Music as a language?

February 1, 2006 at 07:31 AM · I'm doing a presentation in a theory of knowledge class next wednesday. I get to pick the topic, and I have picked "music as a language", but I should say that the title is flexible. It will probably be a Powerpoint presentation but hopefully I will be able to play some music clips as well. Does anyone have any expertise in the subject? Or good ideas? Something (i.e. a video clip on the internet) that would intrest my audience (non-musical 17 year olds) or make them laugh? I hope to cover vaugely the following questions:

What is a language?

What are the similarities/crossovers between music and language?

Is music as valid a communicator as language?

Can music express the same things as language?

Is music a less valid communicator than spoken language because it can mean different things to different people?

What are the similarities when it comes to science? (i.e. human brain)

I'd be really gratefull for any suggestions, I'm particularly lacking on the neurology bits, and also interesting multimedia. I should talk for about 15-20 mins and involve the audience a little. Help! (I'm a bit lacking in time!)

Replies (17)

February 1, 2006 at 07:33 AM · Music is known as the "universal language" (does anyone know who first said that?) because no matter what language one speaks, one can understand it.

It certainly is expressive and imitative of human feeling, and when i say that I really mean "feeling" over emotion, because so much music is gesture. Music can run, and it can walk. It can beat like a heart, or skip like a child playing hopscotch. It can be simple and harmonious, or disturbing and dark.

An interesting topic you have chosen!

I don't know if this fits your topic, but the Suzuki method, a very popular method for teaching the violin, was founded on the idea that all children learn their mother tongue, and that they should be able to learn music in the same way as they learned language.

February 1, 2006 at 11:12 AM · Re:Universal language? Maybe you could explore when that is true and when it is not.

Well we could say that it is many times as intelligible as any other language.

Music from other places may sound anything but, sometimes even after repeated exposure. You could explore the reasons why this happens for some music and does not for others.

Here is a link to what would be considered the greatest North Indian vocalist of the 20th century. What does his music/singing say to you?

Just some ideas you could explore.

And I would be interested in your conclusions!

Laurie, have you had any experience where something was so different from your idea of "music" that it didn't make sense?

February 1, 2006 at 06:10 PM · Ella: Go to this website:

It's an article that is in the realm of philosophy / linguistics / aesthetics, and it is highly scholarly (that is to say, it ain't easy to read). But it does indeed address the question.

Also, I think that, like language, music not only communicates but also EVOKES emotions, images, ideas, sensations. But, unlike language, music is non-specific. You can specify with spoken language - you can't with music. On the other hand, the impact of music can be much more emotionally direct, and I think that probably has something to do with the fact that it is related to different parts of the brain than language (if I remember my physiological psychology).

Anyway, good luck on your project. I, too, would love to see what you come up with.

Cordially, Sandy Marcus

February 1, 2006 at 06:15 PM · I have another blog devoted to language (my other passion, besides the violin!) and some of my recent posts discuss the similarities between the various methods of learning a language and learning an instrument. They're not very in-depth, but you might find some ideas to explore further:

February 1, 2006 at 07:51 PM · Thank you for all your help people. I should let you know that i have a bit more time now. I don't have to do it untill two weeks today.

This topic is so broad, it is hard to know where to start. I would like to have one specific question to ask at the beginning to try and answer during the presentation. In case you're interested, these are the mark criteria:

A Knowledge Issue(s) (5 points)

Is/are the problem(s) of knowledge appropriate to the given topic recognized and understood, and are the candidate's ideas developed in a relevant and imaginative way?

The phrase 'problems of knowledge' refers broadly to possible uncertainties, biases in approach to knowledge or limitations of knowledge, and the methods of verification and justification appropriate to the different Areas of Knowledge.

B Quality of Analysis (5 points)

Do the analysis of the topic and the treatment of divergent points of view show critical reflection and insight in addressing the problem(s) of knowledge?

C Knowledge at Work (5 points)

To what extent does the presentation demonstrate the application of TOK thinking skills to a contemporary issue?

The phrase 'TOK thinking skills' refers to the ability to identify problems of knowledge, to analyze and evaluate claims and counter-claims, to draw interdisciplinary links, and to be aware of differing underlying values. They resemble the skills denoted in level 5 of Criterion B, Quality of Analysis.

D Clarity (5 points)

Is the presentation clear and logically coherent?

This criterion is not intended to assess linguistic skills. Rather, it is intended to assess the extent to which the main ideas are clearly and coherently conveyed.

