Musical Language

Musical Language.

Music is an emotional language. But it is not only an emotional language. We can study the language of music in the same abstract, academic, scientific way that philologists and linguists study other languages. We can also analyse the different components of musical interpretation in the same way that actors use their intellectual knowledge to improve their performance skills.

The principal elements of the musical language are, in evolutionary order: rhythm, melody and harmony. Rhythm has its own page (see the list below), but melody and harmony are not looked at specifically on this site except with regard to their importance to phrasing. The elements of musical language with their own dedicated pages are:

Sound      Rhythm     Phrasing     Articulation       Rhetoric: Sing Or Speak?

Music Reading Problems        “Modern” Music         Style And Epoch        Ear Training


We can study any language (musical or spoken) in an academic/intellectual way (with books, scores etc), but no amount of study can replace the benefits (and pleasure) of actually using the language in real-life situations. In the same way that “conversation” is one of the most pleasant and efficient ways to learn a foreign language, playing chamber music is one of the most pleasant and efficient ways to learn to both understand and to speak the musical language.

It is very easy, when studying a foreign language, to concentrate on grammar and vocabulary. But very often, in spite of all our hard “technical” work, we can still have enormous difficulties maintaining a conversation and understanding what other people are saying. This is usually simply a question of lack of experience (or opportunity), and is easy to resolve: we simply need to both talk more with, and listen more to, other people.

The same phenomenon can easily occur with musicians when we don’t play enough with others. If we concentrate exclusively on ourselves, we are by definition not listening to what the other people are saying (or playing). This is not a very satisfying way to make music together. Listening to others while we are playing is not just a skill, it’s a habit than be as easily acquired as it can be overlooked. Playing chamber music is like having a conversation: sometimes we are the protagonist (speaker, soloist), sometimes the accompanist (active listener, supporting role) and sometimes the passive listener. It is simultaneously the ultimate learning experience for acquiring fluency in the language (musical or spoken) and the ultimate test of our knowledge and understanding of that language.