Tommaso Zillio

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music is not language

  • Have you ever heard someone refer to music as a ‘language’?

  • Or maybe you’ve heard it referred to as the ‘universal language’?

Is there any merit to this idea? Should music be considered a language?

For some reason, everybody seems to enthusiastically answer "yes" to this one. There must be something sexy to the idea that music is a language...

... too bad the idea just does not stand up to even the most superficial objection.

For instance, if you think music is a language, try to order a double-cheese large pepperoni pizza and have it delivered to your house by 7:30pm tonight... with nothing other than music (no words) ... and then circle back to me.

(Transmitting your house address in Morse code is clearly cheating)

(I'm going to name this "the Italian test": if you can't order a pizza in it, it's not a language.)

To be more precise, for something to be a language, you need to be able to communicate precise ideas that are not completely open for interpretation.

If you ask someone to go to the store and pick up bananas, and they come back with a car battery, we can agree that is not a reasonable interpretation of your request. But at least they still went to the store.

But realistically, if you try to communicate "go to store, buy bananas" using a purely instrumental piece of music, the other person may well take a trip to NY to visit the MET then go to an off-Broadway show instead.

(Or at least, that's what happened when I tried this with my wife - she was angling for that vacation for a while...)

Out of metaphor, if two people listen to the same chord progression, and one says it sounds sad and they other says it sounds exciting, it's not a question of right or wrong. The same music "resonate" differently with people and indeed creates different meanings - well beyond what a mere language can do.

Indeed everything we like about music comes directly from it not being a language. Or to say it clearly: if music really was a language, you wouldn't like it at all.

Why is that important? Because thinking of music as a language will make you a lousy musician. You would miss on the most important features of music as a medium - or in plain English "your music would suck".

But you'll have to watch the video to see why:

P.S. If anything, it's the opposite. Language is a music. See video for full details.

P.P.S. "Tommaso you can't be serious, not being able to order a pizza is a ridicolous objection". Yes it is! If "music is a language" can't even stand to this absolutely preposterous objection, imagine what happens when I make a serious objection...

P.P.P.S. Humble proposal: if you ever hear music teachers say these, consider it a red flag (and start searching for a new teacher): "Music is a language", "Don't learn music theory", "Don't learn scales/modes", "Just learn songs/licks".

While the meaning of music may be open for interpretation, what isn't open for interpretation is the fact that learning your scales and modes, all across the fretboard, will make you a better guitar player - that's a fact! If you want to become a better guitar player, check out my Master of the Modes guitar course!

Video Transcription

Hello internet, so nice to see you! Let's see the question of today. Excellent content, do you think it could be compared to the study of a new language?

I think music is certainly not like a language. There is this thing going around the Internet has become more and more famous lately that music is like language. Okay, first of all, that's an incorrect quote, the original quote was, music is the universal language, which is already Butch. Because it's not a universal language.

Music is actually completely new as different associations depending on cultures, in several different cultures on on Earth, the minor scale is not sad. It's actually used to celebrate. Weddings are expensive wedding music. It's a minor thing about the klezmer music in Jewish culture or several Middle Eastern culture, they use the minor scale to indicate happiness. And that's the thing, it's also kind of losing a little bit this kind of association of being sad, even in western music, because of the influence of those other cultures.

Because originally in western music, minor scale, it's sadness period. Okay, so now we can music is already not the universal language, because we associate different things different cultures was at different intervals. So different musical gesture with different feelings. It's very hard to tell how much of these is nature.

And how much of this is nurture. Okay, how much of this is the natural response of the brain? How much of these is the cultural conditioning? Very, very hard. And I will let that musicologist speak about that. But first of all, music is not a universal language. Second, is it actually a language? Well, debatable, because you see, the problem is not so much saying Music is a language.

Okay, Vivier finish it once you say that music is a language, it will start making inferences on top and assumptions. And then this can lead you completely astray in your study of music. Because here's the thing, a language does a number of things that music cannot do and vice versa. Okay. So music is not a language, that if you want a flippant answer, okay, but I mean, it's a joke, but it's a really serious answer is this.

If music is a language? Could you write me a song that I can play at the phone to order a pepperoni pizza and ship it to my place? No, you can't. I mean, without using words, of course, using only instrumental music, I want you guys to write the song that if I can use to order pizza at my place, okay? You cannot do that.

Because music is not a language doesn't convey information. In the same way as languages. It music is a signal, there is some communication going through and clearly evokes emotion, but it cannot evoke specific, precise situation, like any language out there can. Okay, if anything, it is exactly the opposite.

