Jason Vasche

                                                                                                                        IS 209

                                                                                                                        7 Dec. 2001

 

MUSIC, LANGUAGE AND COMMUNICATION

 

INTRODUCTION: OPENING PANDORA’S (MUSIC) BOX

            Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “music is the universal language of mankind.”[1]  Since its publication in 1835, this statement has often been referred to and quoted as “true.”  Is this really so?  Is music actually a universal language that transcends boundaries of language, culture, geography, and time?  The asking of this question is like opening Pandora’s Box; the answer to the question is fiendishly difficult to ascertain.  Any attempt at such is, to continue the analogy, like trying to grab all the escaped demons and evil spirits in order to cram them back into the box, which is difficult since the aforementioned demons and spirits are only semi-corporeal at best.  Nonetheless, the question has been asked; now, we must answer it as best we can.  The first step is to determine what Longfellow meant by “universal language”, and then define each of those terms in turn.  Before we can ascertain that music is a “universal language” we must prove that music is a language to begin with.  Once the basic language issue is settled, ways in which music is used to communicate or convey information need to be addressed.  Finally, one must look at music within the framework of cultural context.  Once these issues, these “demons and evil spirits”, have been grabbed perhaps we can close the lid of Pandora’s (Music) Box and make our conclusions about the validity of Longfellow’s “universal language” of music.

 

MUSICAL LANGUAGE: A UNIVERSE OF POSSIBILITIES?

            What exactly is a “universal language”?  In this sense, it seems that “universal” is meant to denote all cultures and societies of man existing on the earth; not the “universal” which defines the entire collection of planets, stars, galaxies, and other cosmic phenomena.  There is nothing to indicate one way or the other whether this includes all cultures and societies of man ever existing on the earth in any time period.  Since much of our modern music has its basis in the historical past (and much of the music forming the basis of this is still being performed) we will assume that it does.  The meanings of “Language” pertinent to this question are listed below, as defined in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

A: the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a considerable community.

B (2): a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings.

B (5): a formal system of signs and symbols… including rules for the formation and transformation of admissible expressions.[2]

            Of these three definitions, [A:] is only applicable to vocal music.  The other two are somewhat more easily applied to music in general; however, it should be noted that each music culture has its own system of signs and symbols and its own musical meanings.  (NOTE: This will be addressed at greater length in the “context” section of this paper.)  Before delving into

 

MUSIC, LYRICAL AND VOCAL: MORE OBVIOUS

            Vocal music has been an important part of human society for many ages, and is the most obvious form of musical communication. Historically, music has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years; no one knows when music was first made, but it is most likely that the first form of music was vocal.  Some scholars believe that music played a significant role in the development of language.  Vaneechoutte and Skoyles maintain that “the ability to sing provided the physical apparatus and neural respirational control that is now used by speech.”[3]  Vocal music has been a means by which the myths, legends, and histories of tribes and cultures were passed along through generations.  Channeling these important songs were the voices and hands of tribal shamans, bards, skalds, minstrels, and equivalent others.  Vocal music has also coursed through cultures like blood; songs for working in the fields, for war, for religious ceremonies and celebrations, for drinking and for observing the rites of the dead are all cells, so to speak, constituting this blood.  Alan Lomax expands upon this, stating that “the chief function of song is to express the shared feelings and mold the joint activities of some human community.”[4] 

