The language of music?

December 2, 2008 at 09:38 PM ·

Today another member of posted a blog on the relationship of ease in learning a foreign language and playing violin.  This touches on a subject that I have been pondering lately and been meaning to post about;, namely, the relationship of music and language and if music can really be classified as a language as many people characterize it.

The main function of a language is communication - it is a way of sharing thoughts and ideas.  Things that are present in every language to give meaning are syntax (grammatical structure), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (usage).  Does music have these things, and can music be used as a form of communication?

Replies (60)

December 2, 2008 at 10:29 PM ·

I think it's fairly obvious that in the strict sense music is not a language, but as a metaphor, 'language' works very well in thinking about and discussing music.

December 2, 2008 at 10:49 PM ·

Yes... it was my blog... please stop by :)

December 2, 2008 at 10:54 PM ·

yes, please stop by Jodi's blog as well!  There are lots of interesting comments there.  I just added this thread in addition to her blog because it is from a slightly different angle and I didn't want to hijack her blog :)  And I was going to post this topic in a couple of days anyways...Jodi just jumped in with a similar topic before me :)

December 2, 2008 at 11:06 PM ·

I love to say that everything the musician does is technical but if he manages the technical aspects of making a nice sound, it will create emotions to the listeners and these emotions can be joy, sadness, admiration, hope and so on.   So the people can "understand" the meaning of what you wanted to "say" if you are technically able to do (with practicing specific techniques) a sound that sounds happy, sad, winner, even snob (yes, some violinists sound snob)!

Rachmaninov (I think) expressed 100% why the creation of music has nothing to do with emotions (for the player). When someone told him how wonderful was the emotion in the music, he pressed a simple key on his piano and said, does it sound emotional?

Ha, ha! And I would say, if someone who is really beginner (without bow control, vibratos etc) cries or is happy, wil he or she really be able to play a piece that sound's happy or sad? No.

So, this "communication" won't be there.  But, from students who have just started to learn the technical tricks to make their violin "sing" and of course to professionnals, their is really a comunication between the player and the audience.  The player applies technical tricks to produce a sound that will create emotions and if the player knows what emotion he or she wants to create, he or she will manage to technically produce this sound.

Is this communication considered a language? I don't know. I do just think that there is a link between the ability of learning a language and the ability to play the violin.


December 2, 2008 at 11:19 PM ·

Elizabeth... no hard feelings. I think it is a terrific topic myself.

I have to write to my daughter's counselour to try and see if we can get her into the advanced Spanish class.

December 2, 2008 at 11:47 PM ·

Of course,music is one of the greatest forms of communication.
to express emotion is quite difficult using language.
take love for instance
or happiness
or joy
or other ethereal moments in life
music is probably the greatest communicator of all.
upon welcoming a guest,i've spent hours without uttering 1 word-while music was being performed or played
and it twas tons of fun in every regard.
language is not as good as a means of communication,for the language of music is universal and hits everyone [or most everyone].
getting lost in music and enjoying every moment is a form of love in the highest
degree and really is incomparable to most forms of expression thereof.
music is the language of life,death and remembrance of all aspects of being alive.
so,share your gift---teach others how to communicate musically-or how to appreciate
we are here to love and enjoy what may be offered in music.
we are human beings and emotions cannot lie to us
for we know what is the very best and it calls to us nightly in our dreams
and awakens us daily in our experience with life--no matter what experiences we may
embrace or be presented with upon the musical passage involved.

December 3, 2008 at 06:26 AM ·

I think music would qualify as a semiotic system, but not a language. In order to qualify as a language, it would need to transmit information, the specific meaning of which would be agreed upon by all. While we (those of us accustomed to Western music) can all agree on certain things--that some vague emotions are being transmitted, like joy or sadness--there is no other specific information being transmitted.

December 3, 2008 at 09:35 AM ·

Meaning is not always agreed upon in language, either.  Useage determines meaning.  The context, tone of voice, and cultural tradition come into play.  Music and language are more alike than you think., actually 

It's probably difficult to use music to get someone to pass you the potatoes, though.

