The Unanswered Question was composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s heroic attempt to find a universal musical grammar that would do for music what Noam Chomsky is trying to do for language—uncover the fundamental rules the mind uses to make sense out of it. To illustrate how challenging this was, Bernstein pointed out that music was not as universal a language as everyone claimed. His example?


“How many of you can listen to forty minutes of a Hindu Raga with intelligent comprehension, to say nothing of merely staying awake?” (It’s “Hindustani,” not “Hindu,” Lenny. Many of the best players are Muslims.) Rereading this twenty years later, I felt a bit like the hero of the novel Shogun, who discovered, while revisiting his English former shipmates, that he had become more Asian than European. These days, I have trouble staying awake in a Mozart symphony and joyfully listen to or play ragas essentially every day.

Although I had once dreamed of writing symphonies myself, I eventually abandoned twentieth century European classical music because it seemed to be seriously disconnected from itself. The composers talked as if they were doing science experiments, and rejected the idea that music could have genuine emotional content. And yet if you listened to their music, rather than their academic conversations, the content was undeniable. It screamed of absurdity, insanity, and chaos, which is why it worked best in horror movie scores.

Bernstein argued that modern composers had to write this way. They were expressing the absurd spirit of the time as eloquently as Sartre or Becket, and any attempt to return to the tonal melodies of a more optimistic era would have been shallow and inauthentic.

Thanks to the blessed presence of the Ali Akbar College, I was able to discover a musical tradition that has continually reinvented itself without spinning off into atonalism and dissonance. Why is it that we can find both creativity and beauty, and escape this western absurdity, in modern Karnatik and Hindustani ragas? I think Bernstein’s explanation of musical meaning in Chomskian terms reveals one important answer, deeply rooted in the presuppositions of modern science that eventually led to 20th century nihilism.

Modern physical science believes that the mind lives inside the brain. Because the world is very big and the brain is very small, the brain can only encounter the world by absorbing sense data, which are independent fragments of experience small enough to fit inside the brain. Why then don’t we experience the world as a jumble of unrelated fragments? Philosopher Immanuel Kant solved this problem by positing mental structures that organized these fragments into a coherent world. Chomsky’s Kant-inspired view is that language is more than a set of independent words, each of which relates to a fragment of experience. It’s not enough to say that the word “dog” relates to furry animals that bark, “cat” relates to furry animals that mew, and so on. We say meaningful things by rearranging those words according to the rules of grammar or syntax: “dogs chase cats” etc. Individual words have objective meanings, but complete sentences, poems novels and symphonies only appear to have meanings because we put them there. In other words, there is no real deep significance in the world itself, only in our minds.

Bernstein proposes that we see the twelve tones of the western scale as a kind of alphabet, and melodies as words, sentences, and paragraphs constructed from that alphabet. The theory is that we appreciate and understand music because we have an inherent sense of musical grammar that recognizes how these fundamental building blocks are combined into different patterns. Bernstein shows how many of Chomsky’s linguistic transformations have plausible similarities to structures in music. There is thus no objective reason why one note should be played more or less frequently than any other note. If a particular sequence of notes sounds insane to you, that’s just your subjective reaction.

I claim that these similarities also reveal why Western music was vulnerable to the same nihilism that led twentieth century thought into believing that the Universe was absurd and meaningless, and that meaning did not exist and could only be derived.

How do Hinduism and Buddhism escape this dilemma? By acknowledging a fact that is also being recognized by the post-Chomskyian cognitive science called the Dynamic Systems Theory. The mind and world are part of a unified system, and the separation between them is created by knowledge, not bridged by it. If we start with this assumption, we see knowledge not as assembling bits to create a copy of the outside world, but rather dividing the mind/body/world nexus into comprehensible regions for temporary pragmatic purposes. Because none of these borders are intrinsic or permanent, the mind and the world remain fundamentally united as a meaningful whole. The experiences that make life worth living and music worth listening to are thus not subjective emotions tacked on to a fundamentally meaningless world. They are an awareness of the objective nature of things.

Admittedly, I have never heard ragas taught in exactly these terms. A raga’saarohi and avarohi (up and down scale rules) even sound somewhat like Chomsky and Bernstein’s transformational grammar. But the best players know that you can’t play a raga properly by following those rules as if they were a computer program. Many gurus teach their students only complete melodies and say nothing about rules. These whole melodies blend seamlessly into other whole melodies which together form the boundaries of a unified possibility space. Performing a raga is thus not manipulating individual notes, but navigating skillfully through that possibility space shared by listeners and performers. When we learn to be at home in that space, music has a real meaning, which can be perceived but not expressed, and which gives meaning to the rest of our lives as well.

Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question is available on DVD at

Teed Rockwell is the first person to play Hindustani ragas on the touchstyle veena. Neither Brain nor Ghost, his book on the Philosophy of Cognitive Science, is published by MIT Press.

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