The Differences Between Music and Language

21 June, 2015
Music and Language have obvious similarities. Almost certainly they are related somehow. But we shouldn't convince ourselves that they are more similar than they really are. For example, it would be a mistake to assume that music necessarily has "meaning", or that it "communicates".

Music and Language: The Same as Each Other?

There are many ways in which music and language are similar to each other – enough to suggest that these two phenomena of the human mind and body are related.

However, once we have realised how similar music and language are, we can go too far and conclude that they are, somehow, exactly the same, and that for every aspect of language there is some precisely analogous aspect in music.

One important difference between language and music is about knowing what they are and what they are for. We know what language is and what language is for – it is for communicating. We know what would be missing if language didn't exist. With music, we don't really know what it is, and we don't know what it is for, or indeed, if it is for anything. The existence of music is an unsolved scientific mystery.

The question of how similar language and music are to each other cannot be separated from the unsolved mystery of music. If we gloss over the very real differences between these two things, we may miss vital clues in the effort to find out what music really is.

Wings and Legs

Wings and legs are very similar biologically. Even if we didn't have a fossil record showing relationships between animals with legs and animals and wings, the degree of similarity is enough to suggest a very strong relationship between them. As it happens, our knowledge of genetic similarities between birds and other animal groups, including amphibians, reptiles and mammals, combined with the fossil record, provide very strong evidence that the wings of birds evolved from the front legs of their four-legged ancestors.

But even with strong evidence of an evolutionary relationship, and with all the visible structural similarities between wings and legs, we would be very foolish to assert that wings are legs.

We could imagine that there exists a strange land where there are no live birds, and all people know of birds are their fossils. From seeing fossils of bird skeletons with four "legs" attached to the body, scientists in that strange land might conclude that birds were four-legged animals.

Of course we know that wings are for flying, whereas legs are for standing, walking and running. Apart from the very abstract observation that they both support bodily positioning and transportation, their functionalities are very different.

Language: Meaning and Communication

Every human language defines a set of possible utterances, and assigns a meaning to every utterance. Furthermore, every language builds utterances from individual words, and assigns specific meanings to individual words.

The function of human language is to communicate. The most basic manifestation of language is that one person speaks and another person listens.

Music seems to define a set of possible utterances, ie tunes. However these utterances do not have any obvious meaning, and they do not seem to communicate anything specific. Also, in as much as musical items are built up from smaller components, eg notes, chords and phrases, none of those smaller components have any specific meaning.

It is true that musicians perform, sometimes they sing, and other people listen to them. But this is performance, and not communication.

Separation of Composition and Performance

One thing that music and language have in common is that content can be specified in an encoded form, and then spoken or performed by someone other than the original creator.

Both musical items and language utterances can be written down on paper using a symbolic notation.

In both cases this is the result of the discrete nature of the components from which they are built, in the case of music, notes of fixed lengths with pitch values from a finite set of values defined by a scale, in the case of language, words constructed from sequences of phonemes which are members of a finite set of consonants and vowels.

However, the common ground shared by language and music also highlights their differences:

Music can actually contain language. That's what we call song lyrics. A song can have a meaning, in as much as the words have a meaning. But that meaning is entirely a function of the meaning of the words of the lyrics, as language, and is not specifically derived from the musical content.

And people do not normally communicate with each other by singing to each other.

Wings, Legs and Feet

When comparing wings with legs, we can consider the existence of feet.

Most legs have feet, and if we were inclined to believe that wings actually are legs, we would want to believe that wings too have feet. Even though wings don't actually have feet.

Given that feet are the things that exist on the ends of legs, we could perhaps look at the ends of wings, and deem whatever happens to be there (like feathers) to be "feet".

Of course feet are the portion of legs which come into contact with the ground when legs bear the weight of the animal. Given this functional understanding of what feet are, it doesn't make any sense to say that wings have feet, because wings don't touch the ground (except occasionally by accident), and they certainly don't bear the weight of the animal through contact with the ground. (Wings do bear the weight of the animal in the air, but how they do so is very different to how legs bear weight. Calling some part of the wings "feet" will not help us to understand how wings work.)

In this example, "feet" on "legs" are like the "meaning" attached to "language": if we think that music is the same as language, then we also want music to have "meaning". But it may be, even if music has evolved in some manner from language, that music doesn't have meaning, very similar to how wings don't have feet, even though they evolved from legs which do have feet.

How We Value Music and Language

Most of the value that we assign to music is a function of the content of the music. We also value music according to the quality of the performance.

We value language utterances according to the usefulness and reliability of the meaning that those utterances convey.

Both the composition and performance of music are very competitive. Most of the music that we listen to is composed by a limited number of very talented composers, and then sung or played by a limited number of very talented performers.

Most of the language that we listen to is both "composed" and "performed" by ordinary people that we happen to know, and is not the result of any competitive process.

Music bears repetition in a way that language usually doesn't. Many people will listen to one or more favourite songs over a given period. There isn't anyone who spends time listening to their current favourite sentences.

We often value music more if it's louder. Whereas speech just has to be loud enough that we can hear it clearly.

Free Generation of Content

As a child learns its first language, the child acquires the ability to freely generate his or her own utterances in that language.

With music, this is not so much the case.

The main consequence of hearing a hundred different tunes is that we might learn to perform some of those specific tunes. We don't easily learn how to make up new tunes.

If tunes were utterances in a single "language of music", then it should be easy for us to learn how to make new tunes. But it isn't easy.

This lack of free generation is tied in with the issue of musical 'quality' and the competitiveness of musical composition and performance. It is possible to compose music (otherwise none would exist), but it is quite hard to compose new music as good as the music that people are already familiar with.

And even if we ignore the difficulty of composing quality music, and just attempt to perform music that someone else has already composed, it is very difficult to perform to a standard that most listeners would regard as satisfactory.

Musical Items: Utterances in the "Language" of Music?

The concept of free generation can be used to provide an alternative definition for what a language is: a set of rules that are learnt from examples, and once learned, the listener can apply the rules to freely generate new valid utterances within the language. (This alternative definition ignores the communicative function of language and considers only the morphology and syntax.)

If we attempt to apply this alternative definition to music, then we must take into consideration that listening to musical items usually only results in the ability to "generate" copies of those same musical items. We are forced to conclude that each musical item is a separate language which defines a set of rules that only allows one valid utterance (or at the very most, a limited number of very similar valid utterances), where that one valid utterance is the same musical item.

With this interpretation of what constitutes one musical "language", the inability of music to "communicate" information in the same way as normal spoken language is not surprising. Because if a language only has one valid utterance, then you are very limited in how you can use that language to communicate anything.

And we can surmise that the feeling that we get when we hear new music that we like for the first time is very similar to the feeling that an infant has when when it starts hearing and learning to understand the structure and morphology of its primary language.

(This idea could be taken even further as a possible way to learn a new language more easily as adults: include some lessons in the learning schedule where the only thing you do is listen to examples of the spoken language, and as you listen, regardless of how much you understand what is being said, pretend that it is as exciting as hearing a new item of music that you like.)