A language is a system of communication between members of a community. Languages combine a series of sounds with a set of rules to enable the sounds to develop meaning. Music also consists of sounds and rules, so does that mean that music is a language?
As English speakers, we can easily agree on how to interpret the sentence “he walked to the mall yesterday.” However, finding common ground in music interpretation is a little bit more difficult. When we listen to a piece of music that contains no lyrics, not every single person agrees on how to interpret the noises. While music has the ability to have a strong emotional impact on the listener, this doesn’t necessarily not mean that each person is experiencing the same emotion as everyone else.
Johns Hopkins University conducted a study to determine if music interpretation utilizes the same parts of the brain as interpretation for other spoken languages. Researchers had participants listen to passages of jazz improvisation, and found that while the parts of the brain responsible for grammar were active while the subject listened, those that deal with understanding language were not.
So, from a scientific perspective, music can really not be classified as a language. A qualitative argument, however, is that music notation systems allows music to be understood in the same manner by everyone. If a piece of music is written out on a score, any educated musician can recreate exactly what the composer intended. Notation helps us to understand the music that is being played in the same fashion that math helps us make sense of scientific disciplines like physics and chemistry.
Unfortunately, what is still missing is a universal understanding across all of those who “speak” the language of music.
While two individual musicians can play a piece in the same way, they might disagree in the emotional qualities that give the song meaning. It is understandable that discrepancies in interpretation exist because each musician has a musical education and upbringing that is unique to them. But disparities due to background do not exist in other spoken languages to the extent that they exist in music. Since meaning cannot be accurately and universally construed from musical selections, this indicates that music lacks the characteristics necessary to be considered a language. While music can be universally enjoyed, it is not necessarily a mode of communication.
What do you think? Do you agree with us? Let us know in the comments!