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.

4 thoughts on “Nominal Fallacy”

  1. Dare I quote the second line of the Daode Jing in this context?:

    The name which can be named is not the unchanging name.

    Names are just labels, useful as pointers but not to confused with the thing being named.



  2. I’ve been thinking about this some more and it occurs to me that some of what might be taken for “names” in music are actually closer to being “descriptions”. Names are usually referentially opaque: if you don’t know what a name refers to, you can’t figure it out from the name alone. But what about the “name” of a chord, say “A minor 7th”? I can figure out what this must refer to: it’s a chord rooted in A, with a minor third and an added 7th. I’d therefore argue this isn’t the “name” of the chord, but a “description” of it…


  3. You’d still need knowledge which exists outside the name, though. For example, what kind of 7th would you assume and why? The harmonic and melodic minor scales contain major 7ths but Am7 requires a minor 7th. Am7 is related to the Aeolian and Dorian modes. This information is nowhere to be found in the name.

    Happily, at the stage where names are most crucial i.e. 8-year old pupils in P5, life is much simpler.

  4. Of course, specific domain knowledge and context is always involved in interpretation.

    But returning my the idea that names are opaque: in logic if I am trying to solve a propositional problem I may name certain propositions P, Q & R – these names are completely arbitrary and knowing the names tells me nothing about the relationships between the propositions. In music we name the notes A, B, C etc – but here knowing the names does tell me something about the relationships between the pitch classes: the alphabetical order of the names corresponds to the pitch order of the notes. That’s kind of like inferring that I must be taller than you because my name comes after yours in the alphabet 🙂 The “names” of the notes in music relies on a systematic relationship between the formal lexical properties of the name and the physical properties of the note itself. To my mind that makes it more than *just* a name.

    So, I still maintain that Am7 is a description and not a name 🙂


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