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What Music and Language Have in Common

Updated on August 3, 2017
Stu McDonald profile image

Stu is a former musician, with experience as a performer, producer, session musician and music educator. He is now a language student.

While it is something of a cliché that when uttered, may sound pretentious to many, it is famously said that music is a universal language. But, how much truth is really in that statement? A lot more than you may give credit actually! In this article, I’m going to delve into the ways that music, and language, actually share a lot of common ground, and have parallel elements which mirror each other quite accurately.


Grammar and Music Theory

First off, anyone who speaks a foreign language or plays an instrument (or indeed both!), will probably be able to make the connection between music theory and grammar in language. So let’s take a look at this and ask ourselves what these two terms actually mean in order to establish a starting point.

A simple definition search tells us that music theory is ‘the study of the theoretical elements of music including sound and pitch,rhythm, melody, harmony, and notation’, and that grammar is ‘the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed; morphology and syntax’. Put more simply these two terms merely refer to rules; in music the rules that we must traditionally respect when composing, such as those regarding scales, keys and rhythm, and also that shape the way music is constructed. For example, you can explain why a chord features the notes it does and has its given name by looking at how those notes fit into their respective scale. In language, we see a parallel in grammar. Grammar refers to rules regarding syntax, sentence structure, conjugations, use of pronouns, singular and plural forms, and anything else which makes a language the way it is.

In the same way chords can be broken down and analysed using scales, a question or greeting in a tourists phrasebook can be broken down and its construction explained by analysing the grammar at play.

Grammar | Source

Languages as instruments?

To explore this theory deeper, we should pay attention to the fact that language and music are both, in their own ways, means for communication and expression of concepts and ideas. In music, we have different tools, or instruments to facilitate this, and on the other hand, we have different languages - there are thought to be almost 7000 languages spoken in the world today! Now you may think, where am I going with this? But this is an idea something I only stumbled upon recently whilst teaching a Japanese friend English, and that is that all languages are different. They are formatted differently, they sound different, and they have different temperaments, much like musical instruments. Every musical different is unique in someway, some instruments are percussive, some are stringed, some are metallic, some are wind instruments, they are tuned differently and again - they are formatted differently, they sound different, and they have different temperaments and characteristics. These different formats of grammar within languages, and formats of tuning and pitch in instruments mean that whilst their sole purpose is not particularly unique, they are used differently and lend themselves to different forms of expression.

So what does this mean for a language learner, and what does it mean for a translator or interpreter?

Well let’s say for example, your mother tongue is English, and like me, you study Japanese, firstly, we must look at the differences between the languages. English sentence structure follows what is known as SVO (Subject - Verb - Object). This means that a basic sentence is structured like this:

I ate soup

Whereas Japanese is a SOV (Subject - Object - Verb), meaning that same sentence would flow like this:

(watashi ha shiru wo tabemashita)
I - soup - ate

On first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Japanese speak in a manner like Yoda, changing the order of things, but SOV is more common than you may realise.

However, now we are looking at an inaccurate translation, as in Japanese, when discussing soup they don't use the verb taberu (to eat), but instead use the verb nomu (to drink). These subtle differences and nuances have to be taken into consideration. A better statement in Japanese would be:

(watashi ha shiru wo nomimashita)
I - soup - drank

Ate soup I did
Ate soup I did | Source

Using this same example, we can identify another significant difference between these two languages. In English, to express that we’ve eaten soup, we must at least say ‘I ate soup’, however in Japanese, the subject (the grammatical part that in this case carries our first person pronoun) can be omitted, so you go from sounding like Yoda, to just plain weird. This becomes 汁を飲みました, or if you translate it literally in that order - ‘soup drank’.

This is because Japanese is a high context language, and cultures with high context languages tend to be considered to have more collectivist traits than those with low context languages. According to Craig Storti, a well-known author of books on the subject of intercultural communications, high context language cultures tend to lean towards communication for the preservation of interpersonal relationships, whereas in the case of low context languages, such as English, the goal of communication is more focused on the exchange of information.

