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Pants on Fire: 'This Sentence Is a Lie' Cannot Be Expressed in Music. Why Is That?

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Language and music both carry information, narrative and content; both have a formal structure, syntax, grammar and articulation; both express and communicate through manipulation of symbols in notation and in sound.

But in language it is possible to lie, and in music it is not. And philosophy seems to be in trouble in the hands of Orpheus and Calliope. Concepts such as the Cave Analogy (Plato), the Categorical Imperative (Kant), Cogito Ergo Sum (Descartes) and the Seventh Sentence (Wittgenstein) seem to be expressible only through language. It thus appears as if philosophy, the love of wisdom, seems to be exclusively a domain of the word. And yet there is no consensus about truth even in the most basic statements of philosophy, only informed, sometimes inspired opinions and tastes and often enough paradoxes. Truth in music -- in art -- is absolute.

As music is a language, why can't philosophical, juristic or scientific thought be expressed by it? It's obviously not because music "comes from the heart," but because of the systemic properties of musical language. Ambivalent subtleties and poetic analogies may be domain to both music and language, but flat statements that can either be true or false are native to the word alone. The verification of statements is paramount to philosophy, but cannot even be approached in music. Music does not permit paradoxes, but it thrives on ambiguity. Statements in music are of different nature: A statement, such as a theme or a melody, can neither be verified nor falsified. But it contains meaning. How beautiful!

The basic components of language -- an alphabet, words, grammar, syntax and form -- as well as the distinction between a) the container (medium) e.g. printed text and b) content (message) e.g. the printed and then read sentence "The sheep may safely graze" -- find counterparts in music: an alphabet (notes or pitches), words (motives or gestures), syntax (phrases), grammar (harmonic cadence) and form as well as the distinction between the container e.g. printed text -- score, and content, e.g. a private or public performance of Bach's "The Sheep May Safely Graze." Same words, different worlds.

About lying in music: A "deceptive cadence" is just a term for an unexpected turn that finds its proper resolution just a bit later. It is a play with expectations rather than a serious attempt to deceive the listener. As the cadence is recognized to be deceptive, there is no deception. You don't begin to search for green on pearly in the mirror if someone tells you that you have spinach in your teeth and then shakes his head.

We may refer to titles of pieces as deceptive when the tune sounds different from the title, e.g. music in the spirit of "The Entrance of the Gladiators" (clowns enter the arena to) tottering under the awe-inspiring title "The Kenotaph of Ptolemy Paterphilos." The deception is, not surprisingly, the title -- the domain of language, not the music. Not much of a lie but to the most philistrous of ears. If Beethoven called his Rondo op.126 "The Sheep May Safely Graze" the deception would again be the title, not the music ... even though the philistine might not recognize the rage over a lost penny.

"This sentence is a lie" cannot be expressed in music. Why is that? What kind of information can be expressed in music? As music possesses all the definitions of language, how come it's so different in its expression?

One possible theory: It is impossible to consciously lie in music because, while container (medium) and content (message) are separated in language (ponder: "This is not a sentence about an apple, is it?"), they are an inseparable amalgam in music due to its systemic imperative of material manifestation. Music requires the melting and marshaling of all formal complexity into the flow of life performance. Also: In language context is assumed (ponder: "that depends on what the meaning of the word is... is") but in music it is provided within the system. The container -- printed or imagined score -- and the content -- meaning derived from music in performance -- are inseparably one. And this unique compound quality of the musical language, let's call it "xin," while incapable of delivering abstract information, is destined to communicate meaning within the infinite array of archetypical emotions we all share. Rather more complex than language and inherently emotional. The compound system of music is not a medium for deception -- the high art of music is an instrument of truth and beauty. In Cleopatra VII Philopator's words: "You can lie but to the ears of the gods" -- which is where music enters.

"The thoughts I find expressed in music (that I love) are not too undefined but on the contrary too defined to put into words."
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)