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Music As a Language

A discussion of music as a living, breathing universal language

Is Music THE Universal Language?

- contributed by Ryan Cullen

Music, one of the greatest expressive arts known to man, is known globally for its ability to communicate and express ideas including feelings and emotions that simply cannot be put into words. Many have called it the “universal language.” Is music really a language? The purpose of this article is to examine both the similarities and differences between the music language and conventional languages (which I will refer to as standard languages). It is not the point of this article to consider music as either an alternative to or equivalent of standard native languages, rather, the point is to illustrate how music unquestionably possesses definite, key linguistic characteristics.

There is little doubt, in my humble opinion, that music is certainly a type of language since it is comprised of all the essentials of standard languages. Consider the following statements:

  • Just like native languages, music can be learned (by some) without any formal teaching.
  • The ability to read and write music must be consciously learned by all as in standard written languages.
  • Like traditional language, music is not limited to or defined by its written form.
  • As in traditional language, it is possible for musicians to be able to “speak” the language of music while remaining unable to read it (in its standard written form).
  • Music has and uses phonemes and allophones.
  • The tonal inflections and expressions used in speech resemble the expressive and lyrical melodies of the music language.
  • Music, like other languages, allows conversations and is able to express ideas, thoughts, scenes, etc.
  • “Just like native languages, music can be learned (by some) without any formal teaching.”

    Some people are born into the world possessing certain genetic abilities enabling them to do certain things with relative ease. One of these abilities is music. It is possible for a child to simply decide to sit at a piano and begin exploring, learning, and figuring it out. While the child will not immediately sit down and play a Mozart piano concerto, it is possible for the child to gradually develop his/her skills in the music language without having any music lessons. Even more common is the discovery of extremely young children singing remarkably well without any lessons. These so-called child prodigies have been genetically programmed to have this general ability of “understanding” how music works when they are born. No lessons are needed, as they possess the ability to figure the music language out on their own. The same is true for a child learning a standard native language. No matter where the child is born or raised, the child will (without formal teaching) learn (through trial and error) to speak the native language of his/her surrounding environment.

    Somewhat ironically, this genetic ability to learn languages easily (without formal instruction) can also be a key difference between the two languages. This is because the “innate” ability to acquire the music language is not genetically programmed into everyone whereas the ability to learn some kind of standard native language is. In fact, not only is this specific gene (that of being able to learn the music language informally with no training) not present in everyone, but also the gene for basic musical talent is definitely not present in everyone. One more difference between the two languages is that while there is a cutoff age in the early teens after which it is considered to be nearly impossible for a person to completely master a standard language, this is not the case in the language of music. People of all ages have been known to learn music, and those that start learning music later in life are not at risk of being unable to completely master the musical language.

    “The ability to read and write music must be consciously learned by all as in standard written languages.”

    As in any other language, one must consciously learn to read, write, and become generally literate in the language of music. None are born already knowing how to properly notate (write down) a piece of music just as none are born with the ability to write a paper. These arts must be learned consciously through music lessons, differing greatly from the innate and somewhat unconscious process of learning to speak the languages.

    “Like traditional language, music is not limited to or defined by its written form.”

    No language is limited to or solely defined by its written form, especially since the written forms of languages obviously came only after the passing down of many years of oral traditions. Music, just the same, is certainly not limited to a life of mere notes on a page. The practice of music notation came only after people began to desire to find a way to share musical thoughts and ideas with one another so that they could “speak together.” Many people, as with many other languages, are illiterate and can make no sense of the written form of music. Some of these same people, however, are great musicians who “speak the language” quite well. There are a number of famous musicians today who don’t read the written form of music but are still well known and respected worldwide. The pianist/keyboardist, Yanni, is one example. Such is also the case in most standard languages; one doesn’t need to be literate in order to speak a standard native language.

    “Music has and uses phonemes and allophones.”