December 3, 2008 at 03:01 PM ·

Yes, music is a language. It consists of its own "vocabulary," syntax, sender and receiver, and so forth. Technically, it seems to me that would have to clssify it as a language. However, in terms of what it communicates, that does raise a lot of questions. Consider a work of literature, like Moby Dick. There are passages in that novel in which Melville describes the ship on the sea. The choice of words and their order actually conveys a rhythm that feels like a ship riding up and down the waves. It's not in the words or their meaning, but in the rhythm of the sentences. Well, music is nothing without rhythm. So in an artistic sense, music certainly does communicate and I think qualifies as a language. Ever listen carefully to Ravel's La Valse? It's really a satire on the pompousness of many waltzes. You can almost hear a kind of laughter in Ravel's masterful grandiose musical gestures.
Anyway, interesting question.

December 3, 2008 at 04:35 PM ·

To answer that, do we need to define what constitutes a language? Music isn't the only art that communicates, paintings, dance, to name a few.

December 3, 2008 at 06:17 PM ·

I tend to agree with Scott that music can qualify as a semiotic system. I think that from the technical side it would be possible to use music as a language, although our language in its existing form probably fits better with our biological specs.

We'd have 12 tones to built the phonetic system out of, however most tonal languages use at most 3 or 4 different pitches, and the rest of the tones are different combinations of two tones, like high-low or low-high. If you have more tones it becomes hard to distinguish them. Also, sound length can be used to make more phonetic contrasts. Languages do have contrasts of single and double length phonemes, but triple length phonemes are already extremely rare. Rhythm certainly will be employed to make more word contrasts. So, I think it could be done.

But in its present state, I don't think music has all the properties of language. We already have language, so music just doesn't need to perform all the same functions: to communicate back and forth, to store and pass information down, to build our "classification" of the world, and to form thoughts. Languages use human abilities to make sounds in a much more economic and precise way. For instance, languages do use intonation to convey a whole spectrum of information - on top of using timbre for the basic symbol system. And the types of info these two devices express are different. Music would use intonation patterns as basic building blocks, and it couldn't use them for the second time to make up contours of sentences. So if sentences would be made up of words that have very different sound patterns they wouldn't be very musical anymore!

I don't think music really has grammar like language. There are certainly rules of how to combine sounds simultaneously or in progression, but grammar isn't quite like that. Grammar is a tool to add a particular kind of information to words in order to place abstract concepts in the real time and space: 'the house' vs. 'a house' or 'house' vs. 'house-s'.

Music is a communication with a listener that can be repeated word by word and have an entirely new meaning each time. It is not tied to reality in the way language needs to be. 

December 3, 2008 at 06:47 PM ·

Wow, Anna, excellent post!  This is along the lines of what I was thinking, but I don't have the background knowledge to be able to express it as clearly as you have.  Can you, or someone else, explain what a semiotic system is?  I've never heard this term and my google search wasn't very fruitful....

Everyone's posts so far have been really interesting!

December 3, 2008 at 06:48 PM ·

Thank you :) A semiotic system is a system of symbols, that is of objects that have meaning. These objects represent something different from what they are. E.g. a traffic light is a semiotic system: two colored lights have meanings 'stop' and 'go'. A system means that these aren't just random meanings, like 'stop' and 'apple' but they are organized, they can be opposed to each other or have gradations of the same 'shade' of meaning, and they are united under some principle.

December 3, 2008 at 07:52 PM ·


December 3, 2008 at 10:37 PM ·


music does not qualify as a language in my opinion for a number of reasons.  Here are three:   1) a language is used as a token of something else in the absence of that object in order to communicate a specific message..

2) A language is used to get someone to do something (among a myriad number of other functions)

3)  A language is culture specific and therefore a meaningless noise to `others`



December 3, 2008 at 11:17 PM ·

" music is used as a token of something else in the absence of that object in order to communicate a specific message..

 music is used to get someone to do something (among a myriad number of other functions)

 music is culture specific and therefore a meaningless noise to `others`... "   [aside,music is universal]

The wording is interchangable and serves as a truism !!!!!

Music is language.Music penetrates your psyche.Music changes your mood.Music is you.

December 4, 2008 at 12:11 AM ·

Those of you who believe music is a language can prove your point beyond any doubt by simply using music to communicate all your further argument on this question.  :-)

December 4, 2008 at 12:29 AM ·


December 4, 2008 at 12:52 AM ·

Would you cry more often in your lovers arms because of audible wordiage or a music induced euphoria involved ?   Music is a "language" of love,hope and desire---a stepping stone to friendship and relationships among humans--who may not have in their repertoire a sufficient means to express,verbally,their innermost ideations .

