Music is a Language
I’m not the first to suggest that music is a language. Nothing new there. It is an imperfect analogy, as all analogies are, but it is remarkably consistent. In fact, when we’re infants our brains use the same tools to process both language and music. It’s only later in life that they diverge within our minds.
If music is a language, then there are 5 primary elements: sound, rhythm, melody, harmony, and form. Comparing each element to spoken language, the parallels would be as follows:
Sound. Sound is timbre. It’s the unique aural fingerprint that makes your voice sound different from mine. It’s what enables you to know who’s on the other end of the phone when you pick it up before they say their name. Its what makes a trumpet sound like a trumpet, a bagpipe like a bagpipe, and a kazoo like a kazoo.
Rhythm. This has very immediate similarities to language. It’s the rhythm with which you speak. Are you a fast talking New Yorker or do you have a lazy southern drawl? Choppy and percussive like a Puerto Rican or silky and round like an Italian cassanova?
Melody. These are the sentances of music. It’s what you hum to yourself when a song is stuck in your head. A single idea with a beginning middle and end. Melodies can be long and drawn out, full of high fallutin words or short and to the point with simple language. String them together and you have a paragraph. A few of those and you have a story.
Harmony. Perhaps the toughest to connect to language, harmony is what what you get when you play more than one note at a time. Harmony could be considered the tone of the story. Is it a suspenseful mystery? Or a romantic comedy? Are you being sincere or sarcastic? Harmony is connotation. It’s the way you make the same word mean different things by putting it next to certain other words. Mix blue and yellow paint and you get green. It’s the way cream tastes one way with strawberries and another with garlic and pasta.
Form. This is the plot of the song. It’s the way the music unfolds over time and in so doing tells a story. What did you hear first? And based on that, what do you think will happen next? And did it happen or didn’t it? Were you satisfied or surprised? And thing that you’re hearing now… didn’t you hear that earlier? That forgotton melody that sounded like a frog has just come back as a prince. That’s form.
Does this match up with your experience? Go listen to some music right now and think about those five elements. Are you hearing anything different?