Hemispheres of Music

“Find the thing that excites you the most and go after that … find the thing that you’re natural and really good at, and then exaggerate it…”

I came across this 2010 interview with Steve Vai, and something he said struck me.

— Steve Vai

He says that some of the best musicians don’t know music theory and can’t read or write.

“If you tell Jeff Beck to play an F# on the G string, he might not know what it is…”

—Steve Vai (rather out of context, but still…)

This is a possible example of where musicality is a right-hemisphere activity whilst the symbolic representation happens on the left. I am simplifying and talking metaphorically as I have not done any brain scans, but it feels apt. Of course, Steve Vai does both—and on steroids, so there’s that.

Music Property

The topic of intellectual property gets me every time. As much as I am opposed to the notion of property in general, intellectual property is a complete farce. Along with Rick Beato and David Bennet, Adam Neely is one of my three main music theory staples on YouTube. Here, he goes into more depth than I would have expected, but it’s worth hearing the perspective of a musician. I won’t break down his video fully because it speaks for itself. Instead, I’ll share my thoughts and pull out highlights.

Podcast: Audio version of this page content.

November 8th, 1548 is the day in history that the French King Henri II opened the door to intellectual property, an obvious giveaway to a benefactor, creating a publishing monopoly. He turned community cultural knowledge into property, turning the benefit of many into the benefit of one. This is the crux of capitalism—favouring the one over the many.

Before continuing, it seems that there is a schism in the legal system itself. In fact, it is very fractured even within this small domain. At the same time it wants to be precise and analytical, it’s dealing with a subject that cannot be analysed as such. To add insult to injury, it exempts musicians and musical experts and requires music consumers to decide the outcomes of trial cases. To be fair, even relying on so-called experts would lead to mixed results anyway. They might as well just roll the dice. This is what happens when right hemisphere art enters a left hemisphere world.

nature + work = ownership

Adam establishes a grounding on the theory of property rights à la John Locke’s ‘sweat of the brow’ concept, wherein nature plus work equates to ownership. He then points out how intellectual property has even shakier ground to stand on. It relies rather on notions of originality and creativity, two concepts that have no intersection with the left-hemisphere heavy legal and jurisprudence systems. Moreover, like pornography, these things cannot be defined. They need to be divined. Divination is no place for lay jurists. It’s a recipe for disaster. The entire English court system is rife with problems, but the left-brainers feel these are just trivial devils in the details. I beg to differ, yet I am voiceless because I won’t participate within their frame.

Adam also points out how out of date the law is insomuch as it doesn’t recognise much of the music produced in the past few decades. Moreover, the music theory it’s founded on is the Romantic Era, white European music that often ties transcriptionists in knots. If the absence of certain words to emote experience is a challenge, it’s even worse for musical notation.

In any case, this is a hot-button issue for me on many levels, and I needed to vent in solidarity. This video is worth the 30 minutes run time. His ham sandwich analogy in part V works perfectly. It’s broken into logical sections:

  1. 0:00 Intro
  2. 1:45 Part I – Rhythm-A-Ning
  3. 7:07 Part II – Property Rights
  4. 11:25 Part III – Copyright
  5. 15:58 Part IV – Musical Constraints
  6. 22:18. Part V – HAM SANDWICH TIME
  7. 26:51 Part VI – Solving copyright….maybe?

Give it a listen. Cheers.

The cover image for this is of Thelonius Monk (circa 1947), who features heavily in the video.

Tone Deaf

Real music comes from the heart. Rather, it’s a right-hemisphere affair. Beethoven was such a true musical genius, he had to express himself even when you couldn’t hear himself.

Above, Rick Reato gives us a little appreciation for Daniel Barenboim’s rendition of Beethoven’s Op.110 Piano Sonata. I’ve included the entire opus below. The entire 31st sonata can also be found on YouTube.

To be a musician and continue to write when deaf is the same as continuing to write as a deaf author. Musical notation is just symbols as words are symbols in a different medium. The inspiration happens in the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere translates them into symbols.

Musically speaking, I am more left-hemisphere. I have ideas that spawn from the right, but without an instrument, I couldn’t articulate them. Not even relatively. Many of my own compositions are left-hemisphere fare. I either take a mathcore approach or perhaps something along the lines of Schoenberg, where I want to convey a pattern—an example that comes to mind is Tool’s Lateralis, wherein the lyrical melody is based on the Fibonacci sequence—, or I let the instrument do the talking and transcribe the music after the fact. I know just about enough music theory to be dangerous, but not enough to be self-sufficient. This is why I always tended to collaborate with music directors or someone competent in this along the way.

My point is that the ears are not necessary to produce music—at least after you’ve figured out how to articulate it. For the record, there are blind artists and sculptors.

Schizoid Workplace

What is Schizophrenia?

Most people have heard the term schizophrenia. It’s a mental health pathology wherein people interpret reality abnormally. To oversimplify to make a point, in a ‘normal’ brain, the left and right hemispheres operate together to regulate bodily functions and to interpret the world we live in. In brief, schizophrenia is a condition where the left cerebral hemisphere overly dominates the right. Some might be led to believe that schizophrenics interpret reality irrationally, but the opposite is true. Schizophrenics are hyperrational to a fault.

Schizophrenia has been on the rise this past half century or so, but this might just be a symptom of Modernity, as cultures are also experiencing a leftward shift—a shift toward hyperrationality. Cultures have swung like a pendulum from left-hemisphere-dominance to right dominance and back through the ages, but we may be seeing an uncorrected swing further and further to the left, led by science, followed by commerce and politics, dangerously close to the territory of schizophrenia, if not already occupying this territory. Allow me to briefly summarise how the hemisphere function to help the reader understand what it means to be too far left or right.

