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Origin of Language by Jean-Jeacques Rousseau: A Review

Dating back to the time of Plato’s Republic, music was viewed as having a profound ability to instruct. When composed in the appropriate manner, music held an essential, transformative power in the realm of one’s moral education. Through his Essay on the Origin of Language, Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau extrapolated music as having an elemental role in man’s educational trajectory through time. For Rousseau, the origin of language lies in our burgeoning desire to express our deepest passions and feelings. From this, such a desire served as the impetus for our political organization. By the same token, this need to reach out to others in a more civilized tone was the birthplace of music. Rousseau shows that the current of music runs through to the very core of our ability to relate to one another and the world around us in a rational manner. Though Rousseau greatly advanced musical theory through his connection man’s propensity for language and music, the evolution of music and its forms has shed new light on Rousseau’s theory of what constitutes music. The pattern of language serves as a useful guide for the music produced in 18th century Europe, yet music in its current, experimental form speaks to the provinciality of Rousseau’s definition.

What makes Rousseau’s work worth examining is that in contrast to the likes of Kant, Hegel, and later philosophers who made meaningful contributions to musical theory from a philosophical perspective, Rousseau was a composer himself. Instead of resigning the realm of field as a mere extension of his own conception of aesthetics and the arts, he actively worked to make music in alignment with the ideal properties that he imagined. In fact, he was a well-respected musician and therefore understood the praxis that successful music required in his time. One can see the importance which music had for Rousseau, as his primary occupation was as a musical copyist. This close connection that he felt for his craft is reflected in his philosophy on music, as a creation that is intimately and inextricably connected with the language and therefore all of human expression and connections.

Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Language is a work in close parity with the Romantic tradition that he helped to spur in European thought. Rousseau’s argument is that language did not evolve among human beings as a need for us to communicate our thoughts for pragmatic social or economic purposes. Rather, language emerged from the pit of man’s passions. The difference between mere sound and music emerged from this need to articulate our passions. In the renowned watering hole scene that he depicts, where man was first taken by the beauty of the female figure, Rousseau expresses that this incorporation of a more civilized dimension of tonality came through a desire to court the opposite sex. Voice on the other hand demands training. There is no natural voice that nature lends us. What is striking about Rousseau’s description of the provenance of language is that it purely encapsulates this passionate impulse. In being the birthplace of our language, it was the path towards higher rationality, yet the irony of this is how it is eked out with such a seemingly carnal and animalistic intent. Though it provides a strong grounding for the closeness between music as an imitative form of language, it appears quite reductive to say in such a sweeping manner that language was single-handedly born of passion. Similar to Rousseau’s argument in Discourse on the Inequality of Man, there is little one can do when it comes to critiquing the moment at which music and language were first created by man. It is a moment in time that is more or less unknowable. When it comes to Rousseau’s desire to define what music is according to this closeness to the spoken word, there are much greater ramifications. As compared to Rousseau attempting to shed light on the connections between music and language, Rousseau is projecting his theory of music on the entire body of musical creation. He is delivering an idea of is and what is not musical, and therefore gives us something to contrast certain examples of sound and determine their particular musical character. In other words, Rousseau is making a far more extensive statement in attempting to define music and in so doing, potentially sets limits on a craft that is continually reshaping and emerging.

By tracing the emergence of music in human existence and connecting it to the moment at which human beings developed a language of communication, Rousseau has a very clear picture in mind when he speaks of music. The line that Rousseau draws in his writing between what is musical and not musical is whether the sound follows the pattern of language. It must imitate the turns and twists of language as directed by our passions. The melody of music is what Rousseau associates with the presence of the passions. Music imitates the turns that occur in speech, such as one when is in fear. By doing this, music is representational of precisely those passions that it channels. “In all imitation, some form of discourse (some form of speech) must substitute for the voice of nature.” It is not enough for nature to produce sounds similar to that of speech. It is the passions beneath the speech transposed in the music that is the thrust of the piece itself. Music is a form of indirectly representing the passions that we feel ourselves. Through hearing a piece that evokes these passions, we are moved to feel the same twists in our soul ourselves. In other words, there is a certain character and awareness that speech possesses that elevates it above the level of natural sounds. To Rousseau, anything less would be mere sound. Due to differences among languages, the music that is produced from certain regions can have different sonic qualities than others, yet the feeling contained within it is still preserved. Additionally, such music can only be understood if one understands the language upon which the song is based. “Each is affected only by accents with which he is familiar; his nerves respond to them only insofar as his mind inclines to them: he has to understand the language in which he is being addressed if he is to be set in motion by what he is told.” Grasping music demands having a culturally specific understanding as codified by one’s native language.