December 4, 2008 at 01:14 AM ·

I agree with what Joe said...

Language is a way to communicate feelings. There is body language, crying, screaming, smiling etc.

And I think it can apply everywhere... If someone is sad, you can hear that in their playing; if someone is angry, you can hear agressiveness in the tone. And if someone is happy you can tell as well.

In language, you can easily tell by tone of voice and word choice.

I consider the defintion of language to be communication between two or more people. AND isn't that what we as musicians do EVERY time we preform in front of someone??

December 4, 2008 at 01:24 AM ·


" music is used as a token of something else in the absence of that object in order to communicate a specific message..

False.  First there is no agreed on response to music within a specific culture.   Second one cannot tramsmit and recive information except within an utterly miniscule number of cases. I may be able to suggest how I am feeling to you by my playing but I cannot tell you why; what caused me to feel that way;  I cannot discuss the problem with you and ask for your suggestions as to what you should do;  I cannot ask you to sell me your old prune cans. 

Not one of the examples I gave has music as an interchangeable element.  That is pure lack of analysis tide up with a rather stroppy dose of romantism.  In the meantime I suggest you systematically prove this spurious claim by reocrding a sound track that gives a) your reasoning and b) a clear number of irrefutable examples.



December 4, 2008 at 01:51 AM ·

" I may be able to suggest how I am feeling to you by my playing but I cannot tell you why; what caused me to feel that way;  I cannot discuss the problem with you and ask for your suggestions "

Why not   ?   Didn't  your music mentors instruct you to play with your heart and attempt to interject a segment of your persona into your intrepretation of where your fingertips land upon the strings ?

You can make the attempt by explaining the way you perform a particular segment,what caused you to play in the manner you portrayed---by how you involved yourself in the unmarked attitude of the piece involved.

December 4, 2008 at 04:17 AM ·

Why are we even having this discussion?  Isn't it obvious that music is not a language in the most basic definition of the term?  Here:


[myoo-zik] Show IPA Pronunciation
1. an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.
2. the tones or sounds employed, occurring in single line (melody) or multiple lines (harmony), and sounded or to be sounded by one or more voices or instruments, or both.
3. musical work or compositions for singing or playing.
4. the written or printed score of a musical composition.
5. such scores collectively.
6. any sweet, pleasing, or harmonious sounds or sound: the music of the waves.
7. appreciation of or responsiveness to musical sounds or harmonies: Music was in his very soul.
8. Fox Hunting. the cry of the hounds.
9. face the music, to meet, take, or accept the consequences of one's mistakes, actions, etc.: He's squandered his money and now he's got to face the music.


  (lang'gwij)  Pronunciation Key 
    1. Communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols.
    2. Such a system including its rules for combining its components, such as words.
    3. Such a system as used by a nation, people, or other distinct community; often contrasted with dialect.
    4. A system of signs, symbols, gestures, or rules used in communicating: the language of algebra.
    5. Computer Science A system of symbols and rules used for communication with or between computers.
    1. A system of signs, symbols, gestures, or rules used in communicating: the language of algebra.
    2. Computer Science A system of symbols and rules used for communication with or between computers.
  1. Body language; kinesics.
  2. The special vocabulary and usages of a scientific, professional, or other group: "his total mastery of screen language—camera placement, editing—and his handling of actors" (Jack Kroll).
  3. A characteristic style of speech or writing: Shakespearean language.
  4. A particular manner of expression: profane language; persuasive language.
  5. The manner or means of communication between living creatures other than humans: the language of dolphins.
  6. Verbal communication as a subject of study.
  7. The wording of a legal document or statute as distinct from the spirit.

I just don't think it is possible to interchange any of the music definitions with any of the language definitions and have it still mean anything.  Of course music is a form of communication, and of course it shares certain elements with language, but languages have certain very strict syntactical and structural elements which cannot be violated for them to still be called languages.

Of course, we can just follow Andres' advice and upload our mp3's to expand on these points.

