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Is Music a language?

Miles away

The other night I was listening to a version of Eleanor Rigby by the talented Uruguayan musician Leo Masliah. This particular version has got so many variations and modulations (changes of key) that at one point I realized that there was no way he could know the whole thing by heart. Of course, he writes it down and then reads it, in the same way I would read aloud a short story.

So, here we have a system of communication that can be written down and read up by anyone with the adequate training. Is, then, Music a language?

This depends crucially on the definition of “language” we use. For example the Wikipedia says that a language is “the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or a specific instance of such a system of complex communication”. Following this definition, Music qualifies very well as a language. It is certainly a complex system of communication, and also specifically human.

But as soon as we try to do things we usually do with languages, we run into problems. How could we translate, say Beethoven’s 7th Symphony into English? The suggestion itself is nonsense.

To me the reason that we cannot treat Music as any other language is that it is used to communicate feelings, not meanings. And also it does it immediately, without going first into an arbitrary association of a sign with its referent. This is also the reason why it is truly universal. A romantic melody remains romantic here, there and everywhere.

The morale of these considerations is clear: if you want to convey feelings, you probably should write a song. If you want to convey meaning in another language, you should talk to us for a free quote.