Karin- Mind if I steal a couple of paragraphs from your blog? They are really good.

Sandy- Thanks for the link. I will wade through it and, er, simplify it a little! Some of it sounds really useful.

Parmeeta- do you think I should discuss Music as not one language but many? Do you suggest that different kinds of music should be viewed as mediums just as dissimilar as, say, english and indian?

And Laurie- I was certainly going to mention the suzuki method, although that in itself will take long enough!

February 1, 2006 at 08:28 PM · One intersting question is the extent to which it is fair to treat birdsong, for example, as music, and / or as language.

February 1, 2006 at 08:55 PM · Eh, it may actually be a form of communication among birds. Animals do communicate with each other in various ways.

Just as an aside, one of the most well-known researchers in the area of non-verbal communication and proxemics is named Birdwhistle.

February 2, 2006 at 03:11 AM · Ella, you might find this link interesting. It's basically a description of a constructed language that does strive to be a "universal language" in that it can be communicated using anything from musical notes (i.e. solfege) to colors to even some special glyphs (as one example, their "mi-la-so" translates to "music" in English). Not sure if it's at all relevant to your study, but that's what came to my mind ^_^.

February 2, 2006 at 05:20 AM · Ask this question.

Can you have language with out music? What are the elements of Music? What attributes of language require elements of music? Only audible language?

I did not get any encouragement for asking these questions in a university linguistics dept? I was lucky to get a passing grade from that professor. You can imagine why? When I went to a lecture which featured Noam Chompsky I had the privelege of asking if music wasn't foundational to language. Nothing a linguistics professor wants to hear.

But Noam Chompsky said yes. Interms of the way the brain organizes the world, music lies closer to the neuronal processing than language. In fact he said his wife was working with researchers who were envolved with this level of processing.

The professor at UCI, Irvine, CAwho did the research that got people generalizing on "Does music make us smarter?" Has some interesting things to say at a technical level about music and the musical way we process higher brain functions. When he played back neuronal patterns used by the brain during higher level processing, after they were assigned pitches the computor simulated recordings resembled the compositional styles of known western composers. Infact one of them resembled an Indian raga.

To my way of thinking Language is a highly specialized form of Music processing. NOt the other way around.

Now there is something to contemplate. Could we aquire language with out musical processing? Even deaf students have to process the rhythm, dynamics and dance of sign language. Physical Gesture is a huge part of musical processing. And is it not filled with meaning.

How is it that music can be so filled with meaning for an autistic child even if they are mute or non verbal by traditional standards.

February 2, 2006 at 08:40 PM · In Mandarin, for example, pitch is an integral part of the language. The same syllables can mean two different things depending on whether the pitch is rising or falling.

In English, we use pitch to communicate sentence structure. Pitch typically rises when asking a question, and falls when finishing a sentence.

Basic emotions are more obvious -- we discern emotion in a speaker depending on volume, tempo, pitch and tone color.

Cynthia's post is really fascinating, though -- the idea that music literally reflects our brain's processing of information. That seems to me to tie into the notion of basic emotion above. If you're upset, I wonder if your brain will register at increasing volume, tempo and pitch? Therefore it would make sense that your speech should also increase in volume, tempo and pitch.

February 3, 2006 at 01:26 AM · Greetings,

dang, Cynthia, I knew there was a reason I have long considered Chomsky one of the greatest people ever to grace the face of the earth,



February 3, 2006 at 02:59 PM · Cynthia, hey you actually saw/heard Chomsky...this is becuase I one of my many pieces of paper qualifies me as a second language teacher and I worked as such for a number of years.

Ella: To answer your question will take some time. I speak from personal experience here.

It is this "ping" whenever I hear the phrase "music is the universal language". Is it truly? How and when is it comprehended instantly and what about the instances when it is not?

As you might have guessed, I was born and brought up in India and have always had a great interest in music, alhtough not sufficient voice or instrumental talent to back this: that had been left to some other family members. With this I mean Indian music, both folk, light and then north indian classical. This is just to point out that we were very "open" to music. However, any occasional western classical music that I would chance to hear sounded not like music. I could never "hear" the melody, or the progress, it just seemed like an endless jumble of notes that didn't get beginning, no end. I think I was missing the percussion and rhythm element that is so strong in indian music and without that guide, it seemed gibberish. Opera sounded just horrible: I remember my parents going to Europe and attending the Paris Opera and not getting heartily bored, the singing sounded like screaming etc etc (my father is passionate about indian music too).

