If Music Was Communication

27 August, 2019
Music appears not to be communication. But what if it was?

Is Music Communication?

Although music can feel like communication, it doesn't actually seem to communicate any specific information that we can identify.

How different would "communicative" music be?

What would it take to convert music, as we know it, into something that definitely is a form of human communication?

Basically there are three requirements:

  1. Music would contain some type of symbols.
  2. Meanings would be attached to those symbols.
  3. People would freely perform music to each other, in order to communicate.

So, I will consider each of these requirements in turn.


We can consider various options for which components of music might be the lowest-level units of meaning in a communicative form of music:

Individual notes, as they occur in music, have absolute pitch, and it is an empirical observation that musical quality does not depend on absolute pitch. So to consider notes at all, we have to identify them in terms of their relative pitch, relative to all the other notes in the music.

The next unit of music that could be considered is the phrase, ie a group of connected notes. Typically a melody consists of a sequence of similar phrases that form some kind of perceptible progression.

Or, we could consider the melody as the basic unit of meaning.

As it happens, in as much as music feels like it has any kind of meaning at all, this feeling only occurs in relation to whole melodies.

Also, strong melodies have strong identities, and it is melodies that are shared and taught, from one generation to the next.

If we are looking for the least change required to make music communicative, then in the case of a choice of symbols, melodies already have all the properties required to be the symbols to which meanings can be attached.


The meaning of any particular musical item is a very elusive and vague thing.

There are certain types of music which have certain types of emotional quality, such as sadness, or happiness, or energy and excitement.

But these qualities are rather vaguely defined.

For music to become communicative, the meanings attached to the melodic symbols either need to become more precise in how they specify emotional quality, or, perhaps, they need to be filled out with additional details about things other than emotions, such as some details of the situation that gives rise to the emotions being expressed as the meaning of any particular item of music.

If indeed musical meaning could be enhanced with additional details, this would be somewhat similar to how song lyrics enhance the meaning of music while remaining consistent with the emotional quality suggested by the music itself.

However I do not consider the option of song lyrics to be an answer to my original question of how music could be communicative, because song lyrics are words which are already a separate form of language, and that's not quite the same thing as considering whether music itself, and by itself, could be a form of communication.

There is also the observation that putting words to music prevents those words be treated by listeners as an actual form of communication. In other words, "I love you" in a song doesn't mean actually I love all the listeners, it just means "I'm performing a song where I say 'I love you'". Something about our response to music tells us specifically not to treat the music as communication, even if the music has words in it, and even if those words say something.

If we wanted music to be changed into a system of communication, this instinctive "music-is-not-communication" feeling would have to be suppressed.

Patterns of performance and communication

With spoken word-based language, the most common form of communication is:

The next most common form of communication is:

The least common form of communication is:

With music, the patterns of performance and listening are different.

In modern Western society, the most common pattern of performance is:

The next most common form of performance, where someone else is actually listening, is:

Finally, the most common case with spoken language, where one individual communicates directly to one other individual, hardly ever happens with music, expect in the special case where a mother sings to a baby (or other individuals may sing to a baby).

If music is to be made communicative, the patterns of performance would have to match the patterns of spoken language. That is:

And secondly:

In both these cases, no special qualification or special training or above average skill of any kind should be required in order to perform.

These types of musical behaviour do not occur in any society that I have lived in, and I suspect that possibly they don't occur in any society. (However, not being well versed in musical anthropology, I can't be sure of that.)

Was Music Communication?

This then is my analysis of what we would have to do to change music into a form of communication.

But there is a hidden agenda to my analysis.

We can consider how we could change music to be a form of communication. But we can also consider the possibility that music was a form of communication, and then it changed to not be a form of communication.

If this is the case, then the various changes described above actually happened, but in reverse.


But, one thing hasn't changed, which is that strong melodies continue to have strong identities, which allow them to be shared across generations, and where those melodies are instantly recognisable to any listener who is previously familiar with them.