            Vocal music is the setting of lyrical text (derived from a written and/or spoken language) to music.  The key factor in universal communication via vocal music then is the ability of the listener to understand the language in which the text is based.  However, the ability of a listener to do so does not necessarily make vocal music “universal.”  Without the aid of translations in concert program notes or liner text accompanying a recording, a listener without the personal ability to comprehend the sung language is unable to interpret meaning from the text.  “Universal” vocal music would have to be sung in a language that is capable of being understood by everyone; unfortunately such a language does not exist.  On a related subject, what of vocal music sung in imaginary or invented languages?  Some European popular music of the twentieth century utilizes such techniques.  The vocal text (and some of the album liner notes) for Magma (a French jazz-rock fusion group) is set in Kobaian, a language created by the founder Christian Vander; usually there were no translations included.  Damo Suzuki, vocalist for the German group Can, based his improvisatory vocals on a strange (usually unintelligible) amalgam of Japanese, English, German, and babble.  Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance sings in a syllabic vocalise of imaginary words.  Would these examples still be considered viable forms of musical communication, even though most people wouldn’t be able to understand what was being sung?  I would suggest that these are valid forms of musical communication, but would not necessarily fall into the category of spoken lyrical music.  The absence of coherent lyrics would lead me to believe that any “message” or meaning the group intends to convey to the listener would not be found in the lyrics.  Thus I would categorize these with instrumental music, with the singing voices treated as part of the instrumental ensembles.

 

MUSIC, INSTRUMENTAL AND OTHERWISE:  LESS OBVIOUS

            It is fairly easy to define linguistic functions of vocal music, since the primary message that is conveyed is based in a written and/or spoken language.  But what about purely instrumental music, or even the music that provides the accompaniment for lyrical vocal music?  This is a question that has been researched and debated across numerous academic fields both within and without the discipline of music.  Semiotics, musicology, music theory, psychology, and communications studies scholars have written many articles on the subject with conflicting conclusions. 

            Instrumental music (and all music for that matter) really has the potential for two types of meaning: “musical” and “extra-musical.”  The “musical” meaning includes such technical things as form, meter, rhythm, harmony, melody, and so forth.  Also included in this category are the physical and emotional responses to music that are, in Chris Dobrian’s words, “[states] of meaning for which there exist no adequate word in any language.”[5]  The “extra-musical” meanings would include symbolic representations and textual information (almost exclusively found in vocal music.) 

            In some aspects, instrumental music could be regarded as a language; Ivan Vitanyi states that “after spoken language, music has the most elaborate and formalized code system.  However, this semiotical system… functions in many respects differently from spoken language.”[6]  In the Western tradition we have fixed musical symbols denoting pitches (no pun intended), durations, expressive aspects (dynamics, crescendi, breath marks, etc.), meter, tempo, and other elements.  David Lidov points out that “insofar as musical composition exposes linear combinatorial systems it resembles language, but whether such systems belong to the core or superfices of the vehicle is less clear for music than for language.”[7]  Henry Orlov notes, “If music is to be considered a sign system, then it is a very strange one: an icon which has nothing in common with the object it presents; an abstract language which does not allow for a prior definition of its alphabet and vocabulary, and operates with and indefinite, virtually infinite number of unique elements.”[8] 

Another way in which “language” is used in conjunction with music is in the context of improvisation.  Improvisation, especially as found in jazz and European free music, draws from many traditions; this common stock of material is often referred to as “vocabulary”, and consists of motivic phrases, rhythmic patterns, sequences, and other practices culled from various traditions.  Improvisation, especially in these musical styles, is often seen as communication between the musicians taking part in the performance.  Call and response, simultaneous soloing, and continual interplay between players certainly lend credence to this notion; the sharing of musical ideas results in variations on the original ideas and using those as bases for new explorations into the sonic landscape.  The vocabulary is thus constantly expanding, according to Derek Bailey: “The bulk of the [group’s improvising material] will be initially provided by the styles, techniques, and habits of the musicians involved.  This vocabulary will then be developed by the musicians individually, in work and research away from the group, and collectively, in performance.”[9]  It could be interpreted from this that each group has its own dialect of the greater musical language, since no two individuals will have the exact same starting vocabulary; hence, no two groups could have the same resultant combination of stylistic influences and musical chemistry. 

James Lull observes, “The mood-altering capabilities of music can variously intensify or reduce the rate of personal or social activity.”[10]  There are physical and emotional responses to music; these responses are alluded to in the above quote.  Certain rhythms may incite the listener to dance, or tap his foot, or nod her head.  Pieces in minor keys normally evoke emotional responses ranging from “sad” to “angry” to “anxious” or “mysterious”; likewise, major keys can evoke “happy”, “nostalgic”, “relieved”, or other more pleasant feelings in the listener.  The cause of this phenomenon is unknown.  Regardless of whether music can be classified as a “language” in a semiotic or linguistic sense, it has the ability to communicate to the listener on a primal level at the very least.  Perhaps there is a kernel of truth to Vaneechoutte and Skoyler’s theory of music being one of the precursors of speech and language, which could help explain this mysterious effect music can have on our beings. 