Just as added background, I speak 5 languages, and my mum and dad both speak another 5 but we all speak two languages which neither of the others speak. Some of these languages are from very different linguistic families, so it is not as if our minds are closed, linguistically speaking.

I went to Univ in the UK and was dragged along to my first "Western concert" ..Mahler 5th? symphony and Jesse Norman singing. And soemthing changed. Perhaps it was seeing how the different instruments played to make the whole, or it was having Jesse Norman 5 metres away from me, or perhaps that the friend was able to explain something about movements etc but I began to like it. It was still a very slow progress; I only listened to operass on tape that I had previously seen in Covent Garden, somehow the "live" bit made connection easier, so also more unconscious exposure generally and suddenly it didn't sound gibbersish, I could "see" the music now. The first peice I actually liked from just hearing it was Mozart (clarinet concert). It was the first tune I could retain from western music. To put this into cntext I am famous in my family from having hundreds of Indian songs/lyrics and all stored in my brain. Don't have a voice but can spout them out like tap water.

So I think it is something your brain has to learn to begin to see the patterns. I know now that when I send recordings of my children's recitals to my family, they are excited about seeing them play, but they find the music pretty boring (except for my dad, who is learning to appreciate some of it becuase he dotes on his grandchildren!)

To finish off, I then took my Dad once to see Rigoletto, and he just really enjoyed it. Becuase I was there to take him through the storyline and idea, we had seats in a box just overlooking the stage, and the pit, and he just hung on every sound.

You know how in language they talk about short-term vs long-term memory. And how our short-term memory is incapable of processing more than 5-6-7-8 new words in any given time. When I was learning Spanish as an adult I would understand people while they were speaking but the moment they finished I couldn't remember what they had said (short-term memory overload). Maybe musically this happens too. You can't more than a certain amount of anything new, therefore it becomes meaningless as soon as you have stopped need time to assimilate the very new things into the long-term memory.

Sorry about the length, I wanted to send you a private mail but it refuse to work on my browser. Ella, hope some of this may provide pratical insights into your theoretical work.

And I still find it hard to hear the music in a Chinese opera...and even South Indian Carnatic.

February 4, 2006 at 10:18 AM · Interesting. Does anyone else have any opinions/research on this? If possible, I would also like some quotes from famous musicians on the subject to comment on or analyse.

February 4, 2006 at 04:08 PM · Ms. Gunn,

My impression is that the questions you pose are too wide-ranging. Much of the discussion regarding the meaning of music is, however, focused on the issue of its non-representational character.

I would suggest reading Peter Kivy's work on those issues, in particular on the problem of emotional expression.

Another possibility is (but more from a cognitive science perspective):

Lerdahl, F. and Jackendoff, R. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1983.


February 4, 2006 at 05:47 PM · Hello all, I did not have time to read this whole tread, so I hope I am not repeating anything. After taking ethnomusicology courses, I am convinced that music is not at all a universal language. In fact, it is highly devisive.

while it may be true that every culture throughout history has or has had music of some form, and music is indeed uniquely human. However, calling music a universal language implies similarilties between music of other cultures that make the music universally understandable (meaning every culture would find the same meaning in the music.) This is simply not true.

Even in our own culture, what is more devisive than music? In a high school, cliques of people identify themselves by what music they listen to. Elderly people are repulsed by new music, young people are bored by older music. People who listen to country are republicans. People who listen to jam bands are democrats and smoke marijuana. Of course I am generalizing here, but you get the point.

Try playing some avant garde music for a friend who is not a trained musician. I do not think his interpretation of the music will be the same as yours. Try listening to various musics from indigenous tribes. What purpose does the music serve its people? The message will not immediately pop out at you, as it would were it written in a "universal language."

I don't know who said music is the universal language, but I say it is not.

February 5, 2006 at 05:53 PM · A freind pointed out to me yesterday how the same musical intervals are used to convey things over and over. For instance, warning: minor third. (police car siren?) And imminenet threat: second (jaws theme tune?) Why do you think this is? And does anyone else have any other examples?

February 6, 2006 at 04:22 AM · Language is based upon the use of arbitrary symbols (arbitrary because they have no intrinisic association with what a group of people agrees they are to represent). This is true of spoken, written or sign(ing) language. Instrumental music has no such values. The fact that it can evoke certain emotions in a certain number of people within specific cultures does not make it a language. It may be rule-based however, so if you decide you want "language" to refer to the underlying rules which you want to refer to as the "language of music" you can perhaps make sense with that. But that does not fall within the definition of language as employed by linguists, even the cunning ones.

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