Cerebral Bilateral Hemispheres

Most people experience the world—what some otherwise known as reality—with both cerebral hemispheres, and each hemisphere has a function. In a nutshell, the right hemisphere experiences reality holistically, which is to say that it views the world through a Gestalt lens. The right hemisphere is open and divergent. It is creative—generative. It knows no categories or subdivisions. All is one and connected. I like to refer to this as Zen. Many people can relate to this Zen notion. The right hemisphere is a creative and empathetic centre that only knows the world as it is presented—without words or naming. Intuition lives here. It distinguishes differences in the world in a manner similar to that of a preverbal child who can tell mum from a bowl of porridge without knowing the word for either. Children are right hemisphere creatures. As we mature toward adulthood, the function of the left hemisphere increases to offset the dominance of the right.

The left hemisphere is the sphere of intellect. Its function is to categorise, to create symbols—words, names, labels, icons, and so on. It doesn’t know how to create, intuit, or empathise. In fact, it doesn’t even experience the world as presented; it relies on re-presentation. To borrow from a computer analogy, when it experiences something in the world, it caches a symbol. Where the right hemisphere experiences a tree and just appreciates its ‘treeness’, and it doesn’t know that it’s a tree by name. It’s just another thing in the world. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, notices these things with ‘treeness’ and categorises them as trees—or des arbres, árboles, Bäume, 木, درختان , पेड़, or whatever. And it reduces the tree to an icon, so it can file it away for later retrieval to compare with other tree-like inputs.

The left hemisphere is where difference, the sense of self, and ego come from

The left hemisphere is where difference, the sense of self, and ego come from. Where the right hemisphere is open and divergent, the left hemisphere is closed and convergent. It is particularly egotistical, stubborn, and always thinks it’s right if I can anthropomorphise analogically. The left hemisphere knows no nuance, and it doesn’t recognise connotation, metaphor, allegory, or allusion. Everything is literal.

The left hemisphere can use similes and understand that a man is like a tiger, but it takes the right hemisphere to know that a man is a tiger, has metaphorically embodied the tiger and assumed its form, say in the manner of indigenous Americans. Poetically, there is a difference between being a tiger and being like a tiger. The left will have none of this. The response to hearing ‘he was a tiger’ would either result in ‘no he isn’t, he’s a human’ or ‘someone must be talking about a male tiger’. The nuance would be lost.

At the risk of further digression, this is why a poem can’t be dissected for meaning—this despite so many valiant attempts by high school teachers and undergraduate professors. Dissecting a living poem is like dissecting a living animal. You might learn something, but at the risk of devitalisation—you’ve killed the subject. It’s like having to explain a joke. If you have to explain it, it didn’t work. You can’t explain a work of art or a piece of music. The best you can do is to describe it. Although we’re likely familiar with the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, a thousand words is not enough to do more than summarise a picture. This sentiment is captured by Oscar Wilde when he wrote, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” Education is a left-brain function, that can be stuffed like a sausage, but no amount of education can make someone feel a work of art, music, or poetry. This can only be experienced and is apart from language.

A Tree is not a Tree

As already noted, schizophrenics are hyperrational. They are devoid of the empathy and intuition afforded by the right hemisphere. So, they fail to connect the parts to a constructed whole. They presume that a whole is constructed of parts. This is the mistake of Dr Frankenstein, that he could construct a man from parts, but all he could manage is to construct a monster.

In the experienced world, there are only whole objects as experienced by the right hemisphere. As humans, we break them down for easier storage and retrieval, but this is like lossy compression if I can risk losing some in technical lingo.

But a tree is not built from parts. It’s just a tree. We can articulate that a tree has a trunk and roots and branches and leaves and seeds and blooms, but it’s just a tree. The rest we impose on it with artificially constructed symbol language. This is what post-modern painter Rene Magritte was communicating with the “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” inscription in his work The Treachery of Images—This is not a pipe. He was not being cute or edgy or trying to be clever. He was making the point that the symbol is not the object.

In the manner that the image is not the pipe, it’s been said that to document a system is to make an inferior copy. The documented system is less optimal. This may feel counterintuitive. In fact, you may even argue that a documented system allows subsequent process participants to plug into the system to allow it to continue to operate into perpetuity. Whilst this is true, it comes at a cost. I’ll leave this here for you to ponder. The right hemisphere understands the difference. The document is not the process.

Getting Down to Business

If you’ve been following along, you may have already noticed that the left hemisphere looks and sounds a lot like the business world. Everything is systematised, structured, and ordered. We have all sorts of symbols and jargon, processes, and procedures. Everything is literal. There is no room for metaphor. There is no room for empathy. HR instructs that there be empathy, but they might as well instruct everyone to speak Basque or Hopi. In fact, it’s worse because at least Basque and Hopi can be learnt.

Sadly, this leftward shift isn’t limited to the world of commerce. It’s affected science, politics, and entire cultures. It’s caused these entities to abandon all that isn’t rational as irrational. But empathy and intuition are irrational. Science says if you can’t measure it and reproduce it, it’s not worth noting, but science is not the arbiter of the non-scientific realm. Business takes a similar position.

Politics of the Left (Hemisphere)

And politics creates categories: left and right, red and blue, black and white, men and women, gay and straight, and this and that. All of this is all left-hemisphere debate.

Categories and names are exclusive provinces of the left hemisphere. If you are hung up on an ideology, whether Democracy, Republicanism, Marxism, or Anarchism, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you defend your positions with logic and words, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you can’t imagine an alternative, you are really stuck in the left. I’ll stop here.

