Musical Language

Although music is an intensely emotional language, it is not constructed uniquely with emotions. In the “Musicality and Interpretation” section of this website, we look at the emotive aspect of playing music, but in this “Musical Language” section we will look at the language of music in the same abstract, academic, scientific way that philologists and linguists study the grammar, syntax, logic, meaning, structure, vocabulary etc. of other languages. The components of musical language are common to all instruments. Here we are talking about intellectual skills and knowledge that can often be acquired away from the instrument (as well as with the instrument).

The principal elements of the musical language are, in evolutionary order: rhythm, melody and harmony, but there are many others. 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:

  1. Articulation
  2.     Ear Training
  3.    Phrasing
  4.     Reading Problems
  5.     Rhythm
  6.     Rhetoric: Sing Or Speak?
  7.     Sound
  8.    Style And Epoch


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 speak the musical language.

It is very common, when studying a foreign language, to concentrate greatly on grammar and vocabulary. But if we do this then the most common result is that, in spite of all our hard “technical” work, we will probably 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, and it’s a habit that can 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.

As one of our most important pedagogical resources for acquiring skill in both “Musical Language” and “Musicality/Interpretation”, as well as being one of any musician’s greatest sources of pleasure, this subject is developed further on its own dedicated page:

Chamber Music