A friend of mine who is a music major once expressed his distaste for musicals to me. He thought that adding words to a medium that attempts to communicate experiences by transcending language only diluted the expressive power of music. “Who needs language?” was his question. As a lover of literature and an aspiring writer, I was mildly bothered by his stance, partly because I could imagine why he felt it to be the case. In the past, I would have agreed that pure music was superior to song, but his position implied that music was superior to literature and that language itself was futile. I could have brought up the fact that the earliest instrument was the vocal box, and that before other instruments were invented, only song existed. As a friend of mine once noted, “You could be running naked and still be able to sing.”
My music theory teacher in high school once explained that the voice becomes louder as it rises, which is why a piece of music climaxes at its highest pitch. Since music began as an intensification of language, the patterns we use to understand music today are extensions of the same patterns we use to decode language. These patterns can be found across cultures, which could be evidence for a psychologically innate mechanism that links music to speech. My initial preference for pure music over song developed because I rarely pay attention to lyrics. Friedrich Nietzsche goes at great lengths in “On Music and Words” to discuss how great music makes one forget to listen to the words. I was also aware of how well a work of art can communicate without having to rely on additional devices; the principle of “Show, don’t tell” applies equally well to other art forms as it does to writing. Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim once decried the introduction of sound into film, which he saw primarily as a visual medium. This view is echoed by that of writer Robert McKee, who persistently advises screenwriters to avoid voiceover narration as a means of explaining the plot. I had to agree that adding illustrations to a novel or voiceovers to a film seemed like the lazy route; it appropriates techniques from other media to inflate art that is otherwise weak. Doing so undermined what I perceived to be one of the missions of art: to engage the senses.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that a medium evolves over time, and to narrowly limit its resources is stifling to creativity. Perhaps music is not much better than language, but the dilemma remains: are experiences which can be described in words inferior to those which cannot be? Many world cultures hold a belief that the sublime, the highest state of being, is irreducible to words. The notion of a “prison-house of language” from which one has to free oneself is characteristic of Eastern philosophies as well as twentieth-century thinkers like Wittgenstein, who claims “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The Renaissance resurrected the Ancient Greek belief that the beauty of nature could be expressed in the most logical language of all, mathematics. Subsequently, Romanticism cast doubt on reason and rationality as a tool for reaching the sublime. During the rise of Modernism, we witnessed new ideas in psychology and philosophy such as surrealism, the unconscious, and stream of consciousness, which assert that experience transcends verbal articulation. That language could be an obstacle rather than a tool can be demoralizing to a writer. However, the question is no longer whether language can capture the sublime, but whether capturing the sublime is even a desirable goal. We can find in some cultures value systems that embrace imperfection and transience, like Zen Buddhism, counter to the eternal ratios of the Ancient Greeks. Some modern Western thinkers would reject not only rationality as a means of reaching the sublime, but also the sublime itself in favor of the mundane. To the person who says “Who needs language?” I say, “Who needs the sublime?” If we were to settle for understanding and appreciation of the mundane, language would be an imperfect means to an imperfect end. Perhaps this appears to be worldly and unambitious, but it does not seem to be more so than biology, physics, and literature. “Mundane” derives from the Latin “mundanus,” meaning “of this world.” To say that an experience has been “reduced” to words implies that what is easily expressed is less interesting than what is not, and that the parts of the world we have described successfully are less valuable than the parts we have not. These are assumptions which I believe we should call into question.