Learning the language of music

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When spending some time in a book store in Seattle airport, I found a fascinating little book called "The Music Lesson" (by Wooten). It describes how a young bass player with 20 years experience is radically transformed into a musician by a spiritual teacher that shows up for him. The book is autobiographic and the author seems to be a successful musician in his own right. It is certainly an entertaining read and I can only recommend it, the advice given by the teacher so far seems to be genuinely useful.

What intrigues me is that he stated that there is a language of music. This statement is a synchronicity for me, as I recently discovered a song that I had been looking for for more than 20 years, Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke". It starts with "Music is a world within itself /
With a language we all understand".

Music a language. While that statement might be true on the surface, I ran into problems when taking it literally. If you discount all the lyrics of all the pieces you've ever heard, how much would you really understand as a message? Mind you, sometimes the lyrics and the music even seem to convey different messages, which is recognised by listeners as an ironic clash of messages, for example.

So, if we take pure music, what does it say? Would we know what Beethoven tried to describe if we listened only to his symphony titled "Pastoral"? You might recognise it from Disney's Fantasia where the artists added the images they thought "Pastoral" would be the soundtrack of, letting the fauns and centaurs play till the thunderstorm arises. But this is programmatic music - we've been told what it is supposed to mean by the originator. When we listen to Berlioz' "Symphonie Fantastique" we are even given a background story on each movement - like one movement portrays the prisoner's last walk to the executioner.

So, if we go beyond that, the language of music isn't straightforward to interpret. By falling into discernible parts it may have its paragraphs and sentences, its starts and its stops, its changes of direction and description, but if anything in language is close to music it might not be prose but the poem. It establishes a mood. It conveys feelings. It transmits experience. But it doesn't translate easily into words. How you've felt after reading a poem and after a piece of music might have more in common than reading a book. Emotions, realisations, impulses may arise.

Some of the messages are more or less straightforward. Anger and even sometimes a violent element is present in much Metal music. We can spot music that mocks something, that imitates and parodizes. Soft-flowing pleasant waves. The strong reverence and awe in Bach's Passions. The somber mood of Brahm's Requiem. The strong yearning in Hans Zimmer's "One Day".

What all of them have in common is that they transmit a state of consciousness. They touch upon how something feels like, we are amused, touched, exposed to something. Images, pictures, concrete words - these things either do not transmit easily or at all. A piece of music might imitate the sounds of an angry voice (Jimi Hendrix, IIRC "Still Raining, Still Dreaming") or shells dropping or screams (Jimi Hendrix, "The Star-Spangled Banner"), thunder (Beethoven's "Pastoral") or a train whistle (Duke Ellington, "Chattanooga Choo Choo"). It might evoke pictures, but maybe different pictures for different people.

In this sense the language of music might be woefully inaccurate. On the other hand, no amount of spoken language can as easily and precisely transmit how a skilled musician feels about something. Like John Williams' (composer) and Itzhak Perlman's (performer) "Auschwitz-Birkenau" in "Schindler's List". The strongest part is when the music drops and fades. This could be rightfully called communicating an understanding. Music portrays not only moods, it can transmit feelings and emotions we can only call abstract because we don't have words for them. It can depict change. It can paint you a picture you can't see and tell you a story without words.

Now this is a language I'm interested in learning. It goes beyond skill and craft, the language itself is as complex as nonphysical communication, possibly. It makes the difference between the skilled craftsmen, the imitator and the musician. The later one speaks the language itself and can render her or his own story in it. It's a living breathing language that touches each of us differently as individuals, but can also connect us together.

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Updated 17th February 2012 at 10:18 PM by Korpo

Tags: language, music


  1. poème's Avatar
    I really enjoyed reading this... And you ended your text quite beautifully :)
  2. baalixan's Avatar
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