This is another in the chain of posts dedicated to disposing of common misconceptions about the nature of music, and how it can interact with faith in God.
Music has (more often than not) grammar, syntax, spelling, micro-structure and macrostructure. The study of music is enhanced with all kinds of useful analogies to language, especially in terms of how we process input, and understand sonic gestures in the context of what follows. Does that make music a language, let alone “the universal language?”
To put it simply, if music is a language, then none of the words mean anything. For music to be a language, the meaning of the term must be stretched to include structures that make or have no external reference. Without externally assignable meanings to musical “statements” and “gestures”, it seems difficult to contend that music is a language at all (at least in any conventional sense), let alone a universal one.
Those who are persuaded of music’s supposed universality may appeal to culturally conditioned musical gestures that seem to convey meaning between a particular composer and a particular audience. Of course, the same may be said of smiles, frowns, yells, laughs and cries. We do not ascribe to them the status of language, however.
In a language, meaning is conveyed by a combination of definition and grammar/syntax/structure. Words mean something in the absence of grammar/syntax/structure (or at least there will be several possible meanings — i.e., the word “fish” in English will never mean “shoe”, regardless of syntax/grammar/structure). Possible definitions in a particular instance are constrained by context, i.e., syntax/grammar/structure, but the possible definitions pre-exist the context.
Music lacks any pre-existing definitions to correlate musical gestures or fragments with external meanings. To repeat: if music is a language, then none of the words mean anything. Whatever “meaning” it has is almost exclusively internal.
What are the implications of this for music and faith integration?
Essentially, music will do a very poor job of conveying any kind of concept. That doesn’t mean the listener can’t find analogies between various concepts and music, but music does not convey them in the manner of a language. To the degree that anyone believes that music conveys in language any particular truth about faith in God, disappointment seems certain.
The next post will discuss communication and music, which is related to all of this, of course.