Life does weird things. It seems to bury little surprises in the future for you to find like Easter eggs, that you run into as you go and unwrap as you arrive at them. “Composer Me” was one of those surprises, and a big one. I simply cannot believe that I’m writing music after a half a lifetime of thinking it impossible, a skill I simply did not have and never would. And not only am I writing music, but I’m writing what I judge to be half-decent stuff. I’m not entirely sure that people will believe me if I play it for them and say that it’s only the third thing I’ve ever written, and that I didn’t start until I was 44. A lot of armchair neuroscientists would claim that to be just as impossible as my own belief that I couldn’t write music.
But it really isn’t hard. What it took was watching Gabriela Montero and learning about her life, and how she learned music as a native language. Mama sang to baby, and baby sang back. In the crib. At 8 months, which is the age when babies of culturally Deaf signing parents begin signing. Talking babies don’t talk that young not because their brains can’t do it, but because the equipment isn’t ready yet; the larynx is still positioned too high in the throat to speak with. Once it drops down, the speaking starts, but the brain had been primed and raring to go months before then. With baby Gabriela, she had that toy piano in her crib at the right age, and a mother who sang to her. She loved it, and she “sang back” with that piano. Like learning to talk: mama says something, baby says something back.
And then I watched a documentary about the Philadelphia Orchestra called “Music from the Inside Out,” and several of the things that the musicians were discussing made me think that music was a language as well, not just in a fluffy Hallmark-card metaphorical sense, but a nuts-and-bolts sense. They discussed whether or not a fire siren could be considered music, since it was an organized sound meant to prompt an emotional reaction, and that has been used in music at times. It struck me that it was not music, but was the kernel of music — the way a monkey hooting “danger danger!” at a snake was the kernel of language but not yet language.
And that in order to be language, one has to look not only at what the sound is, but at what operations can be carried out on it. Can you use the fire siren to prompt more than one emotion? No. Can you put it in 2/2 instead of 4/4 time? No. Can you change its key signature? No. So it’s not only a matter of considering what it is, but how it behaves and what you can do with it.
This is also the same as language. That “danger danger!” hoot — can you put it into the past? No. Can you make it subjunctive, so that the monkey is saying, “IF there were a snake under this rock … ” instead of “There is a snake under this rock.” No. Does the hoot change for more than one snake? No. Does the hoot change to propose that there be a snake under this rock in the future, and moreover is there a similar sound for food under the rock that changes similarly when that is proposed for the future? No. The hoot is not language because it does not behave like language.
Fire siren : music :: monkey hoot : language. Thus, on another level, fire siren : monkey hoot :: music : language.
Again, music is language.
There was another comment — one with which I disagree — implying that music theory wasn’t valuable, and that the great composers did everything by “feel,” whatever that means. People love to romanticize this process, when it’s mechanically easy to understand. They don’t like that, though. They prefer the mysticism and incomprehensible foggy nonsense view of things, because they seem allergic to understanding. Sure, the great composers “felt” what they did … just as I am not thinking about prepositions and verb endings right now. I’m writing and talking by “feel.”
However, those rules of grammar still exist. And I am indeed following them. I’m simply fluent, meaning that while I know and am following these rules, I am not consciously aware of them as I’m doing it. That’s what it means to be fluent. To know things that you don’t know you know. Mozart, Beethoven, all those people … they were simply fluent in music, in exactly the same way that a speaker of a language is fluent in that. And a newcomer to that language must learn the rules consciously. They aren’t at the stage where they can do it by “feel” yet, so they need to follow the rules and think about the verb endings while they go. It makes them clumsy and hesitant when they talk, but as they get better the fog will clear, and the rules will fade into their being, everpresent but not intrusively so. And they also will begin speaking by “feel.” That’s what music theory and grammar are: universes of knowledge inside of each of us. We all contain universes, but we can only access them with ease and grace when we forget they are there.
Yet again, music is language.
And I know how to learn languages. Better than almost anyone else I know who is not autistic.
So if music == language, and I know how to learn languages, then all I have to do is transform my learning strategy for languages in a way to apply them to music. All I have to do to get started — and to hit the ground running — is to find the ways in which writing music is the same as writing words.
Done. All that was needed was for me to make that connection in my mind. It was made, and now a backlog of ideas is flooding out of a gate that had been locked shut prior to this. It just took me 4 decades to figure out that I had the key in my pocket already, and moreover it’s a key I’ve been using for my entire life to open other more frequently used gates.
All one has to do to learn something new is find a way to make the new skill “look like” the old one to the mind. Then, apply the reverse transform to the solution you’ve applied to the old skill, and with minor tweaks, it will work for the new one.
If this is unfamiliar or implausible to anyone, that’s too bad. This is how it works.
Interesting tidbit about the universes inside each of us: the number of atoms in the observable universe is estimated at 10^80. That’s a 1 followed by 80 zeros. The number of neurons in the human brain is 10^11 — which means that the possible numbers of states of mind for the human brain is … 2^(10^11). A far, far, far greater number than 10^80. We really can fit universes in our skulls. Lots of them.