"Music," wrote nineteenth century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "is the universal language of mankind." This is a striking statement—and I fear the claims of poets are always best served cum grano salis to allow for gentle seasoning and healthy skepticism. Music is not language. Nor is music universal. It may be made by people everywhere, but the styles, contexts, interpretations and meanings can vary tremendously between cultures. Throughout this diversity, however, music remains an intensely communicative medium. It stirs our emotions, colors our stories, and even defines our identities. It isn't language, but still, it does speak to us in its way. How does music communicate? Why is music different from language? By examining one against the other, we might learn a little about each.
It's easy to demonstrate what separates the language and music. To start, music is not language, because children don't grow up learning music to tell their parents "I'm hungry" or to ask "Are we their yet?" Music is not language, because although one could write a score for The Tempest, no musical arrangement alone could reveal the story. A composer might write a piece inspired by Shakespeare's words, but no listener would ever hear it and think, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep." Fundamentally, music is not language because it lacks language's precise symbolism: its words. In English, for instance, if someone wants to talk about a dog, he can simply say the word "dog," and be done with it—even though there is no real connection between word and beast but for the symbolic association people have created. It's true in any language: dog, canis, chien, perro, hund, собака, كلب, कुत्ता, 狗, 犬; ten different languages, ten different words, none of them anything like the animal we call a dog, but all of them carrying exactly that meaning. There is no word, however—no note, chord, rhythm, or melody—that means dog in music. Music is not a language.
Music relies on different mechanisms to carry meaning. Instead of communicating by abstract symbolism, music evokes meaning through emotion and resemblance. The latter of these, meaning through resemblance, might also be called meaning by mimicry. So it is that although there is no specific musical symbol to denote "dog," a skillful composer could still use music to imitate a dog's barking, growling, scratching, and howling, and thereby convey meaning by reminding listeners of the things they associate with the animal. Antonio Vivaldi famously employed this method in The Four Seasons, imitating birdsongs, raindrops, and thunderstorms to indicate different times of year. Of course, meaning by mimicry is more complex than simply imitating the sounds a thing makes. Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, as an example, reminds listeners by its sparse instrumentation that it was recorded in the isolation of a northern Wisconsin cabin during winter. Inventive composers can communicate myriad ideas by trying to find a way to employ pitch, rhythm, and instrumentation to evoke our thoughts on a particular subject.
Even more communicative than the meaning through resemblance is the emotionality in music. People constantly find emotion in the music they hear, naming tunes as happy, sad, triumphant, frightening, angry, solemn, exciting, or a whole host of other feelings. Central here are the musical elements of consonance and dissonance, and their relative prevalence in major and minor keys. Consonant harmonies are made up of notes that seem to fit together pleasantly, while dissonant chords consist of pitches that beat against each other in a way that is perceived to clash. Music played in a minor key is more likely to contain dissonance, and the discomforting sound of clashing notes leads such music to feel dark and depressing. On the other hand, music in a major key, which is generally more consonant, is perceived as brighter and more joyful. Emotion in music can also be influenced by the way sounds are organized rhythmically, or even simply by variations in tempo. Volume also plays a role.
Related to the question of what triggers emotion in music is the question of why certain musical techniques bring about certain emotions in the first place. Is it an innate response, are emotional reactions to certain kinds of music already programmed into the brain at birth? Or do we learn to connect certain music with a certain emotion by the cultural associations we experience growing up? These questions can only be solved by empirical research, and while a few studies have been done, much remains to be learned. It seems likely that music's emotionality springs from a combination of innate and learned abilities, but I would tentatively argue that what we learn is most important. Looking through history, any student of music theory will recall that concepts as fundamental as consonance and dissonance have changed dramatically over time, so much so that the perfect fourth was thought a perfect consonance in one period, but could be considered dissonant in another. This can only mean that these are learned labels. Likewise, the diversity in musical styles across the globe suggests that people in different cultures learn to interpret emotion in music in a variety of unique ways.
In any case, its clear that music has a unique way of triggering emotion, and when this emotionality is present alongside communication by resemblance, music proves itself extraordinarily expressive. Still, the meanings expressed in music always remain somewhat ambiguous, and no two people ever interpret an arrangement to mean quite the same thing. The exception, of course, is when music is accompanied by words that tell people what to think. The combination of language and music is often far more communicative than either one on its own, and so people print program notes for concerts, put soundtracks with films, sing the lyrics to pop songs, and perform that supreme combination of words and music, the opera. The result is always something intensely meaningful, and often quite memorable too.
Meaning in music doesn't stop with what just one song is trying to say. In a broader sense, musical styles and genres can themselves convey meaning, usually in providing a sense of group identity. Our language always helps to define us, but with music, we can seek to define ourselves. Herein lies the sophistication of classical music and smart jazz, the youthful rebelliousness of rock and roll, the race and gender of rap, the working class spirit of country. These are identities celebrated by musicians and listeners alike, groups of people who put themselves into their music, and let themselves be shaped by it in turn. There are few groups—whether sorted by class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, or anything—without an accompanying style of music. Likewise, there are few musical styles that don't conjure the identity of one group or another.
The strongest sort of musical identity is probably regionalism. Artists occasionally try to evoke this regionalism through resemblance—the Canadian folk-rock group Great Lake Swimmers, for instance, seem able to make their songs bob up and down in the frothy cold waves of the northern lakes. Most often, though, this regionalism is simply a connection learned by association, linking music to the place it came from. Everybody knows that bluegrass is the sound of Appalachia, that motown is from Detroit, that jazz sprung out of New Orleans. We know where to place the jigs of Ireland, the chansons of France, the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia, and the guzheng and ehru of China. The way music varies by region is very akin to language, with minor local deviations that are no more a barrier to comprehension than regional accents, and divides between continents that can produce vast gaps of musical understanding from one people to another. Like language, music certainly communicates a sense of place.
There can be no doubt now of music's communicative abilities. From its symbolic association with place and identity to its emotionality and the ability to mimic animals and thunderstorms, meaning can be embedded into music's every twist. Music is not language—Longfellow's statement is wrong, if taken literally. Still, similarities between language and music abound, so the poetic comparison Longfellow made remains an incredible valuable perspective. Not every musical piece, of course, is meant to be communicative. Some songs are simply written to be catchy, and many composers write music that strives towards what they may see as a higher goal: artistic originality, complexity, and inventiveness. Often with language, it's the opposite: we say what we mean without once thinking how to do it creatively. I'm thinking now about a world where we try to make our songs as meaningful as our words, and our words as artful as our music. How harmonious might life be then?
I know that many of my readers are far more musical than I, and so I look forward eagerly to the thoughts you bring below.