December 4, 2008 at 06:05 AM ·

I think it's a very interesting topic. I certainly think that, within a culture, music can have meaning in a way that borders on linguistic.I mean, think about the Nokia ringtone, or the song "We're in the money." Sure, I'm talking about a song with words attached, but the music, sans the words, comes to mean something very specific to people.

I think we should have a contest: the winner is the person who can convey "pass the potatoes" in music! ;)

December 4, 2008 at 08:05 AM ·

During Hilary Hahn's concert intermission at Davies symphony hall, I was browsing at the gift area, and start reading Lang Lang's book.  He wrote:


".... Music is my primary language"

December 4, 2008 at 01:42 PM ·

I'll say music and art in general picks up where language begins to be less effective in communicating. As an example, my daughter pointed out that music couldn't communicate: "I have to pee. Where's the bathroom?" but that music could communicate: "There's an urgent need and help is being sought"  better than any word could. Therefore, it is not a language. I agree with her on this one.

December 4, 2008 at 02:20 PM ·

Webster's Unabridged Doctionary has several definitions of language, many of them of course involving the need for a vocal factor. However, among the many definitions included is this one:

- "Any means of expressing or communicating, as gestures, signs, animal sounds, etc."

That would seem to qualify music as a language (expressing as well as communicating, and clearly including means other than speech). However, the origin of the word "language" is from the Latin lingua - literally, the tongue.

So, I rest my case. But I still think one has to consider music a kind of language, if only in a very specific sense.



December 4, 2008 at 03:05 PM ·

can't believe you guys take this that seriously:)

if you have problem using the is a language for musicians to communicate, try explain to me what you mean by color!  and argue till we turn blue:)

December 4, 2008 at 03:16 PM ·

Hey, Al: What's all about, anyway? If we can't have a little intellectual obsessive-compulsive discourse, what fun is it?
:) Sandy

December 4, 2008 at 04:04 PM ·

Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands

from Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder

Only a genius like Stevie can make something so profound seem so simple


December 4, 2008 at 04:18 PM ·

I still think some of you may be missing the point. Ok, forget all the detailed descriptions of language. Think of it in a different sense.

Why do you use it? To communicate.  Before a baby can talk, it uses facial expressions, body language, and crying, screaming, and suttle tones to tell you what it needs or how it's feeling. I think there are some very talented musicians who can do that through their instruments. On a very sad, emotional piece, the artist may seem like they are crying through their instrument. And when an artist is playing something extremely agressive, you can easily pick up on that as well people!

So think back on why people would develop a language. And that reason is communication. You do it through words, motions and so many other ways, so why not classify music.

Look up a masterclass of Vengerov on YouTube, with a student about Tambourin Chinois, and he discusses every thing he is picturing as he is playing the piece and you can truly hear it in the playing.

December 4, 2008 at 04:24 PM ·

This isn't the one I was talking about but watch it anyway. If you can't feel the emotion in the piece than I don't know what to tell you...

December 4, 2008 at 08:57 PM ·

As a linguist, I disagree with some of the definitions of language that were given here. At least these aren't rigorous definitions. Any system of signs, symbols, etc. - that's extremely broad! Like I said, a traffic light is also such a system, and it also is used communicatively. In fact, any symbol's primary function is to communicate, so this doesn't help us to see what's unique about language.

I think there is some confusion between language and communication going on here. Communication is only one function that language performs. Among others, there is cognition - memory, categorization, analysis. If we only used language to communicate, I'm afraid writing would have never been invented.  


December 5, 2008 at 04:34 AM ·

December 4, 2008 at 10:31 PM ·

anna, i wonder if you can enlighten us more on the definition of language...

1. english is a language, chinese is a language, etc   those are the obvious.  how about tribes in far corners of the world that have very minimal verbal and written systems?  are those considered languages?  in other words,,if  a language is not "vigorous", is it still qualified as a language?

2. for discussion sake, if you don't  mind viewing as an evolutionist for a second.. do primates have languages?  if yes, i probably have missed something:);  if not,  during the transition from primates to humans, when did languages become associated with humans?  stages language, min language, some language, abundant language, etc?