           

SPECIFIC MUSIC LANGUAGES: FROM THE REAL WORLD TO YOU

            Over the course of musical history, there have been a number of attempts at creating formalized musical languages (complete with vocabulary, grammar, etc.) of varying degrees of complexity and success.

            One of the earliest of these attempted languages was that created by various cultures for war.  Limited numbers of specific signals and commands were composed as brief musical phrases; these phrases were executed on drums, horns, flutes and other instruments either as single phrases (cavalry charge, for example) or as repeating ostinati (mostly drum-based and oriented towards formation and marching tempo.)  Martial musicians were trained in the execution of this “language”—which is not actually such in a linguistic sense, more just a set of defined musical symbols— and the common soldiery was required to learn to recognize these different signals and execute the orders which they represented.  Music also served a non-linguistic communicative purpose in ancient war; Mickey Hart states that armies of numerous ancient cultures often utilized massive numbers of drummers and other instrumentalists with the purpose being “to energize your troops while terrifying your enemies with the heroic quality of the noise you could make.”[11]    With the rise of radio and more advanced telecommunications technology, the need for martial music has declined; presently, such music is exclusively reserved for ceremonial purposes—military bands in parades, the playing of “Taps” at military funerals, and so forth.

            In West Africa, another musical language is slowly being exterminated by encroaching telecommunications technology.  This language is that of the Talking Drums, the legendary “Bush Telegraph”.  One may initially see little difference between this language and the signals used in military musical signaling; however, J.F. Carrington points out that the Talking Drum signals “have a language basis and can be modified to beat out messages which cover almost any situation arising in native life.”[12]  Using one or two drums (capable of high-pitched and low-pitched sounds) the drummer will beat out a message which corresponds to the tonal system found in many spoken African languages.  Carrington states, “the basis of the drum languages of Africa is the tonal pattern of the words which make up the languages… [The] drum language is essentially the same as the spoken language of the tribe.”[13]  Many words in these languages share the same tonal patterns; it is within the greater context of the message (and the rhythm which is heard by the listener) that the correct words are understood in the interpretation of the message.

            There are several musical languages these are used expressly for communicating about music; this refers to the various systems of musical notation employed by cultures and musical traditions around the world.  The most familiar one of these to the Western observer is standard notation, the system of clefs, notes, stems, staves and other symbols used to transcribe the rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, and expressive elements of an aurally experienced work of music into a visual, tangible document.  The rise of Western standard notation has allowed composers and performers to communicate about technical aspects of music clearly and fairly easy.  The need for this notation has arisen from the increasing complexity of Western music from the 14th century onward. Alexander McLane affirms this in his observation that “as music evolves and becomes more complex, its sounds become difficult to describe in ordinary human language, its separate parts require greater synchronization, and there arises a need for an artificial language of shapes and symbols to convey the characteristics of sounds and their time relations.”[14]  Another example of notational language is the oral system used in the Hindustani classical music of North India.  Like the Western system, the Hindustani notation allows for relatively clear communication of musical ideas between composers and performers within the style.  Syllables are used to denote specific notes or sounds produced on a given instrument, and intonation patterns help convey accents, rhythms, and dynamics. 

