I for an I – The musical dance of becoming oneself

When talking about any important issue, be it climate change or the meaning of life, we simply don’t have the luxury of provinciality. We cannot solve global problems from the standpoint of one geographical area, and likewise, we cannot offer authentic answers to life's questions from one individual's narrow experience.

 Thus, when speaking about something as crucial as the essence of identity, we must regard it not from the standpoint of one country, one period in time, and indeed, even one identity, but through the largest possible lenses. We must, so to speak, take the position of all possible I's – the ideal I form – in order to realize how we become who we are.

This, of course, is a tricky thing to do. For is there really such a thing as an ideal, abstract, unattached and un-personal standpoint from which we can examine our ideas? Is there really a 'view from nowhere', as some philosophers have argued?

Well, perhaps there is, and it is not as detached and abstract as we might think. In fact, you are looking at it right now. For first and foremost, 'I' is a word. It is a concept we use in our language, and for that manner, its appearance in our experience serves as its ideal form. Indeed, when we see (or hear) the word 'I' in a sentence like this, we experience its coming into view – out of nowhere for all we know – before it is assigned to any specific person. And while this insight is true for every word, the concept of I demands special attention. For while every idea appears in our conscious self, it is this structural 'I' that through which we experience ourselves to begin with.

But first, we must talk a bit more about language, for it has two interesting aspects regarding our discussion. To start off, we know that language does not exist in a secluded manner. It does not function as a private system inside the minds of specific individuals, but as an inter-subjective relationship, one that manifests itself in the shared landscape of meaning that spreads between people. When I'm experiencing some pain, for example, it is first an ineffable feeling, a wordless movement of energy. But when I'm referring to this pain, it is suddenly a noun, a verb, or any other speech part, which wasn’t invented by me.

Second, language has a creative force like no other technology we have ever invented. "The truly important and unique quality of the human language", says Yuval Noah Harari, "was not its ability to convey some information about reality, but its ability to talk about things that do not exist at all, and thereby create a new reality".[1] Indeed, every animal can express pain when it occurs. However, we are the only specie that can choose to express pain even if there is none.

And so, if language is mental energy being referred to, while it is also known to occasionally create its own reality, a question comes to mind: is there really an 'I' somewhere inside us, and language is a tool for revealing it, or there is no such 'I' to begin with, and language just creates it by continuous references? Furthermore, if the latter is true, does language create something real or fake – that is, does it has the power to really create a self, or just a psychological illusion of it?

To answer these questions, we might want to turn our attention to other modes of expression, other ways of articulating ourselves, in the hope of getting a more distinct and direct view on the matter. And as it happens, one of the most distinct and direct ways to express reality is not through language, or at least, not through conceptual and lingual utterances, but through music. For music is the only language that, as Claude Levi-Strauss had put it, has the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible and untranslatable.[2]

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that music is one of the deepest conceptual framework we apply to life. Besides being a human universal, appearing in every culture and throughout time, music also has an immense effect on our language. If an idea sounds true, we say it's on the note; we talk about beating the drum when we want to voice our support of it, or play it by ear when we feel we got the idea, and don't need a lot of preparation to follow it. We then trumpet the thought or dance to its tune, hoping it will be echoed by someone else.

And much like the world of ideas, musical talk can also be used to describe our daily actions. When two people connect, for example, we talk about synchronization and resonance, while a failure to do so is to feel dissonant. A cool person swings or has a unique beat (and was once even called beatnik). An initiator of some plan is often described as an orchestrator of it, while her work is evaluated as performance. And an intense experience is a symphony of sights and sounds.

 It seems that musical concepts pervades many areas of discourse, including our notions about ideas, truth, experience, relationships, actions and identity. And there's a good reason for music's influence on our conceptual understating of the world. After all, besides being expressive animals, we are primarily rhythmic creatures. Our lives are conducted in a cyclical order, moving from day to night and from expiration to respiration. Our heart beats, our brain activity has a rhythm, and our life goal, as put forth by the Greeks, is to attain a state of Arete, of basic harmony, both within ourselves and between us and the world. "Music is so naturally united with us", said the Roman philosopher Boëthius, "that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired".[3]

Moreover, the use of musical concepts in our descriptions of the world makes sense in the light of the limits of language.  For the problem of speech, as we are so painstakingly aware of, is that words are an insufficient tool, to say the least. By their fixed form and shape, they presume that the world they describe is as fixed and eternal as they are. In view of their inert tendency for abstraction, they tend to miss a lot of specific details, summarizing experience at a communicable glance. And as seen in Aristotle's usage of the Greek article to move from the adjective 'good boy' to the noun 'the good', words can easily lead us on a wild goose chase, searching for metaphysical entities that aren’t necessary there.

For these reasons, it is of no wonder we often choose to express ourselves in a manner more suited for the world we found ourselves in – with much more flow, swing and rhythm, as these types of expression helps us attend to experiences without holding them too firmly.

Recent research even affirms that attention itself, our own faculty of awareness and perception, does not take the form of a firmly held spotlight, but rather that of a rhythm, moving in attention cycles of about 4-8 Hz.

Other findings also suggests that rhythm is nested in our neurology. The reason why every human (and some nonhuman animals) can more or less 'move to the beat', and thus 'communicate' with a song, is because our auditory capacity for beat perception is connected to motor areas in our brain. Moreover, beat perception is both predictable and flexible, making music perception a bit similar to interpersonal connections: we can anticipate what is going to come at us, but also adjust to changes, and act accordingly.

