Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Words vs. Sounds

Continuing this trend of posts inspired by Gannon Murphy's talk, I write about a documentary he recommended to us called "They Sold Their Souls for Rock n' Roll". It's filled with descriptions of how rock music is driven by the devil to tempt people and citations of lyrics out of context, and I wasn't entirely convinced. What I took away from it was that we need to be critical of the music we listen to; what the lyrics are saying, and the culture behind the music from which it descends. (Especially in live concerts, which have a much greater effect on listeners than recordings)

But this isn't a post on music; it's instead my thoughts on the above lesson that came to me during a bike ride today. Notice how in my watch list of what we should be careful of in music, I left out an important component: the music itself, i.e. the instrumentation. I don't recall a single mention of the instrumentation of the music the documentary was warning against. It wasn't concerned with 'Satanic' instrumentation; Black Sabbath's use of the tritone wasn't brought up at all when the documentary went over them. Why the imbalance?

What I realized, and what I argue now, is that the lyrics of a song can be inherently 'bad' (evil, immoral, etc...bad from a Christian worldview), and instrumentation can't. Why? Because we have a system for assigning meaning to specific combinations of letters/syllables/words called language. You've probably heard someone argue that words are just groupings of sounds with no inherent meaning apart from what we give them. And they're right! At least in a way. It is true that words have no inherent, objective meaning; if I listen to a conversation in Greek, for instance, it's pretty meaningless to me. However, by learning and using a language, we implicitly assent to that language's lexicon--the meanings it gives to certain words. In doing so, we gain access to a handy shorthand for expressing meaning to other users of the language, meaning that would otherwise be very difficult or impossible to express. (Unless you happen to be a a Charades master)

So while there is no truly universal meaning to a language, it has a meaning for its users built on knowledge of what its words mean, or refer to. If we want to converse in this language, we have to agree to its definitions. So to the speakers of a language, its words do have (effectively) objective meaning. If you deny this, why should anyone listen to your meaningless sounds?

On the other hand, there is not nearly as formalized a system for assigning meanings to more generalized sounds like the instrumentation of a song, aside from noises that might correspond to real world things or events that make them. (Dream Theater sometimes tells part of a story in their songs without words, through sound effects) Aside from this, I assert that it's all personal preference, which is fine for one who usually enjoys music for the sound, not the lyrics.

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