Science and Scientism

How did we get here and come to this? Science was receptive to right hemisphere influence up until about the 1970s. That’s where Scientism began to take hold. Scientism is when faith in science becomes a religion. I feel that many scientists today are less likely to hold a belief in Scientism as a religious belief. Paradoxically, I think this is more apt to be a faith held by non-scientists. Unfortunately, this faith is exploited by politics as exemplified by the recent trust in science campaign perpetrated by politicians, which is to say non-scientists with their own agenda, whether they practised Scientism or not.

The problem is that the left hemisphere has an outsized ego. It thinks it’s always right. In practice, it’s right about half the time. Because of its reliance on stored data and a ‘belief’ that it doesn’t need to fresh its data until it’s effectively overwhelmed and acquiesced. It fails to give enough weight to the experienced world, so that it shifts belief further and further left, which is to say further from reality as it is.

It trusts the symbol of the tree more than the tree itself. We may all be familiar with stories of cars driving down train tracks and off cliffs because the SAT-NAV user put more faith in their device than the world outside. This is the risk companies face as well, choosing to believe that the documented process is superior to the system in and of itself.

Getting on About?

You may be wondering what inspired me to write this and where I get my information. My realisation started in chapter 9 of The Matter with Things and was reinforced by this video interview by its author, Iain McGilchrist.

Actually, it started even before this with The Corporation, a Canadian documentary and companion book released in 2003. One of the points of The Corporation is to articulate the parallels between corporate behaviour relative to the definition of psychopathy as presented in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, henceforth DSM. Per Wikipedia, the DSM ‘is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association for the classification of mental disorders using a common language and standard criteria and is the main book for the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders in the United States and is considered one of the “Bibles” of psychiatry’. Essentially, corporations ticked all the boxes.

Methodologically, this assertion is a bit weak, but it is at least sometimes entirely valid despite provoking an emotional trigger reaction. Nonetheless, this established corporations as pathological entities. But that is not my focus here. It simply tilled the soil for me to be more receptive to this topic. This topic is less about the legal fiction that is a corporation and more about the people embodied in it. From the height of the C-suite to the workaday staff, floor workers, warehouse workers, and the mailroom. Do they still have mailrooms? I digress.

I can’t claim to know what it is to be schizophrenic or schizoaffective, but I’ve known enough people who have these diagnoses. My brother was one of those. Although I use these and other labels, I am not a fan of labels, generally, especially psychological labels, specifically this label. Autism is another nonsensical label. Both fall into the realm of medical syndromes, which for the uninitiated is the equivalent of your kitchen junk drawer. It’s equivalent to the other choice when all others fail. I don’t want to go off on a tangent from the start, so I’ll leave it that these categories are overly broad and reflect intellectual laziness. There is no single schizophrenia or autism. There are many, but the distinction is lost in the category. The push to create an autism spectrum for DSM obscures the problem, but it helps for insurance purposes. As the saying goes, follow the money and you can gain clues to the driving force behind why this happened. I suppose you can also label me a conspiracy theorist. If I learned one thing in my undergrad Sociology classes, it’s to eschew labels.

Almost finished

Given the length of this segment, I am not going to summarise it here, save to say that this leftward shift in business and culture doesn’t have a good outlook. We are not only being replaced by machines, but we are also forced into becoming machines, and we aren’t even questioning it. All we need to do is to become more analytic, right?

What I suggest is to watch the six-minute video of Dr Iain McGilchrist discussing this topic, and if you really want a deep dive, read The Matter with Things, an almost three-thousand-page tome, to fill in the details.

Postscript

Here’s a music analogy to help to express why the whole is more important than the sum of the parts. If I want to learn to play a new piece, I will listen to the piece first. Depending on the length and genre, I may have to listen many times. In some cases, once or twice is enough, but let’s say this is at least somewhat complex and not some repetitive three-chord pop song. I’ll probably break the song into pieces or movements—verse, chorus, bridge, and whatever—, and then, I’ll learn each note and each pattern of notes, perhaps as musical phrases. Once I figure out the verse, I might either learn how the next verse differs or move on to the chorus and defer that verse-to-verse step. I’ll rinse and repeat until I’ve got through each of the sections. If I’ve had the luxury of hearing the piece, I’m at an advantage as far as tone, timbre, and dynamics are concerned; otherwise, I’d better hope these are all documented and that I interpret them in the manner they were intended. If the audience is familiar with a tune, they’ll notice the difference.

When I am practising, I need to get the mechanics down pat. All of what I’ve described thus far is left-hemisphere fare. It’s translating the symbolic representation of notes—like letters and words in writing—into an utterance. In this case, it’s a musical utterance. But once I am ready to perform the piece, it needs to be performed through the right hemisphere or it will feel mechanical and stilted.

I used to earn my living as an audio recording engineer and producer. Most of the time I was working with unknown artists recording demo records and trying to get a record deal. For the uninitiated, that usually translated into not having a large recording budget. Occasionally, we want, say string parts—violins, viola, cello, or whatever—but we couldn’t afford union players. We’d hire music students from USC or UCLA. These players would be more than willing to play for cheap in exchange for something to add to their portfolios or experience chops.

Somebody would transcribe the musical notation, and we’d give it to the string player. Of course, it could be a keyboard or wind or reed part, but I’ll stick to strings. Part of music is the vibe. This is something that can’t be captured in symbols. Revisiting Scientism and the left-hemisphere analogy, vibes can’t be real because they can’t be notated.

Almost invariably, if we got someone with Classical training, they could not get the vibe. The music was right in front of them. We’d play it for them on piano, maybe on a synthesiser, but they couldn’t get it—even if they were playing along to a reference track just trying to double the synth part. They would hit every note for the specified duration and dynamic, but it might have as well been the equivalence of a player piano or music box.  We could have played it on a synthesiser, but we might be seeking the nuance a real instrument would bring.

