Something that’s undeniable is that both music and language are undergoing constant change. All languages. All types of music. Looking back at just the last fifty years, we can see the complete evolution pop music – from its beginnings around the time of Buddy Holly and the Beatles, right up to the present day with its various offshoots. Similarly, we can see the evolution of language on a day-to-day basis – new words are coined, and old words take on new meanings and forms.
This, of course, presents something of a problem for language-learners – it can be difficult to keep up with the most recent trends if you are relying on books and other aging resources as a primary reference, since the pages of textbooks do not automatically synchronise themselves with the progression of living languages. If you were to try and learn a language from a century old book textbook (with pronunciations approximated to your own language), you’d wind up speaking quite unintelligibly: it’s not predominantly the words that change, it’s the way they are said.
The same problem is evident in music, too, although perhaps not as obviously; whilst recycling old material is far more prevalent, the ways in which the music is played changes over time. Pop songs from 60 years ago covered now have quite a different flavour to when they were first recorded, even if the notes are the same. What changes is the way they are played, in the same way as language.
The point here is that the only way of keeping up to speed with things that aren’t committed to paper is to listen. You can’t interpret any alphabet correctly without first hearing what sound each letter corresponds to. You can approximate them, perhaps with similar sounds from your native language, but you’d never get them quite right – and I think the same is true of music. To be fluent in any language, you must know what fluency sounds like – and after all, music is a language too.
The more I play my saxophone, the more I find there is a need to focus on a particular sound that I’m trying to achieve to improve. Ditto Cantonese – that’s been the way I’ve gotten better the fastest. I don’t think there’s ever a time when we have such mastery of an art that we can ignore all others doing the same thing if we want to maintain our skills. The world moves too fast for us to stop listening.