MUSIC & LANGUAGE: AN ANALOGY

London, 2020, featured on www.medium.com

I often describe music as a language; it is in my opinion the purest of all. Of course, and as just as in any other languages, it is a medium of communication. Music expresses ideas and opinions, as well as the mind and the heart. And there are no translations needed. Indeed, the richness of it resides in its universality and ability to be felt and understood by all, on many levels. Although history has tried to tie music to human ideas — political, social etc. —, it stands on its own. So, what are the points of similitude between this language, and let’s say English for instance? And how is music indeed a language?

 

Without entering the process of defining music — which is long and complex —, it is for the purpose of this article, convenient to jump to the simple following conclusion: music is organised sounds — or noises. The elements that compose music are the following: rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, tone colour, texture and form. 

Similarly, language can be simply defined as organised sounds or noises. It is a method of communication based on words used in a structured and conventional way. And just like music, there are elements that compose a language: phonemes (units of sound that distinguish one word from another), morphemes (a unit of sound that cannot be further divided), lexemes (a lexical unit consisting of one or several words), syntax (the arrangement of words and phrases), and context, as well as grammar, semantics, and pragmatics.

 

Having identified the elements that constitute both music and language, it is then a matter of connecting the dots and drawing the analogy. 

Phonemes and morphemes both constitute vocabulary, and it cannot be more obvious when it comes to music rhythms and melodies. Harmony, texture and form are nothing more than the syntax of music; how sounds, melodies and chords are arranged in order to make sense together. 

When it comes to dynamics, tone colour or texture, one can only understand it the same way that accentuation provides understanding and clarity between ideas. 

Just like there are different discourses that are appropriate depending on the context, music works on a background of understanding. A composer or an improviser chooses his musical words and sentences very carefully: one would not write an atonal melody over a baroque counterpoint, unless it is intentional!

 

Having made a point at identifying the linguistic similarities between spoken languages and music, one should acknowledge the existence of actual musical languages too. They are based on musical sounds and focus on pitch bends. Such languages can be found in the Solresol language — also called langue universelle — of François Sudre and  the Moss language of composer Jackson Moore. During the 1970s, the prog-rock group Magma invented a language called Kobaïan based on sonorities. 

To understand how much music is a language, one should simply observe how musicians communicate and understand each others, especially when it comes to improvised music.

 

© 2021 Doug Thomas. All Rights Reserved.

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