Is Music a Language?

By Kristina Lee

*This article is a follow-up to a blog I wrote called Why We do 45 minute lessons?

The short answer is a “No.” Music is a medium of communication, but it is unlike a spoken language in the sense that it does not communicate a specific meaning. Although we can go much deeper into this topic, the purpose of this article is to continue to understand the learning process of music by comparing it to the learning process of a language—because indeed our brain does process music like it processes a language.

Let’s think about how a person learns a language:

A child is born. He or she is yet to have the capacity to hear correctly or move the muscles of the mouth or the tongue to form the sounds that make up his or her language. The child hears those around her talk. Sometimes things are repeated many times specifically for the child. At some point, the child forms a sound and those around her are elated. This goes on for a few years. The child learns to say words, then phrases and then full sentences. The child starts out by simply mimicking sounds and then gradually starts understanding the meaning behind the words and phrases and starts to express her own thoughts and feelings, being able to express even abstract parts of our world through her language. During this whole time, the child was read to by those around him. Some books, maybe even hundreds of times.

This child starts learning how to read. Letters are drawn. Many, many times. Letters are put together to form words. Child does this many times and starts seeing that there is a pattern to the written form of his language and the relationship between the spoken and the written. The child starts reading books. The same books that were read to him. He is taken to the library and they come home with ten books. The child reads. Slowly and not perfectly, many times, until the child can recite the book by heart…until the child becomes an adult and reads and writes as he pleases.

Now let’s think about how this scenario applies the process of learning music (specifically the process learning to play an instrument).

It used to be that singing, dancing and listening to someone play an instrument was an everyday part of human cultures everywhere. Most of us don’t live in those societies anymore. While music can be heard everywhere through our choice of own personal devices, it is rare for a family to gather around the piano and sing and dance. (For those who want to expose their children to this kind of context early on, I recommend family music classes such as our Music Together class.) This means that the first thing that is needed in music education is to teach students how to listen. Hearing is not enough; they need to learn how to listen. This is why I am a big proponent of the teacher demonstrating pieces for students. It is important for a student to have some vision of what they’re trying to achieve, what they’re trying to communicate through the piece.

Along with learning how to listen, students need to be able to explore the sounds of music. This can be done by free-playing or by mimicking. Technique (for example, technique of producing legato v. staccato or technique of producing forte v. piano) taught in this kind of context is so much more effective because the purpose of learning the technique becomes expression and communication.

Notice also that in language learning, reading and writing comes after a few years of listening, mimicking and speaking. We don’t have the luxury of not teaching students how to read for a few years. However, I recommend delaying the reading part for some time, until the student gets some bearing on the instrument and the sounds of music. (These days, there are many wonderful resources teachers around the world have produced for rote teaching technical exercises and pieces.)

The other thing that I want to emphasize is a repertoire-rich curriculum especially for beginner and intermediate students as it’s true that the youngest readers of our society read more number of books than their adult counterparts. It is okay for an adult to spend long time reading through a heavy novel or a non-fiction. It is not okay for a six-year-old child to be reading only one book, perfecting every word and phrase, as if it was Shakespeare.

Our end goal at Kristina Lee Music is to empower our students to be makers and creators of music being able to converse and communicate in and through music. It is not enough for a musician to simply play what is pre-written. In order for a musician to be a fully-functioning, comprehensive musician, he or she must have some capacity to express music that is not prescribed for them. However, creating music does not happen in a vacuum either; just like saying bunch of jargons don’t make a speech or a book, a musician needs to learn from the writings of many musicians greater than them. This is how they learn the difficult words, phrases and styles of writing and speaking.