Solresol was perhaps one of the more curious musical languages to come into existence.  Named as such by its creator, Jean-Francois Sudre (1787-1862) in 1829, “solresol” is taken from the Solfeggio system of singing the seven natural pitches in the well-tempered intonation (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti).  Sudre actually first developed the language in 1823, and spent several years refining it.  The language is based on Western music (standard) notation, and has its own grammar and vocabulary.  (In this language, “sol-re-sol” is Sudre’s actual term for “language.”  Using various combinations of two or more pitches, Sudre developed a vocabulary; accents and stressed pitches within a term grouping may indicate verb tense, singular or plural nouns, or other such grammatical function.  Additionally, single pitches have specific meanings.  Sudre demonstrated his ability to teach the basics of the language to a person in 45 minutes, and although the idea never practically caught on there are growing numbers of Solresol scholars active in academia today.  Sudre spent his entire life attempting to create a “langue universelle” through music; Solresol was the crowning achievement of that life of study.  (Among other things, Sudre experimented with a system of tuned brass cannons that would transmit messages across long distances; the French Army didn’t see any practical use for it.)  At the London Exposition of 1862, Sudre received a Medal of Honor for his work in Solresol; the awarding jury offered up the following citation:  “The remarkable project of Mr. Sudre… will it ever receive a useful application? And its author, already quite old, will he receive no other recompense other than the unanimous admiration of an unprofitable jury?”[15]  Alas, Sudre’s language has been all but forgotten by mainstream musical scholarship; Sudre died a few months after the Exposition, a poor and broken man. 

 

MUSIC IN WESTERN CULTURE: A VERSATILE INSTRUMENT

            If music is a language, how is it used?  In our Western society, it is used for a myriad of purposes.  Political propaganda and protest, advertising, religious belief, education, and entertainment all come readily to mind as ways in which music is used to communicate something to the listener. 

            The use of music as a political tool, whether in advocacy for or protest against figures, events, or policies, goes back at least to the Middle Ages.  During that time, music and its live performance played a vital role in the dissemination of information among members of society; seemingly more so than the present day, which is filled with information sources (television, computers, books, radio, etc.). Jacques Attali provides some illustrations in his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music: “Richard the Lionhearted hired jongleurs to compose songs to his glory and to sing them in the public squares on market days.  In wartime, jongleurs were often hired to compose songs against the enemy.”[16] 

James Lull notes that “music has the ability to help unify formalized social collectivities.”[17] Patriotic and nationalistic trends in music are especially indicative of this power; the singing of “God Bless America” by U.S. senators in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks is a recent example.  By singing this song before television cameras, the senators were attempting to rally the people of America together.  The song’s communicative lyrics are important in disseminating a patriotic spirit, but the popularity and familiarity of the song’s music would more than likely allow for the average American listener to feel the message.  National anthems are other examples of songs that convey the same patriotic message whether presented with or without lyrics.  “The Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key is about a battle that took place during the Revolutionary War; it does not extol the virtues of America’s people, its moral values, or the beauty of its lands.  Regardless of content, Key’s song has become the ultimate musical symbol of America; whether sung or performed instrumentally without voice, every American can recognize the tune and what it stands for. 

Just as music can be used to unify people, it can be used to spread messages of protest against a group, behavior, social trend or attitude, cultural institution, or other source of discontentment.  Popular music has been an especially good vehicle for this, providing that the protest song or work is available to a large section of the public.  Returning to Attali’s study of the role of popular song in medieval society, we learn that “independent jongleurs composed songs about current events and satirical songs”[18] if the populace seemed to be suffering at the expense of their lord or king. Christian Lahusen describes politically-slanted popular songs as narratives establishing “a common meaningful life-world, either implicitly by reproducing the taken-for-granted beliefs, myths and symbols, or explicitly by stating moral claims and political demands.  ‘Political songs’ challenge a given social order in the name of a better world, i.e., they deliberately advocate for a new form of community and a new meaningful order.”[19]

