the relationship between language and music I

“Jazz is a language.  We are all striving to be fluent in this language, and the best way to learn any language is to be constantly surrounded by native speakers.  If you’ve ever tried learning to speak a foreign language from a book alone, you know that you’ll never sound authentic unless you imitate the sound of native speakers.  The same is true in the language of jazz.  This is an aural art, and it cannot be developed by reading alone.” – Greg Fishman

From my own experiences, I don’t know that it’s immediately obvious to a [classical] music student that music is a language.  When I started out, way back, I found that more emphasis was placed on reading music than listening to it – I had to listen just enough to be able to interpret the sheet music correctly, and that was that.  Sure, when there was a particular piece of music I had to learn for an exam, my teachers would find (or make) a recording of it, but that was it – it was more about playing the right notes at the right times.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later in my studies that my teacher at the time mentioned that my flute playing was really quite natural – she said that I had an intuitive grasp of phrasing and musicality.  One of the most important things was that my father listened to a lot of classical music, which meant that I did too.  This gave me a lot of examples to follow (although that didn’t necessarily happen consciously).  The other part, of course, was good direction from my teacher, who showed me how to make a piece musical – but this would have been nothing without a lot of hours invested practicing it on my own part.

How does this compare to language learning?  I think that the quote at the top says it all.  When I was starting out on Cantonese, I listened to as much audio possible to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of the language (I still do, whenever I get the chance).  Babies can mimic the sound and flow of their native language long before they can speak properly – having gone through a similar process, being familiar with the phrasing and cadences of the language, I can now speak understandably (supposedly a difficult thing for Cantonese!). This is after perhaps four or five months, and now it’s just as case of building up a bank of individual words.  Strangely, in music, it’s the other way around – initially, it’s not about the feel of the music, it’s more about technical accuracy.  In my case, it was only after the first year or two of playing that listening to other musicians had an impact on my overall style.

The other part (about the hours invested) is strangely taken as read my most enthusiastic music students – but rarely by would-be linguists.  I knew full well when I started out on the flute that I’d have to spend a long time practicing to get good, and my teachers said as much – I don’t ever recall my French or German teachers recommending ways to do more languages outside of class (come to that, I don’t remember my school music teacher advocating lots of practice – must be a difference between teachers and tutors).

This post could go on forever, but I neither like reading nor writing lengthy prose – other points can wait for another time.  It’s pretty unarguable though that to get good at either languages or music, you’re going to have to wave auf wiedersehen to a sizeable chunk of your life, and you’re going to have to make a conscious effort to copy other, more skillful people.

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6 thoughts on “the relationship between language and music I

  1. I feel that after spending time listing to native Portuguese speakers, I have a better feel for intonation, articulation , and phrasing. This makes sense to me because I think of Brazilian Portuguese as very musical sounding. I am not good, but I think my Portuguese is better for listening to friends speak it naturally.

    • That’s really interesting – I’d certainly agree that speech impinges in some way on the way that we make music. Based on that, I’m wondering whether musicians of the same instrument (but who speak different languages) would play a given piece in noticeably different ways…?

      I don’t think it’s surprising that language ability improves with listening – after all, this is exclusively how children learn language. It’s good that your Portuguese improves from listening 🙂 do you think your perception of it as musical make it easier to listen to and produce?

      • I do think that listening does help to produce the language. This may depend on what kind of learner you are. I feel that I can see or hear things and and then imitate them sometimes with little effort. This is not always true, though. The Portuguese words seem to feel right when coming out of my mouth. This could be just that I feel that I am speaking correctly and not actually a real improvement but it is encouraging to me either way.

        • I have a feeling that with almost everything, we learn by imitation – whether by ear, eye or touch (it depends on what you’re learning, of course!). There’s very little that’s innate. If the Portuguese words you’re speaking feel right, they probably are – even if not, if they encourage you (as you say), then it can’t possibly be a bad thing! You’d end up doing more Portuguese with the result of certainly getting better 😉

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