Words vs Music and Minimal-loss Encoding for Communication

Robert Greenberg has some amazing lectures on music from The Great Courses. Even if the subject matter (classical music) doesn't interest you, he's an excellent lecturer and his enthusiasm is infectious. Regardless of topic, he's entertaining.

Something from the beginning of Lecture 2 of "How to Listen to and Understand Opera" stood out for me and I wanted to organize my thoughts here.

Robert opens the lecture talking about the reasons for the lasting expressive power and popularity of opera.

The first reason, he says, has to do with the expressive power of the purely musical experience; those things that music can tell us that words cannot.

The second reason has to do with the complimentary nature of words and music; the self-reflective nature of words and the emotionally-reflective nature of music.

Robert follows with a quote from Eric Plaut's book "Grand Opera"

Words and music are our two most powerful languages for emotional communication. Speech expresses a form of symbolic thinking and speech is unique in that it alone allows self-reflective thinking. Only through speech do we become able to think about thinking. The capacity for self-reflective thinking comes, like most things in life, at some cost. Although it makes thought more precise and capable of generalizations and abstraction, its development results in the loss of potential for other capacities. Lost with the development of speech is some of the all-embracing quality of emotional response. The infant does not separate emotion from perception or sensation. The infant reacts in a total way. With self-reflective speech, some of that quality of immediacy is lost. Music speaks to us in a language that is not self-reflective. Music retains more of the capacity for immediate total emotional response that we lose with speech. Music does not have the capacity for logical reasoning and problem solving of self-reflective speech. Music can describe aspects of life and feeling that speech can not.

Communication is lossy. With a more expressive language and with a larger vocabulary, we can get more and more accurate with our communication. But there's always loss.

I think this is saying that words result in greater loss than music when it comes to communicating certain things.

If I'm trying to communicate "Pick the kids of from school at 3 o'clock, because I have a doctor's appointment." then words will undoubtedly be less lossy than music.

But if I'm trying to communicate the feelings and emotions I had when I discovered the love of my life was pretending to return my love so that she could poison me, collect my insurance, and marry my brother, then perhaps words would be more lossy than music.

I can describe a flavor.

The food tastes sour, like a lemon.

I can describe the sensation of a flavor.

The food causes the muscles in the back of my mouth to tighten. There's a sensation that I feel, mostly on the sides of my tongue, that I can only think to describe as "sharp". My tongue tends to curl and my lips pucker on their own accord.

But that's just some of the physical reactions that occur. It's far from an accurate description of the experience of tasting something sour.

There's no good way to communicate with words the experience of tasting something sour. There's just too much loss. The only thing I could do is shove a lemon in your mouth and say "Here, this."

Of course, I'm not suggesting that music would be better than words at communicating "sour".

No. I think what occurred to me while listening to that quote from Eric Plaut is that music is like shoving a lemon in someone's mouth when it comes to communicating the experience of emotion and feeling.

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