Words and Music: Meaning and Memory


Post by Sherene Aram

All formal differences between language and music are a consequence of differences in their fundamental building blocks (arbitrary pairings of sound and meaning in the case of language; pitch-classes and pitch-class combinations in the case of music).  In all other respects, language and music are identical.

- “,” Jonah Katz and David Pesetsky

I want to agree with this hypothesis. I really do. My mind leaps to African click languages. I envision an alternate world in which tones, rather than sounds, carry defined meanings, where conversations are duets or symphonies.  I think I’d enjoy life in a society where belting out the highest, loudest, longest note I could muster was an appropriate response to that button-pushing family member or colleague.

But I wonder – does this idea hold up in practice? To take a simple example, is the experience of reading aloud Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 the same as listening to “Turn, Turn, Turn” sung by The Byrds?

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Nope, it isn’t.

Even if you are very familiar with both the King James edition of the Bible and 1960s folk music, I’d wager that the opening notes of the song queued up an emotive memory in a way that the opening words of the text did not.

Experience tells me there is something fundamental about how music mainlines sensory data into our brains. As infants we vocalize before we verbalize. As adults, when we reminisce about a moment or an era, it is music that frames the memory, enabling it to persist across generations.

Perhaps music is a language like any other, but it is our common primal language, with the inherent capacity to sidestep our rational, meaning-seeking minds. 

Welcome to Adventure!!


Post by Sherene Aram

When I was in college, the interactive text-based program called Adventure transported me to a place where logic, curiosity and humor were equally valuable tools, where I could escape from the stuff of daily life. In the game, I could be a treasure hunter and intrepid explorer, and I got an infinite number of "do-overs." Like many of the best stories, Adventure inspired me to action. Such as sneaking into the computer lab in the middle of the night to solve just one more puzzle.

The story goes that Adventure was shared person-to-person, mainframe-to-mainframe from Stanford to MIT. Programmers reportedly lost a week of coding time to this brand new toy. Two weeks, for those who set out to build their own versions. An apocryphal senior was so captivated by the world of the Colossal Cave that he failed to graduate.

It started with Will Crowther, who built the game’s framework in the early 1970s while developing assembly language programming for ARPAnet. Along the way, he developed computer simulations of maps and incidentally spurred the creation of a new gaming genre. Next was Don Woods, a student working in Stanford’s AI lab, who discovered Adventure on one of the university systems.

Woods supposedly reached out to Crowther by sending email to “Crowther@ every computer on the internet” -- which at that time was a pretty small number.

Like many others who came after him, Woods sought to expand the game world, invent new puzzles and contribute to the Adventure narrative. These early game writers anticipated crowd-sourced digital storytelling by a good three decades. That’s like ancient history on the gaming timeline. But Adventure lives on.

There’s no need to prowl the nearest campus for unlocked doors or windows anymore. If you’d like to play the original, it’s here. And there are a bunch of apps that allow you to crack puzzles on your favorite hand-held: search for "Colossal Cave" or just check out my favorite. I’d argue that Adventure’s early impact stemmed from the novelty of its quirkily engaging delivery system – computer as storyteller, parsing just one or two words at a time to invoke the very human experience of imagination.

But that’s not what has kept interest in Adventure alive. Again like some of the best stories, Adventure blends the new and the archetypally familiar. The game balances magic (elves, wands) and realism (the actual topography of Colossal Cave in Kentucky). Adventure is a place where control and chaos meet. It offers the fulfillment provided by mastery – whether understanding the architecture of the world or the logic of its challenges. And it captivates us with the unexpected. It is a place where we can abandon our preset boundary conditions and generate new-made selves time and again.