December 4, 2008 at 10:51 PM ·

"The linguistic analogy is neither 'true' nor 'false'. Like all analogies, it achieves a partial fit with its subject. The 'true' element which I would like to emphasize most strongly is the notion that we represent sequences of individual elements by assigning them roles in abstract underlying structures, some of which, particularly those with hierarchical organization, have strong family resemblance to one another. It is the relationship of elements to one another within these structures, rather than their temporal or spatial proximity, that determines whether or not they are psychologically close."

[Sloboda pp. 65-66].

Is music a language ??----this topic has been debated for years and has not reached
a meaningful conclusion.

Most posters on this thread agree that music is not a language,yet we all can agree
music is,indeed,our chosen method of communication [language] with the instrument of our choice--the 1 pounder,4 stringed,wooden violin...
The point is the language of music is universal and really has no boundaries.Language has its origin in a form of expression.Music has its origin
as a form of expression.
So,allow yourselves the freedom to meld the topics into one and attempt to be happy
in the process...

December 4, 2008 at 10:58 PM ·

If music isn't a language, then why is it that Beethoven is more understandable than some politicians?

December 4, 2008 at 11:58 PM ·

Sander is right!


Mozart and Bach sound like some happy music

Shostakovich conserto sounds like a revolt and a protestation

Beethoven Romances sound romantic or peaceful

Chopin nocturne in C sharp sounds sad and nostalgic

It is not something precis like "take my dog for a walk"

but it is universal emotions (as Menuhin said)

like sadness, hapiness, hope, fighting, protest, nostalgic



It is the only language everyone can understand!

December 5, 2008 at 01:06 AM ·

Al Ku:

1. These tribal dialects in the far corners of the world are languages beyond any doubt (and I happen to study some of them). They actually aren't primitive, and although some have relatively small vocabularies they often have really complex, weird and exotic grammatic features. Some of the most complex languages in the world are Athabaskan: a language family spread from Alaska to New Mexico; Navajo is its most well-known member. As far as small vocabulary goes, the crucial property of a language is that new words and concepts can be created (although in the situations of a great civilizational gap the whole thing may break down, but that's a social phenomenon, not purely a linguistic one). So when you deal with any human language, it will have complexity somewhere.

2. This is a gray area. There is a lot of research and theories on both subjects that I'm not closely familiar with, so I only can speculate.  Evidence exists that chimpanzees can learn sign language from humans and use it creatively, but their 'language' lacks grammar. But language is a system that is being passed down, evolves and expands, so I don't think that what primates have is language. As far as humans, you can only go by archeology: skulls from Paleolithis (300,000-500,000 years ago) show that humans became physically capable to produce speech sounds (limitedly, compared to present day), and indicate that certain brain areas specific to speech developed. No historically recorded or reconstructed languages are structurally any more primitive than modern ones, so we can only guess how language was evolving.


December 5, 2008 at 02:19 AM ·

fantastic.  thanks.  great to read something great on that is related to sound but not violin or music:)

December 5, 2008 at 04:49 AM ·

I think in some ways music is a language. Most people just don't get it.. You may have the technical ability to play an instrument, but to be able to speak with it is totally different.

Just like some people have trouble with the process of language (I have trouble putting down my thoughts on paper), some have trouble with the process of music.

What is the difference between getting up and giving a speech to 2000 people and playing a solo to a crowd of the same? Both are communicating and  telling story.... ok ok... maybe there won't be a Q and A session after the latter, but... who knows :)


December 5, 2008 at 05:47 AM ·

The reason that I believe music is not a language is that it is ENTIRELY contextual. None of its constituent parts has any kind of meaning by themselves. In English, for example, if I say "egg" everyone has some rough idea that I'm referring to an oval or round object that may lead to the creation of some kind of creature. But if I play an A-flat, it has no meaning unless it's placed in the context of other notes. A note is piano only if compared to forte notes. It's fast only in relation to slow notes. The mind enjoys the multiple levels of relationships, but it gains no information.

As many have pointed out, music means different things to different people, and therein lies the problem: language can be interpreted in different ways as well, but there are ways of speaking for which the meaning is clear to anyone, such as "walk out the door and turn left" or "my belly itches" or "your A-flat was too sharp."

I would consider notated music instructions, but not language, much like an exploded diagram of how to put together a bicycle.

December 5, 2008 at 08:09 AM ·

I'm trying to remember who is credited for the following quote:

 "Music expresses that which cannot remain silent, yet cannot be put into words."   

