Music as Language

April 24, 2012
Music is like a bird; it crosses continents only to come back again next spring. Music is like an apple; it has a hundred flavors, and each one shines. Music is like a bonfire; it glows long after the last log is added. Music is like a language; it’s never out of things to say.
I remember my mother singing to me when I was a child. “You Are My Sunshine” and “Good Morning to You” regularly echo through my daydreams. She sang me nonsense songs about spiders and silly songs about bananas. I have not spent much of my life with spiders or bananas, so why do those songs linger in my memories?
Music is found in and among every demographic. Music exists from traditional indigenous populations to the Walt Disney Concert Hall; however, because of such diversity, music resists definition. Consider John Cage’s composition 4’33”, in which a performer sits on stage for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a note; or consider Arnold Schoenberg’s Fünf Klavierstücke, in which melodies and harmonies are purposefully constructed entirely separate from traditional harmony; or consider Edgard Varèse’s Ionization which is written entirely for percussion instruments, without melody or harmony in a traditional sense. Even a definition of American and West European classical music in the early twentieth century, a narrow and more or less useless definition, must include works that sound like silence, random notes on a piano, and random banging on drums. What about Beethoven, Ke$ha, Sri Lankan folk music, tango, Sub-Saharan rhythm, or children in the street with toy kazoos? I offer this definition: Music is sound, whether produced or encountered, without or in addition to words, used by a person or persons to convey a message, typically emotional, to another person or persons. Any argument from definition encounters the problem of arbitrarily claiming access to objectivity, so this definition will stand primarily from the following, inconclusive, evidence.
Firstly, music is sound. This point may seem obvious, but my recent experience at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival complicated the issue. While dancing to Avicii’s thumping bass and screeching synthesizers, I realized I wasn’t so much listening as feeling the physical vibration of the subwoofer and the intensity of the noise in my overloaded ears. There was music playing that night, but I was not always hearing it—I was dancing to touch and pain. The avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse claims that “the raw material of music is sound” (pp. 3). I would add that music is made of audible sound. After Beethoven lost his hearing, he continued to write music, and even though he could feel the vibrations, by my definition he never heard music again.
Produced sound is a regularly encountered phenomenon: every new car has a stereo producing music; everyone has heard whistling, humming, or singing. Encountered sound as an element of music is less usual. Yet, as John Cage’s 4’33” intimates, listening at a prescribed time and in a direction dictated by someone else can be considered music. The piece is “the ultimate sing-along: the audience (and the world) becomes the performer” (Gutmann pp. 2). Musique concrète is constructed out of environmental noises like bird calls or the bustle of car traffic. Such music can be intensely emotional, terrifyingly personal. Its sounds are no more arbitrary or unusual in an objective sense than a violin or clarinet. In this way, music can be constructed out of produced or encountered sound.
Many languages employ pitches and intonation to convey meaning. Boilès cites the case of the Mazatec language of Mexico, made entirely out of whistles—he describes the signifiers of that language as “music” (39). Such a designation calls into question the extent to which spoken words can be called music. It is common to hear the substitution of a grunt or hum for a real word, and it is common to hear poetry, fiction, or gossip told in excited, expressive voice. However, music conveys its information through sound; even though words are translated into sound, such specific and universal signifiers are not easily equated with musical signs, which require a large amount of technical training separate from a verbal language to interpret. The words must be secondary or alongside the music, which is why one can hum along to a Top-40 single without knowing any of the words.
That music conveys its information through sound begs the question, what does music convey? Boilès discusses at length, in complex technical language, a common phenomenon: multiple interpretations of the same music. He cites the opening bar of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and contrasting claims of programmatic versus absolute music (17). The “semiosis” that then forms the basis of Boilès’s argument is the process by which each interpreter filters the physical data differently. When the interpretation of the performer and the listener is closely in line, communication occurs. Thus, when the technical training of the audience is similar to that of the performer, or when the musical symbol is so commonplace as to be culturally constructed, or even when the performer’s only intent is for the listener to draw a connection, any connection, communication occurs.
The communication of music occurs through a complex interaction of tone, timbre, duration, intensity, stereoscopic placement, and other aural concerns; the communication of language and speech occurs primarily through articulation of the breath—English, at least, is still recognizable when synthesized in monotone by a computer. However, they are distinguishable through the abstraction of music: because musical signifiers are so imprecise, they are non-repeatable. The same corporate spending report may be given twice to the same effect, but the same concert could not be repeated because the abstract music means something else the second time. In this way, the data that music conveys, or at least the data that the musician attempts to inspire the listener to find, is imprecise.
This imprecision is the cause of music’s ability to inspire, ignite, and infuse people with emotions. The sound of music—be it John Cage or the Beatles—is not constructed to possess small, bite-sized elements of meaning. There are no musical words, built into sentences, organized into paragraphs and stanzas. The language of Debussy’s La Mer may inaccurately depict the sound of the ocean, but millions of listeners have felt the melancholy and the joy of the sea while listening. For some, even the most joyous music is but a reminder of sadness and grief. Music’s power lies in its imprecision as a language.
When some quiet summer morning reminds me of my mother’s soft soprano, what is ineffable and chaotic in music reminds me, like a bird coming back home with no clue how it found its way over the ocean. When I attend a concert with friends and we each walk away with a different opinion on what Shostakovich or Radiohead were trying to say, what is personal and individual in music is like the apple, subtle and infinitely varied. When I catch myself humming campfire songs from my childhood or melodies from unidentifiable works I heard years ago, it is the emotions of music processing slowly, like the embers of a fire burning long into the night. When we sing, dance, play, or even listen to music, it is the language of music that connects us.
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Works Cited
Boilès, Charles L. “Processes of Musical Semiosis.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 14 (1982): 24-44. JSTOR. Web. 17 Apr. 2012.
Gutmann, Peter. “John Cage 4’33”.” 2003. Classical Notes, Peter Gutmann, 2003. Web. 18 Apr. 2012.
Varèse, Edgard. “Music as an Art-Sound.” University of Southern California. 1939. Lecture. "The Liberation of Sound." Hampshire College. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. <http://helios.hampshire.edu/~hacu123/papers/varese.html>





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