Musings on prose and poetry, music and economic modeling

by Sandy Ikeda

I seem to remember a good example of the difference between real time and merely dimensional (“Newtonian”) time, probably in O’Driscoll and Rizzo’s The Economics of Time and Ignorance.
Perhaps someone can find the correct reference.  In any case, they observed that you can’t listen to music that is condensed in time.  You can’t speed listen to Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” at x10 without losing the music.

Their point was that just as time as duration is indispensible in the appreciation of music, one cannot abstract from real time, and all of its complications, when theorizing about economics without losing something essential.  It’s been a long time since I came across that example, wherever it was, but it has always stuck in my mind.

Now, when I studied music I could glance at a sheet of music and get a sense of what it “sounds” like.  As I read it closer to real time, however, the time in which it was meant to be played, the more the music was able to emerge from the page.  Something essential was lost then the more I abstracted from real time.

By contrast, when it comes to reading words on a page, like most people I can read much faster than the story I’m reading would unfold in real time, such as the conversations between characters, and not lose anything essential.  However, poetry seems to be more like music, in which the pauses between the phrases and the rests between the beats, are important.  I for one cannot speed-read poetry, which often begs to be read aloud.

In the case of prose (fiction or non-fiction) there is fairly a small and continuous trade-off between reading speed and comprehension.  In the case of music and poetry, however, that trade-off appears to be very steep and discontinuous.

But why is it possible to speed-read some media but not others?  Why can you speed-read the novel “Emma,” but you can’t speed-watch the movie “Emma”?  Can you get the artistic essence of the movie by speed-reading the screenplay (something I’ve never tried to do) or is this more like trying to speed-reading a musical score?


On a different but perhaps related topic, I recall McCloskey arguing, probably in Rhetoric of Economics, that a typical model in standard economics is like poetry because, like the metaphors in poetry (“her heart is a stone”), the mathematical functions employed in them are timeless (y = f(x)).  It seems then that poetry and equilibrium models, which don’t embody real time, require an infusion of real time in their interpretation in order to acquire relevance.  Thus, we tell stories to explain how price equilibrates quantity demanded to quantity supplied in competitive markets, but those stories are nowhere in that timeless model.

8 thoughts on “Musings on prose and poetry, music and economic modeling

  1. The distinction between objective time and subjective time (durée) was elaborated by Henri Bergson. In this regard, music – probably the most abstract form of language – is an evasion from objective time. In itself, music is in a way mathematics in sounds (all the way since Pythagora).

    Anyway, if you like Bartok you will probably like Enescu, the other great contemporay and folk inspired modernist composer, as well. But none is greater than Bach 🙂

  2. Bogdan,

    True, there is a kinship between music and math, but unlike math, time is IN the music, even in written form. So it’s odd that you should characterize it as an “evasion” from objective time.

    Anyway, Enescu’s Rhapsody no. 2 is one of my favorites!

  3. Dear Sandy,

    I surely agree that time is in the music, but what matters here is the scale on which it sits, so to speak. The time in music is not the chronological, objective time divided in years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes according to the rotation of the Earth around its axis and the Sun, but a subjective time of an altogether different nature. An hour of Mozart might be equal to two hours of office work, while an hour of Bach might make up for an entire lifetime, even without confession! Subjective time is not the same with the clock ticking objective time. At least, that is how I understood Bergson and, I have to add, Marcel Proust. In mathematics you have different spaces, but no only in music you have space, as well subjective time.

    About Enescu : it seems that this is yet another interest – besides Austrian Economics and coffehouses – we seem to have in common : I was born near his rural estate and not far from where he was born and you live in the city where he died.

  4. However, Enescu went to New York just before the communists came to power after WWII and in Bucharest and remained there before going to Paris. It is there that he suffered a stroke.

  5. Seriously, though, Bogdan, I misunderstood your first comment and didn’t realize that you were differentiating objective (clock) time from subjective time(durée). So, yes, “music … is an evasion from objective time.”

    But I feel a bit uncomfortable with your other statement that music is “mathematics in sounds” which I’ve also heard others say but which seems a little too glib to me, especially in the current discussion. It’s true that most western music (though not for example Japanese court music) relfects precise mathematical relations. However, I feel that once you try to translate mathematics into real time, it necessarily ceases to be mathematics, owing to the inherent inability of mathematics to embody real time.

    Maybe I’m just splitting hairs here.

  6. I have never listen to genuine traditional Japanese music, unfortunetly, and don’t know anything about it, but sounds involve by definition frequencies and frequencies can me described in mathematical patters. This is fundamental for both “noise” and music. The scales in music are also mathematical structures. The different harmonies in different styles of music don’t mean an absence of a virtual mathematical pattern, but only “stranger” combinations wavelength and frequencies. Thus, for instance, the atonal music of Schonberg is bizzare, deliberately iconoclast, in contrast to the traditional tonality of Western classical music, but it is not without a pattern that can be described in mathematical symobols.

    I agree that mathematics doesn’t embody real time – in a sense, but if you’re on to splitting hairs, the question arises then what actually is “real time”…We think of it in Newtonian terms, as a flow, the passing of our life, withing a fix reference system. But then in Einstein’s methaphysics (the term was actually widely used by physicists to describe his system, in fact my highschool textbook chapter on relativity theory had the title Einsteinian Methaphysics) postulated a deeper structure, which was expressed in matehmatical symbols that could unify the various previously “fixed” reference points…Anyway, I don’t claim to undertand 0,001 of theoretical physics, but the idea that mathematics expresses structures and that the essence of whole world could be express in a magic number, as it were, is not exactly only a presocratic or a gnostic myth.

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