What do I mean with that? I think a more correct statement would be that language is a kind of music, music probably came before language, okay, we were able to communicate using tones, the tone of voice well, before we invented words, and language and grammar and all these kinds of things. So it seems to be kinda kind of the consensus in the linguistic community, as far as I know, and you guys can correct me if I'm wrong, but that music evolves before languages, and language could be seen as an offshoot of music.

So I will start saying language is a kind of music is the kind of music you can use to order pizza. Okay, as opposed to all the rest of music, which we cannot use to order pizza, but you can do other things. But I'm not really hitting the point yet, right? Because we're thinking too much. You're just going a beating around the bush. And the main point what is the main point is that people will tell you music is like a language.

And already they will use it's like language as opposed to the previous segment that music is a language, okay. But music is like a language because there are there is a grammar in here. And then the in the grammar is the music theory.

And so you can use it, there are some rules in that. You will expect me since I teach music theory to be perfectly on board with that they will be great. Now, music theory is just the grammar of music. And if you learn the grammar, you can make music. But the reality is that have you ever studied the language using only the grammar of the language? Like open the grammar book, read it and then close it and you can speak it?

No. Why? Because that's because even a language is not just a grammar grammar is just an a bunch of rules you can use to tell if the language is correct or not. And indeed, it will sound natural to the native speakers of the language but then you have to learn the vocabulary. You need to be fluent with that.

You need to learn all the kinds of phrasing that they use the intonation, the pronunciation, there are a number of other things that are not the grammar. Okay? And that's one thing and the second thing is these it's if You're speaking a language and you get the grammar wrong. What you see sounds weird.

I mean, just just scroll down in the comments. Because it depends on every single video and see how many people comment on my accent, or my pronunciation. It happens all the time. My grammar is correct, but people picked up on those small differences. I mean, comparatively smaller differences from a native English speaker. And so every time I have people commenting, what kind of accent is that?

Is this a Russian accent? No, it's Italian. Okay, and, and but your new mispronounce this thing? etc, isn't it? Oh, that thank you for letting me know. Okay. And this is more thing, if I were speaking with the wrong grammar, which occasionally making a medical error. I mean, it's natural. But whenever I make grammar errors, they just jump at you, right? They just sound weird, they just break the flow of the speech in music.

Instead, you can break the grammar all the time. Okay. And indeed, you kind of create new styles of music when you break the grammar. Okay, you have rules, which are not rules, they're just pattern of how you make music, when you break them, you want a different style, if you take classical music, and you start breaking a few rules about again, rules patterns, on how to land the notes on the coordinator and how to write the chord progression, add more seven chords, etc. And put more chromatics you get into just territory very fast.

If you remove the things things, if you just start writing, for instance, in minor, but without using the harmonic minor, you get another style of music, okay, you get closer to Iron Maiden than classical music, all those things are at the edge, and then they use different rules. Okay? And it's not like a different language.

If you break the grammar of music, you create new music and often what some people call mistake, other people call it interesting or art. Okay, so there is not a grammar in music. Because otherwise every time you play something different, it will sound weird. Besides think about it for a moment, do you really even want Music is a language to be true.

Because again, if music was a language, and there was a grammar, you will have to follow it every single time there will be no debate about do I have to follow music theory or I could just follow my ear it will be the exact same thing. Now of course you can go on to say but even in spoken language, they occasionally they break the grammar. Yeah, sure. We can beat the metaphor to death. Okay, not a problem.

We can go on and on and on. I don't think this Manas thing but if you look at the definition of a language, and what music there's music just doesn't fit the definition of a language, okay, you cannot communicate in the same way.

There are some elements of communication. But music is not a language and the metaphor is really really stretched the idea for instance, that you learn the language by speaking it and by setting the rules, and it's great, like the same with music, I will do both things I will listen to music, and I will learn the rules like music theory and I left those two things work together can you do only one can you learn music on without rules?

Well, yeah, the same way I kid learn the language yet probably that but then you have to put a lot to play a lot, a lot, a lot of music, analyze a lot, a lot, a lot of music, and then eventually distill all the rules. It's not as convenient in essence Okay, so you learn music in a different way than you learn your language.

These are very unpopular opinion I'm expecting a lot of backlash on these but I'm gonna stand on these music is not the language if anything again, language is a kind of music and then we should work with that. There are some similarity but the differences are many and I will not take any inference I will not make any reasoning based on the idea that language that the music is a language because the moment you stretch the metaphor, even just a tiny bit more, it just breaks and it doesn't work anymore.

So be aware of these Okay, when people tell you Music is a language be aware of these. It's just a metaphor. It's already stretched. Don't Don't go any further. Okay. Very good. And with these, leaving you this is Tommaso Zillio for and until next time, enjoy.

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