Music as Language

      We make sounds to speak and when used properly in a coherent and intelligible way we are using a form of language. Music, as an art form and in its own unique way, also uses sounds and organizing them in such a way that they actually make sense can be a form of Syntax – a set of principles and rules needed for the construction of a language. I suppose it would be wrong to look for the exact similarities between linguistic and musical syntax. However, music has a hierarchical structure, is multi-layered and also has its abstract facet.

     The idea that we can use music and sound symbolically and metaphorically, can be very powerful because it enables the association of non-musical meaning to music theory concepts and techniques and thus, expanding our perception of everything that surrounds us and its possible relationship with sound or music. In a way, what I am trying to say is that sounds are the words in music and musicians should be able to use sound to speak meaningful music. This could be loosely called Musical Semantics – the study of meaning in sounds (Phonology) and musical sentences (Syntax). Most music theorists propose at least four different aspects of musical meaning:

  • Meaning that emerges from a connection across different frames of reference suggested by common patterns or forms (i.e. sound patterns in terms of pitch, dynamics, tempo, timbre etc. that resemble features of objects like rushing water)
  • Meaning that arises from the suggestion of a particular mood (from chords, scales, rhythm, etc.)
  • Meaning that results from extra-musical associations (i.e. memories or references attached to events or places)
  • Meaning that can be attributed to the interplay of formal structures in creating patterns of tension and resolution

     My intention here is to draw musical analogies with linguistics (either from syntax, phonology or semantics), where specific musical motifs (see note*) would be like nouns; verbs, that reflect and action, could be associated to rhythm; or using figures of speech like an antithesis, where a brave or angry melody makes a contrast with a tender melody or the same but in contrasting sections of the musical structure; making usage of synonyms as if they were repetition of theme and its variations in order to reinforce a given musical idea. And speaking of it, repetition is what gives poetry its musical qualities.

     As superficial as all this may seem, its only purpose is to present to you these concepts that can be used as inspiration for your musical composition practices. If this makes sense to you, you will never look at a scale, chords, rhythm and arrangement the same way.


*a short musical idea, a recurring musical fragment or succession of notes that has some special importance, provides thematic identity, or is characteristic of a composition.

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