Whether you’re learning Spanish or learning piano, you’ll find that both are complex languages with lots of history and unique jargon. In this guest post, Mike Lowden from Falls Music School bridges the gap between music and language by explaining just how similar they really are…
As a music teacher, I spend a good amount of time explaining to my students how learning music should be approached in a similar style to learning a language. Most professional musicians and music teachers consistently refer to “the language of music,” as this is a parallel that’s accepted worldwide.
Musicians Learn to “Talk” Music Like How Toddlers Learn to Speak
How do infants learn to speak their first words? They listen to what’s around them and do their best to copy it. As they grow older, they learn how to speak full sentences just as they’re taught. As they grow older still, they’re influenced on how to speak by friends and other social groups (e.g. a group of teenagers repetitively using the same slang) and use all of these different resources to eventually sound like “themselves.” People don’t put very much thought into it.
Listen to anyone talk; even though there might be individual nuances, language is actually a culmination of sayings from one’s parent(s), friends, teachers, and other social influences. People learn to talk by blending their social experiences together. Why do you think accents exist in certain regions and someone who moves there might eventually develop an accent? It all depends on what’s around you; we humans like to absorb what we hear.
Defining Your Musical Influences
This is exactly the same process that musicians go through; we listen to players we like and end up emulating their style. If you’re really into B.B. King, you’re going to do your best to play just like him. But maybe later you get into another player, so you learn how they “talk.” Eventually, everything you’ve learned from the music you’ve played goes into your tool belt of “self-expression.” There are many artists out there who are known for their own unique style, but all of them had influences that shaped who they became.
Put it into practice: Find a musician you really enjoy and see if you can trace back their musical history, almost like a family tree. If you have trouble tracing the history yourself, you can usually find interviews where they discuss their musical influences. Take note of some of their signature licks or musical tricks and see if they can be traced back. It’s fun just to see how far back you can trace! This can be an extremely enlightening exercise. Bonus points if you do this with your own playing.
Building Your Vocabulary
Having an extended vocabulary is extremely important when you’re trying to express ideas through both your native language and the language of music. “Bad” and “egregious” both essentially mean the same thing, but those two words have different connotations; choosing one over the other can be vital to expressing a story or idea.
Building vocabulary in music is just as important. Not only does it help culminate your overall style, as stated above, but it also can be the difference between a good solo and a great solo. Having a limited vocabulary means you can only say so much in a particular way. The last thing an artist wants is to be limited.
While one lick might fit and work well in a part of a song, there might be another that’s able to display an emotion even more perfect. Composers and improvisers agonize over these nuances just as much as poets and novelists agonize over their word choices. A musician decides on music ideas just as a poet might decide to say “glorious” rather than “cool.”
Put it into practice: Listen to the same song done by two different artists. Choosing some unexpected covers to compare is a fun idea. See what differences of “vocabulary” they each end up choosing. Often, an artist may choose to express an idea that’s exactly the same — basically reciting what the artist before them did. If you pay close attention, many artists will choose subtle differences in licks or chord voicings to show how they think the song should be played. Learn both versions and compare!
Speaking With the Right Nuances
Another thing musicians spend a fair amount of time on is contemplating the “interpretations” of composers. This means that it’s not only important to play the notes correctly, but to express them in a very specific way. Think about it — the way we say things in our spoken language can sometimes be even more important than the words we’re actually saying.
If you were speaking to your child and asked him or her to make their bed very nicely, that might get the job done. If the child still didn’t make the bed, however, you could repeat those same exact words but say them in a much sterner manner. It’s likely that this change in tone will elicit a different response.
Similarly, musicians focus on a lot of nuances with their music — how to attack each note, how loud or soft to play (dynamics), how to phrase musical ideas, and so on. The list of nuances is almost endless!
Understanding the Details
This same idea can cross over to styles of music. I had a jazz professor who would consistently tell students who had trouble swinging, “You’re saying the right thing, but you’re speaking French with a Russian accent — it ain’t right!” This meant that even though somebody was playing the right notes for it to be considered jazz, the nuances didn’t quite fit with the style, and, therefore, sounded funny.
This is exactly why someone who speaks the native tongue of a country can always tell if someone else hasn’t learned it as their first language. Sure, the words are right, but it sounds forced and foreign. It takes a lot of learning and practice to sound natural. A lot of people don’t realize that these subtleties are what make a piece of music so powerful.
Put it into practice: Start actively listening to ways people approach certain musical phrases and try to identify what makes one style different than another. If you’re a musician, try this with your own playing. What are other ways you can interpret the same phrase? Do you have trouble playing a particular style of music even though you can technically play the notes correctly? Look at what nuances you might have to add!
These concepts are only the tip of the iceberg! All of the world’s best musicians are great because they have become so fluent in the language of music. If you’re learning music, use these approaches to improve your skills. If you’re a seasoned pro, you can always improve your musical fluency. Happy practicing!
Mike Lowden has been playing the guitar for as long as he can remember, and enjoys playing every type of music that he can get his hands on. Mike has education from the Berklee College of Music, and studied Jazz at the University of Akron. Now the guitar instructor and co-owner of Falls Music School, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, his mission is not only to teach music students at the school, but also through online content.
Photo by Nic McPhee