How Music is (and isn’t) like a Language

“How music is (and isn’t) like a language.” Presenting by Zoom to 28 members of the Y’s Men of Meriden on Jan. 18, Chris White, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Massachusetts Amherst spoke on this intriguing subject, complete with projected graphs and diagrams.

White first reviewed some basics of our English language, describing the elements of syntax (the order and relationship of words and rules for the formation of grammatical sentences) and semantics (how words point to ideas). So, does music have syntax and semantics?

As to syntax, the answer is yes. Musical chords predominantly point to other specific chords (just as certain nouns go to certain verbs). These are “noun-like” chords that naturally go to other chords. Demonstrating on piano, White showed how that relationship can change when contrasting classical vs. pop music.  As to semantics, the answer is again yes (but is not necessary.) Certain musical sounds or tones make one think of a particular meaning (e.g., a steady drumbeat bringing up images of a parade.)

Noting that music is not a universal language and is culturally defined, White used the example of “God Bless America” as a musical selection with a very predictable syntax; when hearing it, we might say “Hey, we all know this.” Indeed, it is commonly played at sporting events and political rallies.

The speaker then used Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera “Tristan and Isolde” to demonstrate these musical relationships. In the plot, Isolde (the king’s wife) and Tristan (the king’s most trusted knight) are hopelessly in love. Whenever Tristan comes on stage, the same musical chord is heard, not resolving until the very end of the three-hour opera after Tristan has died.

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