Friday, August 31, 2012

Rules: morals, games, music

A thoughtful post (here) by physicist Sean Carroll on the rules of morality and games.  His argument that rules of these sorts are not based on the laws of the universe nor handed from some deity but are nevertheless not arbitrary, invented and refined over time by real, fallible human beings is usefully applicable to music as well, with musical repertoires and styles hewing closely to the received rules but receiving a shock of  invention from time-to-time with extensions and refinements of the rule.

Now music does play against a certain immutable physical and physiological background — sensory consonance and dissonance, for example, with fairly clear correlates in physical and neurological domains — but the evidence presented by the diversity of existing musical repertoires suggests that there are plenty of alternative strategies for optimizing local musical rules to take into consideration these aspects to a greater or lesser (including no) degree. And yet, for all this diversity, there is a remarkable consistency to our ability to order an acoustical performance into broader or narrower categories of the musical and, within those categories, remark on the degree to which they follow or avoid the known rules.

Personally, what interests me most in music — "interests" here meaning "provokes my ear and aural imagination" — are those repertoires, forms, styles, pieces, parts of pieces, and moments of music in which it is thrillingly unclear whether the music is breaking the rules or discovering a new configuration or reading of those rules.  It is thrilling in the way a Rene Thom-style catastrophe or biphurcation is thrilling, a sudden and major shift due to a small change in circumstances. It is thrilling in the same way that a Wittgensteinian language game can be when suddenly, after an extended conversation, it becomes clear to both speakers that they weren't talking about the same thing at all.


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