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Music and Meaning

Can music have meaning? Certainly, meaning can always be found in music – one piece of music and the traveler hears home, the lover hears the beloved, the believer hears God – but can a piece of music bear meaning as an act of communication?

Keys, intervals, and chords are often thought of as ideas in themselves. Major is happy, minor is sad. The second menaces, the sixth regrets. The suspension promises, the dominant delivers. But the rules hold only for the simplest examples. A composer can always make the key serve the occasion; a performer can do the same for the composer. When we hear a familiar piece in an unfamiliar key – say, when an aging singer changes the key of a song to ease their voice – it troubles us at first; but we get used to it, and after a few hearings all our original associations pass over into the new key intact.

Time and use have made certain pieces of music the bearers of specific meanings; but if we listen naively, the meanings disappear. The motive of Beethoven’s 5th has come to represent strength, right, V for victory; but if we say that Beethoven put all that into four notes, then we must say that Samuel Morse put it into three dots and a dash.

Yet it is absurd to say that music is without meaning – that it is mere surface – that what we see in it are only reflections on its polish. Music comes to you without message or meaning; but once you have supplied the message, there should be no room for others. A piece of music should work on its message like a table of derivations works on a root in a Semitic language. We are not told what the deed is; we are told: here is the doer, here is the manner, the means, here is the beginning of it, the end, the reasoning, the result, here is the place the thing was done, and who it was done to. (A strange analogy, yes; but consider the sometimes almost musical ambiguity of the ancient Semitic languages.)

No human being can experience every emotion equally; yet any competent musician can play a piece of music with any emotion, even one the musician has never experienced. The lack of experience can even make for a better performance, if it keeps the performer out of the way. How, then, can we call playing music the expression of emotion? It is first a means of experiencing emotions. The same can be true for listeners. A sad song can sadden you without matching your own experiences. Why listen to sad songs when you are sad? Because the sadness you feel from sad music is not your own sadness, but a borrowed sadness that covers your own.

Music is not the only means of emotional education and exercise, but it is the most effective, being the most efficient and the most accessible. Music goes ahead of the other arts, the lullaby that greets us almost as soon as we enter the world. The other arts reach the mind later, and rely on the capacities that music has formed.

And I suspect that among the arts, music serves to absorb the extreme of aestheticism. In the unmusical aestheticism can become immoderate and paralyzing, as if they do not know where to stop in their attempt to imitate or rival musical sophistication, even to the injury of what is particularly their art’s own.

As music became easier to hear, all the arts adopted simplicity as their goal: as if the desire for the pleasures of sophistication were limited, and as it finds sophistication in music, it finds satiety.

Consider music in movies. I do not know how much I am ruled by habit in finding it natural. Perhaps in a hundred years a scene ending in swelling music while lovers kiss will seem as artificial as a scene ending with a rhyming couplet and a falling curtain. Exeunt audience. But to me it seems that the movie depends more on the music than the music depends on the movie. Silent film, of course, was never silent, only voiceless. Music videos are watchable without plot or character. Many movies – especially if they propose to represent real life – have plots that would, told over a dinner table, only provoke laughter; characters, if they were real, we would prefer not to know. Far from being ennobled by their projected stature, it is only by the artifice of music that such stories gain watchable significance. As literature, movies are less flexible than narrative: the stories of superheroes and salesmen must be told alike by one camera at a time in one place at a time following one act at a time in a box of the same size over the same amount of time. Music smooths out the disparities when a salesman fills the screen like a superhero and a superhero declaims like a salesman.

Information theory defines the unit of communication as a single decision: a bit of information is exactly enough to decide one Yes or No. In this sense, music is meaningless. It contains no information except itself. Yet it has something very close to meaning: it cannot tell you how to answer, but it can force you to come to an answer. The screen tells you the man is a villain; the music makes you hate him. The song tells you how he did her wrong; the music puts you on her side. Judgment can be withheld only in silence; music decides nothing, but it forces the decision.

