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.]
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