Timing and meaning

In music, timing is very important. If you get the rhythm right, the tune will be recognizable as long as the notes are more or less in the right place. If you focus on getting the notes right and get the rhythm wrong, nobody will recognize the melody. It will sound like noise. Notes need to be timed. This could also be said of speaking a new language. If you can get the intonation more or less as it is expected to be and can time your gestures accordingly and in time with the native speaker, you can manage to receive the commitment to be understood whilst using imperfect words.

This may be because rhythm enables anticipation and flow, which seems to be part of sense-making. Rhythm carries within it the intent of the interaction. Conventionally, intention tends to be considered as being something formulated, as primarily cognitive. For everyday sense-making, and for the case above, of speaking a new language, the concept of ‘floating intentionality’ (Cross 2008) better captures the sense in which we grasp another’s intention through our own response to it. It is suggested that rhythmic interaction embodies this floating intentionality and even carries it within a pause. To be able to experience the rhythm, you need to trust the anticipation. To follow a rhythm, you have to take that risk and risk does involve trust in the expected time intervals. When the beat does not come in expected time, then you have to readjust your expectations for the next beat. The rhythm will obviously alter. Meyer’s (1956) theory on music and emotion shows that the manipulation of rhythm has an emotional affect: a composer can manipulate the listener’s emotions by setting up expectations and then delay their fulfilment or not fulfil them at all, thus causing an emotional reaction from the listener. In human interaction, to enter a rhythm that carries trust, a person has to trust in the rhythm in the first place, be this musical interpersonal interaction as in Jazz improvisation and linguistic interpersonal interaction.

In his work on the fundamental properties of meaning in musical and linguistic interaction, Cross (2011) proposes that music is primarily relational, and language primarily transactional. However, common to both music and language is rhythm in the movement of the body and voice/musical sound that is considered here as occurring at the relational level. Floating intentionality works at the relational level of human sense-making.