The Music-Language Connection

Language likely plays a very significant role in music; both its composition and performance. In early or pre-human communications, phonic utterances could have been musical in nature. This is hard to say, but observing primates and their “hoots” and “coos” could be a living fossil of our ancestral sing-song dialogues. Of course, it may be that it was a more monotonal verbalization that hominids first used to make a communicative action. Whichever form came first — music or language, proper — may define the origin of the other; or its inquiry may blur the line between the two. Indeed, there is a fine line between what direct communication (i.e. speech) is and what indirect communication (i.e. music via expression) is in modern culture, let alone less complex situations such as those of ancient hominids. Regardless, there is certainly a significant relation between music and language that merits discussion.

The most salient musico-linguistic relationship is that of lyrics and singing. Language is completely influential when it comes to producing lyrics and designing the melody, rhythm, and intonations of singing. Even vocables (e.g. scat) are created through language – they are language-like utterances lacking semantics but still holding expression. Singing and lyrics are language put to a desired and invented prosody; that is a rhythm, tone, and amplitude. They are heavily defined by linguistic knowledge, yet, they differ from normal discourse. Even without lyrics or any form of singing, language is critical in the poetic and emotional development of musical components, whether it be literal translation of a story to music or the internal dialogue and adjectives a composer thinks in the process to manifest their musical expressions.

In composition and production of music, language plays a varying role in shaping the properties of the music. Linguistic prosody is related to musical prosody. A language has the capacity to change intonation, duration or rhythm, and amplitude to convey meaning or compel emotional response. This property of language will influence how a musician develops music, and thus how a listener experiences music. A composer can accomplish this by emulating language in their music, or by using similar rules of emphasis from language to develop musical expression. It is essentially using linguistic tools to make musical tools (both convey meaning, but in their own unique way, and indeed this can be reversed where musical tools can inspire linguistic tools). This language to music influence can be seen in comparing music of various cultures. Music, being so profoundly artistic, is highly relative across culture. Just as language is also relative per culture, so music is relative to language. The constraints and possibilities of a language will significantly correlate to and even dictate parameters of the music produced in that culture.

In performance, musical expression conveyed by a performer can be similar to how a speaker conveys an utterance to a listener. Idiosyncratic emphasis can be added to anything that a person says; always unique to that person but usually generalized to contextually relevant cultural or linguistic norms. Critically, culturally relative linguistic prosody will play a guaranteed role on how one conveys a spoken meaning. As an example, when a presenter gives a speech written by someone else, this person can add their own desired emphasis on the text and go beyond the originally intended meaning without changing words; all they need to change or add is prosodic factors. In this same respect, a performer can add his or her own unique expression to a previously designed composition (this is the essence of a cover song). Music and language both hold the capacity to take an already existing and thoughtful piece of text or music and manipulate it while maintaining the core meaning or feeling.

Language shapes music in a variety of ways at least equal, if not greater, than how music shapes language. Some ways are direct while others may be implicit or confounded. It is certain that language is a foundational structure of how people think and interact with the world, and so it should be this way for the music they produce and experience. Culturally rich and varied music would not exist without language and it’s shared role in society and in personal thoughts and feelings. Music is both a component of and a product of culture and person, and thus dependable on language. Even though music could persist without language, it’s affect and effect would be greatly diminished without it’s linguistic connection.

 

 

 

 

10 Comments

  1. Sciencey music topics…I look forward to that! I remember that I thought it was important that both my kids took music and played instruments. They both enjoyed this. Many people told me they would be good in Math since they took music. That didn’t really happen but music is a wonderful form of expression and is connected to language as you say.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think learning music, like learning a foreign language, engages your thinking in terms of things like memorization or practice but most importantly abstract thinking (and even more so if they get into improvisation). I can’t say the thinking for math and music is necessarily relatable but I think it doesn’t hurt to try and expand the mind in any way you can.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Tom!!! I absolutely loved this. Language… music… Love! I’ve never been without it. I’ve held music close to my heart since a very young age. I believe as early as six years old I remember listening to my Grandmother play her LP records of old classic Mexican trio ballads, in Spanish. I remember how the sounds made me feel and I remember holding her hand as she swayed me singing a long.

    One of my favorite things ever is the music connections we have. The bring us together regardless of culture, language spoken and sound origin. It’s incredible and uplifting to know so much more about this connection and you.

    You’re amazing my friend. Thank you for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome blossom! I only recently got to enjoy some record listening for real for the first time with an older friend. I understand now, that white noise crackle does add a nice tambre. And yes, language and music are universal to all humans and of course set us profoundly apart from all other creatures, so it’s endlessly interesting stuff! Thanks for enjoying!

      Liked by 1 person

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