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Iconoclasts Antithesis Countermelody

In recent times, I have come to a painful awareness of some the flaws I posses as a human being. Though I want to use the word awareness, in truth, I ought to use hyperbole; readily announcing these faults to every rock, person or tree available to me, similar to that Popperian disciple, but for his membership to the cult of fallibility. Perhaps it is making up for the lost time spent in fault and shallow ignorance. Humorous the tendency we human beings have to eternally seek balance. We press forward with twice the force in the hope to harmonize, in the present, all we have failed to do in the past.

The two primary suspects are those common perpetrators of human ills: envy and vanity, and the arena which I direct my deepest envy towards is that of music. I have wished all my life to possess those beautiful musical competencies that conjure forth rhythmic winds of harmonic vibration from instruments (1). But alas, having only words available, all I possess are the means to imagine within my mind’s eye the battles, heroes, and crashing emotions that a composition can liberate from us (perhaps, if I am lucky, I will be allowed to capture such imagery in written form sometime later) (2). However, this note is not an exposition, in pity, towards my non-musical talents nor a love letter to her, so let us move towards the aim.

By way of chance, I encountered the two following statements. They seem, to a hopeful romantic, to contain some wisdom as to the benefit we owe to the doubters and iconoclasts of our species.

Some people think in words and some people think in pictures.

Musicians think in sounds, notes, and melodies.

Being far too indoctrinated into the school of words and pictures, I have seldom experienced the proposed “musical thinking” (3), except for the following experience:

I stepped down Mission Street admiring those spectacular plants that line the sidewalk on route to Mission-Dolores park. Observing their fractal symmetry - the smaller view of any given branch resembling the larger plant’s appearance as one - a strange sensation took hold of me as an internal symphony within the mind’s ears. In the complexity and beauty contained within the plant’s structure, I could hear the sound of life form into the distinguishable shape of notes in string instruments, pounding drums, and crashing symbols; as if by a sort of transmigration of the plant’s consciousness, I had become infected by the music of its being, which sung out in great harmony all the mystery contained in those repeating patterns. I, of course, had no words to describe the revelations on behalf of the plant, and for this reason, was both enthralled and confused by this polite plant for the potential madness it had engendered me with.

It is said that music is the universal language. So, to this speculator’s reasoning (and fear), there is much to listen for in one who is more senior, and continues to survive and reproduce itself through time. I would like to suggest there is a number of lessons we might gain from music, if but one related to the necessity of iconoclasts in battling back consensus opinion. To illustrate this, let’s consider with those elegant-sounding words I chose to entitle this note with.

The word antithesis means the direct contrast - an opposite proposition. A basic negation can suffice in many ways: logically, A and ¬A; in physics, a wave’s trough meeting the crest at the same time; spatially, the south and north poles of a sphere. In a verbal confrontation, it is usually simple to identify the antithetical position. Using such thinking is how we can argue, in stupidity or empathy, from the straw and steel man positions of debate.

Countermelody, on the other hand, is a concept introduced to me through Derek Sivers’ work, belonging specifically to the domain of music. A countermelody is a subordinate melody played at the same time as the primary melody providing contrast and texture to a piece. Despite its name, it is not a direct opposition musically, but supportive of the piece’s aim. To better articulate, consider some of the following examples containing countermelody:

  1. Example
  2. Example 2
  3. Example 3

Sivers defines himself in his book Hell Yes Or No a, “countermelody to the advice one hears about what and how to live a life”. There is more contained here than meets the eye, and perhaps even to Sivers’ initial intention in the question of public intellectuals and dialogue (4). Consider how the two terms relate to music.

If a basic negation is sufficient to produce an antithetical position how is this expressed in musical terms? Consider a single melody produced by the notes A, B and C played in ascending order. To negate this and produce its opposite, would we simply play the notes in reverse? That is to achieve an antithetical melody play the notes C, B and A. Or would the antithetical of the melody A, B, C be the simultaneous play of the ascending and reverse notes? Curiously, no matter which way we go, we are trapped.

