Nominal Fallacy

There’s nothing as refreshing to one’s professionalism as a challenging shot across the bows, particularly if it comes from a distant field. The admiral of thought in this case was neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, (chair of the Dept of Biological Sciences, Columbia University). His excellent contributory chapter to This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (edited by John Brockman of Edge fame) is entitled The Name Game. Early in the short chapter he cites a phenomenon which he and others call nominal fallicy – namely (pun intended) that being able to put a name to something equates to, increases or is the beginning of understanding. Often, in science, this can mean the end of investigation or, at least, a postponement in favour of nameless phenomena.

This caused me some alarm as, to say that naming is a big thing in my daily round, is an understatement. I always stress to pupils – and the younger the pupil, the more so – that without names things cannot be discussed. To offer young minds some context I ask if they would respect a teacher who knew all their names more than one who had to rely on descriptions like ‘the boy with the fair hair beside the window’. Without exception they unhesitatingly express a preference for the former.

Why am I so keen on names? Apart from belief in Wittgenstein’s assertion that “what can be said at all can be said clearly,” there are simply too many areas in music to survive otherwise. Pitches, durations and techniques cross the paths of new pupils from the outset. Later, myriad musical concepts – often in Italian appear. These feature heavily in SQA exams and it part of our job to support our classroom colleagues in this endeavour.

Soon, I began to relax as I realised that Firestein was referring solely to the naming and taming of unknowns. The elements of music which crop up in lessons have, in most cases, been established for centuries. So, crisis of confidence over – for the meantime. However, it was enlivening to experience a mirage of a fundamental shake-up.

 

Postscript: numeracy in music has its own taxonomy. We use the following:

Arabic numerals – fingering (left hand – as right hand uses initials for Spanish finger names)

Roman numerals – position e.g. 1st finger based at fret 5 = V

Circled numbers – string number

The above three are internationally used. We also use numbers written in a square to represent ‘phrase number’. To help pupils see and hear connections and variations we use, for example, 1, 2, 1, 2a.

Two cultures, beating as one

On a day where news broadcasts debate the disengagement of some young people from science (scroll down to 0720), I was heartened to receive an email alerting me to the publication of an article entitled The Rhythmic Brain by Katie Overy & Robert Turner. Both contributed to a fascinating conference I attended at Edinburgh University in December*. Put simply, the article touches upon connections between music – specifically rhythm – and language, evolution, neuroscience, psychology, learning, memory & genetics.

What disappoints me in some attempts to convince young people of the relevance of science is the all too easy citation of computer games. I tend to agree more with Quentin Cooper who opines that “science is a perspective.” There is a scientific aspect to everything. That’s why I applaud the efforts of organisations like The Wellcome Collection and Edge to heal the rift between sciences and the humanities and pursue The Third Culture. I am strengthened in this belief that some of the best writing on music is the work of scientists – a great many of whom are musicians.

Consider this extract from the aforementioned article:

Rhythm is a basic organising principle of music, providing a strict temporal framework for an infinite variety of playful and expressive musical behaviours, from clapping and dancing in a group to a virtuosic violin solo. This temporal organisation exists on a number of hierarchical levels (the pulse, the bar, the phrase), allowing for the simplest forms of synchronisation and prediction as well as highly complex, large-scale musical structures.

Music is a difficult topic on which to write – precisely because it conveys in seconds what words would take minutes to describe. I would argue that the distillation of content in the short paragraph above is nothing short of poetic.

 

* My intention had been to write up the conference but, as it was built around a book entitled Communicative Musicality, I think it would be better to write on the book once I’ve read it.

 

Bring on the dance champions

Thanks to Ewan for flagging up this inspirational talk on education and change by Sir Ken Robinson. It coincided with his being presented with the Benjamin Franklin Medal on Monday. Sponsored by Edge (not that one, the other one), the talk, given at the RSA is available in mp3 format for the moment, with a video to follow here soon. Although slides are referred to in the talk, you can get by without visuals – with the possible exception of the moment where Earth is compared to other stars & planets.

If you haven’t already seen it, I can’t recommend highly enough Ken Robinson’s TED talk. His book Out Of Our Minds: Learning To Be Creative, is on my reading list.