Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Quotation For Mid-June 2009, and, Free Stuff!!.


Lerdahl and Jackendoff: not a brand name emblazoned on hi-end audio equipment, apparently.

..'What of the other well-known Chomskian argument, the argument from linguistic universals? Chomsky urges that the existence of certain principles common to all languages strengthens the case for innateness. Are there structural similarities between the musics of different cultures that would support a parallel argument for music?.

Not just any universal feature will suffice for such an argument to work: in order to justify an explanation in terms of innate cognitions, the universal features need to be of reasonable complexity and somewhat "unobvious". For example, suppose it were found that all cultures made chairs. It would clearly be absurd to attribute this universal to a specialised mental structure for chair construction, because the idea of a chair is just too obvious to need a special structure.

I think we can say the same of ideas such as regular pulse, pitch centricity, and scales. Consider the example given in the context of Lerdahl and Jackendoff's version of the universality argument:
The range of variation among rules in different idioms also constitutes grounds for hypotheses about innateness. For example (to consider an extreme case), though idioms differ in metrical and intervallic possibilities, we feel safe in conjecturing that there is no idiom that makes use of metrical regularities 31 beats apart, or for which the most stable melodic interval is the thirteenth.
The trouble with this is that such similarities are just too obvious to call for explanation in terms of an innate grammar or module. The preference for somewhat smaller, more readily singable, intervals and simpler divisions of musical time are just the most obvious musical structures, just as chairs are the obvious things to sit on.

This is really another version of Putnam's point: if a structural principle is simpler than the
alternatives, it does not need to be explained by innate cognition.'

John Croft; Musical Memory, Complexity, and Lerdahl's Cognitive Constraints. 11-12. (masters thesis from 1999 which you can download for free from Croft's site here.)

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2 comments:

tom said...

interesting, but not such a great argument. It's certainly not obvious to me that the idea of chairs is obvious (and does he mean sitting on something in general, or the 4 legged, backed kind?).

Similarly it's not explained why not having 31 beats to the bar (or even repetitive meter) is obvious for 'structural' reasons.

Edward Lawes said...

Well, if I understand Putnam's argument properly, the chair argument is just one example (I think the backed or three-legged or four legged or whatever is irrelevant, they are all chairs of some sort.)

Regards the 31 beats to the bar point, it's obviously not as simple as 4, or 3 or 2. It's more difficult to count, same goes for intervals which are harder to sing than others etc, you wouldn't choose those or find them first (not as obvious.)

Even in cultures where you find these complex rhythmic/tuning systems (Western Classical music, middle eastern music, Indian Classical etc) you will also find the simpler ratios/divisions as part of their vocabulary, presumably these were found or worked with first (?).

Later more complex arrangements were developed, by building on simple structures (like sub-dividing the beat or combining simpler patterns into more complex ones, horizontally and/or vertically like Central African polyphony)

The fact that a pulse is found in much music around the world, or simple arrangements of repeating accents (4 beats to a measure, with beats 1 and 3 being 'stronger' than 2 and 4 for example) or that obvious intervals like the octave or the perfect fifth occur all over the world does not prove we have an innate 'pulse' brain module or interval module or whatever.

These materials are commonly available and so are made use of as solutions to problems (how do you organise musicians/people together?, use a pulse or basic unit, how do you sing things other than just one pitch but avoid something sounding random?, find easy related pitches like perfect 5ths.)

Another example on the lines of the chair, how do keep your dwelling free from rain water?, build a roof. Two societies thousands of miles away will come up with the same solution and if similar materials are around (leaves) they will get used. Not because we have a special innate facility or module for building roofs.