Thursday, June 9, 2011

Music as a Language

Sometimes when people ask I say that I speak five languages: English, French, Spanish, German and Music. The truth is I speak English pretty well, my French used to be not bad, my Spanish is rough and ready and at one time I could speak a little German. But music? I can read and write music notation and if you put a score in front of me, assuming it is playable on guitar, I can probably play it. I can even sight-read a bit on piano--very slowly. But is Music a language? It has language-like properties. But there is that famous rejoinder "if music is a language what are the words and where is the dictionary I can look them up in?" Listening to music is a bit like listening to someone recite poetry in a language you don't know. You pick up a lot of the emotion and expression, but you don't know the meaning. But this isn't a good metaphor either: we do know the 'meaning', in a sense, of music. We hear a blues lick and know we are listening to the blues which locates the meaning somewhat. We hear an opera aria and there are certain melodic and harmonic gestures that have an established meaning: the rising minor 6th, for example, usually indicates sorrow. Certain rhythms suggest meaning such as marches or waltzes. But specific, definable meaning is really not part of music unless there is a text as in songs. And even then, the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic setting of those lyrics may extend or even contradict the literal meaning of the words.

But music seems to be very meaningful to us, nonetheless.

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