“An Engine Idling”: Music and Language

When we discuss musical issues, be they matters of influence or preference, are they based solely on the music itself?

What of the matter of musical influence? When two people are in a conversation about whether Claude Debussy was influenced by German music, do both have a similar definition of ‘influence’?

What of the matter of musical preference? When two people are in a conversation about whether they prefer Black Flag or Bad Brains, are both working with the same definition of what constitutes a ‘better’ music?

If we get at the matter of the matters presented, we find that they are not problems of music but language.

A.C. Grayling discusses this issue in his wonderful introduction to the ideas of philosopher Ludwig Wittgensetin:

“Puzzles arise, Wittgenstein says, because of misuse of language or misconceptions about its nature. If we have an incorrect view of the way language works we shall be liable to confusions…’The confusions which occupy us’, Wittgenstein says, ‘arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work’ (P 132); ‘Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday‘ (P 138)”.

In the class where we discussed German music’s influence on Debussy, it was nothing but idle engines. This was not because we were bumbling about unintelligibly but because there were different senses of the word ‘influence’ flying about. Nobody sought to address this and we had our discussion under a false pretense of understanding.

So how do we get that engine started again? Grayling outlines Wittgenstein’s prescription: “On this view philosophical problems will vanish when the workings of language are properly grasped”.

What a deceptively simple solution. Within it is realizing that language does not have a center which contains the essence. Rather, we find the essence dispersed, wearing various guises and playing by a multitude of rules:

“…[L]anguage is not something complete and autonomous which can be investigated independently of other considerations, for language is woven into all human activities and behavior, and accordingly our many different uses of it are given content and significance by our practical affairs, our work, our dealings with one another, and with the world we inhabit – a language, in short is part of the fabric of an inclusive ‘form of life'”.

There are ways musical influence is talked about in the classroom, amongst musicians, and even in music journals and magazines. Each of these contexts use the word ‘influence’ differently. If we can explore these contexts, there lies a better understanding of what musical influence is: not a single meaning but a word entrenched in the many facets of life and used accordingly.

New problems will arise, but they will not be a matter of trying to explain or find the real meaning of ‘musical influence’: no slamming our head against a wall.

It will not, then, be a matter of asking whether Claude Debussy was or was not influenced by German music. Instead, it will be a matter of describing how this matter of influence is discussed by academics, contemporaries of Debussy, Debussy himself, and countless others. If we can then examine how these contexts work and interrelate, then we can better understand this specific example of musical influence.

Not only that, we can come to further grips with how the language of musical influence works in the world. In coming to understand language we use it to its full extent: the engine starts back up.


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