Is Music a Language?

One of my hobbies is debate, especially when it involves a philosophical element. Years ago in an online piano discussion forum, someone declared that music is not a language after someone else had mentioned that it is. This was a subject I could not leave alone, so we had an interesting debate about it for a couple of weeks.I recently recalled this discussion and thought it might give my starved readers something to chew on as they try to cope with my “dry” period of blogging.  [I’m not going through a dry period at all – I have been extremely productive over the past couple years, but it’s just not in the realm of blogging. My readers will find out why next year.]

The first issue that must be sorted out is the question, “Does all communication require the use of language?” Quoting myself:

Whether it’s animals making hostile physical gestures toward each other (body language), or if we receive some weird radio signal from outer space (such as in the movie Contact), or if a woman winks at me, or someone taps me on my shoulder so I turn around, or if I receive a knock on my front door by the mail delivery person, or if music of PDQ Bach brings me to tears of laughter when I play it for myself (no audience), every example I can think of that gives me a sense of communication is not possible without some kind of learned or instinctual language to facilitate the communication.

My debate opponent later admitted that all forms of communication indeed require use of some kind of language.  The question then becomes, “Does music communicate?”

As in many debates, this debate really boils down to what definitions you choose to accept for the words “communication” and “language.” The person I debated with suggested that music does not really “communicate” anything and therefore cannot be considered a language. Here are the key points of the debate he brought up, followed by my responses.  Which side do you agree with?

1) If music communicates, then who are you communicating to if you play a Beethoven sonata by yourself in an empty room?

My response:  Communication does not require a recipient.  If you broadcast a radio signal, you’re still communicating even if nobody is tuned to that frequency.  Alternately, you could say that Beethoven is communicating to the performer when it is performed, even when there is no audience.

2) Music doesn’t communicate the same universally to everyone – so, it is not “systematic” and therefore not a language. While one person feels one emotion when hearing a piece of music, someone else feels something totally different (or feels nothing at all).

My response: communication does not require comprehension.  Going back to the radio signal example, if I broadcasted a radio signal in English, and the only person tuned into the frequency only spoke Japanese, it doesn’t mean I’m not communicating myself.  As another example, a wink from a woman to a man could mean many different things, from “ask me for my phone number” to “trust me” (like the winks in the movie I, Robot) to “just kidding.” Just because what we communicate can have many meanings to the recipient doesn’t mean we aren’t still communicating ourselves. All that matters is the intent of communication, not the success of it.

Furthermore, even though a message may not be clear, there are still certain basic “universals” to how we all perceive music. Most of us associate minor keys with sadness and major keys with happiness. We are “excited” (for better or worse) when we hear dissonance in music, while the consonance that follows is more calming. Whether these responses are natural or conditioned makes no difference, especially considering that most of the communication we engage in during the course of a day is learned (conditioned) communication.

3) You cannot negotiate with a car salesman or order steak in a restaurant by playing notes on a piano.  You can’t convey any real “meaning” by playing a one-octave C major scale.

My response:  Communication does not require that the transmission means something beyond itself.  When I hear a C major scale, it communicates a C major scale to me.  It need not be translated into something like “you have a pickle in your hair” in order to constitute communication.

Whether you agree or disagree with my point of view depends on how limited your own definitions of “language” and “communication” are. Do you define “language” to be only those systems that include verbs and nouns that allow you to order steak in a restaurant? Do you define “communication” to only be present when two people are reacting successfully to each other, conveying very concrete ideas to each other through sign or spoken language? Personally, this way of thinking is too narrow and restrictive for me to accept since it is so easy to come up with other accepted examples of “language” and “communication” that seem to contradict such narrow definitions.

(c) 2016 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.

13 responses to Is Music a Language?

  1. Yes, I believe music is a secondary language of emotions or moods which can be privately expressed or shared with others. And I agree that just as words or phrases can have various connotations, so it is with music. I believe that our understanding and appreciation of music is entirely based upon our culture and experiences. Primary languages change with time and usage, so does music.

  2. Daniel E. Dunlap

    I would have no argument that music is a form of communication. A formal definition of language is “the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.” So, if one were to stick to a strict definition of language, despite the persuasive arguments put forth by Chad, a lot of people would remain unconvinced. However, if one considers communication, perhaps 93% of it consists of nonverbals and sounds with only 7% being comprised of spoken or expressed words (Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D.). Nonverbals and sounds are often very compelling to such an extent that the listener can make fairly valid inferences as to what is being communicated. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then who knows how many words a sonata or etude evoke?

  3. Candy: We do not “learn” that an octave sounds more consonant (i.e. “better”) than a minor second. This is mathematically based, and harmonic implications expand outward from there, all very much mathematically based, for even the most virgin ears to observe. Even the fact that we have 12 pitches per octave, as opposed to 9, 15, 18, 20, or whatever, has mathematical basis. While certain aspects of the language of music change over time, other aspects do not.

    Surprisingly, does a far better job covering all of the different definitions of “language” than Merriam-Webster. Examples of the 5th, 6th and 7th definitions include the language of mathematics, sign language, the language of birds, even going beyond my definition above to include the languages of flowers or art. Merriam-Webster restricts it strictly to only words/signs, and as if that weren’t already too rigid, only those words/signs understood by people. So, apparently, body language is not language, and monkeys, dolphins, etc. apparently have no language. I’d be tempted to chalking it up to being more up to date, but even that isn’t a good excuse since people have used these loose definitions of language for decades… or possibly centuries.

