November 2nd 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Murray-Darling Basin Plan based on debunked science

CANBERRA OBSERVED What does it take to knock down GetUp?

TECHNOLOGY Beijing's push to dominate world supply of electronics components

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Hong Kong protestors speak candidly to NCC, as Xi threat calls Tiananmen to mind

LIFE ISSUES Of foetuses and fallacies

LIFE ISSUES To hold the hand ... an answer to euthanasia

LIFE ISSUES Melbourne and Brisbane on the march

QUEENSLAND AFA/NCC forum addresses euthanasia legislation

THE ENVIRONMENT Fresh visit to the Great Barrier Reef in its death throes

COLD WAR HISTORY Was the Vietnam War worth fighting?

HUMOUR England United, and all that ... but with Hume?

MUSIC Usage and abusage: Words what got rhythm

CINEMA AND CULTURE The mirror of villainy

BOOK REVIEW Eclectic example of genre of decline

BOOK REVIEW Brief battle a model for combined arms


RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ABC survey finds majority agree there is unfair discrimination against religious Australians

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Usage and abusage: Words what got rhythm

by David James

News Weekly, November 2, 2019

Analysing the musicality of language is all but impossible but, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s famous comment about obscenity, “you know it when you hear it”.

Jazzz drummer Tony Williams

The lyrics of Bob Dylan, for example, enjoy a conspicuous musicality even if they are not especially meaningful. Consider, for example, the lines from All along the Watchtower: ‘There must be some way out of here/said the joker to the thief/there’s too much confusion/I can’t get no relief.”

The lines do not have any real sense or logic – although there is a loose evocativeness because of that – but they sound good, they are musical.

The importance of phonics in verbal communication is under-rated. When people speak musically, they are much more effective in conveying, if not necessarily a meaning, at least the impression that some meaning might be had. They are doing something similar to what jazz improvisers do.

This writer, who has been involved with jazz musicians from a young age, has noticed that many of them, when talking, have a fluency of sound that resembles their playing. Often what they say will not be especially meaningful, but it will sound as if it is. Creating the impression of sense is seen to be enough.

It is not just musicians who are skilled with the music of language. A conspicuous example of the practice is U.S. President Donald Trump, who is phonically intriguing.

After a lifetime of spruiking hotels and property development, he has developed a technique of not completing sentences to create the illusion that his thoughts are coming so thick and fast that he does not have time fully to articulate them. This is analogous to a technique in jazz improvisation where the soloist does not finish the phrase in order to allow the rhythm section to complete it, fill the gap.

Those listening to Trump find themselves completing his thoughts, filling gaps; we are turned, if we take him seriously, into a kind of rhythm section. Many have objected to Trump’s poor semantics (the often non-existent, ambi­valent or vague meaning of what he says) but the reason he is so persuasive is in large part due to his phonics, derived from decades as a salesman.

Jazz musicians like to describe what they do as a musical conversation bet­ween the players, which is an accurate enough picture of what occurs. What they probably have pondered on less is that the music itself emerged out of the way that African Americans speak.

For reasons that remain entirely mysterious, when many (although not all) African Americans speak, there is a detectable swing and rhythmic emphasis on some words that is deeply musical. This is the origin of the blues and various blues derivatives, such as jazz and rock.

Novelist James Baldwin commented that the African Americans deeply influenced white culture in ways that were largely unnoticed, and this is most the case with American music, arguably the country’s most potent art form.

Many Brazilians also have an intense musicality when they speak, although there are different rhythms and phonic emphases.

Music, in short, is everywhere in language, and it is probably the case, although this is speculation only, that even the most appealing instrumental music emerges from the phonic features of word use.

Trumpeter Miles Davis, commenting on drummer Tony Williams, observed that he heard music everywhere, that he was constantly listening to the sounds around him and converting them into percussive patterns. If true, this was a rare ability. What is not rare, though, is converting the sounds of word use into music, even if it is usually unconscious.

It may even help explain a puzzling phenomenon that this writer observed after years as a business journalist of listening to senior managers: the inane nonsense that business leaders routinely spout that, for reasons to do with neither logic nor intellectual substance, has the effect of validating them.

When they say things like, “we will strategise our optionality going forward in order to operationalise our human assets to undertake worlds best practice re-engineering of the corporation”, the point is not to make any sense, it is to create a kind of corporate music.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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