Embracing mistakes in music and speech

Part of what I love about improvised music is the special relation to mistakes. If you listen to someone playing a well known composition, a deviation from the familiar melody, harmony or perhaps even from the rhythm might appear to be a mistake. But what if the “mistake” is played with confidence and perhaps even repeated? Compare: “An apple a day keeps the creeps away.” Knowing the proverb, you will instantly recognise that something is off. But did I make a downright mistake or did play around with the proverb? That depends I guess. But what does it depend on? On the proverb itself? On my intentions? Or does it depend on your charity as a listener? It’s hard to tell. The example is silly and simple but the phenomenon is rather complex if you think about mistakes in music and speech. What I would like to explore in the following is what constitutes the fine line between mistake and innovation. My hunch is there is no such thing as a mistake (or an innovation). Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re mistaken. Please hear me out.

Like much else, the appreciation of music is based on conventions that guide our expectations. Even if your musical knowledge is largely implicit (in that you might have had no exposure to theory), you’ll recognise variations or oddities – and that even if you don’t know the piece in question. The same goes for speech. Even if you don’t know the text in question and wouldn’t recognise if the speaker messed up a quotation, you will recognise mispronunciations, oddities in rhythm and syntax and such like. We often think of such deviations from conventions as mistakes. But while you might still be assuming that the speaker is sounding somewhat odd, they might in fact be North Americans intonating statements as if they were questions, performing funny greeting rituals or even be singing rap songs. Some things might strike people as odd while others catch on, so much so that they end up turning into conventions. – But why do we classify one thing as a variation and the other as a mistake?

Let’s begin with mistakes in music. You might assume that a mistake is, for instance, a note that shouldn’t be played. We speak of a “wrong note” or a “bum note”. Play an F# with much sustain over a C Major triad and you get the idea. Even in the wildest jazz context that could sound off. But what if you hold that F# for half a bar and then add a Bb to the C Major triad? All else being equal, the F# will sound just fine (because the C Major can be heard as a C7 and the F# as a the root note of the tritone substitution F#7) and our ear might expect the resolution to a F Major triad.* Long story short: Whether something counts as a mistake does not depend on the note in question, but on what is played afterwards.**

Let this thought sink in and try to think through situations in which something sounding off was resolved. If you’re not into music, you might begin with a weird noise that makes you nervous until you notice that it’s just rain hitting the roof top. Of course, there are a number of factors that matter, but the upshot is that a seemingly wrong note will count as fine or even as an impressive variation if it’s carried on in an acceptable way. This may be through a resolution (that allows for a reinterpretation of the note) or through repetition (allowing for interpreting it as an intended or new element in its own right) or another measure. Repetition, for example, might turn a strange sequence into an acceptable form, even if the notes in question would not count as acceptable if played only once. It’s hard to say what exactly will win us over (and in fact some listeners might never be convinced). But the point is not that the notes themselves are altered, but that repetition is a form of creating a meaningful structure, while a one-off does not afford anything recognisable. That is, repetition is a means to turn mistakes into something acceptable, a pattern. If this is correct, then it seems sensible to say that the process of going through (apparent) mistakes is not only something that can lead to an amended take on the music, but also something that leads to originality. After all, it’s turning apparent mistakes into something acceptable that makes us see them as legitimate variations.

I guess the same is true of speech. Something might start out striking you as unintelligible, but will be reinterpreted as a meaningful pattern if it is resolved into something acceptable. But how far does this go? You might think that the phenomenon is merely of an aesthetic nature, pertaining to the way we hear and recontextualise sounds in the light of what comes later. We might initially hear a string of sounds that we identify as language once we recognise a pattern in the light of what is uttered later. But isn’t this also true of the way we understand thoughts in general? If so, then making (apparent) mistakes is the way forward – even in philosophy.

Now you might object that the fact that something can be identified as an item in a language (or in music) does not mean that the content of what is said makes sense or is true. If I make a mistake in thinking, it will remain a mistake, even if the linguistic expression can be amended. – Although it might seem this way, I’d like to claim that the contrary is true: The same that goes for music and basic speech comprehension also goes for thought. Thoughts that would seem wrong at the time of utterance can be adjusted in the light of what comes later. Listening to someone, we will do everything to try and make their thoughts come out true. Trying to understand a thought that might sound unintelligible and wrong in the beginning might lead us to new insights, once we find ways in which it rhymes with things we find acceptable. “Ah, that is what you mean!” As Donald Davidson put it, charity is not optional.*** And yes, bringing Davidson into the picture should make it clear that my idea is not new. Thoughts that strike us as odd might turn out fine or even original once we identify a set of beliefs that makes them coherent. — Only among professional philosophers, it seems, we are all too often inclined to make the thoughts of our interlocutors come out false. But seen in analogy to musical improvisation, the talk of mistakes is perhaps just conservatism. Branding an idea as mistaken might merely reveal our clinging to familiar patterns.

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* Nicer still is this resolution: You hold that F# for half a bar and then add a F# in the bass. All else being equal, the F# will sound just fine (because the C Major can be heard as a D7 add9/11 without the root note) and our ear might expect the resolution to a G Major triad.

** See also Daniel Martin Feige’s Philosophie des Jazz, p. 77, where I found some inspiration for my idea: “Das, was der Improvisierende tut, erhält seinen spezifischen Sinn erst im Lichte dessen, was er später getan haben wird.”

*** The basic idea is illustrated by the example at the beginning of an older post on the nature of error.

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