Inner Speech, Inner Music, and Self-Regulation



Whit Blauvelt


I was happy to find, in 2017’s first JCS, Daniel Gregory’s Is Inner Speech Dialogic?, most especially because it combines an appreciation of Paul Grice, with whom I studied long ago, with critique of Charles Fernyhough, whose book The Voices Within (2016) I recently gained much from. 

Gregory argues that inner speech, contrary to Fernyhough, cannot be dialogic. Perhaps realizing his argument will seem formal, even stiff to non-specialist readers, Gregory enlivens it with a metaphorical aside.

Metaphors, while looser than formal argument, are often revealing when an author places both before us, and can do more to convince. Gregory (p. 132) says, “Suppose one wanted to play a game of chess with oneself.” His implication: this is similar enough to a dialog with oneself that if one is absurd, so is the other. Is his metaphor apt?

Chess is a zero-sum game. Each side plays to win; your opponent must lose for you to succeed. Thus it’s a game in part of hidden intentions. Chess fails when you play it with yourself to exactly the degree you can’t hide your intentions from yourself. You know the other side’s gambit as perfectly as the other side, when it’s also you. When you know too well where the other side is going, chess has failed, at least for the other side. The heart of the contest is keeping your intentions ahead of the opponent’s expectations.

On the other hand, at the moment where you see where the other discussant in a dialog is going, the dialog has succeeded, from the other’s point of view.

You have, then, gotten the point. A typical dialog, by contrast to chess, involves two persons oriented towards a common goal, which both seek to gain in concert. They to a large degree win or fail together. In an ideal dialog each side brings perspectives the other lacks at the outset. By the end of a productive dialog the participants have achieved and resolved on a larger, shared perspective, to the advantage of both.

A more apt metaphor than chess might be musical composition. Two instruments in performance each contribute to a larger picture. They are, from the listener’s (and performer’s) perspective, in dialog. In some real world cases there was a single composer who wrote the two instruments’ individual melodies; in other cases the players themselves composed their lines, perhaps in an earlier session of improvisation, or even in the moment of the present performance. 

What this dialog reveals may be a surprise to the composer(s), regardless of whether the duet is composed by one person or two. It may develop, to the composer(s)’s gain and pleasure, into a further musical movement, suggested now from the dialog so far and unavailable before that was imagined or expressed.

Note that the dialog can exist in the (single or dual) composer’s imagination prior to any performance. It can be (dialogic) inner music. Even when the two instruments of the eventual performance cannot be played at the same time by a single performing “agent,” the composer’s imagination can easily encompass and comprehend them — for a skilled composer, even when there are far more than two voices. (Conventionally many musics top out at about 4 or 5 simultaneous melodic lines, perhaps reflecting the number of objects easily held in short term memory.) 

Unlike chess, musical composition is not a game of deception. When two improvising players better anticipate each other’s next move, the result is a surprising degree of coherence and harmony, which counts as a win, rather than the player with the lesser anticipation being a loser on account of it, as on a chessboard. 

Compare this to Gricean conventions of cooperative conversation. The music as composed, either in imagination or real time, inherits the form and limits of prior musics recalled in the minds of the composer(s). It does not require some additional agent to step in and declare the boundaries — the gravity of expectations is strong, and inherent in the background culture.

Both players can assume, for instance, that if one of their instruments starts to drift out of common tuning, that player will seek to correct it.

We may predict this should be discovered to be a feature of every human musical culture.

Musical dialog requires no third agent above and beyond the players. While some large orchestras in our culture have conductors, many, even most of the musics we listen to lack that position. They are “self-regulating,” in Fernyhough’s term, and this applies as much if they are invented in the mind of a single composer, or composed through live improvisation by an ensemble.

If Gregory’s claim against the plausibility of self-regulation of internal dialog fails when that dialog is comprised of musical lines, why should it succeed if we add a libretto? Why should it succeed even if the musical dimension of a verbal exchange is muted and flat — although human speech sans some degree of melodic and rhythmic inflection is notably unnatural to us?

I might even suggest music as more than a metaphor in this context. Our self-regulation of dialog, whether musical or verbal, social or internalized, may be significantly by musical sensibility. In any case, in this game between Gregory and myself, the move is now his, to show why the metaphor of musical dialog should fail to account for self-regulation of speech, whether the voicings are without or within.



Fernyhough, C. (2016) The Voices Within, New York: Basic Books.


Gregory, D. (2017) Is Inner Speech Dialogic? Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1-2, pp. 111-137.



February 20, 2017