For Rousseau, human beings not only created music, but also are the only animals that are musical. Though we may think of certain animals as musical, such as songbirds, Rousseau asserts that man is the only animal that has emerged from nature and is capable of composing music. According to Rousseau, because the sounds of nature are not a reflection of human passion, it is not something we can follow and connect with in the same manner. Music works with language specifically because we do not see the language first. Instead, we first perceive the feelings behind them. In other words, music does not just deliver us an array of sounds, but a composition that is imbued with a set of feelings. The outline of melody in music gives us the ability to anticipate and follow a piece of music as it progresses in time. Passion as composed by melody lends music a specific order. This is something that nature does not possess. Sounds that are purely physical and devoid of culture are simply pleasant; they do not move us in a deeper way. Nature does not have the capacity to be music because of the human element that is separate from their existence. It is this cultural layer that is present in the creation of music that makes it distinct. We understand music because we recognize it as such, as a higher creation that appeals to our passionate impulses. Sounds are unmediated sonic gestures; they are ‘natural’ noises. External sounds can be compelling, but those sounds situated in interpretive discourses and contexts are really meaningful. As a result, this awareness demands a certain level of cultural habituation. As Rousseau puts it, “Rude ears perceive our consonances as mere noise. It is not surprising that when the natural proportions are altered, natural pleasure disappears.” Music is pleasurable and meaningful because it engages our shared cultural discourses–“Sounds act on us not only as sounds but as signs of our affections, of our sentiments; this is how they arouse in us the emotions which they express and the image of which we recognize in them.”

As any contemporary individual using the English language can tell, language continuously surges forward. The creation of music ultimately rests on the notion that man had desires that surpassed his physical needs. “If we had never had any but physical needs, we might very well never have spoken and yet have understood one another perfectly by means of the language of gesture alone.” Because we have such complicated social needs and desires, we speak with our voices. Culture is the force that drives our communications forward, finding new terms and manners of expressing them through the spoken and the written word. What Rousseau’s theory does little to consider is the nebulous manner which language exists and how it is sculpted by a group of people. Certainly Old English varies greatly both grammatically and syntactically as compared to the modern iteration of the language. Rousseau is aware of the presence of multiple languages and accounts for them in this manner, all of which speak to a different resultant form of music. Though Rousseau describes the medium of music as time, he does little to account for the progression of music through large swaths of time.

The creation of music has not stayed still for the likes of Rousseau. His musings serve as a guide into determining the essential traits of music. Such a formalized definition of music does not limit artistic freedom and creativity will always stretch beyond this prescriptive limits. It does not mean that there can be no crossover between what is musical and what is non-musical. In the same way creativity is not stifled in light of the definitions of film and photography, to use still images in moving film is not a perversion of the craft and in many ways can serve to progress the composition. Though Rousseau wants to get at something essential about the character of music and what is distinctly human and what is in the realm of the natural, the use of natural, and even more abstract sounds interpolated with music can heighten, not detract from the resulting product. More importantly, for music to be strictly defined as what follows the cadence of our language would translate to a much slower progression for musical genres. Due to the slow rate at which language changes over time would mean that music would be constrained to much slower changes than a more lenient definition would allow.

What is important to distinguish is that when bird songs or anything natural is being appropriated for the creation of music, it is still being appropriated in a certain way. It is being manipulated similarly to an instrument with regard to the melody and harmony of the given piece. In other words, it is intentional with a depth and kind of regard that nature does not possess. Though this intentionality is important for Rousseau, it seems to glance over the potential for nature to replicate music in a similar fashion to us. There are physical actions that occur outside our person, present in nature that can replicate music that has been made. Who is to say that a rain shower, punctuated by the periodic crash of thunder is not an example of nature giving us a premeditated version of later forms of our own music? What we create may result from a different kind of inspiration, yet it would be foolish to say that there are not instances in nature that man cannot find sonically pleasing. Though Rousseau is inclined to think that music and language originated at the same point, making man its sole possessor, what must have predated music and therefore facilitated its ability to catch-on, as a form of expression is our capacity to like music. We must have possessed recognition for certain tones, the differences between them, and how they could be arranged in a fashion that mirrored a given feeling. The intensity that is present in a thunderstorm is not something bestowed by human consciousness and representing a human feeling or passion; it is a reality of nature.

