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Mysic, Metaphore, Major and Minor

Joseph O,Connor

(Music metaphore joconnor)

Music, Metaphor, Major and Minor

Before discovering NLP I had read Leonard Bernstein's book, The Unanswered Question, a transcript of his 1973 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. The title is borrowed from a short piece by the American composer Charles Ives. I enjoyed the book at the time, and when I began NLP, I made the discovery that Bernstein was using ideas from Transformational Linguistics, and came close to evolving a musical Meta Model.

Bernstein had read Chomsky, and been intrigued by the parallel between music and language, particularly the idea of a universal grammar underlying human speech, the logical principles of language which can shed light on how we communicate in a larger sense, though Music, the Arts and our social behaviour. Both language and music are universal human endowments. Music is often thought of as difficult and elitist, yet it is as natural and basic as language - 'language without the words'.

Once children learn words and the rules of grammar and syntax, they can create and construct original ideas in sentences they have never heard before. And when you learn the rules of musical structure and syntax, you can create original music from just twelve different tones.

The idea behind the Meta Model is that sensory experience is coded into language in a deep structure, which is then transformed though deletion, distortion and generalisation into a surface structure. The Meta Model traces the path back, connecting language with experience. In Bernstein's model the basic elements of pitch and rhythm combine to make melodic motives and rhythmic figures. These in turn combine into a musical deep structure, which he calls musical prose. This musical prose is not very interesting, it is not aesthetic. It has to undergo transformational processes similar to deletion, distortion and generalisation to produce music - the surface structure, Bernstein likens this to poetry. Bernstein in a sense meta modelled music: he traced the surface structure of music to the deep structure underneath, and drew out the transformational processes at work.

LANGUAGE MUSIC Poetry or metaphor Music (Surface Structure) Surface Structure - speech Musical Prose (Deep Structure) Deep Structure Basic Elements Sensory Experience Sensory Experience

I have certainly not done justice to Bernstein's argument, and for NLP the question becomes, what are the transformations that build metaphors from prose? You cannot use the Meta Model on metaphor, it does not do justice to the processes at work that created the metaphor. Nor can you build a metaphor from the Milton Model alone. There is nothing in the Milton Model that deals with the structure and organisation of the elements you create. The Milton Model is not aesthetic. I think we can discover a lot about how metaphor is constructed by looking at the parallels with music. Let's call in the Music model.

Good music, like a good story is evocative because it is ambiguous. It appeals to many different levels. Music thrives on ambiguity; it means more than one thing at the same time. Music is relational: pitches of notes mean nothing in themselves, only in relation to the musical context. A pitch is higher or lower only compared to another pitch. It creates a new complex sound when combined with other pitches, which is greater than the sum of each constituent tone. Rhythm is formed by the relationship of notes in time. Notes can only be faster or slower if they are compared with others. We all enjoy a good story, and like certain authors and subjects. The same is true with composers and types of music. You cannot argue one type of music is any better than another, just as you cannot argue science fiction is better than historical novels. It all depends on who is listening (or reading). Aristotle described metaphor as 'Midway between the unintelligible and the commonplace'. I think music occupies much the same position.

©Joseph O'Connor 2002


A Soprano on her Head Eloise Ristad (Real People Press 1982)

Not Pulling Strings Joseph O'Connor (Lambent books 1989)

The Unanswered Question Leonard Bernstein (Harvard University Press 1976)