Language and Music

My girlfriend is Jewish and I am not. Being in a multi-cultural relationship is an amazing thing, I get to experience another culture in a way that few can. Plus it is a culture which is familiar to someone raised as a Christian and involves eating large amounts of very good food.

There are downsides though. About a month ago we celebrated Passover with my other half’s parents and much of it I didn’t understand at all. I have celebrated Passover before, but this time they had some family over slightly unexpectedly and so much of the conversation was in Hebrew.

It sometimes surprises people that I am not a ready linguist. People assume that being able to go from never-picked-it-up-before to mediocre on a new instrument in under a week should be transferrable to languages. It isn’t. I would love to say that I sat there for a while in total incomprehension and suddenly something clicked and I could understand every word. But that didn’t happen.

However, I had been making an effort and was able to solemnly greet all those present in Hebrew and explain that I was unable to speak their language, which was much appreciated. But when I was sitting there, I realised that there had been some sort of transformation.

When I first encountered Hebrew, it was just a mess of gobbledegook, just like any other foreign language. But now, when I listen to it, it is recognisably and undoubtedly a mess of gobbledegook in Hebrew. That sounds like a meaningless distinction, but it isn’t.

You can have something similar in music. When you first encounter a new genre, you often can’t distinguish between works. “Irish tunes are all the same” you will wail, as Irish musicians wail the same thing about English tunes. Classical musicians encountering Hip Hop are appalled at the lack of subtlety, Hip Hop musicians encountering Classical music are bored by the lack of life. All of them are wrong.

Like most things in life, you need to put energy in to get anything out. In order to enjoy English tunes, you need to take the time to get to know them. Every genre of music has merit (even serialism), but you won’t know that until you start to listen to them in earnest.

Music and Language are similar in many ways. They are both, in their most basic forms, a way of communication. Music is a way of sharing ideas, thoughts, emotions, snapshots in time. But you have to learn to listen to music before you can understand it, just as you need to learn a language before you can communicate.

Occasionally though, there are particular genres of music which leave you entranced right from the word go. I feel like that about Norwegian music. If you have the time to spend, listen to Askerladden, featuring the superb Ingunn Bjørgo. Her albums got me through my degree. They only need to be on for a few minutes before any anxiety or unhappiness is drained from me and I feel whole again.

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One thought on “Language and Music

  1. I think the differences between music and language are as interesting as the similarities, since one is so often used as a metaphor for the other. They don’t map perfectly. I feel as if you are giving music a bit too much credit when you say it can be used to communicate ideas. One of the strengths of (especially instrumental) music is that it allows you to communicate a feeling or affect without having to articulate it. You can illustrate an idea with music, but you can’t articulate it. Unlike every lamenting poet throughout history, with music you are not “chained to meaning.” This is a vital distinction that Neil Postman pointed out (after Marshall McLuhan) in his work, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

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