We never had the luxury of auditioning players or recording several players and grabbing the best parts. That’s for the bigger-budget artists who go through a half-dozen or more performers to get just the right one. When we got lucky, it was usually because we got someone from the jazz program. These cats seem to have a natural feel for vibe inaccessible to the classical performers.

In business, the classical performer is good enough, but for art, it wasn’t. Business might appreciate the difference if it happens to get it, but it won’t seek it, and it won’t pay for it. A pet peeve of mine is a quip in business I heard often—don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. This is obviously a left-hemisphere sentiment based on Voltaire’s statement. Besides, even from a left hemisphere perspective, reciting, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least strive for good enough because I noticed that mark was missed often enough, too.

Right Creativity

The struggle is real. Last night, rather about 3 AM, I awakened with a thousand thoughts. This happens often enough. Some were creative ideas. Some were ideas for topics to write about here. Not just topics, but content as well. Then came the internal debate—whether to wake up and capture these ideas or to hope they’d remain in cache until the morning. All I can say it at least this one did. Well, the topic, at least.

The struggle is whether to lose sleep and risk not falling back to sleep to be able to awaken at a decent hour and not be dragging around the next day from lack of sleep. Or perhaps, at next notice, it would just be time to get up. All these scenarios have occurred at one time or another.

I tend to write a lot, whether for here, for work, for pleasure—whatever. I used to create visual art and certainly wrote a lot of songs or at least musical ideas that I hoped would develop into songs. The struggle was the same. The outcomes were as well.

Having read as much as I have of McGilchrist, it starts to make sense. The right cerebral hemisphere is the font of creativity. It’s also the place for intuition and empathy. The left hemisphere is for symbols and categories. It’s the quarter for intellect. It’s also a bad roommate.

Whether or not one is creative does depend on the right hemisphere. Whether one can create depends on the left. Allow me to explain after laying out a relationship and three possibilities. For my purpose here, I can reduce the brain to three principal actors—the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere, and the frontal lobe.

As mentioned already, the right hemisphere generates creativity; the left hemisphere allows these ideas to be articulated symbolically, as in written and spoken words or art or music notation and so on; the frontal lobe acts as a mediator. Without getting too deep into neurology, a primary function of the frontal lobe is restrictive, which is to say it tells one or the other hemisphere to shut up and mind its business. Unfortunately, the hemispheres have this veto power of their own, so it’s difficult to fully understand the dynamics. This being said, let’s have a look at four scenarios that may illustrate why someone may or may not be able to create—in some cases even if they are otherwise creative.

I’ll start with the situation where the right hemisphere generates the creative ideas, and the other actors perform as expected. This is the brain of the creative person.

In the second scenario, the right hemisphere is simply weak. The person was just born with the bad luck of having a hemisphere that isn’t creative. In this case, there is nothing the left hemisphere or frontal lobe can do to compensate for this deficit. I’d like to think—like, perhaps being the wrong word—that this is where most non-creative people reside. They just don’t have that metaphorical creative gene.

In the third scenario, the right hemisphere generates plenty of creative thoughts, but the left hemisphere won’t “shut up”. If you’ve even had to think in a place with a lot of noise or distraction, you’ll get the gist. This is an imperfect analogy because creativity is precisely about not concentrating. Concentration is the enemy of creativity. So, in the case that the left hemisphere is interfering, it’s because it insists on concentrating, and that interrupts the creative process. In fact, it’s a misnomer to call something s creative process because creativity is precisely a lack of process. Like concentration, process kills creativity.

The right hemisphere is open and divergent.
The left hemisphere is closed and convergent.

In the fourth and last scenario, the right and left hemispheres are each playing their parts swimmingly, but the frontal lobe as moderator is deficient. In this case, the left is being itself and disrupting. Like the parable of the scorpion and the frog, it can’t help itself, but the frontal lobe isn’t telling it to be quiet and wait its turn. That’s the job of the frontal lobe. If you’ve ever witnessed a debate or mediated discussion where the moderator just lets the participants run rampant, you’ll know what I mean. Or perhaps you’ve been in a classroom or a meeting where the teacher or leader has no control of the class or the audience. It’s difficult to get anything accomplished.

Moving on. So, the actors each have their roles, but timing matters. The right hemisphere not only needs to generate thoughts or ideas, but it also needs time for them to incubate. Once they are ripe, only then is it ready to encounter the scrutiny of the left hemisphere and seek moderation for the frontal lobe.

If during the incubation process, the left hemisphere is continually asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” it’s unlikely one will ever get there.

If you are wondering how this works in the world of business and commerce—or better yet, you have already put together that this can’t possibly work in the realm of business and commerce—, I talk about that next. And I’ve got another segment on cerebral challenges in business in the works.

Creativity cannot be time-boxed. It can’t be summoned on demand. As already mentioned, it is not a process, and it can’t be tamed. Aside from the fickle public, have you ever wondered why so many musical artists are one-hit-wonders—if they have even been that lucky? These people had one idea—that happened to be an idea that would resonate in that moment—, but being told by the label to go generate some more hits is asking for creativity on demand.

Depending on your age and generation, some of you might be asking yourselves, “What about Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran or the Beatles or Beethoven?” These people are clearly the exceptions. We could as well look at the Vincent van Gough of the world who didn’t experience acceptance until after his death. Clearly, his creativity was unrecognised by his contemporaries. Even in some of these exceptional cases, these people have found a voice and are applying a pattern. An example I like is that of Stephen King, who in an interview admitted that he has only had one good idea in his entire life, and he’s exploited it into a large number of books. So, he’s kept reskinning the same skeleton but with different dressings.

And as far as commerce goes, yes, these people are commercially successful. Some would argue about the actual talent. I’ve seen philosophy classes compare the ‘high art’ of Shakespeare with the ‘low art’ of Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. Certainly, The Simpsons are culturally creative and commercially successful, but how creative is it really? How does one actually measure degrees of creativity?

