Art as a form of compression
When I met you in the summer,
to my heart beats sound,
we fell in love,
as the leaves turned brown
Summer - Calvin Harris
I was relaxing and looking a tree whose leaves had become red-brown and this song came to my mind. I like it. I’ve heard it several times before, and repeated the main parts a few times internally. But then I was a bit bothered by the “as the leaves turned brown”. Why is it there? What good does it serve? It didn’t really mean much but was one of the two most memorable parts of the song, at least for me. The other one being “met you in the summer”. These two parts were the most catchy for me. And “the leaves turned brown” didn’t really mean anything for the main story, or so it seemed at first.
Then I thought, wait a minute, it actually means a bunch of things. It invokes a feeling of being outside, in the air, among nature. It is romantic. It explains which time of the year it happened - the part of autumn during which the trees start pigmenting and shedding their leaves. It explains the time granularity. The falling in love didn’t happen overnight, but developed over the course of weeks. It probably happened in a temperate climate area, as these are the ones which have such summer and autumn seasons. It probably happened during the day, that’s when the leaves are visible.
Wow, that’s a lot of information packed in just four words, and I’m sure more things could be inferred. The compression rate is enormous. Calvin Harris, or whomever wrote the text, is able to communicate with us at a really really high rate. Shannon’s law of communication channels states that the maximum information transfer rate is the capacity of the communication channel times the mutual information. In this case, the capacity of the communication channel is four words. But because both we and the author share the same background information about what is romantic and how seasons work and about how long it takes the leaves to turn brown, we can get so much interesting knowledge out of these four words.
But there is more. The text of the song makes most sense when the listener is part of a certain social environment. Certain songs only make sense in a certain country. Similar to how many jokes are really hard to translate in a different language, if a person comes from a different background than you, then your joke would probably not be funny to them, and they might not understand why you like the text of a certain song. When a song is only understandable within a certain community, at a certain time, the song embeds something unique about that community. The song is an embedding of that community in that point in time. The song, and it lyrics is a very compact way of representing the “culture” of this environment.
Song lyrics and poetry are amazing in their ability to convey huge amount of information when the listener has shared background with the author. But they can also serve the opposite purpose - to define the environment, the feelings of the author, the emotions, the culture, the lesson and the cause. For when we understand the words and the feelings we could learn something about the environment if we know the author’s feelings.
feelings, culture ---> lyrics
Of course, we won’t learn everything about the culture from a single song or a poem. But we will learn at least something. Chances are, that if we have a lot of songs, poems, movies, paintings or any kind of art from a given environment, we will learn a lot about it. All of these art forms preserve a given culture, moment or feeling by embedding it into some kind of physical material. In some cases this material can outlast the original environment. Homer’s “Iliad” has captured a lot of hystory and culture about ancient Greece. The original environment about the Troy war disappeared to the point where nobody believed it existed any more, until in the 19th century archaeologists inspired by the text of the Iliad looked for Troy and found its ruins ().
Given how much one could learn about Troy’s war from Iliad, and about any other environment from the art originating in it, I would say that art is a pretty badass form of compression. In just a few artifacts such as text, notes, or paint on canvas, it can capture an environment and save it for posterity. Growing up fascinated with math, and later with computers, I’ve been enjoying art but also underestimating it a lot. Always thinking that it is mostly a form of entertainment, I’ve had fun, but didn’t take it very seriously. I guess I was wrong about it. Which is actually pretty exciting, because now I have the chance to learn so much about the different environments and the different lives and emotions in them, just from music, books, and paintings.