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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some language

WARNING, AMATEUR HOUR: Lately these posts have been getting somewhat serious.  The author apologizes.  Furthermore, the more serious the post the greater the revealed ignorance of the writer.  I believe that can be represented formally, but read on and you'll gladly take my word for it without needing to go through the effort.  For foolishness go back a few days.  Hopefully the author will snap out of it.

I've been ruminating about the difficulty of describing something I hear while listening to music into langauge that makes sense to a reader.  The problem as I see it is that sound exists as a physical reality, but my experience of it when listening to music engages me in a way that I can only describe for the most part metaphorically.  Let's rule out a reviwer of stereo equipment merely listening to test tones and reporting back to the listener, let's be brave and think about using actual music to describe equipment performance.  According to some linguists, our conceptual structure is metaphoric (I'm thinking of Lakoff and Johnson here, Metaphors We Live By,  and  Women, Fire and Dangerous Things,   neither of which I have re-read in the last 10 years or so, so please forgive any accidental misrepresentations). Depending on the way a piece of music, or a phrase or bar within that piece is interpreted (heard?) by the listener, the conceptual structure and descriptive metaphor that they would use to describe it will be different.  Variations in how individuals interpret and use metaphor (because of cultural or experiential differences in their conceptual structures) make matters even more complicated.  Professional audio equipment reviewers use words such as: "detailed," "rich," "warm," or "liquid" to describe elctronic performance.  It seems to me that by using those terms that I would be adopting a particular conceptual structure that is not native to my experience, but is instead learned through frequent exposure to it in the context of magazine and online reviews.  So where does one go from here?  In what manner can we establish the source of our metaphors clearly?  Would it ever be possible to completely forego them?   Should we just have two categories of stereo equipment review: "Sounds great" and, "It sucks?"  Perhaps trained musicians have an entriely different vocabulary (although I believe a number of professional stereo reviewers are both classically trained musicians and recording engineers).  Let me track down and bug some smart people who actually know something about music to set me straight.


  1. Makes me wish I knew something about music.

  2. this comment is not going to be helpful.

    I guess if one is very creative with language one can find new metaphors, but one risks of annoying everyone if they're too forced... If you look at the way a great conductor works in a rehearsal, they often end up singing how they want a passage to be and then, when and IF they resort to words, will use some metaphor that is hackneyed in real life but totally works for their purposes (e.g. "play this passage like you're holding a baby"). And then of course during the concert they use dramatic, exagerrated gestures to convey the same instructions that were conveyed in words during rehearsal .... I guess the upshot is that words have their limits.... You could always write poetry about your stereo equipment! "my speaker is like a red red rose..."