The Lyric Mind

The Lyric Mind

Stephen Sondheim and Steven Pinker talk about music and language at the Rubin Museum of Art

Photo Courtesy of the Author

What are the similarities between music and language? Why do certain sounds evoke certain emotions? And is there a part of the brain dedicated to music? These were just some of the fascinating topics discussed by the legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George) and famed cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works) in early March at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, an organization that seeks to bring together contemporary life with “the art and ideas of the Himalayas and neighboring regions.” During a wide-ranging and thought-provoking conversation, dubbed “The Lyric Mind,” and presented as part of the museum’s Brainwave 2016 series, which explores the role of emotions and science in our world, the two men discovered some interesting common ground – as well as some differences.

“The music of any country is a reflection of the language,” Sondheim observed. “I’d like to think that if I heard a piece of music that I’d never heard before, I could tell you whether it was German, French, English, Spanish, or Russian. They have such distinct rhythms and such distinct melodic outlines.” The composer made it clear that for him, the specificity of music is key – that when he’s writing a piece of music, he tries to get into the minds of the characters and their inflections, and that in turn will drive the music, the lyrics, and the emotions evoked. “I write songs for characters created by other people,” he observed, modestly, at one point. “Maybe how I express the characters enhances that in some way. But if you’re moved by somebody singing something in a show, you’re moved by what the librettist has invented.”

Sondheim is an artist known for his precision and clarity. Pinker is a scientist known partly for his writing and for his fascination with the stuff of art – with emotion, language, and poetry. The latter observed that language and music both have metrical structures and rhythm, even though they’re not the same. “We’re all natural poets,” he said. “We use the standard devices of poetry in ordinary speech without trying to be poetic.”

As a playful example, Pinker discussed the use of curse words and their substitutes. “For every taboo word, there’s a whole family of similar words that you can imagine a vicar or a maiden aunt might blurt out. God: gosh, golly, gadzooks. Jesus: geez, gee willikers, jeepers creepers. A lot are alliterative. Some of them rhyme: sacre bleu for sacre dieu.” He explained further that some of these expressions play on meter and cadence. For example, words for insincerity like “balderdash, flapdoodle, blatherskite, horse feathers” preserve the metrical structure of the curse word “bullsh*t,” as a way of preserving meaning. “Even if you’ve never heard the word ‘blatherskite,’” Pinker reflected, “someone says that and you know what they mean.” (This part of the conversation was prompted by a discussion of Sondheim’s famous lyric in West Side Story, “Gee, Officer Krupke – krup you!”)

One of the evening’s most fascinating points came when the two men mused on the question of how different sounds and tonalities can evoke certain moods, and whether this phenomenon was learned or innate. Discussing the idea of sad songs, Sondheim speculated, “I wonder if a child who’d never seen a movie or heard a word would connect with that piece of music [and] feel what we’re talking about. My guess is no. If you play [the famous short ballet] ‘The Dying Swan’ for a six-year-old, they wouldn’t have any idea that this is supposed to be sad.” He added, “I don’t think music evokes an emotion per se unless it’s connected with something.”

Pinker countered, however, that research into ethnographic recordings from all over the world shows that “you can tell a lullaby from a war chant in any culture – you don’t need the lyrics….There are natural parallels between rhythm, tempo and tonality on the one hand, and certain human emotional reactions on the others.” He noted that the way the brain analyzes sounds makes it think of certain emotions and moods.

Sondheim elaborated further on his feelings later, when he answered a question about his early days in the business. The composer described how his mentor and “surrogate father” Oscar Hammerstein was fond of nature imagery – birds, trees, fields. And although Sondheim himself was a city boy, “he wrote a song full of images of trees and skies” when he was apprenticing on Hammerstein’s show Allegro in his late teens. “Write what you feel, don’t write what I feel,” he recalled Hammerstein saying in response to his song. “When he said that to me, that was the most valuable lesson that a young writer can ever get. I wanted to write like him. He said, ‘don’t.’ Because it was phony.”

Sondheim himself was curious to know from Pinker whether there was a part of the brain devoted to music” Pinker said that very recent research into this area by scientists at MIT has revealed that “there is a part of the auditory cortex that responds to music of any idiom and pretty much nothing but music.” He noted that that is not the only part of the brain that responds to music, but that it seems to be the one part that responds only to music, and “not to other sounds like a crashing garbage can lid or speech or siren.” However, he added that this is a part of the brain that may develop over time, and “that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are born with it.”

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