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  • Writer's pictureBryce Leader

Is Music a Language?

Music evokes memories and emotions and can soothe the savage beast. The signs and symbols that written music use are universally understood by musicians no matter what their native tongue.  Musicians that can’t read music know its conventions, patterns and can communicate with musicians in other ways using their aural ability to anticipate chord changes. But, is music a language?

Well, what is a language? One dictionary definition describes language as “a system of vocal sounds by which a group of people can communicate. The graphic representation of language is any system of signs, gestures, symbols etc used as a means of communication. 

So, written music as a graphic representation communicates to the musician a set of instructions as to what to play and when. It is very effective at doing so but as a language it exists only for the benefit of musicians who wish to recreate music. As a language in the general sense of the word, it is quite limited. You could possibly take a shopping list made of music notation to the greengrocer and order an egg or cabbage but what if you need bread or milk?

What about music as an aural medium? What can be communicated by stringing a series of notes together? Some say that music communicates emotion. If we are talking about a song, that is a different matter. You understand the words and derive meaning from them but what about instrumental music, music without words? Can instrumental music communicate emotion as effectively as songs?

Consider Beethoven’s symphony number 6, the Pastorale. The hairs on my neck stood up and I was choked with emotion when I heard this played in a concert hall by a very impressive orchestra. To some, the Pastorale expresses brilliantly a countryside experience, but not everyone’s countryside experience is the same. The Pastorale is Beethovens’ countryside experience from Germany and is over 200 years old. I’m not from Germany and aren’t nearly as old as Beethoven and I can’t imagine us sharing a remotely similar countryside experience. Even if it was similar, why am I getting emotional about being in the country anyway? Are there memories brought to the surface by hearing this wonderful music? Well, that might be possible for some people, but not likely my case. 

So why was I getting emotional? Perhaps it was the power of the orchestra, feeling the vibrations and being immersed in beautiful music that surrounded me and not just from two little speakers in front of me. Perhaps it was sensing the camaraderie of the musicians in the orchestra and their desire to play at their best for me. Or maybe it was because as a guitar teacher, I recognised the hundreds of hours of rehearsal and practise time that each musician contributed and the hundreds if not thousands of years of combined musical experience brought to the orchestra by its members and I was part of this event. That may be the reason but if it is, shouldn’t I feel similar emotion at other musical events?

Upon hearing the Pastorale, with no prior knowledge and not knowing Beethoven’s intent, you could be forgiven for not knowing what it’s supposed to represent. It’s a very happy and melodic tune. It could be associated with a visit to the countryside, but could it also be used to express something else? Of course, it could! The music composed is Beethoven’s impression of the countryside. An impression is open to interpretation and is not definitive. So, in that sense, as a language, music falls a little short.

What are your thoughts on music as a language?

Author: Bryce Leader

Bryce is a teacher trained conservatorium graduate who has been teaching guitar since 1978.

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