Writing Systems

What about writing systems? How do these differ and what are the implications? In English, we used 26 Roman letters, now you be smart and say ‘but actually we have 62! there’s upper and lower case right?’, but these are the same letters. In Japanese however, there are actually 4 writing systems in use today, and they can be used in conjunction with each other. They are; hiragana, katakana, kanji and romaji (the 26 Roman letters). Hiragana and katakana are parallel phonetic alphabets consisting of 46 characters, typically hiragana is used for Japanese words, and katakana is often used for western words, western names, logos and product names, there are also no capitals, so you can't type angry YouTube comments as if you're shouting!

It's hard to be a keyboard warrior in Japanese!
It's hard to be a keyboard warrior in Japanese! | Source

Kanji are characters from China. In Japanese, roughly 2000 are frequently used. Kanji are essentially pictograms which represent concepts, obvious examples of this are the kanji for food or eating (食), trees (木), or even umbrella (傘). These are used for two reasons, firstly they actually serve a purpose similar to punctuation, as they break up hiragana to allow you to see where words start and end, and secondly, there are many words which are phonetically identical (and in hiragana would be written the same way), but have different meanings, kanji allows you to spell this out effectively with a picture in place of hiragana. However, kanji can be avoided for creative purposes that aren’t possible in quite the same way in English, but effectively are puns.

Implications of language features for translators

A common trope in Japanese poetry is that of ambiguity, and leaving room for creative interpretation of meaning. A popular example of how this works can be demonstrating with the word ‘matsu’. In hiragana this would be spelt まつ, however it’s associated kanji changes depends on the words meaning. For example, まつ can be 待つ, meaning ‘wait’, or 松, meaning ‘pine tree’, but it can be left as hiragana to preserve ambiguity and the potential for this double meaning. It is not uncommon to find implied references to waiting and pine trees used together in traditional Japanese poems, and conveniently this play on words translates rather neatly into English where ‘pine’ can be used a verb to describe waiting or longing for a thing or person. Other instances of these phonetic puns in Japanese prose (known as kakekotoba) however, can present considerable difficulty for translators who then have to take a stance of what the meaning actually is, losing the ambiguity and mystery of the original text.

How does this relate to music though? Well what if you had to play a melody or motif written for a trombone on a piano for example? You find yourself in similar territory to a translator working with different languages. For example, you can’t preserve a smooth glide, or portamento, between notes that is possible on a trombone as piano notes are segregated to different keys, so you have to make an interpretive decision, do you interpret these as rigid glissandos? What about playing a piano piece on a guitar? For argument's sake, let’s say on a piano you can simultaneously play 10 notes (1 to each finger), this isn’t possible on a guitar, most people can only fret 6 notes at a time if playing a bar chord, otherwise 5 notes and 1 open string. Therefore, someone transcribing a piece of piano music for guitar has to make sacrifices to the original score, and creative decisions such as what notes may have to be omitted from the score, and if certain notes need to be transposed to a different octave to preserve the feel of the original score.

This resembles language translation, specifically the matter of what linguist Eugene Nida referred to as 'formal' and 'dynamic' equivalence. Formal equivalence in simple terms is translating a piece of a text literally, every word and grammar construction translated to it's closest equivalent in the language. To use our earlier example, if we translated the English statement 'I ate soup' into Japanese this way, it wouldn't sound completely natural as in Japanese they use the verb that in English would translate as 'drink' to refer to soup.

Dynamic equivalence is a translation approach that preserves the mood and feeling of a piece of text during the translation, but without being restricted by the limits of literal translation. For example, if a Japanese novel is being translated to English for a western audience that mentions a food that is culturally significant in Japan, yet obscure and unheard of to the majority of readers in the West, the translator then can make a decision about whether to change this food reference to something that holds the same cultural significance in the west in order for it to be appreciated and understood in the same way.

A closer comparison to the kakekotoba found in Japanese prose however, would be how musicians treat a set of notes where the root note is omitted. Every major chord has a relative minor seventh, which shares the exact same set of notes, however the root note will be different between them, although the root notes of both chords will feature in higher octaves within both of the chords. Much like Japanese where if we remove the kanji the meaning can become obscured, in the case of major chords and their relative minor sevenths, if we remove the root note of both, we are left with the same set of top notes. Here however, a musician can take a decision of whether to add a root note and colour the chord to their preference, or preserve the ambiguity of what chord is being played.

