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Thinking without language?

Peter T. Daniels grammatim at worldnet.att.net
Wed Nov 24 12:41:34 EST 1999

Larisa Migachyov wrote:
> 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).

Speaking of which, both piano-playing (anything-playing, probably) and
really good typing involve finger movements that are much faster than
can be accounted for by the speed of neural messages traveling all the
way from the brain to the fingers. No verbal thought there!

> >       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.
Peter T. Daniels     grammatim at worldnet.att.net

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