Music: the language few people can write

Can you really know the language of music without knowing how to compose?

There seems to be a consensus that music is a language everybody understands. For instance, think about the screeching violins in that shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. That music cannot be communicating anything but fear and violence, right? 

Now, with many attached to the idea that music is a ‘universal language,’ there is a serious problem. Unlike students who study other languages, students studying music are not taught how to write music — or, in other terms, to compose.

Consider the usual education of any student in Canada. They will take English classes. They might also choose to take French language classes, Japanese classes, or a variety of other language courses. Either way, the curriculums will include teaching students how to read, speak, think critically, and how to write. 

Note that these writing courses are designed to teach students syntax rules and how to implement them so that they can express themselves through written words. It does not matter what kind of voice or tone is used. What is important is that most students can say what they want through writing. 

In counterpoint, a student who studies music will go through years of intensive theory studies, learning the grammar of music. They will more than likely also learn how to play an instrument, and how to interpret music, somewhat equivalent to learning how to speak and think. Yet, this is usually all music students know. Sure, they can look at a Bach chorale and analyze the harmonies. Yes, they can play a piece and decide how to do so. However, only a fraction of them can put their thoughts down on staff paper— also known as composing.

Now, why does composing matter? With so many compositions already, what is the point?

The unfortunate truth is anybody who can play music well on any instrument but cannot compose is equivalent to somebody who can read a text but cannot write. Many musicians take pride in this, in their ability to interpret the works of one or a few composers. 

No matter how well you play Bach or Chopin’s music, you will forever be like a computer through which is being fed Bach or Chopin’s code. In other words, you are like an actor reciting Shakespeare or Mollier’s lines. Those are not your words. Your interpretation is bound to the scripts unless you are brave and decide to put your ideas ahead of the composer’s intentions. Furthermore, consider that the arts are an aspect of culture. In Canada, if we want our culture to be truly diverse, why stick with the established repertoire almost completely by now-dead Europeans?

Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution for solving this problem. For example, music teachers could assign their students some small composition exercises, to compose something using what they learned. In theory, this is another way for teachers to access their students’ understanding and for students to exercise their creativity. However, if not careful, this approach could lead students to feel as if they are being forced to compose music that must reflect some principles of music rudiments, instead of feeling encouraged to play with ideas. 

Another solution could be to simply have students in schools experiment with creating sounds. This is akin to composing to a degree because composing music is in essence to determine what sounds should occur at what point within a time frame. But, teachers must put aside personal opinions of what is and is not music, which can be difficult.

In short, there is no perfect solution, unless perhaps we stop thinking of music as a language. Or at least not as a language in everyday use. This would get around the problem of having music become a language like that of the Ancient Egyptians or the Tangults, which is only known to a select few and is not used for communication anymore.

Yet, I propose a better solution: think of music in broader terms beyond language. For instance, consider a popular song you hear on the radio. Take away the lyrics, and you have three minutes of various sounds placed in particular places to fill out a predetermined structure. Is this also not something like a beautiful Ming vase, with pretty patterns and figures?

Is this a problem as severe as economic or political ones? Of course not. For goodness sake, usually, the arts lose funding right away in difficult times. Nonetheless, as it concerns the vibrancy of our culture and personal expression, I beg you to keep it in mind.

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