Music And Language

In the title of this book, I refer to music as a language. I believe music and language are similar in many ways, and the similarities help illustrate how best to go about learning music. I’m not the only one to notice these parallels. As Daniel J Levitin argued in his book The World in Six Songs, music and language seem to have evolved together, and both played an important role in shaping the human species.

However, language, not music, is often seen as the thing that makes humans distinct from animals. Language is the tool we use to communicate ideas, to name things, and to organize ourselves. It has shaped our society and culture from the ground up. But I don’t hear the same being said about music. Music is seen as something extra, or something unnecessary. I have heard many people say “I don’t have a musical bone in my body!”. Sure, we listen to music on the radio, or in the background of advertisements and films, but most of us don’t participate in the creation of music. We leave that to the “professionals”. Perhaps our society has focused too much on language, and not enough on music. Since the two evolved alongside each other for hundreds of thousands of years and shaped who we are today, aren’t we doing a disservice to ourselves by leaving one of them to the “professionals”?

Music and language indeed have different purposes. Music is used to express things that can’t be expressed in words, ideas that speak to us on an emotional and spiritual level. I believe it is time for a resurgence of the expression of thoughts and feelings that transcend words

To express yourself through music, it is not enough to simply learn how to play songs on an instrument. Learning songs is fun and certainly worth the effort, but it’s not necessarily the same as expressing yourself. Learning a song is like memorizing a poem. It is possible for me, an English speaker, to memorize how to recite a poem in Cantonese without actually knowing what the words mean. To express myself in Cantonese, I need to learn not just how to pronounce the words, but what the words mean and how they fit together. That would not only allow me to recite a poem in Cantonese with greater sincerity, but I might also be able to write my own poem in Cantonese.

The goal for anyone learning a language is not to be able to recite stories from memory, but to communicate ideas that are your own, or to tell stories from your perspective. Similarly, in music, the goal should be not only to play songs by great songwriters and composers, but also to express your unique musical ideas. Many people say they can only play music if they are reading it. Can you imagine someone saying they can only speak their language if they are reading? I’ve also heard people say they only play music if they plan out what they are going to play in advance. Can you imagine someone saying that about language?

Even if you want to focus on playing music by other people, you are faced with the challenge of how to interpret the music. Many people can play difficult pieces of music, but not all know how to interpret the music in a way that expresses emotion. The way to do this is to make the music your own, and play it as if you are expressing yourself. Again, the language analogy works here. Imagine trying to be an actor. Your task is to interpret the script and convey the emotion that serves the story. Do you study the tiny movements of all the muscles in the human face, and learn which muscles express which emotion, and then build the skill of having fine control over those muscles? Or, do you allow yourself to be the character you’re playing, and tap into your ability to naturally feel and express emotion? Developing the ability to express yourself through music helps you learn how to interpret music by other people.

One question I will attempt to answer is “How do we learn to express ourselves through music?” Well, how did we learn a language? We all learned our first language when we were very young, and we learned by being immersed in it. We grew up in a place where everyone spoke to us and encouraged us to copy. The young brain is built for this process. So the best way to learn music is to be born into a community that is constantly speaking the language of music and encouraging us to copy. There are cultures in the world that do this, but not in the West. If we are lucky, we are born into a musical family where something like this process occurs. For most of us, this is not the case.

The silver lining here is that it is never too late to learn a second language. I would encourage you to view music as a second language. This means that the process of learning music should be approached with the same mindset as learning a new language. Becoming fluent in music will take roughly the same amount of time and effort as learning a new language. It also follows similar steps. First, you learn basic vocabulary, then you learn the rules of grammar and syntax, then you practice a lot, learn more vocabulary, and eventually, it becomes automatic, so that you can speak without thinking about the rules of grammar. You know that the grammar is correct because it “sounds right”, and you know how to generate those sounds with your voice. I will attempt to explain how to apply this process to music.

But isn’t musical talent something you have to be born with? What’s the point in learning music if you’re not born “gifted”? True, some people will find learning music very difficult and perhaps impossible, but those people are rare. I would say they are just as rare as people who, for whatever reason, are unable to learn a language. So how can you tell if you are capable of learning music? It’s easy. If you enjoy listening to music, you are capable of learning music. If you enjoy listening to music, you know how music should sound. You know when it sounds good and when it sounds bad. On some unconscious level, you already know the grammar of music. You just have to bring that knowledge into conscious awareness, so you can learn to produce music from scratch.