Can we consider Music as a language?

Image article - Can we consider Music as a language?

First, it is important to define what a language is. Henry Sweet, an English phonetician and language scholar, stated that “Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words. Words are combined into sentences, this combination answering to that of ideas into thoughts.” The American linguists Bernard Bloch and George L. Trager formulated another definition: “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group cooperates.”

Can Music be considered as a language?

Like all the most commonly known languages, music has a syntax and a set of rules for ordering elements such as notes, chords, and intervals. The pitch which governs the melody and harmony as well as the associated rhythm can convey emotional feeling just like a language. In fact, all the characteristics and features of a language are also applicable to music and are explained and detailed below.

In general, a language consists of various sound symbols and their graphological counterparts that are employed to denote some objects, occurrences or meaning. These symbols are arbitrarily chosen and conventionally accepted and employed. Is it the case for Music?

Music has an “alphabet” and “letters”

In traditional music theory, most countries in the world use the solfège naming convention Do–Re–Mi–Fa–Sol–La–Si for the musical notes which can be considered as “letters”. Each musical note is represented by a symbol (nobody can argue on that) in a music score.

Music has a “conjugation”

The relative duration of a musical note is represented through different texture or shape of the note head which can be considered as a “conjugation”.

Of course, to compare with more common spoken languages, the situation is a little bit different here insofar as the conjugation applies to the “letter” itself while for the other, the conjugation applies to words/verbs. By the way, is there any “words” or “sentence” in music? Actually, there is no real good answer but we tend to demonstrate that it is a yes. Each bar (also called measure) of a music score can be considered as a “word” and as a result several measures can make a musical phrase or “sentence”. In common practice phrases are often four bars or measures long culminating in a more or less definite cadence.

Music has “accents” – “diacritics”

In general, diacritical marks may appear above or below a letter, or in some other position such as within the letter or between two letters. The main use of diacritical marks is to change the sound-values of the letters to which they are added. And guess what? Even in music, the letters/notes can have an “accent”. Indeed, the musical term “accidentals” refers to the modification of the pitch of the notes that follow them on the same staff position within a measure, unless cancelled by an additional accidental. For example:

Flat or Bemols – “Accent” used to lower the pitch of a note by one semitone.
Sharp or Dieses – “Accent” used to raise the pitch of a note by one semitone.
Natural – “Accent” used to cancel a previous accidental or modifies the pitch of a sharp or flat as defined by the prevailing key signature.

Music has “punctuation” marks

Punctuation is the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical symbols as aids to the understanding and correct reading of handwritten text, whether read silently or aloud. In music, the “punctuation” is very important. Example of “punctuation” marks:

The Staff – The fundamental latticework of music notation, on which symbols are placed.
The Repeat signs – Enclose a passage that is to be played more than once. If there is no left repeat sign, the right repeat sign sends the performer back to the start of the piece or the nearest double bar.
The Bar line – Used to separate measures (and thus to separate each “word”).
The Clefs which define the pitch range of the staff on which it is placed. A clef is usually the leftmost symbol on the staff.
The Key signatures define the prevailing key of the music that follows, thus avoiding the use of accidentals for many notes.

Thus, Music has an alphabet, 8 distinguished letters, a conjugation, diacritics and a lot of punctuation marks represented in a musical score using symbols. It is already an important first step in the analysis before officially considering Music as a complete language don’t you think. What’s next?

Although language is symbolic, yet its symbols are arranged in a particular system. All languages have their system of arrangements. Every language is a system of systems. For example, within the grammatical system there are morphological and syntactic systems, and within these two systems there are sub-systems such as those of plural, of mood, of aspect, of tense, etc.

As for all languages, the Music theory – equivalent of “grammar” rules – can be very complex. To be successful, a symphony needs rhythm, melody, timbre, harmony, consonance, dissonance… It requires a lot of knowledge to “create” chords which do not sound weird…

In general, a language is primarily made up of vocal sounds which is the same in Music. Dynamics are indicators of the relative intensity or volume of a musical line (e.g. Pianissimo, Piano, Mezzo Piano, Mezzo Forte, Forte, Fortissimo).

In the example above, the same “word” does not have the same “dynamic” and thus will not be interpreted the same way. This is exactly the same with more common languages where a same word can be whispered, normally spoken, yelled…

Language is the most powerful, convenient and permanent means and form of communication. Non-linguistic symbols such as expressive gestures, signals of various kinds, traffic lights, road signs, flags, braille alphabets, the symbols of mathematics and logic, etc. are also means of communication, yet they are not as flexible, comprehensive, perfect and extensive as language is. Without becoming farfetched, can we really say that we can communicate each other with Music?

In fact, all the musical pieces demonstrate and show the communication of musicians between them through the sound of their instruments. An orchestra is a large instrumental ensemble typical of classical music, which mixes instruments from different families, including bowed string instruments such as violin, viola, cello and double bass, as well as brass, woodwinds, and percussion instruments, each grouped in sections. Listen to this J.S. Bach – Concerto for Oboe and Violin – BWV 1060 – Adagio, you will for sure realize that the Oboe and the Violin are in fact communicating and interacting each other…

In general, a language is a set of conventional communicative signals used by humans for communication in a community. Language exists in society; it is a means of nourishing and developing culture and establishing human relations.

The structural elements of a language can be combined to produce new utterances, which neither the speaker nor his hearers may ever have said or heard before any yet which both sides understand without difficulty. No language was created in a day out of a mutually agreed upon formula by a group of humans. Language is the outcome of evolution and convention. Each generation transmits this convention on to the next. Like all human institutions languages also change and die, grow and expand. Music is a good example of creativity, complexity, unicity and has come a very long way since it was created. Of course, it is hard to say when exactly it started but one thing is sure, Music like all languages, has changed a lot over the years.

Conclusion

Music is a fantastic language and is even considered by some as one of the most universal of all art forms. The literal meaning of the word “music” according to any dictionary is “art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds in a harmonious or expressive way”.