What does music mean? – Adam Neely’s recent video.

A few random thoughts:

When AN repeated Victor Wooten’s idea that music is a language he (they both) seemed to miss a bigger idea: That music is communication more broadly.
The reason I noticed this is that I’ve been aware for years (maybe years too late?) that the meaning explicit in the language is only a small part of what’s delivered in the communication of that line. The initial example AN gives is “I am ecstatic”, which sounds very different depending on, say:

  • what articulation they use (tone, speed, pitch, volume – sound familiar? – and what the cultural associations are with those characteristics),
  • where it’s said, and by whom (location in space and emotional proximity: e.g. lover next to you in bed/stranger next to you on a late night train home; and time: After you mentioned your dog’s birthday/death in a hot car)
  • where the speakers hands, eyes, body are
  • (etc. etc.)

There’s also the fact that many things we communicate (sometimes much more loudly than the words) are beyond our explicit control or even conscious thought, which echoes the idea of different musical individuals and combinations (Miles’ 2nd 5-tet, say…) “communicating” the same idea differently. An embodied, personality-driven expression.
All of these elements contextualise the thing being communicated immensely. Neely seems to imply this by riffing on Steve Vai’s imitation of Leonard Bernstein’s hair check, but then kind of leaves it hanging.

(I’m assuming Nelly is then kind of trolling when he then says music is “nothing”, which is clearly not the case – more about this below…)

Neither Bernstein or Neely seem to spend much focus on (for mine) the crux: the embodied way we carry music, the shapeless, often unspeakable feelings it can invoke. They are much further up on an reasoning, analytical, intellectual level. This reminded me of what Frank Zappa said about music: That it is done “for no reason at all”, which is a very different (and deeper) joke than “nothing”. The line of Aristotle’s that Bernstein uses in the clip came to me again: “midway between the unintelligible and the commonplace”. That, and Leonard Meyer’s comment about “expectation” capture some of the opaque but definite (unreasonable?) “something” of music.

Later my ears caught (I can duz metaphors, yo) Neely saying “music without semantic meaning”, and tying that (see?) to the previous idea of Pythagoras’s “Music of the Spheres”. This gets closer to my early complaint about the missing time and space element in the “ecstatic” music-is-language analogy. But at this point the surgical focus ceases; the two ideas are only loosely attached, and it feels to me a lot less like Bernstein’s language driven dissection, and more like “the vibe”.

Jordan B. Peterson talks in many of his videos about music (and art) having an element of transcendence (even for the what he terms “nihilistic punk rockers”) which pushes back against “nothing” – and which Neely knows: Witness Bernstein’s “stream of transformations” line that immediately follows in the video. JBP’s description of music also pushes back pretty hard against Steven Pinker’s idea of music as an evolutionary spandrel i.e. a frilly attachment to the greater evolutionary production of language (if I’m remembering that right?), which is one of the few spots where I’m convinced Pinker is absolutely missing the point.

Also: Peterson’s definition of meaning being an embodied thing; something you act out and grapple with rather than something you intellectually hold.The idea of creative acts going beyond the known into the right brain of chaos to find new as yet unknown (undescribed?) meaning. Music and dancing. Music as something that moves you; music having “…that swing”.

Anyways, I loved this (as always) well thought out, well presented video by Adam Neely, and wanted to chew on those ideas a little further.

And hey, that The Wire/Miles Davis metaphor is way killer. I also just realised my Youtube trajectory went: Jordan B. Peterson -> Samuel Andreyev -> Adam Neely.

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