Hannemann’s Music Corner: The Language of Music

By RICHARD HANNEMANN
Los Alamos
 
Music is a language. As such it has structure, context, idiom. As with verbal language it has phrases, subject-predicate relations, sentences, independent clauses, dependent clauses — it can even be said to have passive and active verbs, adverbs, nouns. In verbal language we spell words — in music we spell chords.
 
Music as language can be written or aural — you can read it, you can write it, you can “speak” it with an instrument, you can hear it. Most importantly you can think in it and communicate with it.
 
But music is non-verbal. Music communicates thoughts, ideas, impressions, feelings but not with the tangible specificity of verbal language. For instance, I can write verbally about a fountain: I can describe its physical attributes – shape, dimensions, location, setting, the rate of the movement of the water – and I can describe my emotional responses to the experience of the fountain. If I’m an artist, I can draw or paint a picture of the fountain. But I cannot directly describe the sound of the fountain — a verbal description of sound is usually indirect through metaphor or analogy.
 
With music I can describe the sound of the fountain – and, indeed, I have in my guitar piece “The Fountain“. With the use of figure, motif, sequence, thematic variation, dynamics, melodic and harmonic inter-relations and other musical constructs I can write the music in such a way that I can describe the fall of the water droplets, the rise and fall of the water column, and other aspects of the sound experience of a fountain.
 
There is, however, a small problem. What I hear and what you hear are not necessarily the same thing. The notes are the same but the interpretation of the music can be different. In the case of “The Fountain” listener response has been varied. Without being told the title of what the music is “about” everyone hears moving water — I got that part written with some clarity. But some people hear a brook or stream, others hear a rain storm (complete with distant thunder). And, yes, some people hear a fountain. The communication of the emotional experience of a fountain is even more broadly different.
 
Yet even with the lack of specificity and the resultant disconnect twixt composer and listener, music communicates; though there is a highly personalized individual aspect to this, there is also a shared link between the composer and the listener with additional shared links between composer and performer(s), performer(s) and lister(s) and between individual listeners.
 
The shared link comes through a shared functional knowledge of the language of music. With verbal language the more you share with the author in knowledge of construct, structure, vocabulary and idiom the more likely you are to understand the thoughts, ideas, impressions, and feelings of the author — what the author intends and wishes to communicate. So too, the more you share with the composer ins the knowledge of construct, structure, vocabulary (harmonic and melodic) and idiom the more likely you are to understand the thoughts, ideas, impressions, and feelings of the composer — what the composer intends and wishes to communicate.
 
Learning the language of music then is not just for musicians and composers; it is for anyone who truly wishes to share in the communication between composer and listener and between composer and player. That player would be you at your piano, or guitar, or harp, or clarinet, or  harmonica, or whatever instrument you play for your own enjoyment and active participation in the experience of music. The more you know about the language of music the closer you and the composer come to shared understanding — while still retaining the intimacy of unique individual interpretation and understanding.
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