In a deeper sense, we can see that the sentiment regarding the importance of music to life runs deep in the philosophical tradition. Schopenhauer, for example, was one of the leading thinkers who gave prominence to music in his metaphysical structure of the world. In his writings, he notes that "when music which is suited to a scene, action, event or environment is played, we think that it reveals its most secret meaning, while being the most accurate and precise description of it".[4]

Summarizing this sentiment, we find Nietzsche's claim that "Without music, life would be a mistake".[5] And indeed, more than any other sense-stimulations, it is music that 'makes us move', while emphasizing the experience at hand.

Can music, therefore, expose the possible mistake of our identity? Can it be used as a tool for inner movement and self-expression, all the while revealing the essence of that very self, that I, telling us whether it is a fiction or a true thing? Furthermore, if music is a language, then do we form our identity (be it real or fake) through some sort of communication?

Luckily, the musical way of expression had been studied for some time now. In observing musical communication, researchers have found six main modes of communication that were divided into two categories: verbal and nonverbal, while each contained three distinct modes: instruction, collaboration, and cooperation.

Verbal instruction usually came up when the musicians began to work on a piece. Verbal cooperation came up when musical communication was 'broken' or stopped and enabled players to clarify organizational issues unrelated to creativity. Verbal Collaboration also came up when musical communication failed or was interrupted, but it involved the musical preferences of the group, which expressed the creative development of the piece belonging to everyone, and not just to a single player.

Non-verbal instruction was used in the same way as verbal instruction to begin the piece, for example by reading musical notes together. Non-verbal cooperation was demonstrated by musical and visual cues when the group played together and was used to promote uniformity among the musicians. Nonverbal Collaboration occurred when the group communicated only by 'musical exchange', while being in a state of empathic creativity.

This notion, which basically means to put yourself in another person's shoes in the midst of art-making, could be further defined as the spontaneous production of music, related to the creative content and the interaction between musicians. In this situation, it seems that musicians responded to each other in an attitude of risk-taking and challenge, which expanded their knowledge-base. They mainly took risks in musical expressions and timing, thus challenging the creativity of the rest of the group. Finally, Empathic creativity is expressed visually by smiles, nodding and body movements, and musically through the unexpected production of musical 'invitations' and 'reactions' when musicians communicate with each other.

Expanding this notion from mutual art-making to interpersonal relationships in general, we can bring this idea back home, namely, to the reality from which any communication starts – the human body. Because we exists before we talk, and talk through our mouths and with a variety of bodily gestures, we see that true communication – from the latin 'communicare': to share – starts from embodied empathy.

To our purposes, embodied empathy would be the spontaneous creation of meaning in a relationship, communicated in a 'musical way' through the interaction between the partners. In the words of psychiatrist Anthony Storr, "breathing, walking, beating our hearts and connecting sexually are all rhythmic elements of our embodied existence".[6] Thus, interacting in a 'musical way' consists in the rhythmic expansion of the partners' knowledge-base, or shared intentionality, through instruction, collaboration and cooperation, which are built over time.

By allowing one another to play freely within the communication structure, people can foster their ability to improvise, or 'play' together, creating both their unique 'routines' and the place for each other's 'solos'. In this way, embodied empathy is experienced directly through bodily gestures and attention, and 'musically' through the unexpected production of 'invitations' and 'reactions'. This, in turn, enhances their co-empathy and shared 'beat-perception': the rhythm of the shared reality. It is the physical perceiving of, and reacting to, the 'what' of the other and the relationship, before any verbal reasons are called for.

In this way, communicating with each other becomes less of a conversation and more of a dance. It is a resonant ‘being together’—a sublimated desire to ‘move with’ one another, while experiencing shared understanding, empathy and sympathy.

And this ability to 'dance together' or to feel each other in an embodied way is manifested through various processes. It has been found that people can detect emotions by listening to expressive cues, tempo, articulation and sound; that body movements and gestures show happiness, sadness and anger; and that timing (or tempo), is the most important feature in decoding the emotional expression of another. “Love is a friendship set to music” said Joseph Campbell, and embodied empathy means dancing to that music.

Moreover, says Henri Bergson, these elements of timing, rhythm and resonance, are the continuous melody of our inner life, an indivisible melody that accompanies us throughout our conscious existence, as it is our personality.[7] In other words, by dancing with each other, or showing embodied empathy by gestures and attention, we are not just connecting with another, but also refining ourselves. By trying to harmonize, we distill our own melody, becoming less concerned with words and reasons, and more with meaning and resonance.

And by this resonance, we are fostering a perception of the other as a conscious subject, not just for the purpose of relating to it as an end and not as means, but also for the very essence of becoming ourselves. For if I see the other as an I, as a source of intentionality, as an authentic and free agent capable of conscious action, I'm also setting myself in the same why for her. I'm actualizing my ontology by being continuously thought-of, responded-to, and resonated-by the other, thus becoming more myself as I return the favor. For when we see I to I, we feel each other's ineffable essence. We make music, which manifests as the rhythm of the shared reality, and become who we are within it.

[1] Harari, Y. N. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Random House.‏

[2] Lévi-Strauss, C., & Weightman, J. (1969). The raw and the cooked: Introduction to a science of mythology (Vol. 1), Harper & Row, p. 18‏.

[3]  Boethius, A. M. S., Bower, C. M., & Palisca, C. V. (1989). Fundamentals of music. Yale University Press, p. 8.

[4]  Schopenhauer, A. (1969). The World as Will and Representation, Vols. I and II, trans. by Payne E. F. J. New York: Dover Publications, p. 262.

[5]  Nietzsche, F. W. (2007). Twilight of the Idols with the Antichrist and Ecce Homo. Wordsworth Editions, article 33.‏

[6]  Storr, A. (2015). Music and the Mind. Simon and Schuster, p. 39.

[7]  Bergson, H., & Andison, M. L. C. (1946). The Perception of Change. In The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Tr. by Mabelle L, p. 149.

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