Music is a Language – Treat it like one

‘Music’ is not listed as a language in dictionaries. It should be, because it communicates. That’s what a language does.  The spoken language communicates concrete ideas; ‘Laurie stole Don’s heart’.  In this sentence, we know who did what and to whom. Concrete.  In the language of music ideas are abstract, not easily put into concrete terms. Music themes may represent concrete ideas, but not the things themselves.  Certain themes may represent certain characters in an opera as in the leitmotif,[1]for example. Music for a love scene or a battle scene may depict the mood, but not the ‘who-what-and where’ kind of thing that the spoken language is able to do.  Nevertheless, music communicates, and often very strongly.

Music theory treats music as a complex series of academic concepts[2]that by-and-large has little to do with music. However, music as a language may have a direct comparison with the spoken language.  Parts of speech may be compared to parts of chords.  The dominant (x) contains the active leading-tone, so may be referred to as the ‘verb’ in music.  Major or minor chords may be the subject or object of a musical sentence.  In the spoken language, the basic syntax is subject-verb-object, or ‘s-v-o’.  In the language of music, it works out to be m-x-M, where the subject is super-tonic, II (m), the verb is dominant V (x), and the object is tonic I (M).

As an example, the following is from the Chopin Prelude Op 28 nr 17 in ‘A-flat’ major.


In the spoken language, the basic syntax is ‘subject-verb-object’ (s-v-o).  If the verb takes a direct object it is transitive.  The following line begins with a major chord, the subject.  It is followed by two dominant (x) verbs, and they are followed by a major chord that is the object of the sentence.  This may be likened to a phrase in the spoken language thusly; ‘Susan slept and dreamt of the water.  ‘Susan’ is the subject, ‘slept’ is the first verb and ‘dreamt’ is the second verb phrase. ‘water’ is the object.  There is a mood created in both the spoken word and the musical phrase. The spoken word is ‘concrete’, i.e. it spells out who did what and where. In the music language, it spells out only the mood of the phrase.  But it does communicate that mood, and the phrase moves to the object, the subdominant major chord (IV).  The verb in both the spoken and music language is transient when both have a direct object.

The following is from the Chopin nocturne Op 9 nr 2.  The second beat shows a dominant (x) on the super-tonic (II), a ‘verb’ that moves to its object, a ‘B-flat’ major triad. Following that is a ‘B’ dominant (x), a ‘verb’ followed by its object, an ‘E-major’ triad, and following that are two consecutive ‘verbs’ that have no object. They are intransient verbs.  The final dominant (V) in measure 12 is marks the half-cadence.  The following measure is a new ‘sentence’.


Measure 13 begins with a subject on an ‘E-flat’ major triad, followed by a dominant (verb) without a root (oxm9)[3]and moving to its object, another ‘E-flat’ major triad.

The relationship between the spoken word and the language of music needs further research.

I’ve only just begun.  I am no longer just a music theorist… I am a music linguist.

Ralph Carroll Hedges, B.Ed., B.Mus., M.M.

  1. [1 Leitmotif: a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation. (From the Dictionary on the web).

[2]Academic: not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest. …ibid

[3]The theory of the ‘missing root’ (sum and difference tone) may be found in Helmholtz, ‘On the Sensations of Tone’ pg 152 ff, and Ulehla, ‘Contemporary Harmony’ pg 114 ff, and Giuseppi Tartini, “Trattato di musica secondo la vera scienza dell’armonia'” (Padua, 1754), and on the web, (see ‘Tartini’s tone’ in Wikipedia), also see, ‘sum and difference tones’.

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