering offers us a purpose: to help each other. All who live need help from all the rest, as Bertolt Brecht wrote. Since we live so much inside each other’s lives, we can do more than alleviate suffering: we can give each other pleasure and even joy. Music is one way to do that.
We need to recognize, though, that most of the suffering I mentioned a moment ago is intensified and enormously multiplied by the capitalist social arrangements under which we live, and these arrangements produce massive suffering on their own.[†] For everything we need to survive and flourish in life, we are dependent upon the ability of wealthy and powerful elites to maintain and extend their wealth and power by exploiting and expropriating our labor and the little that we have. Food is not produced and distributed to meet our needs, but to profit agribusiness corporations and their stockholders on Wall Street, leaving billions to starve. Health care is managed to maximize profits for insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and hospitals. We see people homeless on the streets because housing is a privately owned, profit making commodity. Government services like Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, education, and assistance with food and housing are constricted by policies of austerity engineered by the wealthy to lower their tax bills and create a needier and more exploitable work force. The money and political power of oil companies enables them to block or cripple every serious effort to avert the impending climate catastrophe and the near universal suffering that will result from it.
So to live is to suffer, but under capitalism much of this suffering is needless, inflicted upon us by a political and economic system that works in the interest of the few. So not only can we give aid, comfort, and joy to the suffering people around us, but we join in the work, already underway, to challenge and delegitimize the right to privately own the resources we all need to live and to live well. And music has its role to play here as well. There is a rich tradition of protest songs, labor songs, and peace songs. Yet almost all music, from string quartets and symphonies to rock n’roll bands and hip hop, engages us in places within us of which we cannot speak but which deserve liberation from the chains of capital. Music shows us how much more there is to us than what can be sold for money, and why we cannot flourish in a social world where money is the measure of all things. Why couldn’t life be as beautiful as the most beautiful music?
I'm Clayton Morgareidge for the Old Mole Variety Hour
[*] Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think. What I mean is that understanding a sentence lies nearer than one thinks to what is ordinarily called understanding a musical theme. Why just this pattern of variation in loudness and tempo? One would like to say “Because I know what it’s all about.” But what is it all about? I should not be able to say. In order to ‘explain’ I could only compare it with something else which has the same rhythm (I mean the same pattern). (One says “Don’t you see, this is as if a conclusion were being drawn” or “This is as it were a parenthesis”, etc. How does one justify such comparisons?—There are very different kinds of justification here.) (Wittgenstein, Phil.Invest. §527)
[†] We should also think about the ways in which capitalism, like music, structures our experience of time: the time clock, the pace of work, rush-hour traffic, monthly bills, credit reports about late payments.