My point is that these exceptional people are generating output once a year or every few years. In business, so-called creatives may be asked to generate new ‘creative’ content daily, weekly, or perhaps monthly. Creativity doesn’t work like this. Even if you asked Mozart to generate a new piece each week, this mechanical process might yield paydirt, but most would just be a formulaic rehash. In fact, if you talk to any top artist, they’ll tell you that what you see or hear is less than one per cent of their ideas. Most are either partially formed or, upon reflection, just bad. They felt good at the time, but they couldn’t develop into something better, or they turned out to be derivative, which is hardly creative.

So business is a death sentence for creativity. The creative people I know, don’t get their creative jollies from their day jobs. They get it from their side projects, from their passion projects, and whether or not these projects are commercially viable.

In fact, I can also look at someone like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain who was creative at the start—when they were under the radar—, but once they rose into view, he lost it, and then we lost him.

I hope this gives you a better feeling of how creativity works from the perspective of the brain and why we see so little creativity in the real world and even less in the business world. Do you find this surprising, or are you thinking, “man, this bloke must be dense if he’s just catching on to this now”?

Let me know in the comments.

Time

Yes. Time. That Time.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

I was browsing YouTube, and I got captivated by reaction videos, where a younger audience listens to music some of us grew up with and reacts to it. Time is a song I grew up on. Pink Floyd were a major influence on my music and my worldview. I have to admit that I am partial to the David Gilmour years and stopped caring about anything released after Roger Waters left. I have spent hours listening to their back catalogue with Syd Barrett and early David Gilmour, but Meddle, released in 1971, is about as far back as I prefer to go—even that old gem, Seamus.

Roger Waters penned the deepest lyrics for Pink Floyd, and this was one of his best. He wrote this in his late twenties, though it feels like he would have been older and wiser. I suppose he’s an old soul. Here’s the first verse:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

This speaks to how we tend to take time for granted. Sometimes, we just want the time to pass. We’re bored, and we want to get on to something meaningful, eventful, or perhaps exciting. We might be sat in work or school just waiting for quitting time. We aren’t living in the moment or enjoying the moment. And we might just be kicking around on a piece of ground in our hometowns rather aimlessly. And whilst I am aware that many people are looking for someone to guide them to the next level, whether a religion, a vocation, a guru, or a hero, that bit’s never really resonated with me. I suppose I’ve always been naturally insouciant and Zen. Some have said to a fault.

you missed the starting gun

Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain 
You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today 
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you 
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun 

The second verse picks up where the first one left off. Let’s not forget that this is Britain—London—plenty of rain. But some people do get tired of lying in the sunshine living their routine workaday lives. When we are younger, the days feel longer. Time is stretched. Einsteinian relativity. Again, we’ve got time to pad out and fill. Something’s happening at the weekend. Let’s just fast-forward, but we can’t, so let’s fill the time with mindless prattle and television or somesuch. Once you were 18 and now you’re 28. What happened? Tens years gone. Where’d the time go?

The last line in the second verse is telling. For me, it’s more an indictment of quote-modern-unquote society. It only applies to those who buy into this worldview. I never bought in. It’s’ always been a sham. But for some, they reach 28 and realise they’ve made the wrong decisions for their lives to end up the way they may have envisaged. I’ve never had this grand vision.

one day closer to death

And you run, and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking 
Racing around to come up behind you again 
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older 
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death 

Resistance is futile. You can’t escape the movement of time as represented by the quotidian sun. It will always lap you. The sun ages on a different time scale to you. The sun doesn’t appear to age. It was here when we arrived. It will be here when we leave. It was here before any of us were born. It will be here after we’ve all left. Yet with every lap of the sun, we are each another day closer to death. That day may be tomorrow, next week, or in a hundred years, but as Twelve-Step programmes remind us, we live one day at a time. Perhaps even this is too large of a time slice, as we can only live moment to moment. Anything else is but a construction. Nothing else is real. Memento Mori.

thought I’d something more to say

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time 
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines 
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way 
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I'd something more to say 

Again, time is relative. When we are young, we yearn for things: perhaps to graduate high school; get a driver’s license; graduate college; get the job we wanted; get some promotion or recognition; get signed to a big label; get a big break; the list goes on.

For those who are planners, the best-laid plans go awry. We dream of whatever and even journal these thoughts, but in the words of another song, “you can’t always get what you want”.

We want to do this or that, but life gets in the way. We can’t do everything. Economists capture this by the notion of opportunity costs. We can do this but not that. It doesn’t matter if we are Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or whomever. Time is the ultimate leveller.

We can just keep a stiff upper lip and persevere. Just occupy some place on this third rock, Next thing you know, the time is gone. I recall my ninety-odd-year-old father-in-law after his wife of seventy-five years died. He just wanted to die. He was done. He was ready to quit, but the music was still playing. Any semblance of hope was exchanged for the hope to reach the ending peacefully.

home again

Home, home again 
I like to be here when I can 
And when I come home cold and tired 
It's good to warm my bones beside the fire 

In this verse, Roger becomes reflective. He’s nostalgic for home. Anyone with a home has a place to return to after work, after school, or a childhood memory, but to touring performers, home is an even more special place. It’s a place to return to after life on the road, perhaps for months or years. Consider Odysseus and the travellers of old. This home.

He wants to be in this comfortable, familiar place. And after a long day or excursion, it’s a place to rejuvenate and rekindle by the warmth of the fire.

softly spoken magic spells

Far away across the field 
The tolling of the iron bell 
Calls the faithful to their knees 
To hear the softly spoken magic spells 

The final verse is even more metaphorical than the others. There’s an allusion. Religious allegory. In the distance, we hear the peal of the church bell beckoning the parishioners to hear the palliative words of the vicars and priests and whatnot. Or perhaps these softly spoken magic spells are simply the prayers of the individuals.

