Decisions, Shapes

I remember learning the alphabet only in the vaguest way. It’s safer to say that, when I learned how to spell, I had a memory of learning the alphabet. Stringing words into sentences wasn’t all that tough: I just mimicked how people talked. In later years, English teachers drilled us all in proper grammar. As useless as the exercise of diagramming a sentence seemed, it helped me appreciate how a sentence has structure and meaning, or at least that it should have these things. I remember wondering why language was so redundant, and after I started writing more than a sentence or two, why it was so ambiguous in its meaning and structure.

Learning how to make a musical instrument speak wasn’t too different from learning to read and write. I had to learn where the notes were, how to string them together into scales and chords, and the rest was just training my hands to do what I wanted them to do.

There’s more. These two activities also have reading, where you see a paragraph or a set of staves and pull information out of the symbols on the page. And then there’s theory.

Music theory is well structured and understood, unlike the English language, which is pretty unstructured. There are no obvious harmonies or dissonances, no intervals or scales. Written English (and its spoken cousin) has things like alliteration, rhyme and meter.

I think of “literature” as a sort of applied language, maybe dressed in overalls and a bowtie. Literature indulges itself in specialties like criticism and symbolism. Music has those, too.

(Now that I write this, I realize that there may be more structure in English than I thought. Maybe it’s just that music has been codified by a smaller group of people; more people read and write than sight-read music.)

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, table conversation turned to learning to read, specifically about the shapes of words. As I took another bite of apple pie, my first thought was that music has shapes, too.

As is my habit, later I read a little about how people learn to recognize words. I found that there’s some debate about how we do this: Does the brain use all the glyphs in a word, or do we simply recognize the overall shape and use the letters to as checksums, or to verify the data? The simple fact that some fonts are more easily read than others makes me wonder if we sometimes recognize more common words based on their shapes alone, never needing to read the “source code”.

More research may spread some light on this for me. But it’s another example of human beings using a tool every day that’s a mystery to them. Are words like compiled apps, a black box we simply run? Or is the task order in our brains more complex than that, but so tied into instinct that we never think about what we’re doing? Is asking the difference between an unconscious process and a hard-coded one even a reasonable question to ask?

Whether you’re listening to music or making it, you’re depending heavily on instinct. (Or maybe on that black-box app in your head.) Years of lessons and classes and practice have served to turn rote knowledge into muscle memory. Minor chords are terribly sad because we’re used to them being used in that context, and dissonance is always going to make us flinch. The best music plays on these preconceptions, and the best novels use our cultural mores–or it discards them, for effect.

Almost every musician will introduce their own interpretation. When a musician does this in a way that works with (or, cleverly, against) what people expect, the audience applauds. When we see years of training sublimated into instinct and high-level, rapid decision making, it seems a little like magic from the outside.

Unlike some of my fellow musicians, I tend to think, not in melodies and pitches, but in chord shapes and rhythms. It’s a bit of a problem, actually, and I’m working on changing this by learning a new instrument. But, for now, when I think of a C chord, I think of how my left hand will be shaped on the fretboard of a guitar, or how my right hand will fall on a piano. Like this:

Writing is a little different, but if we do recognize words (or even phrases) as shapes, or chunks of meaning, then readers are processing text through a layer of abstraction. Word choice isn’t as important as we think, or at least not in the same way. Every reader–or listener–will process the same stimulus in different ways. The specific words affect the perceived tone, but not in any absolute, reproducible way. People have different prejudices and preconceptions. And everyone, no matter how well-focused, has different things distracting them while processing your masterpiece.

And it’s even worse than that: Every creator will introduce distortions into their works, no matter how faithfully they try to portray the world. And some will distort the world on purpose, or for effect, letting their lens on the world be their style.

But if this all sounds hopeless, take a step back and think of this: If we all saw the world in the same way, and if language allowed us to portray the absolute truth, then we would be living in an unambiguous world. There would be no art, no literature. Music (which is, after all, not a physical thing) might not even exist in such a world.

So the ambiguity I bemoaned as a child, learning his words and writing three-paragraph essays, is a gift. The futility of absolutely precise expression or understanding is a gift that lets us dance in the margins. Ambiguity gives us room to play.


Thanks to Julie Goldberg at Perfect Whole for editing, without whom this essay would be a weaker piece of writing.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a free sample edit. He also plays acoustic guitar in the band Baroque & Hungry. He’s fascinated by the interaction of language and music, and writes music and lyrics as often as possible.

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