Do Unwritten Songs Exist?

Over on another post, we’ve gotten into a discussion about something I find quite interesting (but which you might find boring as hell), and that is… Can something be said to “exist” that is in no way “physical.”

The discussion started based on the description of a ghost being supernatural or “non-physical.” I find it difficult to understand just what such a description actually means. As I see it, “to be” is to be physical. Now, as I commented over in the other post, that doesn’t mean something must be made of matter. A photon, for example, has no “at-rest” mass, it is pure energy that behaves (sometimes) as a particle — but that doesn’t mean a photon is non-physical or supernatural. It is natural, and it is physical. How something can be, but be in no way “detectable”how it can be said to exist, but its existence leaves no trace or imprint — seems to me a fundamental contradiction. Furthermore when we “detect” a ghost, does that mean we are “seeing” somethingthat is non-physcial, what could that possibly even mean?

Then commentor Anna made this excellent point:

I am not sure we should equate being with the physical, or we cannot say that numbers or information or thoughts exist. Or most money, for that matter, which is no longer in physical form.

Yet I would argue (and I did) that numbers or money ARE, in fact, physical. Their existence is etched somewhere in some substrate — it might be data on a harddrive or simply as an idea in a person’s head. It seems to me that idea’s have a physical reality — just as an un-recalled memory exists as electrical/chemical energy and as connections between structures (neurons) stashed away in a brain…

But my answer begs this question, does “2″, for example, exist beyond the idea of 2? Or to get even trickier, let’s use a song as an example. It is not the notes alone that make a song, but the ordering and spacing of them — the “song” only exists when that ordering has been done… the song lives not in the notes but in the between of the notes.

Now again, I would say the song is physical because at it’s most basic level it “lives” in our heads — you can watch a PET scan of a brain on music and it will appear different than one that is not… the question is, does the song “exist” apart from the idea of the song? Did that song actually exist before anyone (the songwriter) wrote it… or I suppose, in this case, discovered it.

If someone can convince me that the unwritten songs existed first, I will concede that non-physical things do as well…


19 Responses

  1. Oooh, I have a really great quote on this by Cornel West that I’m going to have to get back to you on but it has to do with black holes…

  2. I disagree that music is physical. PET scans show a response to music. Which is a response to the compression of air molecules. Which is a response to the vibration of physical objects such as vocal chords, speaker magnets, and guitar strings.

    If you take PET scans of brain activity in response to music as evidence of the physical realness of music, do you not then have to take PET scans of brain activity in response to prayer as evidence of the physical realness of god?

  3. Music is more than a response shown on a PET scan. It is also an elaborate grouping of wavelengths, which are vibrations of air molecules among other things. A song living in your head, I assume has an attached melody or notes because for it to be “song” it must be more than words on a page, right, because then it would be poetry? These melody or notes that you hum or hear in your head are manifestations of these physical parts of sound making the unwritten song still physical. In my very very humble opinion.

  4. If music is a physical entity…

    … so is “love”
    … so is “freedom”
    … so is “chemistry”

    … so is, dare I say, “god”

  5. Yeiser, I think, perhaps, you’re not considering it at the most fundamental level… i would agree that thinking about God creates the idea of God… whether that idea corresponds to something “out there” is another matter entirely… but if you are asking me if the “idea of God” is a physical entity I would absolutely say yes! (although this in no way necessitates the reality of God outside of the idea)…

    But if we consider a song (or love, or freedom, or chemistry), they also have dependencies either on physical objects or the ideas of objects, there is no loving apart from the beloved and the feeling of love… and as I’ve already stated the feeling of love (and the idea of love) are etched in the substrate of the brain…

    The question I am really asking is if love exists outside of the beloved and outside of the idea of love? If there are no people can there be freedom? Or to get back to my original metaphor, if you are a songwriter, and you write a song which you never write down and you never play for anyone, then the only place it exists is etched in the substrate of your own brain (which is a pretty physical thing) — then you die — does the song still exist?

    I would say it does not, neither do the songs that have yet to be written — those truly unwritten songs…

  6. Hunh. Interesting idea about the status of songs . . . Just thinking out loud here . . .

    If you have a song in your head, even if you never write it down or perform, can you distinguish it from other thoughts in your own mind? And if so, doesn’t it have a separate existence? I mean, can’t you tell it apart — “Oh,” you say to yourself, “I’m humming that song again,” — as opposed to, I’m doing my household budget again, planning my vacation again, etc etc

    Also I think there are some questions with written songs, as well as unwritten songs.

    Usually when we think of something as physical we think of it as having a specific form, but in the case of songs there is not a 1:1 correspondence between a particular song and a particular form. And if there isn’t a 1:1 correspondence between something and a physical form, are we sure we can call it physical? I think information has a different sort of existence.