In deference to Barthes, the author is dead. But it doesn’t matter this is my interpretation—my meaning. Even more so, in deference to chapter eight of the Matter with Things, poetry and music are meant to be appreciated as a whole, not dissected. We can reflect on the words and phrases—even the melodies and rhythms—but the words are less than they sum to. Still, this piece moves me. It always has.

What does this mean to you?

Music Is Life

I’d been professionally involved in the music industry since the early 1980s, a career option from which I was greatly discouraged. Like many others, I was drawn to music early, but my family were not supportive. Accessing music beyond what I could hear on the radio was nearly impossible.

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I had been asking for instruments, but I was directed to band instruments—a coronet to be precise. My dad had played the trumpet in his days and had suggested it. They bought me a coronet, and I enrolled in the school band. Let’s just say that this was not fulfilling. I didn’t find out until later that practically everyone else was also taking private lessons on the side. Many had an actual interest in what instruments they were playing.

I wanted a guitar. As I found out when I finally bought my own guitar at 14 that my mum didn’t want to encourage me to play rock music. My bio-dad had played the guitar and he was a heroin addict, so guitars equalled heroin in my mum’s mind. Might have as well been a gateway.

When I began working in high school, I was able to buy a turntable and records. And a guitar. That’s when I heard the rationale for not being given one. The guitar displaced books somewhat until I found a happy medium.

My ex-wife recounted, well countless times, how she had wanted to be a ballerina when she was a little girl, but she was never allowed to take lessons. As I recall, her mum didn’t like the local dance instructor on a personal level, though I don’t know anyone that her mum did like outside of her siblings. This pained her well into adulthood, and she still fancies the lost career option.

she admitted that she would have preferred violin

Her niece took piano lessons and was coerced into becoming a Medical Doctor as her sister with no artistic interests was pushed into becoming a lawyer. As she was in her residency, she admitted that she would have preferred violin and to have become a veterinarian. And so it goes.

Fast forward to my then-three-year-old son. I was still playing my guitar around the house, and he would engage with it. I’d place it on the floor, and he’d play with the strings. I’d tune it to an open or modal tuning and cycle through my effects pedals for tonal variety. Whenever I’d play, he’d come around, and I’d take a break to encourage his interaction.

Come Xmas, he was four, and I bought him a three-quarter scale Squire Affinity Strat with a practice amp and the general accoutrements. We took the requisite photos of him wielding the guitar as a memento for when he hit the big time.

we heard chorus after chorus of “Cat Scratch Fever…”

That was the last time he touched that guitar. Or mine. Somehow, this purchase was the kiss of death. When he was five or six, he evidently heard Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever on the radio. I didn’t listen to Classic Rock radio, so I’ll presume it was my wife. In any case, we heard chorus after chorus of “Cat Scratch Fever…” in pitch. Nothing more.

At six, he had a deep interest in Korn. This was retained as we migrated from Los Angeles to Chicago. In fact, he asked me if I would teach him how to play some Korn songs on the guitar. I informed him that I had sold my 7-string before we left LA, and Korn was a low-B 7-string band. I tried to show him some 6-string renditions, but they don’t quite sound the same an octave higher.

Around this time, we bought him a drum kit. He played it exactly never—though it came in handy some years later for me, so that worked out nicely. His mates would come by to visit, and they loved it. All of his friends would pound away on them whenever they had the chance. A month or so later, Korn were touring (during the time when Brian “Head” Welch had departed in favour of Christian values), but he had switched genres to Classical and Epic music.

I had a digital synthesiser that got moved into the living room (rather than the studio, which was downstairs), so it was more accessible when the inspiration struck. He was attracted to that in much the same manner as the three-year-old him was drawn to the guitar. He was more interested in the textures than the melodies or harmonies.

My wife enrolled him in piano lessons, as she herself had also done as a child. He took those for a few months, but he never really grew to like it much. We asked if there was anything he was interested in, but that was just listening. Eventually, he took a music appreciation course that he appreciated, but that was about it.

He’s twenty-five as I type this. He loves music and still favours instrumentals. Soundtracks and video game music are among his top genres.

she reacts to melody and beat

Now I have a toddler. She’ll soon be three. She is also drawn to my guitar. This time, I gave her an older ukulele for a while, and then I bought her her own. She responds to music when she hears it. She reacts to melody and beat, interpreting it with her own dance gestures. She’s not mastered the ukulele, but it’s hanging on her wall at about her shoulder height near her bedroom door. She strums or plucks the strings when she enters and exits her room. Often, she takes it off her wall hanger and noodles with it.

For Xmas, we bought her an assortment of kids’ instruments as did someone else, so she’s got two—xylophones, triangles, harmonica, blocks and shakers. I don’t recall what else, but she seems to love to engage with them. We’ll see where it ends up. One never knows.

Pitch-Perfect Morality

I’ve experienced an epiphany of sorts. I am a moral non-cognitivist. Most would consider me to be a moral subjectivist or relativist. There’s a distinction, but to the public at large, it doesn’t much matter. In fact, we are all at the mercy of the cognitive deficits of the societies we find ourselves in, each culture having its own deficits. I find it difficult not to come across as an elitist in the space, especially as uninformed and otherwise misinformed most are in this space.

It’s one thing to have an academic disagreement. It’s quite another to have an academic argument with kindergartners—armchair spectators in highchairs and booster seats. Anyway, enough of the ad hominem. I’ve had my say and my fill.

All morality is constructed. Full stop. The basis is the survival and propagation of the society, though societies are dynamic organisms with different goals and purposes, so these foundations may differ. In some cases, they are strikingly similar.