What happens when ideologies conflict around musical communications?  If a listener does not like what a piece of music is communicating to him/her, it is easy enough to turn off the stereo or walk out of the concert venue.  However if a group of people dislike the messages conveyed by an artist’s work, be it for political, moral, or cultural reasons, there may be trouble—especially if the group is in any position of power.  Censorship has existed as long as power has; it seems that those who hold the reins do not like to be criticized, and some are less accepting of criticism than others.  Attali tells us that in reaction to the satirical songs of medieval jongleurs, “Kings would forbid them [jongleurs] to sing about certain delicate subjects, under threat of imprisonment.”[20]  While the First Amendment protects U.S. artists from being jailed for speaking (singing) their minds, it has not entirely protected popular music itself.  In the 1980s, a group called the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) lobbied to censor certain artists’ music on moral grounds, primarily targeting the use of violent and sexually suggestive lyrical content in heavy metal and rap music.  More recently ClearChannel, a corporate entity controlling numerous radio stations around the country, attempted to censor over 150 popular songs in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.  Over 100 songs, ranging in content from overt political criticism (such as that produced by Rage Against the Machine) and more genteel songs dealing with plane crashes, explosions, and so forth were placed on a “don’t-play” list.  The staff member who compiled the list circulated it and requested that ClearChannel’s affiliated stations pull all these songs from radio airplay.  While a company spokesperson stated that the move was “not a company mandate”[21] and that it was only recommended (not forced) that stations pull the songs for the sake of “sensitivity”, the action as a whole seems to be that of a would-be censor.

Censorship of music is not only a “solution” to internal divisions within a culture or society.  In a culture with a very strong music tradition, the subjugation of the culture can be accelerated by the elimination of the culture’s musical identity.  Lull notes that “One important goal of colonists and missionaries encountering native cultures in the Americas and elsewhere is to break down their sociocultural strength by destroying the indigenous music.  This was true in the United States of the Native American population and of the slaves imported from Africa—two cultures where music was extremely important for communicative purposes and for cultural identity.”[22] 

Another prime example of the communicative and unifying properties of music can be seen in religious music.  Hymns and spirituals are basically affirmations of belief in a specific set of religious values.  Specific songs may serve particular purposes in the worship rituals of a religion; J.S. Bach, Georg Friederich Handel and many other composers of Western classical music wrote oratorios, chorales, and other works for specific Christian holy days and observances.  For instance, Bach’s “St. Matthew’s  Passion” is a choral work centered around the Crucifixion story as told in the gospel of Matthew, and was meant to be performed during Easter Week.  Religious music can be used in ministry and missionary work as well as collective worship.  Popular song provides a vehicle by which catchy, simple melodies and rhythms can be used in setting religious text or messages; the religious musician hopes that the “popular” nature of the music will capture the listener’s attention and enable the transmission of the religious message.  This strategy is very similar to that used by marketing companies to advertise products through other media outlets.

            Radio and television are both saturated by advertisements.  If one listens to radio or watches television for even a brief span of fifteen or twenty minutes, said observer is more than likely to encounter commercials advertising a wide array of products.  If one were to make comparisons between advertisements, one would realize that almost all (if not all) advertisements contain music.  Sometimes, the music is just in the background, with the salesperson’s voice intoning the magic words that will (hopefully) convince listeners to buy the product being offered.  Other times, the music is the advertisement; the “jingle” (as such musical pieces are called) will usually contain lyrical text, which is centered around the offered product itself or perhaps the slogan of the producing company.  Among his ten essential elements of a good musical commercial, Walt Woodward includes the following: “It arrests your attention… It is memorable… It creates a mood or feeling… It contains a strong advertising message… Its music appeals to the musical tastes of your largest purchasing demographic… Its music unifies all the elements of the spot... Its lyric is easily understandable—every single word.”[23]  The purpose then is, basically, to hook the observer’s attention on the commercial through pleasant-sounding music with easily intelligible lyrics.  As far as television commercials are specifically concerned, there is little contextual understanding required of the observer.  The added bonus of visual images on the screen help to contextualize the message contained in the song for the viewer; a televised commercial jingle for Hoover or Dirt Devil may show someone cleaning the living room carpet with their new vacuum cleaner of choice (insert brand name).  Immaculately clean floors and white smiles abound; with images like this, the song’s lyrics about clean carpets, Hoover/Dirt Devil/brand name, and “get yours now” will not be lost upon the viewer.  If the tune is especially catchy, the viewer may later remember the melody and hum or sing it—this association of music (a jingle) and a product (commercial) is a very powerful force in advertising. 