In choosing to play the melody C, B, A as reverse to the first melody A, B, C, we produce a second musical idea that is different but not directly contrasting. In deciding to play the two melodies A, B, C and C, B, A at once, the expectation being the notes will “cancel” one another out as antithesis seems to, a complication arises. Both ideas played in union produce a dyad that does not nullify either of the prior melodies. Instead, it produces a third musical idea containing two dyads and a single note. How utterly spectacular!

Now, what if it is not the reversal of notes which produces an antithetical melody, but the reversal of their sound waves, in a physical sense, crests meeting troughs? Funny enough, there is no such way to produce these sounds with an instrument like the piano with an ascending octave structure. It would seem, therefore to me, musical thinking possesses no means to produce the antithetical position. Consider the proposition of countermelody now.

Countermelody, presents a contrasting element that accentuates the piece: it is additive. That is, the countermelody produces a higher-order idea that spontaneously adds movement to the piece, termed texture in our definition above. This movement, we can perceive as spatial (5) or temporal (6). This is not perfect music theory, however, it is in of service an altogether different point on the value of iconoclasts.

It is said that a collective is a group of individuals who have decided to forget something in common. Therein, the group is dually benefited and hamstrung by the possibility of total consensus. As a feature, the consensus of thought allows unity to service attempts at further dialogue and conclusions. As a nuisance, it presents an existential risk to a group going the “wrong way”; this is with considering the diversity of thought to be essential to survival (7). Thus far, the expedition of science has served to stave off this collective risk by functioning to “moderate the moderators” by way of free and open inquiry. But with that human, all to human, reflex from pain, there remains an ever-present possibility in the desire to sequester what might be true but also painful. This represents a potential risk vector for social groups to select out the “tail” personalities that serve humanity in unseen ways in science and the arts.

So what purpose did we have in considering the points of music at all within this note? Given the proposal that the open dialogue of human inquiry and progress is a musical piece, if it is true that antithesis is not possible in musical composure (8), the iconoclast is an essential element of countermelody that provides the work texture and depth. Stomping out the iconoclast in a given field, in the interest of avoiding antithesis for fear of nullification of consensus; running toward sweet-sounding, but inherently risky, unification; we lose dimensionality to the work and the possibility to see an “alternative” way. This is with real consideration that the “alternative” way, might lead us away from the brink some day.

The iconoclast brings the inquiry and debate greater depth, richer considerations, and new colors from which further melodies can transpire and roam free upon the musical scale. Therefore, when one day an iconoclast calls you, or more likely I, an idiot, recall in awareness, the a bigger picture of what is at stake.

“Without music, life would be a mistake”

F. Nietzsche


(1) How infinitely indebted we are to the singular such an art form that speaks to both our troubled hearts and souls; communicating to our fundamental being as it were. Music is a mirror reflecting back the inner dialogue of one’s self; the purest manifestation of Der Will as the other German pessimist calls it.

(2) Perhaps, the reason those brave hearts of the arts deem the poet as a principle rather than a musician, is that their task is much weightier. To harmonize the most universal of language and the most human of music. See The Poetics

(3) One has to wonder unscientifically if it is indeed true musical thinking is real, given Alzheimer’s risk is supposedly reduced through the learning of a second language, whether doctors and patients could benefit from exploration into musical thinking too. See Lessons from a Brain Surgeon

(4) This author is not a public intellectual

(5) Consider a metaphorical interpretation of the addition of a z dimension where previously only x and y spatial dimensions existed

(6) Consider, similar to (5) the addition of an axis of time for which we can understand a sense of “becoming”.

(7) This assumption is made by extrapolation of the laws of natural selection in Darwinian evolution. Collective imagination vis-a-vie potentiality for free, and potential heterodox, inquiry as a supportive arm against novelties of the natural chaotic environment (including other humans).

(8) I possess no formal education in music theory and have only my fallible reasoning at work with.