Nondefinition #27

Wallet. “In the time of the first Pax Americana,” – saith the chronicler, but who believes the old stories? – “every man of age was required to carry at all times a scrap of cow-leather in a fold in the cloth of his garments; and except that he showed this Wallet on demand, no merchant would sell to him, and a judge might throw him in jail only because he was without his Wallet. The word comes from the old wall, for the sides of a room; and this because each Wallet was like a key to the Wall, wherein law-abiders dwell.”


It is as difficult to say what guesswork is as to say what the mind is. Guessing is not the action of any faculty of the mind; it is the only action of the whole mind. There are no exercises or studies to train guesswork; the quality of the guess is the quality of the guesser. There are no abstract objects for guesswork to practice on – in any formal test, the answers where the mind is most used are the ones that are guessed at. Only in your guesses do you transcend the test, having in mind not only the subject matter but also the context of the test, weighing the character and reconstructing the thoughts of its makers, estimating your limits, knowing yourself and knowing the way of the world.

A good guess is sibling to a good idea. Both trade risk for reward, certainty for power. To guess is often the only way to know something that others do not. A bad guess is always wrong; but that one guess is some sense better than another also good does not mean it is more likely to be true. Reality is recalcitrant and perverse. Reality has punished for laziness, and punished for effort; punished for absurdity, and punished for plausibility; punished for optimism, and punished for pessimism – and, of course, it has rewarded each. There are no rules for guessing: we cannot guess with less than all our strength.

Nondefinition #26

Alchemists. To alchemists, fools and frauds, we owe the glorious and world-changing science of chemistry. No one could have invented chemistry on purpose; the wonders we expect from it daily were never unattainable, only unthinkable – except at the miraculous hands of the saints. It had to be stumbled on; we had to overreach to measure our grasp. We are proud of our sciences, and rightly so; but if there are sciences we have not yet imagined, they will not be born in the laboratories and institutes; look, rather, to the workshops and retreats, the lectures, the hyphenated works, to California; look to where the fools and frauds are steadily conceiving new ambitions.

Verbal Thinking

There is nothing more familiar than language without thought. Why not thought without language? Language, thought; thought, language; where is the division between them?

For example: when one word recalls others of similar meaning or sound, the triggering word need not occur consciously. Often things I see and do bring to mind other things which sound like the names of these sights or actions, or which occur together with those names – even in contexts where the name of the thing is equivocal and means something else.

This could, of course, be explained as an instance in which words function as things, within a thought in itself nonverbal. That is not so strange; it must happen in writing poetry. But if we adopt this explanation, where do we stop? We could do away with the notion of specifically verbal thinking altogether; which is absurd. We know about things we have no experience of beside hearing their names. If we dismiss these as thoughts about reports, we must explain how our knowledge holds when we see for ourselves, and experience replaces hearsay.

There are forms of thinking prior to language – animals think – and there are forms of human thought in which language is not only unnecessary, but a hindrance. Efficient mental calculation requires the omission of intervening words, even times and equals, instead hearing only numbers and rendering a result by a process that feels less like reckoning than recognition. You draw best what you cannot name, or by putting aside the name while you draw. In any game, or any system of rules yielding winners and losers, though words are of use beforehand in study and planning, they distract when you come to it – not because they are slow or awkward, but because they involve too much. Words, by which we compass the world, always drag the world in; but to play the game well, you must enworld yourself in it. To play with words in your head keeps the rules from sinking in, knocks your thoughts off the rails. Suddenly you think of the game itself, its origin, use, nature; the wording of the rules, the form of the strategies – how they resemble stratagems of nature or the stratagems of other games. And in the meantime you have lost.

This kind of thinking cannot help you win by rule: the only use of words in games is in cheating. And this is good. Intelligence is for cheating. We cannot win any of nature’s games by nature’s rules. We are not strong enough, not fast enough. We are too big to hide and too small to shake off attack. But we can change the rules: levers for strength; shoes, boats, tame horses for speed; blinds and camouflage for hiding; walls and armor for bulk. All invention is cheating; and cheating is made possible by language.

Some animals, of course, can cheat – chimpanzees, dolphins, ravens – the list is long and growing. Some of these cheats are ambiguous – complex acts, yes, but only very complex moves within the rules. Yet some are cheaters for sure. If they are cheaters, does that mean they have language?

There may be a kind of thinking in between nonverbal thought and language which is not (in the old phrase) sub-vocalized speech, but sub-verbal language; language without words.

