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Communication as making music.

PEOPLE ARE in communication when they are in each other's perceptual field. I have argued that communication is ongoing, the normal state of affairs, when people are in each others' presence. This communication may be shallow, if people are not paying much attention to each other. Or it may be deep, if people are paying a lot of attention to each other.

This model of communication differs from the linear sender-message-receiver models. In the shared field model, there is no sender, there is no receiver, there are no disembodied messages floating somewhere between them. Yet people do act to produce specific communication events within the shared field. These actions can fruitfully be understood by using music as a metaphor for communication.

Music is a powerful metaphor for human interaction. The similarities between musical forms and the forms of the emotional life have often been noted. Such qualities as tension and relaxation, crescendo and diminuendo, accelerando and ritardando may be applied to emotions and interactions as well as to music.

Both music and communication unfold over time. Both require people to coordinate their activities. Both music and communication rely on a shared body of knowledge and expectations. The many varieties of music are good metaphors for the many varieties of communication situations. The pace and excitement of communication are mirrored in the beat and energy level of music.

In addition, the concepts of harmony and dissonance seem uniquely appropriate to describe aspects of human interaction.

The basic act of spoken communication contains a content dimension and a relationship dimension. The content dimension is the verbal, explicit information. The relationship dimension is the nonverbal, emotional information. The communicative act can be metaphorically described as singing a part in a song. The words to the song contain the explicit information, the music carries the emotional relationship information.

Interactions between people often produce similar patterns of behavior. These can be compared to musical melodies, which become familiar over time. Some communication is about the same old situations. This is like singing the same old songs. Some communication is about new situations. This is like improvising and coming up with new melodies or songs.

Often familiar emotions will arise during interaction with another person. This is similar to having musical themes which reappear in different settings. Many people have a "life-script" which leads them to choose similar partners, situations, and behaviors. This can be described as a tendency to pick certain songs, themes, and keys.

Every communication act relies on larger culture patterns which must be shared for coherent communication to take place. These include understanding the language, and some knowledge of appropriate behavior in situations. The larger culture patterns correspond to music's key structures, scales, and tonal conventions. A musical key structure sets limits on which chords may be used, and creates a sense of attraction toward a key center, a tone known as the "tonic."

A good social interaction is like people singing together harmoniously, in a common rhythm, comfortable within their song forms. A tense social interaction is like people singing dissonantly, with no agreement on rhythm, tune, key, or even what kind of song they are singing.

Some interactions have a clear leader. This corresponds to singing groups with a lead singer, and muted backup vocals from the others. Often there is competition for leadership socially. This corresponds to two people trying to sing lead at the same time. Other interactions are more egalitarian. These could be characterized as duets, trios, quartets, or other such musical groups. Larger communication groups are like big bands or orchestras. Often there is a chorus in the background, like echoes of community opinion.

These relationships can be summarized in the following table:

Speaking to each other Singing a part in a song
Content of communication Words to a song
Relationship level of communication Music in a song
Patterns of interaction Melodies
Patterns of emotion Musical Themes
Culture Patterns Key structures, scales
Comfortable interactions Harmonious singing together
Uncomfortable interactions Dissonant, a-rhythmic singing
One person dominates Lead singer and backup vocals
Equal interaction Duets, Trios, etc.
Repetitive interaction pattern Familiar old standard song
Creative interaction Improvise new melodies, words

I am sure that more can be done with the musical metaphor for communication than I have proposed here. Many thinkers have already explored this metaphor--I am not the first to notice it. However, I think the musical metaphor is useful in explicating what people do, in the shared perceptual field of communication.

The metaphor of communication as music is difficult to diagram visually. The metaphor rests on sound. This is appropriate for interpersonal communication, which primarily relies upon spoken language.

This concludes my discussion of an alternative model of interpersonal communication. It is a shared field model, where people make music together. This model has no sender and receiver, no disembodied messages floating out in the world. It is not a model which can be easily diagrammed visually, however I encourage anyone to make some diagrams which might capture aspects of this model and help them remember it.


* Dr. Raymond Gozzi, Jr., is Associate Professor in the TV-Radio Department at Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY. His most recent book, The Power of Metaphor in the Age of Electronic Media, Hampton Press (1999), is available from the Institute of General Semantics.

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Author:Gozzi, Raymond, Jr.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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