            There have been many songs whose communicative purpose has been educational.  In a sense, protest songs and religious songs are somewhat didactic in nature; both seek to educate, increase, or change public awareness and perception in areas of political or social injustice (protest) or spiritual righteousness and well-being (religious).  In the case of children’s programming such as “Sesame Street”, songs are used to teach math, reading, analytical skills and social skills.  James Lull theorizes that adolescents learn from popular music.  The basis for this is his observation that popular music often “portrays cultural alternatives to the values and lifestyles of the dominant culture… [Popular or rock] music introduces themes that are ignored, refuted, or downplayed by ‘mainstream’ institutions of social control.”[24]

            There are also some experimental ways in which music is being used as a medium for communication.  A musical vocabulary and language which can be used to communicate with people who have lost the ability to speak is being researched; Balch and Bathory-Kitsz assert that “music while culturally dependent, is a singular model in universality of human expression.”[25]  By virtue of this and the theory that musical memory remains intact despite other forms of cognitive memory loss, Balch and Bathory-Kitsz seek to “retard the march of senility, differentiate depression from organic disintegration, and touch those reaches of human experience remaining after horrifying injury”[26] through music.  Another way in which music is used experimentally is for interspecies communication, especially with marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.  A group called Interspecies Communication Inc. has done a considerable amount of work in the field directly attempting to communicate with these beings via amplified musical instruments[27]; this work comes after heavy research into whale songs, sounds, and the possible communicative properties of such.  This method of communication is, again, highly experimental; no major progress has been achieved in determining the meanings of the whale sounds and songs, or whether these actually constitute “language.”

WORLDS APART: A MATTER OF CONTEXT

            In this modern age, recorded music can be heard virtually any time, any where, thanks to advances in portable playback technology; with the increased availability of a wide variety of music from around the world, it is easy to listen to something out of its original context.  However, issues of context are extremely important when studying the communicative properties of music.  Regardless of the nature of the musical work in question, there are several contextual issues which must be addressed if any real “meaning” is to be derived from the work. 

What was the context in which the work was created?  A piece of music was written in a certain place at a certain time.  Politics, wars, disasters, prevailing moral attitudes, musical aesthetics and other factors—all cultural events and practices surrounding the music had a direct or indirect role in the creation of the work through the mind, ears, and hands of the composer(s).  In his analysis of cultural issues in musicology, Gary Tomlinson notes that “musical art works are the codifications or inscribed reflections of human creative actions, and hence should be understood through a similar interpretation of cultural context.”[28]  A piece of music will provide the listener with some indication of the musical aesthetics of the time in which it was created.  Lyric text of vocal pieces may describe events, contemporary moral values, social or political climates, or any number of similar subjects which would provide insight into the cultural context of the piece.  If the context of the piece is unfamiliar to the listener (say, a popular song written in 13th-century China), much of the original meaning may be lost.  In addition to acquiring a translation of the text, the listener would need to do some basic research into the culture of the region during that time if he/she wanted to understand what the song was really communicating.  When Tomlinson states that “in order to understand the actions of people of other cultures… we must in some way attempt to comprehend, to construct for ourselves, their context”[29], he is reaffirming this necessity.

            Cultural context is a key factor in determining the validity of a musical “universal language.”  This is especially so when discussing differing musical aesthetics across cultural boundaries.  Alan Lomax offers the following observation:  “No grand opera audience… would tolerate singers who rasped, nasalized, performed in unison and with poor blend, out of tempo, with an orchestra of drums and rattles—all of which are conditions essential to many stirring Amerindian chants.”[30]  This perfectly illustrates the gulf that separates cultures musically.  When a listener hears a piece of music from a foreign culture, chances are that the listener will automatically hear it within his/her own musical-aesthetic context; that is, the context in which one was raised and which is ultimately most familiar.  A professor of ethnomusicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara once told a story in a lecture that is relevant to this.  A famous Chinese folk musician came to UCSB on a performing tour.  While he was in town, some of the music faculty at the university decided it would be a nice gesture to take this musician to see an orchestral performance of a Beethoven symphony.  After the performance ended, the faculty members asked the musician what his favorite part of the piece was, to which he responded, “the first part.”  After some confusion, the faculty members realized the musician was not referring to the First Movement or any other part of the work proper; rather, he was indicating the sounds the orchestra made as the instruments were tuning.[31]  This was the part of the experience which most readily met with the Chinese folk musician’s preconceived musical aesthetic; it was not so with the amused faculty members, whose aesthetic defines Beethoven’s symphonies as some of the crowning instances of musical achievement. 