All morality is constructed. Full stop.

It makes sense that most have an element of ‘thou shalt not kill’ with an exception for ‘unless they undermine the culture’. This also allows for ‘killing in order to defend the culture’, even if the people defended aren’t all in sync as to what they are defending.

So where does relative pitch come into play? you ask yourself.

Sound, hence musical tones, manifests as frequency (and amplitude, which I’ll ignore). It is common to establish an A pitch as 440 Hz (440 cycles per second), also known as A440 or A4. Whilst there have been and are other standard pitches, A440 is considered to be the standard concert tone for Western music and has been adopted in other regions. I won’t bore the listener with nuance around A332 and A442 centres, as it’s unimportant to the focus.

Whatever the centre, some people have perfect pitch and others have absolute pitch. Some people are tone deaf, and I suppose that to be a perfect metaphor for some people in society, but that’s also an analogy for another day.

A person with perfect pitch not only has the vocabulary of music stored in memory, but they can retrieve it on a whim. I’ve encountered several people with perfect pitch, and it seems inevitable to engage in parlour games. With piano at hand, it’s easy to play unseen chords and have the absolutist bark back F#min6/9 or some such. Even more amusing is the result of tossing a shoe at an object to hear what note the clang might correlate with. That stool was a B-flat.

I thought I was wrong once before, but I was mistaken.

Whilst a person with absolute pitch can pick notes out of the air, a person with relative pitch doesn’t have an anchor. In either case, a listener can tell you that the interval between an A4 and an E4 is a perfect fifth, the person with relative pitch can’t name the notes without guidance. Of course, once the listener is clued in that the first note is an A4, relative maths does the rest of the heavy lifting, so they, then be able to tell you that the note a perfect fifth above is an E4.

It’s important to know the vocabulary are rules as well. For example, many of us can recognise the interval at the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—da-da-da-DA…! We can hear it in our heads as we consider it. But we don’t know that the first three shorter notes are G and that the longer final note is E♭.

Thanks for the music lesson, but you’re asking, ‘How does this connect to morality?’

Unlike music, morality has nothing analogous to absolute pitch. Moreover, different cultures have different reference pitches. And some cultures with the same reference pitch are playing in different keys. The challenge is that whether or not the dominant culture has absolute pitch, it still presumes it is the tonal centre. And if it’s tuned to A432, you’d better be too; otherwise, there will be dissonance.

Referencing the Venn diagram, one can see the primary culture, C0 occupying the most space and acting as a centre of gravity. There are subcultures, some with more and less in common with the primary culture.

C1 has much in common with C0, but the majority of ideals are not shared. It remains to be seen whether these differences are material. For example, the difference may be preferences about food or clothing, perhaps which holy days to recognise to whether to recognise any at all. In practice, these cultures could very well coexist with little conflict.

Similarly, C2, may be able to coexist with either of both with little friction. Of course, the difference may be significant. Perhaps, one difference is their view on abortion or female circumcision. Clearly, these are dancing to a different tune.

Perhaps, C3 is some indigenous society. C3 has nothing in common with C0 or C2, only sharing some ideals with C1. I don’t feel this would be possible in reality because I can’t imagine a culture having opposing perspectives, even if only on the position of not killing other ‘innocent’ humans without cause. The range of causes may differ, but the core value would still be shared.

My point is that the primary culture will assume that its position is absolute, even if just from having enough mass to force the matter. And this is the difference. It doesn’t matter whether their morality is absolute. If you don’t comply—especially in matters they consider to be morally important—, you will be punished. In the case of C3, C1 may tolerate whatever the two are in common, but if C3 attempts to interact with C0, this tolerance is unlikely.

Perhaps, C3 clubs baby seals, eats dogs, or some other such hot-button activity. In their native territory, this may go unnoticed, but if they relocate to the territory of the primary culture, this will not likely go unchallenged.

If you are someone like me who feels that all morality is fabricated out of thin air—even the morality I happen to agree with in principle and in practice—, there is still friction just to suggest that their morality is a constructed social fiction. It seems that many if not most people want to believe in the notion of ‘inalienable rights’ and God-given morality or some sense of cosmic moral order. People like Jordan Peterson believe this as do his followers. This creates contention with others, like myself, who fundamentally disagree and who ask for just a modicum of evidence of their claim. You will comply or you will be chided and marginalised.

Of course, I could be wrong. I thought I was wrong once before, but I was mistaken.

Amyl and the Sniffers

Philosophy is not my only interest. Music has always been a part of my life, and I was a professional musician in the 1980s in Los Angeles, when LA was the veritable centre of the musical universe as hair bands ruled the airwaves.

I was into progressive jazz fusion at the time, but my primary income came from being a recording engineer and producer. I worked on commercials, film tracks, albums, and demsos—lots of demos. Because of the 1984 Olympics, commercials were a big thing.

Besides the hair metal thing, LA had a solid punk showing. It wasn’t quite like London or New York, but it gave us bands like Black Flag, Redd Cross, Minutemen, and Circle Jerks, with whom I had the pleasure of working. Keith Morris had come from Black Flag (replaced by the inimitable Henry Rollins) and Greg Hetson came from Redd Cross (and would go onto Bad Religion).

Unfortunately, I worked on the Wonderful album after their musical hiatus. During the six weeks of recording, I was hired and fired three times with a friend Jim McMahon finishing the record and taking the album credit. I can’t confirm or deny whether chemical substances may have been involved.

I had started with Karat Faye, with whom I had then recently worked on Mötley Crüe’s Theatre of Pain album. Circle Jerks were seeking a sound more in line with the other headbangers, but that sound was not for them, they couldn’t really write for that genre, and they didn’t really have the chops. They should have just leaned into their roots.