Hiragana | Source

There is then the matter of mistranslation that can occur due to the use of homophones. To demonstrate this point, we’re going to use a language example from a popular Japanese film called Zatoichi (coincidentally my favourite Japanese film).

In Zatoichi, one of the characters makes reference to a tattoo of a snake. A more archaic word for snake in Japanese is kuchinawa; kuchi meaning mouth, and nawa meaning rope, so literally it translates to ‘a rope with a mouth’, sounds like a snake to me. However during this reference to the snake tattoo, the English subtitles read ‘rotten rope’. Confused, I consulted my then Sensei. This is an inaccurate translation caused by the fact that kuchinawa can indeed mean both snake, and rotten rope. Again, if we use kanji to demonstrate this, we can see how easy this mistake can be made:

口縄 - Snake (rope with a mouth)
朽縄 - Rotten rope (the kuchi here derives from the verb kuchiru - to go rotten)
くちなわ - Without kanji, we can see how a non-native speaker would not be aware of this homophone

Language as composition

Another parallel between music and language, is that within both we can observe composition, and improvisation, this is where we can really observe the similarities between learners of a language of an instrument, and the similarities between an accomplished player or a fluent speaker of a language.

Composition is nothing more than a decision making process. The decisions we make during this process however, have implications upon the reaction of our audience, or recipient. How will they interpret our composition? How will it affect them emotionally? Will it sound logical? These questions could be applied to both musical compositions, and literary compositions. The choice of chords (and indeed the variations and inversions of those chords) that a musical composer chooses to invoke an emotional response in a lister, and the choice of words a writer chooses to communicate meaning with the desired connotations to a reader, at their root are the same dilemna. They are both a question of associations with ideas and emotions, and are both issues that songwriters have to tackle simultaneously with implications upon each other.

Improvisation again presents a similar parallel. An accomplished musician, who can unconsciously utilise the frameworks of musical scales and modes to perform music that is not pre-written on the spot, is the same skill as a fluent speaker of a language making decisions about what kind of words, colloqualisms and delivery are appropriate for the situation at hand, whilst simultaneously speaking.

Listening Comprehension

There’s then the matter of auditory observation. A fluent speaker of a language can hear when someone’s accent, or even their own accent, is off. An experienced instrumentalist can hear when their instrument is out of tune, when someone’s playing technique is flawed, and when something just doesn’t sound right. A learner of a language, and a learner of an instrument are developing the same skill, just by different means. However, a learner of a pitched language such as Mandarin in turn is likely developing these skills in a way that is especially similar to a musician, as they are listening not only to phonetics and pronunciation, but also pitch.

Sheet music
Sheet music | Source

Reading and Writing

Lastly, we can observe similarities in reading. A musician traditionally learns how to read sheet music, learning the different between the different ways rhythm and pitch are notated. Effectively, what is being learned here is written grammar and punctuation. For example, a brace is a punctuation mark that tells us that two lines of music on the treble and bass clefs are being played simultaneously. However, sheet is not the only way music can be notated and read. A guitarist may choose to look for tablature of a song rather than sheet music, somebody who is arranging a song on a computer may look at the MIDI data in their music production software for reference rather than notating on sheet. As we can see, there are various writing systems with different formats that lend themselves for clear notation of different instruments and musical elements.

For a language learner, particularly someone learning a language that uses a different writing system, they have to learn the particular rules of that writing system in the same way that a musician has to learn to use one of the notation systems in music. Japanese and Korean for example, grammatically and etymologically, are very similar languages, however, their writing systems have some striking differences. In Japanese, a single character of a hiragana or katakana represents a syllable. Within one character, there can either be a single vowel, a vowel sound beginning with a plosive, aspirated or alveolar consonant, or in the case of one character, just a consonant. However in Hangul, a single character can contain anything from an opening placeholder or consonant with a single vowel sound, all the way up to an opening placeholder or consonant, with two medial vowel sounds and two consonants to finish. Therefore, when reading Korean, one can be reading up to 5 letters from the Korean alphabet simultaneously within a single character.

So what have we covered?

Hopefully this article has painted a picture of the similarities between the functionality and approach to music and language, how they share the same set of skills, and how it is likely that music is an extension, or a natural by-product of the evolution of language. There is a lot of information out there on the topic from experts in various fields such as psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience if you're interested to learn more!

© 2017 Stuart McDonald


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