Music as a Language
A natural part of many conversations that I have with clients, especially those with young children, is
whether or not I know any good teachers. I prefer not to answer his question directly since it seems to
put my stamp of approval on someone when I don’t really know anything of their teaching techniques,
only whether they teach or not. I prefer to answer the question indirectly and approach it from the
angle of things that I would suggest one look for in a teacher.
Having taken lessons for many years and thinking often about some ways in which I wish that I were
taught, I have adopted the notion of looking at music, or the study thereof, as a language. I firmly
believe in my heart that we would have much better musicians today if we were able to teach beyond
the printed page as the only means of learning. Printed music is important in that it communicates
(language) a lesson or a musical thought or idea from someone else to you. This is important just as in
any other language book. We want and need to read/hear the ideas of others since it helps us to form
our own thoughts in many different ways.
There are many corollaries in music that directly compare to any other language study. In fact, I would
go as far as to say that there are corollaries between everything in music compared to any other
language. I would illustrate by reminding the reader that before grade schools we learned to speak in
our native language with all the various complexities necessary to get our ideas across. When we
entered school, I clearly remember big ruled paper used to teach us how to form the letters. In music we
have manuscript paper to teach us where to place notes. Back to language – we put the letters together
to make words. In music we put notes together to make chords. Words make sentences; chords do the
same in music. This can and does progress on up to the expression of more complicated thoughts and
ideas in both languages (music and the one that we speak on a daily basis).
Continuing the thought process about the study of any language (it should be obvious by now that I
include music here) virtually anything that we have done in language classes has a direct comparison.
We would stand up and read aloud to the class – that’s sight reading in music. Jumping forward, we
would diagram sentences. The same effort for greater understanding is available in music! Another thing
I would like to impress upon the reader is that in language class we wrote, and wrote, and wrote! We
thought that we might finally be done only to find that we had to write some more! The study of the
language we call music should be no different. We wrote not only to prove a command of the language
but also to learn to accurately convey our thoughts and ideas to another. If I were to write a short story
and you could not read what I had written, one or the other of us is not communicating effectively! This
is also true in music! The exercise of writing therefore teaches us how the language is structured.
Naturally, writing is not the only discipline in the study of language. We have, throughout our scholastic
careers, been required to do a great deal of reading. This should be no different in the study of music. It
seems to me that not every piece we encounter needs to be practiced to perfection but can simply be
used as an introduction to a particular style. I am reminded of the many times that I have heard
someone play a particular melody in the style of Beethoven or in the style of a country western or in the
style of a jazz trio. Do we know what makes each of those style distinct and different from each other?
Shouldn’t we? It is only by introduction to a wide variety of musical styles that we can find out what we
like and appreciate the efforts of others in their own styles.
In summation, I would prefer that any study of music, regardless of the instrument in question,
encompass a much wider scope of learning than that of “dots on a page”. With regard to the original
question at hand, that of selecting a teacher, I suggest finding someone who will teach in a way that
takes the blinders off and is willing to look at all of these aspects during the study of their instrument.