One of the mantras my students hear is, “Music is a language. It’s not like a language. It is a language.” It’s easy to consider the idea of music as a language as metaphorical, but I contend that it is quite literal. This is mostly because of how language is learned.
From the crib to our first days of school, we didn’t learn our native languages by taking courses in spelling and grammar. We couldn’t, because language must be used to teach itself. What we did was listen to the noises coming from adults, and eventually realize these noises meant things. Then we tried to make our own noises that mean things. With years of practice, we became able to communicate simple ideas. Then school began, and we fine-tuned our understanding of language.
Music, when learned best, is no different. We listen to music, and intuit that there are specific ideas within the array of notes, rhythms and silences. We pick up our instruments and try to copy what we hear, albeit clumsily at first. Some of what we express mimics the music we have been listening to. With years of practice, we can perform simple pieces. Then, if we are motivated, we pursue a formal education to further develop our understanding of music.
Music has a syntax and grammar of its own. Its meaning changes within different contexts. Meaning can change when the same statement is passed from one voice to another. There is a vocabulary; jazz musicians even use the word when talking about improvisation.
It may seem that music cannot be considered a true language because it doesn’t communicate specific ideas, like driving directions or names. But the comparison is unfair; verbal languages are one subset of all languages. In fact, verbal communication is thought by some to have originated in music. What music communicates may be more subjective to the listener than what verbal language communicates; but when we hear music, we are receiving information, and often responding emotionally.
I structure my lessons around the concept of music as a language. As early as possible, I encourage free play and improvisation with students. We use call-and-response drills. I assign composition projects. I want my students to be communicating through their instruments, not just reproducing music from a page.
Chad at the Cerebroom blog had some thoughts of his own about this, and it seems we are in agreement. If you think differently, then I suspect our difference lies not in our definition of music, but in our definition of language.