The Language of Music

The Language of Music

The Language of Music

The Language of Music


First published in 1959, this original study argues that the main characteristic of music is that it expresses and evokes emotion, and that all composers whose music has a tonal basis have used the same, or closely similar, melodic phrases, harmonies, and rhythms to affect the listener in the same ways. He supports this view with hundreds of musical examples, ranging from plainsong to Stravinsky, and contends that music is a language in the specific sense that we can identify idioms and draw up a list of meanings. The book's final section analyzes two symphonies, Mozart's Fortieth and Vaughan Williams's Sixth, to explore the nature of musical inspiration and the process whereby the notes actually convey emotion from composer to listener.


The impulse to produce this book arose out of the following considerations.

When we try to assess the achievement of a great literary artist, one of the chief ways in which we approach his work is to examine it as a report on human experience. We feel that, in his art, he has said something significant in relation to life as it is lived; and that what he has said--whether we call this a 4 criticism of life' or a Weltanschauung or something else--is as important as the purely formal aspect of his writing. Or rather, these two main aspects of his art--'content' and 'form'--are realized to be ultimately inseparable: what he has said is inextricably bound up with how he has said it; and how he has said it clearly cannot be considered separately from what he has said.

The same is unfortunately not felt to be true of the artist who makes his contribution to human culture, not in the language of speech, but in that of music. Music is widely regarded nowadays, not as a language at all, but as a 'pure', inexpressive art, like architecture; and even those who do feel it to be some kind of language regard it as an imprecise one, incapable of conveying anything so tangible as an experience of life or an attitude towards it. Thus Albert Roussel spoke of 'the musician . . . alone in the world with his more or less unintelligible language'. And Aaron Copland has expressed a similar opinion, in a slightly less radical way: 'Is there a meaning to music?--My answer to that would be "Yes". Canyou state in so many words what the meaning is?-- My answer to that would be "No". Therein lies the difficulty'.

Hence, at the present time, attempts to elucidate the 'content' of music are felt to be misguided, to say the least; the writer on musical matters is expected to ignore or only hint at what the composer had to say, and to concentrate entirely on how he said it. Or, to put it in the contemporary way, he is expected to . . .

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