Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Music: Songwriting, Math, and Spirituality

This week's last.fm top five: Feist, Folk Implosion, Sarah Vaughn, The Smiths, and T-Rex and Josephine Foster tied for fifth. Rather than talk about these fine folks, I'm in the mood for something completely different.

This afternoon my Google Reader feed served up Jeff Shattuck at Cerebellum Blues and his question, "Can an atheist be an artist?" Shattuck's post is actually about how religious (or, worse, "spiritual but not religious") artists give credit to the divine for their creations and why Shattuck finds this odd. The climax of the post comes in the last two paragraphs:

Last, and least, all these great songwriters proclaiming how their works are divine makes me sound like a total ass when I talk about how I think my songs come from me, thank you very much!

And that’s my point: because of the way artists talk about how they create, namely, some deity does it for them, a perception has been created that true artists are somehow closer to god than the rest of us. Well, for the record, I do think I am an artist and do not think there is a god of any kind.


If you'll bear with me, I'm going steer away from the cultural aspects and get geeky by saying that I see music in the same way that I see mathematics. Like a great song, there's something that seems supernatural and otherworldly about mathematics that some call “spiritual” or “transcendental,” and I think the connection runs deeper than just in the emotions the two elicit.

In this blog, we've seen how mathematics has been used - lazily and incorrectly - as proof that god exists. This view misses that a mathematical statement is true only in terms of its own rules (or axioms). If you change the rules, you change which statements are true and which are false, and the new rules still fall under the domain of math. It's a lot like how an English sentence is grammatical according to English grammar but not according to Russian grammar, even though both are human languages. There may be, as Chomsky proposed, a universal grammar which allows English, Russian, and every other human language, but even that needn't include every conceivable language (like Dolphin, Crow, or Vulcan). We could continuously find new ways to construct languages without changing our definition of language just as we develop new fields of mathematics without changing its definition.

The sidestep into language is a useful analogy because it's more intuitive to see how Russian and English folk music are as different as the languages. Each folk tradition has its own internally consistent patterns, but neither is any more musical than the other just as neither language is more or less grammatical. Just like Tolkien and Trekkies construct artificial languages, film composers have created specific sound palettes for fictional worlds. Some mathematicians (like those who work in the ) do these "what if" experiments all the time. It's essentially a game to see which alternative routes are useful or interesting, and the endeavor is just as legitimate an expression of humanity and creativity as music. It just happens that the objects involved in mathematical games (chiefly numbers) make them far more useful than musical games (and their equivalent reduction to pitches and divisions of time).

I brought up the game/puzzle aspect in an interview recently. (Do note that I was attributing the puzzle mentality to Jonathon Coulton's approach to songwriting, as I've written about before, and not Linnell's view of listeners. But it makes sense that way too.) This is also the frame of mind I'm speaking from whenever I say that literature, music, and the visual arts all work on the same principles. We can talk about space between notes, colors being in harmony, and literary leitmotifs. This is a lot like abstract- or meta-mathematics, where everything boils down to concepts like ordered sets and relationships. (MarkCC brought this sort of art-math connection not long ago here.)

One example of a musical game is trying to create new chord progressions that “work.” The relationship between music and math here is expressed most perfectly in attempts to write a generative grammar of jazz chord sequences. I won't go into the details, but suffice to say that in Western popular music - from Vaudeville to Bieber - there are only a handful of stock chord progressions that work. You've probably seen or heard humorous examples like this rant.

When you think about the relations and functions of the chords, rather than the specific notes or the instruments playing them, it becomes clear why this is the case. This is much like how there are only so many ways to organize an English sentence at the level of subjects, verbs, and objects. The variety – and the actual art - come in as one twists the form by replacing stock chords with new chords that have the same function. Bebop took this to extremes by extending harmony until nearly every tone was supported by nearly every chord, but one of the fundamental misunderstandings about this is the belief that this exercise freed or liberated the soloist. Rules weren't being eliminated, they were being created. If you imagine a music-making machine, boppers were adding more knobs (or discovering unused knobs). This increased the options but also made things more complicated for the person running the music-machine.

You're lucky it's not online or this talk of knob-twisting would have me veer toward typography in a reference to Hofstader's “Metafont, Metamathematics, and Metaphysics” (reprinted in Metamagical Themas), one of the best essays I've read this past year. What I took from it is that parameterizing art like this doesn't rob it of its creatively. There isn't a single ideal song, and there will always be undiscovered “knobs” that have been left at the same setting for millennia until one person comes along, tweaks it, and makes the result work. Even though music and mathematics are games in my view, they're much more open-ended than checkers or Hungry Hungry Hippos. You only have to look at musique concrete to see evidence for that.

All of this is how music becomes “transcendental” for me and how I explain where my songs come from without recourse to the divine or the spiritual to explain art and creatively (if those explanations even work). Before anyone says I've left out the emotional aspects, I don't think there's necessarily an either/or choice between treating art as a formal game and creating emotionally-engaging works. My favorite artists do both. I took the original question as a challenge that atheists could write the sort of music that others describe as spiritual or transcendental (the “closer to God” kind), not that atheists lacked human emotions or the ability to express them.

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