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Audiophiles and reviewers of high-end magazines are often accused of verbiage, ridiculed for the loose and ambiguous expressions they use in trying to describe sonic properties of various products (please add here the usual jokes about audiophile poetry). In short, audiophiles are often considered masters of humbug or nonsense. What people who put forward these accusations fail to see is that such rich and varied use of language may have a proper function in understanding sounds as well as music. It is for this reason that I published a brief article on metaphors and how metaphors may have a genuine role in describing sounds. The article first appeared in Finnish in my InnerWorldAudio magazine, Issue 6. It is written by Markus Lammenranta, a philosopher and epistemologist who also is an experienced audiophile with special expertise in analogue sound reproduction. – Kari Nevalainen

Tina is a tiger
When audiophiles describe sonic differences between different CD players, amplifiers, speakers or sonic properties of a single machine, they make extensive use of metaphors such as "bright", "warm", "deep", "airy" and "soft". They have good reason to do so. Apart from certain onomatopoetic terms, ordinary languages such as English, Finnish or Swedish contain very few literal expressions that would be suitable for describing sounds.  However, a skeptic can seriously doubt whether the chosen metaphoric expressions are informative at all. After all, a sound cannot have a property of being literally warm or soft. A sauna can be warm, a pillow can be soft. At any rate, properties such as warm or soft cannot be heard. Can such metaphors nevertheless be true descriptions of sound?

One of the most influential American philosophers in the last century, Nelson Goodman, answers to those who doubt the epistemic or information value of metaphors in his book Languages of Art [1968]. According to Goodman, a word or symbol can apply metaphorically to something that it will not apply to literally. Goodman's idea is that a metaphor is born when a symbolic schema—a set of mutually alternative symbols—is distracted from its original field of application and used to classify objects in a new field. The original literal usage of the symbols directs their new metaphorical application. For instance, animal names can be employed to classify human beings: Tina is a tiger, Larry is a lamb, Ben is a stallion and so on. How well those general terms apply metaphorically to human beings depends on how they are literally used on animals. 

According to Goodman, a symbolic schema can be transported from its conventional use to almost any other territory. For example, in addition to animal names, human beings can be described by means of temperature terms ("hot", "warm", "cool" and "cold"), plant terms, material terms etc. But once a symbolic schema has been chosen, it no longer is arbitrary which symbol of the chosen schema applies to which object in the new realm. The previous literal usage of the term dictates how the symbolic term is to be used metaphorically. For instance, Tina can clearly be a tiger but not a lamb, fox or giraffe. The metaphorical properties of an object are as real as its literal properties. The fact that Tina is a tiger is as real as the fact that she has red hair. Classifying human beings by using terms for the color of their hair or animal names are simply two different ways of classifying them. The latter is no less accurate than the former. Sentences containing metaphors can thus be used to express genuine claims that are both true and informative.

The same applies to describing sound as well. For example, a sound can be described by temperature terms like "warm" and "cold". But once the term has been chosen, its use stops being arbitrary. A warm sound differs surely from a cold sound. Hence if Goodman is right, audiophiles should not refrain from using metaphors when trying to describe sonic differences between products or properties of a single product. Without metaphors, describing many real sonic differences between audio components would be impossible and valuable information lost. Audiophiles should rather look for fresh and unexpected expressions. The whole language in all its richness is available to them.

The same applies to music. Expressions people use to describe musical pieces are frequently metaphorical. Even talking about low or high notes is metaphorical. It has simply become so conventional that we no longer notice or remember that these terms were initially used for material objects like chairs and trees. Surely there has to be a true difference between low and high notes without which music would not even exist.

A more intriguing example of understanding music metaphorically is provided by terms that are used to express human emotions. We say that music is "sad", "joyful", "fierce" or "flamboyant". The claim is that music expresses these emotions. What is meant by this talk about music expressing emotions? 

It was once believed that music expressed the composer's emotions at the time of composing the piece. That is hardly so. In describing expressed properties of the music, we typically have no idea what emotions the composer may or may not have had. And we are not capable of inferring what the composer once felt from the emotions expressed in the music. It's not plausible that music would cease to express certain emotions if we knew that the composer did not have them while writing the music. Another theory says that music expresses those emotions that are aroused in the listener. Seen from the perspective of Goodman's theory, this suggestion does no better.

The listener's emotions do not typically coincide with the emotions expressed by the music. People have no difficulties in sitting in a concert in a calm or even delightful state of mind while the music performed is sad or dark. The sadness of the music does not spoil my happy mood and my happy mood does not prevent me from recognizing the sad character of the music.

If the expressed emotions are not those of the composer or listener, the only possibility remaining is that they belong to the music itself as some of its properties. But how can music have emotions for properties? Nelson Goodman's theory of symbols and metaphors provides an answer: When we say that music expresses emotions, we simply apply emotional terms to music metaphorically. Even though music cannot literally be sad or dark, it can still be those things metaphorically. Sadness and darkness are thus equally true and genuine properties of music as its low and high notes.

Furthermore, the properties expressed by music are not limited to emotions. Music can for instance be angular. This is also a property that music has only metaphorically. The main point of Goodman's theory of expression is that a piece of music as a work of art in general draws our attention to its own metaphorical properties.

Making use of metaphors is thus an essential part of engaging in hifi and music. Metaphors help us understand and analyze sound. If metaphors had only decorative value in language or were simply a poetic device to some effect, both hobbies would collapse to nothing.
Markus Lammenranta