January 24, 2019

Musical Languages

Many people say music is a language. I agree. Except I would go further; Music is not just one language. It is a polyglot of many languages that all enrich each other. 

Music has a listening language which requires no performing or formal training to learn and delight in. Audiences round the world know this. This is why music is often so public; by listening we are communicating with the performers and other people who are listening. Performers spend at least the same amount of time learning to listen as learning to play. It is essential for playing in groups, for making choices in your own music and for being able to understand what the audience has to say. Listening allows the musician to adapt to the moment and how the audience completes the performance. The listening language is how we continue learning, growing, expanding in music. Listening seems passive but it is, in fact, a skill that takes practice and exercise to develop. Fortunately, listening is usually a fun and pleasant experience!

There is the language of making music, the basics of which are wired into our brains yet can take years to refine. We move to music or tap a beat or hum a tune and begin to learn new techniques for making music the day we are born. We can learn this language casually, in our “down time” or for recreation. Or we may devote large sections of our lives to study and lessons and practicing. Either way, the language of making music is a lifelong activity with no end to the new and delightful things we can learn.

Then there is the language of analysis. This can be a tricky one to learn since it is essentially about translating music into actual spoken or written language. And no matter how we try, there will always be something that won’t translate exactly. Still, the attempt to describe music opens up worlds of understanding that can transform both how we listen and how we make music. And again, this language is not exclusive to college trained performers. Anyone can speak about music, how it sounds, how it moves, how it makes us feel and what it makes us think.

Every genre and style of music is also a language, expanding the possible languages to the infinite. Listening to or making music in a different style can transform how we experienced music in the past as well as the future. We may add new ideas or “accents” inspired by other genres. We may even find some styles we don’t like but that too will add to our understanding; what we like and don’t like and why.
We all have the ability to learn and enjoy each and every one of these languages, with or without formal training. They combine and transform each other in a constant swirling dance. The meaning of all these languages is intangible, instantly understood and changes endlessly with each new musical experience.