    What, for example, is the ‘body’ of the ‘The Star Spangled Banner’? What and where is that song?

    Is it the sound waves we hear when people sing or play it? No, because the sum of all performances of the SSB is still not ‘the’ song itself, is it? We could continue to perform the SSB, and it exists in multiple performance forms, whether performed by my kids in band or chorus, or via the Marine Band or via Jimi Hendrix or via your memories of all the times you once heard it performed.

    Is the song’s existance contained by the pieces of paper or digital screens via which we read and write the notes?

    What if all written compositions of the SSB are destroyed, a la a musical ‘Fahrenheit 451’ but I can still hum the tune and I become a renegade and hang around resistance camps humming the SSB waiting for freedom to rise again? Does the SSB still exist if it’s no longer in written form, and all recordings have been systematically destroyed, but I remember how it goes?

    Is the SSB the pattern in our brains shown by a PET scan when we hear sounds? By the way, I’m not sure the PET scan is going to work, unless PET scans for hearing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ are distinguishable across brain ‘platforms’ from other songs. I propose the diagnosis test: I would want to be able to look at a PET scan and diagnose that the hearer is hearing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ versus, say, ‘Lola’ by the Kinks (digression: and what an excellent song by a cover band ‘Lola’ would be, hint hint hint).

    If the PET scans for hearing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ are not distinguishable from ‘Lola’ in the way that the MUSIC for SSB and L is distinguishable, then we can’t say that songs physically exist in brains as distinguishable entities, like they do in musical notation or in musical performances. Also the problem with brain scans is that if I have a very strong emotional reaction to hearing the SSB (say, I was a prisoner overseas and the SSB brings me to tears) and we compare my brain scan to that of a rural Indonesian monk who knows nothing of Western music and thinks the SSB sounds like weird random noise, our PET scans will probably look different even though we are responding to the same sound waves . . . so I don’t think we can say the ‘body’ of the song is there.

    So . . . Show me the body, said the detective. Where’s the body? What physical object can we identify as the one that contains the Star Spangled Banner? And if we can’t identify a physicality that ‘contains’ the SSB, then how do we decide it’s ultimately physical?

  7. Fist, I should have titled this “Do Yet-To-Be-Written Songs Exist” but no matter…

    Second, let us take the SSB example, if every one of it’s “written” or recorded versions were destroyed, along with anyone who ever heard it or saw it written down… in other words there was no “memory” whatsoever of the song in the population, would the song still exist?

    And we shouldn’t let the sophistication level of our instrumentation confuse the issue too much. If a PET scan shows that your memory of kitchen work and your memory of Lola (a song we DO cover btw!) appears the same… it does not mean that those ideas/memories are recorded identically in your brain. In fact, I would argue that it is impossible for them to be recorded identically… it seems to me they must consists of different neural patterns in your brain in order for you brain to be able to distinguish kitchen work from the Kinks (something that is clearly crucial for survival)…

  8. How would this apply to the a capella singer who picks the note in her head and matches it in the physical sense to begin the song? If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it does it still make a sound? It depends on what your definitionof the word is, is. Is sound the wavelengths only after interpretation by the ear or is it the existence of the wavelengths regardless of who/what may be around to interpret the information? Wasn’t it Michelangelo who once said that the sculpture was already in the block of marble just waiting to get out.

  9. okay…i really like this subject. to be fair to this subject, i must bring in a great lyric:

    “there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done,
    there’s nothing that you can sing that can’t be sung.”

    to build upon Ty’s question and that brilliant lyric i will say that it’s my opinion that unthought of songs and creations will always be made in some time or another in some form or another.

    my favorite painting of all time is Van Gogh’s Starry Night. i’ve never seen the original. i’ve seen it in many forms and the reason i love it is because it appeals to me visually and i’ve read the Van Gogh painted it while in a mental institution. he was totally whacked out of his mind and i love that insanity brought about a whole artistic movement. if i saw the orignial piece, i may find any duplication will pale in comparison but i may not. i may only think of how great it was to see it in person or i may after seeing it change my mind, that i don’t care for it anymore…..

    the point is that it’s not the creation or song that is important but the emotions they inspire. the creation is the vehicle for the emotion. the emotion exists because of the creation. so where does the creation come from?

    the creator becomes inspired to create. it may not turn out the way the original form in which it was concieved (i would say it’s altered 100% of the time). so where does the inspiration come from? that is the $64,000 question. it must come from somewhere, right????

  10. Jesse — quick aside before I have to get offline —

    My father worked in the artificial intelligence field and one night we were talking about what you could replicate with programming and what you couldn’t, and he said that to him, the great mystery was intuition. He said almost the same words you did: “Where does intuition come from?”