    Like other standard languages, music is also made up of phonemes, which can be defined as “the basic units in the sound systems of language.” The phonemes of music are obviously the notes. While there are only 12 pitches and 15 letters in the Western European music alphabet, there are technically an almost endless number of phonemes or sounds. This is because of octaves or registers in music. This means that a pitch such as a “C” can exist at several different frequencies which allow it to maintain its pitch classification as a “C” but also allows it to sound either higher or lower than other “C” pitches. The best way to think of this is to imagine a man and a woman singing a pitch such as a “C” together. Most likely, the woman will produce a higher frequency “C” than the man will, yet the man and the woman are both still singing “C’s.” The man’s “C” will most likely be a lower frequency “C” and will, therefore, sound lower (down an octave or so) from the woman’s “C.” Therefore, since there are so many different instruments with different octave capabilities, there are an endless number of phonemic possibilities.

    Once the phonemes are recognized in music, it is then possible to string them together and create ideas. It could be argued that simple musical ideas may be called morphemes, but in the music language, it is probably necessary to think and hear the ideas in the context of a melody and phrases. That is, ideas in the music language can’t really have any meaning outside the context of a melody. Morphemes are too similar to specific words, which do not really exist in the language of music. This brings us to another important difference between standard languages and the music language. The music language lacks a definite vocabulary to produce the equivalent of words found in standard languages. It is for this reason that music cannot produce very specific or detailed ideas.

    Allophones are produced when rhythmic variation comes into the picture. In music, a certain pitch may be held for a certain number of beats depending on the rhythmic notation. They allow the phonemes to sound slightly different just by altering how long or short the phoneme is held. Allophones also include articulations (the manner in which a note is played, sung, or attacked) in the music language. For example, a note on a violin could either be plucked or played with the bow. While the note being played remains the same, the sound produced is slightly different.

    “The tonal inflections and expressions used in speech resemble the expressive and lyrical melodies of the music language.”

    Almost everyone uses some type of tone or pitch as a part of communication in standard languages. For example, an excited person may have a certain lilt or rising and falling in his/her voice which is indicative of his/her mood. Just the same, a tired or boring person may have little or no tonal inflections when communicating. This would produce a monotonous sound indicating, once again, the mood of the speaker. The rising and falling of pitches in music is one of its most important characteristics. In the music language, pitch directions can be measured in intervals. Intervals are by definition, the distance between any two pitches and, essentially, the building blocks of musical melodies. Like standard speech, musical speech (melodies) also can attest to the mood of the situation. If there is written music being performed, the mood is that of the composer. If the music is simply being improvised, the mood portrayed is that of the performer.

    “Music, like other languages, allows conversations and is able to express ideas, thoughts, scenes, etc.”

    Although, as mentioned earlier, the music language cannot produce very detailed or specific ideas, it certainly can produce rather complex and even elaborate ones. What, for example, would horror film fans do without the spooky music? This scary music is produced using the minor keys in the language. This can be demonstrated simply by listening to the difference between two chords (a set of two or more pitches played simultaneously). The first is a major chord, which consists of the notes: “C”, “E”, and “G.” This should be thought of as a “happy” or “non-scary” chord. The second chord is the minor or “scary” chord, which consists of the same three notes except the middle note is lowered one half step making it an “E flat.” The resulting sound is a much darker, depressing, and scarier one that is ideal for horror films.

    Another frequent melodic occurrence in “scary” music is the tri-tone interval. This interval was, in the old days, known as “demonic” since it sounds quite odd and horrific at first to untrained ears. Specific notes producing this melody could be a “C” and “F sharp” or any two notes consisting of either an augmented fourth or diminished fifth intervallic relationship.

    Conversations in music happen consistently as in standard languages. The most recognizable communication in the music language occurs in the jazz “dialect.” In the jazz musical setting, performers are constantly listening to each other and playing off of each other. For example, if the saxophone player plays something interesting, the drummer may compliment or respond to his/her “statement” with a rhythmic hit or motif. The piano player may respond to the bass player by playing back part of what he/she just played only slightly changing it. Jazz is probably the dialect of music that allows the most uninhibited form of conversation since the conversation is occurring live between all of the performers. The jazz performers are improvising statements (just like speaking a language). They are putting ideas together in ways that are both semantically feasible and fresh for the language of music.

    In conclusion, music should not be considered as a replacement for standard native languages since they are able to convey specific ideas. Music should be recognized, however, as a unique and important type of language since it has many of the linguistic traits found in standard languages. Though the words of standard languages remain the number one choice for expressing specific details, music will always be that special, magical language which expresses the thoughts and ideas for which words would simply not do.

    Learn to speak the language of music at any of our three campuses in the Greater New Orleans area!

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