  4. Joseph Dillon Ford

    Hi, Chad.

    There is no question that music is a language. Some years ago I published an online book that dealt in a very practical way with this very issue, introducing a technique that actually brings instrumental music into the domain of artistic speech:

    Besides the fact that an enormous quantity of music is fundamentally linked to words (vocal/choral scores), I place instrumental music on a linguistic continuum:

    Mathematics–Conventional Language–Poetry–Vocal Music–C-1–Instrumental Music

    The “C-1” above stands for “Chromatic One,” the interval-based dialect I created that enables any text written in the Roman alphabet to be rendered as a form of intelligible instrumental speech, either tonally or atonally.

    From a logical perspective, “music” that communicates nothing is meaningless. I only wish more composers during the past century had taken this to heart and made an earnest attempt to engage rather than baffle well-intentioned listeners. Evidently there was a widespread notion that novelty was the hallmark of creative genius, so composers went out of their way not to sound “familiar.” But familiarity — *significant* content shared by composers and listeners — is the very basis of intelligibility. I think this goes a long way towards explaining why those who insisted tonality was dead have subsequently been obliged to eat crow.

  5. I acknowledge the mathematical aspect of music theory. But I would say that our recognition, understanding and appreciation of music is based upon learning and experience. My own definition of music that I pass on to my students (and anyone else interested) is that music is built upon a mathematical foundation and expressed as language. That language is emotional and what is makes us feel (whether we hear an octave or minor second) is based upon our culture, learning and experience. And I agree that the definition of language in is more comprehensive than good ole Merriam-Webster.

  6. It can be read, written, heard and ‘spoken’. Music is a complementary language. It fills in the areas where words don’t suffice. It is the language of emotion, and the right hemisphere of the brain.

  7. I’ve always thought that music is a language, but I’m also a musician, as are most readers of this blog, I suspect.

    Many years ago, probably around 1995, I attended a lecture about the new use of PET scans for charting brain activity. The lecturer mentioned a study where they examined the brains of musicians and non-musicians while listening to music. What I recall is that the musicians had their language centers in their brains light up, while it was more likely that the non-musicians had their auditory centers light up, but not necessarily their language centers. I can’t find the reference to this study right now, but a quick scan of the web suggests this kind of thing has been replicated in spades.

    For instance, jazz musicians are clearly using the language center in their heads when they listen and improvise:

    What might be interesting for the conversation here is the question if music serves as a language for musicians, while simultaneously falling short as a language in non-musicians (or at least having more potential to do so). I’m sure all of the teachers out there would agree that this is a question of musical education for all! Everyone has an equal ability to interpret music as a language, it might just be that they need the right stimuli and teachers to get them there.

    • I would just say that this is already addressed as part of my response #2 above: language does not require universal comprehension. Still, I find your point very interesting!

  8. Pingback: Yes, Music is a Language – steelstringcheese

  9. In the spirit of debate, I disagree that communication occurs if there is no recipient. By the generally accepted definition, communication requires a sender and receiver. Sending a radio signal through space hoping that an alien race will receive it does not form communication – it is an attempt at communication, no less than listening to space, hoping to hear a message from aliens constitutes communication with ‘them’.
    My response to your question, “If music communicates, then who are you communicating to if you play a Beethoven sonata by yourself in an empty room?” is: No one! You are not communicating with music in that case. Music can communicate, but it is the creation of the form of communication that provides pleasure, enjoyment, accomplishment, satisfaction, just as if a poet creates a beautiful poem that no one ever reads.

    • It seems to me that even when there is something wrong with the message, something wrong with the path it takes (i.e. a message in a bottle finding its way to the bottom of the ocean), or something wrong with the recipient (they speak the wrong language, they’re confused or asleep at the time of broadcast, their equipment breaks during mid-transmission, or they’re even perhaps non-existent), communication (as an action on the part of the communicator) is still taking place. When a student performs a piece really badly, the instructor might be tempted to say that the student “did not communicate,” but in reality the student still communicated, even if the message was really artistically displeasing (so much so that the instructor fell asleep half-way through the performance because of a perceived “failure to communicate”). Disqualifying something as communication just because the recipient isn’t present at the time of transmission brings about inevitable conclusions that are a little hard to swallow – we must then disqualify every form of communication for just about any reason, unless the communication is perfectly formed, perfectly transmitted and perfectly received.

      As to your second point: what do you say to the claim that Beethoven communicates successfully to the performer every time the performer plays a work of his in an empty room?

      • Well, I would say we are getting into very esoteric points of debate…in my opinion communication requires a message sent and a message received. There is no time limit. The EFFECTIVENESS of communication is determined by the understanding, the responsibility which falls on both the sender and the receiver. I am trying to frame this as general communication, not music specific, though I think this definition also applies to music.
        So I disagree with your examples with no reception (message in a bottle falls to the bottom – no communication took place). But as to the student with the teacher – the teacher received the message – no matter how poorly it was transmitted – the teacher received and understood at least some interpretation of the message.
        As to your last question, I would say communication (of a sort) does take place between Beethoven and a performer (similar again to my example of reading a poet’s words). At the same time, Beethoven is communicating with the performer’s listeners (a message from Beethoven in his composition) and another message from the performer in his performance (and own interpretation) of the composition.
        But this debate, in my opinion, doesn’t answer the language question necessarily, only the communication – it doesn’t answer what the language of music really is or HOW it communicates. That is probably just a matter of everyone’s own personal opinion.

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