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Thinking without language?

Larisa Migachyov lvm at leland.Stanford.EDU
Wed Nov 24 10:42:47 EST 1999

John Turnbull wrote:
>  In article <81f0om$esa$4 at nntp.Stanford.EDU>,
>  Larisa Migachyov <lvm at leland.Stanford.EDU> wrote:
>  >John Turnbull wrote:
>  >>  No, but I don't consider humming a familiar melody to be thinking.  I am
>  >>  likely to think verbally of the name of the tune though.
>  >
>  >What about performing a musical work?  Especially when playing in an
>  >ensemble without a conductor (quartet, quintet, whatever) - there is quite
>  >a lot of mental activity involved.  For me at least, most of the mental
>  >activity is not verbal - it is musical.  I am, for example, likely to
>  >think about how the notes I play fit in with the notes that everyone else
>  >is playing, or about how I need to play a little louder to bring out the
>  >melody, etc. - mostly, without words. 
>  >
>  >And if you still say that performing a memorized work requires no thought
>  >- a contention that I will violently disagree with - what about
>  >improvising?  You would have to say that improvisation involves some kind
>  >of thinking.  And yet, even when I'm improvising together with some
>  >people, I don't think verbally.
>  As I mentioned in another recent post maybe I've been too restrictive in
>  my thoughts on thinking, equating it too much with reasoning.  I am
>  certainly not saying performing music doesn't require skill.  Not being
>  a musician I can't comment on the thought processes involved.  A couple
>  of questions though:
>  	Would any kind of detailed thinking be a distraction to performing
>  	well?  Are the thoughts more on a macro scale, and not on the micro
>  	scale of which notes do I play, how do I play them, how would I
>  	play louder?

Well, I don't think that the notes enter into that; by then, the notes and
finger motions become close to automatic.  There are some verbal thoughts
of the "Oh no! I can't believe I missed that note!" variety - but in order
to play well, one has to feel the emotion that one is playing, and let the
music flow through one's mind.  I can't explain the kind of thinking
involved - but it is definitely thinking, and definitely wordless.  (and
not on the note level).

>  	When improvising, do you ever surprise yourself?  The closest I've
>  	come recently is sparring in the martial arts.  When I spar best
>  	I've tagged my partner before I realize what I'm going to do.  That
>  	to me indicates activity below the level of conscious thought.

Hmm.  There's some of that - but I do that in verbal thinking too.  But,
when I have an improvising task such as, for example, "Start out with the
Russian national anthem in the key of C and get to the American national
anthem in the key of B flat in a reasonable amount of time, managing to
put in an Irish drinking song and some Bach along the way", quite a lot of
conscious thought is involved, and none of it is verbal. 

Larisa Migachyov                            
Quaternion Press Publishing House
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