Does anyone know? 

December 5, 2008 at 11:55 AM ·

I believe that was Victor Hugo.

December 5, 2008 at 07:46 PM ·

Anna's post is fascinating - very thought provoking.

I've always regarded music as a language and one of the things I find very interesting - relating to Anna's post, is how important music (in a very wide sense of the word, from rhythm to clicking noises to ululating to humming to singing...) is in an anthropological outlook, comparing different cultures and so on. 

I recently watched a programme where some researchers went into a remote part of the Amazonian jungle and discovered a "lost tribe" - the only means of establishing some kind of basic "communication" amidst the mutual distrust between the groups, came through music - the westerners sang "their" music and then the tribe members vocalised and beat rhythms as well and suddenly you felt there was this very basic  "primitive understanding" between them, they didn't know what the other was singing about, but the "language" of music crossed all the barriers between two completely different branches of human society.   After the two groups had stopped singing, there was a lot of smiling, body contact etc between everyone and you felt a common ground had been established.

So yes, in my opinion - music is a "language".

December 5, 2008 at 08:50 PM ·

 If the definition of a language includes something that evokes emotions only, then music and all manner of phenomenae could be called languages. What about a show of abstract paintings? It could evoke emotions from everyone but still not transmit any actual information. The same could be true of a box of cookies: it makes you feel good (for a short time), but couldn't be considered a language, even if you ate one cookie a minute and thus stretched the event over time like music.

If said Amazon natives and outsiders sat around eating cookies, everyone might feel good and exchange smiles, just like the music. But the eating of cookies by the two groups couldn't be considered a language--merely an event.

December 5, 2008 at 09:19 PM ·

For those who believe music is, strictly speaking, a language:

There is a clear difference between the type of communication which in its various forms we know as English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, etc.---and the type we call music.  The two types are not used for the same things, and they are not interchangeable.  If you look at reality you cannot but see that the nature of these two types of communication is very different.

There is a clear cognitive need to distinguish between  these two types of communication.  What words would you propose to use to distinguish between them?

December 5, 2008 at 09:55 PM ·

Life is a series of events--some meaningful and some not meaningfull or even understandable.For me,music is not merely an event but a reason for being,for living,for loving,for dancing and for appreciating life as is offered and what I conceive life to be.

This question will not be answered,yet retain a soft spot in your heart to even consider that indeed,music is a language [it is]. 

Many of you make your living teaching music;aren't you teaching a language and means of expression to your students ?     OR  are you teaching a series of events to transfer to your students fingerpads as a radar-like acquisition.

Make room for the heart !


December 5, 2008 at 10:24 PM ·


Just because one believes that music is not a language in the strictest sense doesn't mean one cannot teach a student to be musical.

December 6, 2008 at 12:33 AM ·

(Edit) In these oh-so-rigorous times I guess I'd best play it safe.   ;-)

December 6, 2008 at 03:09 PM ·

December 8, 2008 at 04:01 PM ·

Music can cause people(s) to get up and take decisive action such as National anthems, etc. !Anthems can convey more thought than words alone and get entire nations to get up and get on the move to a very specific goal! Such music can convey more words than an oratory!

December 9, 2008 at 06:07 AM ·

Royce that just isn’t true.  What is conveyed is emotion.  Any concepts which come to mind in the listener are called up by association.

The confusion about this issue stems ultimately from differences of ‘opinion’ about very important philosophical issues like the nature of concepts and the value and method of staying in contact with reality in one’s use of language.  I’ll end by just observing that no one can afford to be wrong about those issues, the consequences are too severe.  Reality is full of trucks and their equivalents, and if you can’t tell right from left, or street from lawn, or understand clearly the necessity and method of looking both ways before crossing the street, you will eventually get hit by a truck (or a financial disaster).

December 8, 2008 at 11:46 PM ·

By the way, here is an interesting (even if not uncontroversial) book on the subject: Robert Jourdain "Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy". It elaborates on different aspects of music and in general sheds light on what music is in the mind of human beings.

December 9, 2008 at 10:28 PM ·

Andres- Thanks for your feed back, but what do you say about African and other aboriginal peoples who drum mesages with their drums?