Language is how we step outside the rules, how we recognize rules as being only rules, there to be broken. All this step requires is a faculty of association. In human beings this faculty is untyped, consistent, and social.

By “untyped” I mean that we can associate things without logical connection: when we say the sky is angry, we do not mean sky:?::person:anger nor the change in the appearance of the sky is isomorphic to the change in the appearance of a person becoming angry. We are simply associating the ideas sky and angry.

Intelligent animals are intelligent because they are capable of untyped association. A chimpanzee that fishes for ants with a stick has an association between ant and stick, but there is no thought in this process corresponding to tool. Having an association between ant and stick, he tries to keep them both in mind, to direct his attention to both at once – which means, for a forgetful animal, first that he picks up the stick and stays near the anthill; then that he touches them together. The stick and the anthill have limited affordance; the chimpanzee need only keep the association in mind to have a stick covered with delicious ants.

Untyped associations are illogical; so if untyped association is a necessity of thought, then so is illogic. We retain a naive habit of thinking of logic as a function of intelligence; but living the age of the computer, we have no excuse for this mistake. Logic is embedded in nature: transistors and electrons, chutes and marbles, can reason. Nothing is illogical; but only the highest complexity can simulate illogic.

That is one out of three for animals. The other two – consistency and sociality – are only ours. Any idea is an act of differentiation of the chaos of experience. When I say stick I isolate a segment of a continuum that runs from splinter and sliver through branch to tree and forest. And sticks are always sticks to me. So when I say that a monkey picks up a stick, I impute to the chimpanzee’s thought a quality of my own thought – the stability of stickness. But the chimpanzee’s thought may in this instance be closer to tree, and the stick he ends up with the limit of what his strength and dexterity could manage. Or he might have been thinking closer to branch, and again been defeated; or to splinter, and been unable to break the wood; or just of wood, and picked up the stick off the forest floor. On each occasion that I observe him with a stick his thought of what he carries may be anywhere on that continuum.

If his association has no stability, he cannot teach another monkey what a stick is, because he cannot, as we can, associate two consistent ideas – one that must be named (stick), and one that names itself (the sound stick) – so that another can imitate the association. Thus his associations are not transferable – they may be imitated in a broad sense, but the ideas associated to the same result may not match up at all.

Some of the above is probably reinvention. And certainly all of this could be formulated more precisely. I take the risk because I know of no work on the continuity of human and animal thought but arguments about whether there could be continuity – never what the nature of that continuity might be.

Nondefinition #25

Relativity. Time (said some fool) is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. Relativity, to the contrary, demonstrates that for anything to happen, there must be a perspective from which everything happens at once; and, conversely, that no two things actually happen at the same time, except as they happen to someone or something. If something has happened, then everything has already happened, and nothing has happened yet. If that confuses you, wait: it will make sense in time. It already has.

On a Television Advertisement for the City of Dubai

Only build.
Build higher and farther.
Build wilder and larger.
Build where never built before
Build with ruins under floor.
The city cannot wait, the roads are true
Their word runs everywhere, they run for you.
Where have you seen the spot where buildings cannot dwell?
The domes are in the mountains, the divers ride the bell.
Build while strength is left for building, build while time is left to build
Built atop the sunken city, build atop the land you filled.
Cities are everywhere rising, a fable instructive for anthills
Builders by summer and winter in sunshine or darkness our light fills.
See by the shores of the desert how cities are built by a gesture,
 Cities of pliable steel, cities that open like eyes,
Pillarless cities that spill out shaken like billowing carpets
 Sudden as breaker or dune, clouds of an overturned sky.
Too many cities have slow-grown only to perish in torment
Overturned cities, their names told counting the promise of judgment.
Cast up cities thin as cloth or canvas, anchored for the day
Sheathe your towers under glass as sails to set you underway.
No city wakes in silence when city never sleeps;
No harvest fails the city where city never reaps.
Who builds anew and never looks behind
Keeps safe from all that’s out of sight and mind.
To find the way we build it first.
The water follows on our thirst.
We build to trap the day;
The night we wall away.
Build stronger and taller
Build nearer and smaller.
Only build.