            In order for a work to transcend cultural, linguistic, and musical boundaries (as expected of any exponent of a “universal language”) the listener would need to be able to switch between these contexts and not allow his/her own “native” context to affect interpretation.  How else could effective “universal” musical communication exist any other way?  In this sense, the idea of music as a “universal language” is about as preposterous as a “universal religion”. 

 

CONCLUSION: LONGFELLOW AS DREAMER OR IDEALIST

            Was Longfellow on to something when he described his vision of music as the universal language of mankind, or was he just on something?  Based on the research I have done, I would tend to think that Longfellow’s notion of such was idealism set to paper.  Defining music as a proper “language” is an extremely difficult task; to then define it as a universal one even more so.  Whether or not music is a true language, it indisputably has the ability to convey information.  This information may be textual, as is the case with lyrical vocal music; it may be primal physical or emotional responses.  The information may not be directed at the listener, but rather another performer.  Music is successfully used as a tool for propaganda, protest, advertising, and education; it is used experimentally to communicate with the invalid and with other species.  Any meanings conveyed by music run the risk of not being understood if listened to without respect and understanding of the music’s original context.  Pandora’s Musical Box is closed now; whether all the demons have been captured and stuffed back inside is yet to be determined; surely the box will be reopened many times between now and whenever a truly universal musical language is created.  Longfellow may have been a dreamer, but his dream is a noble one—well worth striving for. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1.   Attali, Jacques.  Noise: The Political Economy of Music.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

2.   Bailey, Derek.  Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music.  New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.

3.   Balch, Barbara S.J. and Bathory-Kitsz, Dennis.  “Composing a New Language,” 1992. (Web resource.) URL: http://www.maltedmedia.com/books/papers/s6-compo.html

4.   Carrington, J.F.  Talking Drums of Africa.  New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

5.   Collins, Paul.  “The prophet of sound.”  Fortean Times 145 (May 2001): 40-45.

6.   Dobrian, Chris.  “Music and Language.” 1992.  (Web resource.)  URL: http://www.arts.uci.edu/dobrian/CD.music.lang.htm

7.   Hart, Mickey and Stevens, Jay.  Drumming at the Edge of Magic.  San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990.

8.   Interspecies Communication, Inc., “Music With Whales.” (Web resource.) URL: http://www.interspecies.com/pages/whalmusi.html

9.   Lahusen, Christian.  The Rhetoric of Moral Protest.  Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1996.

10.  Lomax, Alan.  Folk Song and Culture.  Clinton, MA: Colonial Press, 1968.

11.  Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth.  Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, 1835.  Quoted in Chris Dobrian, “Music and Language,” 1992.  (Web resource.) URL:   http://www.arts.uci.edu/dobrian/CD.music.lang.htm

12.  Lull, James.  “On the communicative properties of music.” Communication Research 12, no. 3 (July 1985): 363-372.

13.  Marcus, Scott.  Class Lecture, University of California, Santa Barbara 4/1996.

14.  McLane, Alexander.  “Music as Information.”  In Martha E. Williams, ed. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST) 31 (1996): 225-262.

15.  Orlov, Henry.  “Toward a semiotics of music.” In Wendy Steiner, ed. The Sign in Music and Literature.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.  Quoted in Chris Dobrian, “Music and Language”, 1992. (Web resource.) URL: http://www.arts.uci.edu/dobrian/CD.music.lang.htm

16.  Sullivan, James.   “Radio employee circulates don’t-play list.”  San Francisco Chronicle, 18 Sept 2001.  (Web resource) URL: http://www.massmic.com/mmicnews%20091801.htm

17.  Tomlinson, Gary.  “The web of culture: A context for musicology.”  Nineteenth Century Music 7, no. 3 (3 April 1984): 350-362.