December 10, 2008 at 12:48 AM ·

Royce–Apparently drum communication evokes and depends on an existing language known to both parties.  The sounds are based on speech patterns and it is limited to common phrases and not effective at transmitting new combinations.  To the limited extent it acts like a language, it does so by emulating an existing one.

Even if this were not true, even if musical instruments were used to create an actual language it would not mean that music is a language.  A whole new code of sound-symbols for specific concepts, and rules of grammar would have to be created.  The musical instrument would then just be a tool of audible language as is a human vocal apparatus when speaking rather than singing.

Speaking of singing, if music were a language why in heaven would we need to sing words in order to get the specific meaning wanted into a piece of music.

December 10, 2008 at 12:45 AM ·

Andres- So would you say music lacks symantics and syntax, two things that are found in languages. And inability to convey abstract thought?

December 10, 2008 at 03:20 AM ·

Music lacks semantics and syntax.

Semantics. Every word and almost every morpheme have a certain meaning (at least one): they are either linked to a concept or convey a grammatical relationship, or both. Words and morphemes are defined based on the unity of this meaning and a sequence of sounds that represents them. In music, a word is a sequence of sounds that is defined in its context: the same sound sequence may or may not be a word depending on the rhythm, pauses, etc. This word can be at best arbitrarily linked to a concept, and there aren't any grammatical words or morphemes. While isolating words in the speech is somewhat contextual, they do exist in our memory as separate entities that can be considered out of context. There aren't words in music in the same sense.

Furthermore, words in language are connected into complex networks with a variety of semantic relationships: antonymy, hyponymy/hyperonymy, metonymy, homonymy. Consider homonymy, a relationship between two (or more) words which sound exactly the same but represent concepts that are different and not  related to each other: table (a piece of furniture and a way of visually representing data). In music, if two words sound exactly the same, they are same words, homonymy can't exist. On the contrary, in language the sound representation of one word can vary (accents, individual pronunciation patterns, changes in speed, etc.) but the word will still be understood as the same word. In music, even a slight change in performance, let alone in the score, can make a huge difference.

Syntax and the rules of musical progression are not the same thing. Syntax is a system of language patterns that make sense, each category of patterns (e.g. conditional clauses) expresses a particular meaning, and they are semantically organized pretty much like words. In music, patterns can be woven together arbitrarily. They are governed by aesthetic rules, by what we humans consider beautiful, appealing to us in some way, not necessarily nice - but not dull, engaging the brain, organized by rhythm, harmony, etc.

Our speech isn't very musical because we put the considerations of meaning ahead of those of beauty. Poetry and song is where the realms of music and language converge, but for them to converge they need to be two different things. I do value the metaphor "language of music" as an artistic expression.

Okay, sorry for being dorky, my high linguistic horse is hard to get off :)

December 10, 2008 at 03:25 AM ·

Several thoughts come to mind. First, there is a very interesting book by Deryck Cooke (the musicologist who completed a well known version of Mahler's 10th symphony) called The Language of Music in which he shows the similarities in Western European composers'  thinking from the Renaissance through the twentieth century  in terms of their choice of intervals, harmonies, rhythmic patterns to indicate various emotional states or meanings in texts set to music. It provides some food for thought even if music might not qualify as a language  in the specific ways one communicates in English, Chinese, Italian, French, German, etc.  

   Secondly, another interesting item worth looking at is What is Music, a PBS  NOVA special, in which native Australians not familiar with western culture were asked to describe the emotions and moods  they thought were being conveyed by watching video, but not audio, of a classical pianist playing various pieces of different moods and how, across cultural "barriers", they accuately identified the emotions and moods being conveyed.

Thirdly, perhaps it is more important and of greater value to consider the effect music has on all cultures and societies and its absolute necessity in the lives of  human beings throughout  history. I can't think of a civilzation devoid of it so, regardless of how closes it does or does not resemble what we traditionally or technically define as language, people find it an essential part of their lives time and time again, regardless of what purpose it serves. The world we live in is all the more worthwhile because of these "sounds"  that we find meaningful to us and how appropriate that one of the highest compliments a person  can be paid is to be told that something they said is "music to my ears".

December 10, 2008 at 03:55 PM ·

Anna & Ronald- After reading your excellent posts, Taxonomy: Where does Music fit?

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