Music as a Language – Jieshu Wang

“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”

― Kahlil Gibran

This week’s reading materials provided me a preliminary impression on the field of linguistics and how linguists analyze our languages, which is different from last week’s neuroscience and archaeological perspectives.

In his Foundations of Language, Ray Jackendoff proposed that human language is different from and more complex than other communication systems such as the sound of whales and birds because human utterance can pass on unlimited information with unlimited and arbitrary forms but from limited rules and mental lexicon[i]. This productivity reminds me of music, which I think in some sense is analogous to language.

Phoneme of music

First of all, music is the art of sound, so every piece of music consists of sequences of basic elements of sound, corresponding with the phoneme in linguistics. But the scope of music instruments is much broader than language. Basically, any sound within the range of human hearing, even the sound of rain can be weaved into music. A piece of iron and a wooden box can be used to make music.

Music has structural rules

Like syntax and phonology of language, these sounds are integrated together following structural principles or rules, to form larger components, such as a beat, a bar, a section, and then a movement, according to their rhythm, tempo and time signature. For example, in a piece with 3/4 time signature and 120 bpm, the rule is that a bar is composed of three quarter notes, each of which represents a beat and lasts 0.5 seconds. Within a bar, the three beats generally follow a STRONG-weak-weak pattern.

There are many other rules or patterns. Specific rules are used for constructing a C major, a B minor or a fugue. In addition, many pop songs follow several chord progressions, of which the most common one is 1-6-4-5 chord progression. You can hear this chord progression over and over again in pop music. Sometimes you can even match the lyrics of a pop song to the accompaniment of another pop song using the same progression without any disharmony.


Dialect in music

People from different places may speak different dialects, even different languages. So does music. There are a lot of genres in music, each of which has their own unique rules or fingerprints, such as the highly recognizable blues chords and progression. I found surprisingly that if I’m playing on a blues scale that intentionally alters some pitches from a conventional scale, even if I’m just messing around, the noise I made sounds exactly bluesy.

Semantics of music

Language has meanings. So does music, although it is not as explicit and specific as language. One unique property of music is that it can convey intelligible emotion. Therefore, people who speak different languages can share a similar understanding for a piece of music. For example, Also Sprach Zarathustra is one of my favorite symphonies, but I know nothing about German, the mother tongue of Richard Strauss. Likewise, you don’t need to learn Maori’s language to feel the fearlessness in their battle songs.

The similarities of music and language can be enumerated continually. I think the reason is that music and language are both human symbolic systems that are used to represent abstract meanings. As Jackendoff put it, we can create and understand unlimited utterances. It is true for music, too. Music is a universal language of human kind.


[i] Jackendoff, Ray. 2002. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. OUP Oxford.