Anyhoo

What’s this got to do with Amyl and the Sniffers? These Aussi cats rock old-school punk without skipping a beat. Straight beats, nice bass riffs, and a guitarist with the playing competence of Greg Hetson, which is just what this band needs. Stay true to your roots.

Amy’s voice and delivery are perfect for the genre, and the lyrical content is personal. This clip is excerpted from a nice KEXP interview, which is also available on YouTube. Follows is the setlist:

  • Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled)
  • Hertz
  • Guided By Angels
  • Security
  • Knifey
  • Capital
  • I Don’t Need A Cunt (Like You To Love Me)
  • Maggot

I am not going to review these tunes, but all of them are top-notch and punk-fun. If you are into old-school punk, I can almost guarantee you’ll dig it.

If you know Amyl and the Sniffers or want to share your thoughts after a listen, I’d love to read your comments below.

Hierarchies and Meritocracy

Jordan Peterson and Russell Brand chat for about 12 minutes on sex differences and personality, but that’s not where I want to focus commentary. What I will say is that Peterson continually conflates sex and gender, and I find that disconcerting for a research psychologist.

I’ve queued this video near the end, where Peterson delineates his conception of how the political right and left (as defined by him and the US media-industrial complex).

I feel he does a good job of defining the right, and he may have even captured whatever he means by left—radical left even—, but he doesn’t capture my concerns, hence I write.

To recap his positions,

Premises

  • We need to pursue things of value
  • Hierarchies are inevitable
  • [One has] to value things in order to move forward in life
  • [One has] to value things in order to have something valuable to produce
  • [One has] to value some things more than others or [they] don’t have anything like beauty or strength or…competence or…whatever…
  • If [one] value[s] [some domain] then [one is] going to value some [things in that domain] more than others because some are better
  • If [one] play[s] out the value in a social landscape, a hierarchy [will result]
  • A small number of people are going to be more successful than the majority
  • A very large number of people aren’t going to be successful at all

Conservative (Right)

  • Hierarchies are justifiable and necessary

Left

  • Hierarchies … stack [people] up at the bottom
  • [Hierarchies] tilt towards tyranny across time

Critique

I feel I’ve captured his position from the video transcript, but feel free to watch the clip to determine if I’ve mischaracterised his position. I have reordered some of his points for readability and for a more ordered response on my part.

To be fair, I feel his delivery is confused and the message becomes ambiguous, so I may end up addressing the ‘wrong’ portion of his ambiguous statement.

We need to pursue things of value

This is sloganeering. The question is how are we defining value? Is it a shared definition? How is this value measured? How are we attributing contribution to value? And do we really need to pursue these things?

Hierarchies are inevitable

Hierarchies may be inevitable, but they are also constructed. They are not natural. They are a taxonomical function of human language. Being constructed, they can be managed. Peterson will suggest meritocracy as an organising principle, so we’ll return to that presently.

[One has] to value things in order to move forward in life

This is a particular worldview predicated on the teleological notion of progress. I’ve discussed elsewhere that all movement is not progress, and perceived progress is not necessarily progress on a global scale.

Moreover, what one values may not conform with what another values. In practice, what one values can be to the detriment of another, so how is this arbitrated or mediated?

[One has] to value things in order to have something valuable to produce

I think he is trying to put this into an economic lens, but I don’t know where he was going with this line. Perhaps it was meant to emphasise the previous point. I’ll just leave it here.

[One has] to value some things more than others or [they] don’t have anything like beauty or strength or…competence or…whatever…

This one is particularly interesting. Ostensibly, I believe he is making the claim that we force rank individual preferences, then he provides examples of items he values: beauty, strength, competence, and whatever. Telling here is that he chooses aesthetic and unmeasurable items that are not comparable across group members and are not even stable for a particular individual. I won’t fall down the rabbit hole of preference theory, but this is a known limitation of that theory.

If [one] value[s] [some domain] then [one is] going to value some [things in that domain] more than others because some are better

We’ve already touched on most of this concept. The key term here is ‘better‘. Better is typically subjective. Even in sports, where output and stats are fairly well dimensionalised, one might have to evaluate the contributions of a single athlete versus another with lower ‘output’ but who serves as a catalyst for others. In my mental model, I am thinking of a person who has higher arbitrary stats than another on all levels versus another with (necessarily) lower stats but who elevates the performance (hence) stats of teammates. This person would likely be undervalued (hence under-compensated) relative to the ‘star’ performer.

In other domains, such as art, academics, or even accounting and all measurement bets are off.

If [one] play[s] out the value in a social landscape, a hierarchy [will result]

Agreed, but the outcome will be based on rules—written and unwritten.

A small number of people are going to be more successful than the majority

Agreed.

A very large number of people aren’t going to be successful at all

Agreed

Conclusion

The notion of meritocracy is fraught with errors, most notably that merit can be meaningfully assessed in all but the most simple and controlled circumstances. But societies and cultures are neither simple nor controlled. They are complex organisms. And as Daniel Kahneman notes, most merit can likely be chalked up to luck, so it’s all bullshit at the start.

In the end, Peterson and people like him believe that the world works in a way that it doesn’t. They believe that thinking makes it so and that you can get an is from an ought. Almost no amount of argument will convince them otherwise. It reminds me of the time Alan Greenspan finally admitted to the US Congress that his long-held adopted worldview was patently wrong.

Video: CSPAN: Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman and Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan Testimony

WAXMAN: “You found a flaw…”

GREENSPAN: “In the reality—more in the model—that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.”

WAXMAN: “In other words, you found that your your view of the world—your ideology—was not right. It was not what it had it…”

GREENSPAN: “Precisely. No, I… That’s precisely the reason I was shocked because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

To paraphrase musically

Video: Social Distortion, I Was Wrong