What happens when a book, song, or piece of art is given a title that has seemingly nothing to do with the work itself? Or when something inside the work just doesn’t seem to align with the rest of it?
Apparently, our brains naturally try to connect the dots. We’ll come up with ideas and connections between the two seemingly unrelated things because we assume the author/artist saw a connection between them. And most of the time, they probably did.
But what if they didn’t? What if this is all just a joke played on the poor, unsuspecting audience?
Several years ago I had to write a poem at the end of a creative writing class. By that point I had become pretty skeptical of the crazy connections everyone was reading into the works we had studied (a common complaint in English classes) so I decided to have a bit of a joke on the class and teacher. I wrote my poem almost exclusively based on chance. I had to choose a few things, of course, like the online word banks I would draw from, but other than that I simply used random number generators on the internet to figure out which word to write next.
When I got my teacher’s and classmates’ written feedback, it was just as I suspected: they
applauded my choice of words, assuming each one had been carefully chosen. At one point the teacher said she loved how I put the same word twice in a row because it had some sort of significance to her that I can’t remember now. In reality, the random number generator just told me to put it twice!
So how can we protect our minds from jerks like me who take advantage of our trusting natures to convince us there’s meaning where there isn’t? We don’t want to be bamboozled, duped into connecting ideas where there is no connection.
What I’ve come to realize is that that’s the wrong concern. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t really matter what the author’s intention was. What’s more important is how our brains go into overdrive trying to solve the puzzle of the implied connection. Isn’t that the very definition of creativity: making connections between two seemingly disconnected things? So what if the author never intended for us to make that connection or even if he or she purposefully slapped a random title on something or added a detail they knew would be overanalyzed to poke fun at a trusting audience? The connections your brain discovers between those things are still real and valuable.
Here’s a quick example to consider: one of John Cage’s piano pieces is titled, “A Room.” Why is it called that? What is it about the repetitive, almost hypnotic music that sounds like a room? There are so many ways you could connect the two, but ultimately the title and piece work together as a metaphor we’re trying to solve.
Disclaimer: There may be a specific reason Cage chose this title, but I didn’t bother to look it up. Again, what’s more important and interesting for me is how the listener is able to creatively connect the pieces his- or herself.
So do you think the reader/listener’s ideas are just as important if not more so than what the author/composer intended, or would you disagree? Also, what kind of room do you think Cage’s piece sounds like and why?
PRACTICAL APPLICATION ALERT: Pick one of your favorite books. Then choose a random piece of classical music and listen to it as though it were about that book’s characters in some way. Then see what awesome connections you can hear between the two! Not only does it help you enjoy and engage with the music, but it may also give you new insights and theories about the book. If you’d like more specific inspiration, check out the Classical Music Stories section of the blog where I connect music to literature like Romeo and Juliet, Sherlock Holmes, and Jane Eyre.