Rousseau would disagree with this particular point, as he says that for one to make a song about the sea, it would not be enough to merely record or replicate its sounds. One must arrange a piece that evokes emotions that are akin to the sea and remind us on a conscious level what the sea resembles. Simply replicating nature is not enough; it is to borrow from what has already been. Rousseau appears to suggest that before the creation of music, man did not contemplate the potential musical relation of things (as we do now). Instead, he merely thought of the causes of the given sound. Man did not stop to reflect upon the musical quality of a lion’s roar; he was more concerned with recognizing it and evading it. Objects are represented by way of the passions that the object would normally produce. And we, in turn, are open to those things insofar as those passions are aroused in us and we feel this passion. In feeling this passion, we are open to the objects that are indicated and represented by the passion.

If music is as Rousseau interpreted, as a form that mirrors the flow of language, then music is a kind of language itself. Those who have not been introduced to such forms of music as free form jazz will not have the background to interpret that sonic experience as something meaningful. Being able to see the composition as something comprehensible is necessary to its comprehension. Whether Rousseau would have seen free-form jazz, as music is a point of contention, yet the passion that is present in its deliverance is undeniable. It is an example of a form of music that abides by the notion that music is ever an expression of man’s emotion, yet in ultimately being a profusion of extemporaneous notes, veers greatly from his take on what constitutes a sound and comprehensible piece of music. Rousseau’s definition of music is based around the way that he viewed music to be during his time. If he were an individual living in the present period, it is doubtful that he would maintain a theory of music equally opposed to what has been created in the intervening period. Rousseau’s theory of language and music must be respected in its own right, as an attempt to recount the emergence of music throughout time as compared to a critique that has great relevant through the modern era. The structure that one sees in music is relevant to a particular era in time and must be considered as such. In Rousseau’s time, he was the composer of a number of very orderly, structured works. Contemporary viewers might deem his work as being impossibly slow and dull. Having experienced and been attuned to the genres of say, free-form jazz, such music garner praise, but lacks a sublime quality that is not present among music to which they have usually listened. One’s perception of music is contingent upon many factors including their past listening experience, their specific culture and individual psychology. This is not to say that an objective investigation of music cannot be done, yet in the same way that one’s perception of temperature can vary greatly, so too can any type of perception, including music.

In some parts, Rousseau appears to understand the nature of music as being a contextual craft. “Sound in itself, has no absolute character, but it has its character only in relation to other sounds.” The properties of a piece of music ultimately depend on the syntax of the notes that are played. It’s meaning depends on the relationships among an array of sounds and not on anyone sound itself. Though he gives much more importance on melody in music over all other components, including harmony, he grasps that the way a piece is structured is central to its meaning. The main difference between music played today and during his time is the willingness to break the mold, and attempt to discover new, entertaining forms for the musical craft. If one is to consider music as reflecting changes in culture over time, it is sensible to conceive of Rousseau’s work as being a high-minded pursuit in acoustic pleasure-seeking, while the more psychological and experimental time we inhabit ventures towards such dissonant, chaotic compositions.

Though Rousseau wrote many pieces in which he discussed at lengths the complexities of music in a more direct and exacting fashion, in light of the connection that Rousseau maintained between the music and speech, the romantic origin of language allows for rich realizations regarding the significance of music as a human creation. Acoustically, what Rousseau failed to account for relative to the changes in language is the changes that could occur in musical technology. Having been in a time of orchestras and a limited number of instruments and therefore conceivable sounds, Rousseau could not have imagined the explosion of technology that allows us to form our own musical compositions. Electronic instruments allow one to create abstract and inorganic sounds unlike any produced in the 18th century. Sound design has surged forward in an amazing way, and though it is now harder than ever to define what is truly musical and what is not, respect has to be paid to the individuals who marked this transition from instrumental sounds to electronic ones.

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