    It’s those other ‘i’ words besides ‘intelligence’ that he wondered about. Intuitions, inspirations and imagination don’t come from algorithms.

  11. Tyson — “Second, let us take the SSB example, if every one of it’s “written” or recorded versions were destroyed, along with anyone who ever heard it or saw it written down… in other words there was no “memory” whatsoever of the song in the population, would the song still exist?”

    Wouldn’t it still exist in the past?

    (Does the past exist? Dang — it was just here a minute ago!)

  12. wow! it’s gettin’ deep ’round here!!!

    but also just thinking out loud … just because we don’t have the tools to prove something exists doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist … like we once had no idea the earth went ’round the sun, that black holes existed, that the earth wasn’t created 6,000 years ago, we could map brain function and on and on.

    that said, we’ve advanced a little and we’ve gotta lot of tools these days. if scientific inquiry hasn’t come up with any conclusive proof positive so far, isn’t it also fair to be skeptical and look for other possibilites?

  13. one more analogy….

    my son recently bought a set of dominoes so this kind of sticks out in my head. i’d never played the game so i had to look up how to play. you have all the dominoes faced down and mixed around and each player picks 7 “bones” from the faced down grouping of dominoes called the “boneyard”.

    so one player starts by playing one domino faced up and the next player plays a domino that will match the number of dots on either the left of right side. we’ll call the right side the future and the left side the past.

    players can lay down dominoes in either the future (which are newly created) or in the past line (which are discovered as having existed but not known about). all creations come from the boneyard and exist but are not made visible until played in either the past or future.

    is this a good analogy?

  14. It perplexes me that people have no problem understanding “instinct” — a reaction to a set of conditions that is automatic and requires no conscious thought — but have difficulty understanding intuition… another kind of reaction, a forming of an idea that is detached from fully conscious thought. It seems to me if you accept one as biological, there is no problem in accepting the other…

    As for question, does the past exist? Hmmm, well as Miriam put it — it sure it getting deep! Well I would say it definitely does if it is somehow recorded or remembered, but the question, does a completely forgotten past event exist in the present… I would say it does not, but I’m open to arguments otherwise!

    Jesse, would you say that combinations of dominoes exist if you don’t have any physical dominoes? As for the past/future combinations… again, I’m not convinced we can say such things actually exist… I get the feeling that you do not see the act of creation as a creative process, you see it simply as a “bringing into the present”. Like Plato you seem to assign a certain existence to everything whether it has been created yet or not… but that’s just how I am reading your thoughts….

    As to Miriam’s point, yes. That’s what I was saying about the PET scans. There may be lots of physical activity going on around us that we have not learned to detect but is, nonetheless, detectable. There may be energy and matter and even new, undiscovered physical “entities” swirling around and acting on us — while we remain completely unaware… and that is why I don’t think we need to look “beyond” what is physical or in nature… why there is no need to grant existence to “non-physical” entities or “super-natural” beings…

  15. yes, i agree with Plato’s theory in that respect of bringing events and creations into existance no matter what form, actually maybe many times over just filtered differently through the creator.

    creation is creative because one is the other just describing the process. anyone can create, it’s just the talented that make it lasting.

    as for dominos, the analogy only works if you keep existance in the relm of the game. you can’t think of non-existing dominos unless you want to talk about fantasy meshing with reality or altering of the game, which may be valid. i just wanted to show a physical example of Plato’s theory….even though i didn’t know Plato had one.

  16. i would say that yes the past exists. asking if it does not is like asking if a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? (which to me it does because the sound vibrations are still there, even if no one was there to hear it)

    the past does exist even if it is not recorded, it did happen therefore it did exist at one point and still does because our past creates our present, and if our past didn’t exist then neither would our present.

  17. Janel, yeah there is a lot to consider… Does the past “exist?” Certainly the concept of past exists, and I would not argue that “forgetting” means the past never happened. But to say it exists, seems to me a different thing. Do not things pass out of existence? And isn’t that what we mean when we say “past” — don’t we mean, what once was is no more? Again, to say the past does not exist in the present, is not to say it never happened… I just don’t see how you can say those things continue to exist.

  18. that’s a good point….would our present and future happen without a past? bringing scientific theory into play. more specificly, Einstein. so ol’ Albert thought of “time” on a curve as opposed to a straight line. so you could say based on that theory that the past does exist, which opens the all important theory of time travel!

  19. […] Thinking revisits the importance of emotion and intuition when it comes to making decisions, and Do Unwritten Songs Exist? tries to tackle the age-old debate about the existence of anything that is not […]

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