MUSIC, LANGUAGE AND COMMUNICATION
INTRODUCTION: OPENING PANDORA’S (MUSIC) BOX
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote, “music is the universal language of mankind.” 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.
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
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.” Another example of notational language is the
oral system used in the Hindustani classical music of
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?” 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.
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.”
notes that “music has the ability to help unify formalized social
Patriotic and nationalistic trends in music are especially indicative of this
power; the singing of “God Bless
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” 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.”
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.” While the First Amendment protects
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
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.
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.” 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
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
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.” 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” 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; 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.
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.” 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
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.” 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
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.
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