18.  Vaneechoutte, Mario and Skoyles, John R.  “The memetic origin of language: modern humans as musical primates.” 1998.  (Web resource) URL: http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit/1998/vol2/vaneechoutte_m&skoyles_jr.html

19.  Vitanyi, Ivan.  “Semiotics of standard musical language.”  Proceedings of the 1st International Congress on Semiotics of Music.  Pesaro, Italy: Centro di Iniziativa Culturale, 1973: 197-201.

20.  Woodward, Walt.  An Insider’s Guide to Advertising Music.  New York: Art Direction Book Company, 1982.

 

 



[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea, 1835; quoted in Chris Dobrian, “Music and Language,” 1992.  (Web resource.) URL: http://www.arts.uci.edu/dobrian/CD.music.lang.htm

[2] Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.  Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1983: 672-673.

[3] Mario Vaneechoutte and John R. Skoyles.  “The memetic origin of language: modern humans as musical primates.”  Journal of Memetics- Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1998.  (Web resource) URL: http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit/1998/vol2/vaneechoutte_m&skoyles_jr.html

[4] Alan Lomax,  Folk Song and Culture.  Clinton, MA: Colonial Press, 1968: 3.

[5] Chris Dobrian,  “Music and Language,” 1992.  (Web resource.)  URL: http://www.arts.uci.edu/dobrian/CD.music.lang.htm

[6] Ivan Vitanyi, “Semiotics of standard musical language,” Proceedings of the 1st International Congress on Semiotics of Music.  Pesaro, Italy: Centro di Iniziativa Culturale, 1973: 197.

[7] David Lidov,  “Music,”  in Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics Volume 1: A-M.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1986: 577.

[8] Henry Orlov,  “Toward a semiotics of music,” in Wendy Steiner, ed. The Sign in Music and Literature.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981: 136; quoted in Chris Dobrian, “Music and Language”, 1992. (Web resource.) URL: http://www.arts.uci.edu/dobrian/CD.music.lang.htm

[9] Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), 106.

[10] James Lull, “On the communicative properties of music,” Communication Research 12, no. 3 (July 1985): 365.

[11] Mickey Hart and Jay Stevens.  Drumming at the Edge of Magic.  San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990: 78.

[12] J.F. Carrington.  Talking Drums of Africa.  New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969: 8.

[13] Carrington: 32.

[14] Alexander McLane, “Music as Information,” in Martha E. Williams, ed. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST) 31 (1996): 226.

[15] Paul Collins, “The prophet of sound,”  Fortean Times 145 (May 2001): 45.

[16] Jacques Attali.  Noise: The Political Economy of Music.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985: 14-15.

[17] Lull: 365.

[18] Attali: 15.

[19] Christian Lahusen.  The Rhetoric of Moral Protest.  Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1996: 182.

[20] Attali: 15.

[21] James Sullivan, “Radio employee circulates don’t-play list,” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 Sept 2001.  (Web resource) URL: http://www.massmic.com/mmicnews%20091801.htm

 

[22] Lull: 364.

[23] Walt Woodward,  An Insider’s Guide to Advertising Music (New York: Art Direction Book Company, 1982), 17.

[24] Lull: 367.

[25] Barbara S.J. Balch and Dennis Bathory-Kitsz.  “Composing a New Language,” 1992. (Web resource.) URL: http://www.maltedmedia.com/books/papers/s6-compo.html

[26] Ibid.

[27] Interspecies Communication, Inc., “Music With Whales.” (Web resource.) URL: http://www.interspecies.com/pages/whalmusi.html

[28] Gary Tomlinson, “The web of culture: A context for musicology,” Nineteenth Century Music 7, no. 3 (3 April 1984): 351.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Lomax: 118.

[31] Scott Marcus.  Lecture, University of California, Santa Barbara 4/1996.