Words mean things, but music doesn’t use words.


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.

9 thoughts on “Words mean things, but music doesn’t use words.

  1. A “Looser” Definition of Language
    Dr. Shack, I can see you point, and while I agree that our society sees in music many of the same mystical powers that they see in any other entity in a position to “speak to them,” I think it must be noted a less maticulous definition of language.
    Of course, you are notorious for quantifiying the qualitative, so I not at all surprised. Indeed, numbers, definitions, etymologies, laws, postulates, and the like are a necessary part of our culture, and a great asset to any. It is also a great skill in making decisions and maximizing situations. But in a way (at the risk of being too mystical), the fish in the sea, and birds in the air, primitive cultures of humanity, have thier medium of communication with no grammatical pretexts. Some (not all) would never limit the Holy Spirit’s (and I am bold enough to say that He is God) communication to humanity in terms of verbs and nouns. Nor would it be described as mere emotion either.
    From what I have read and heard about the many “life-after-death” experiences, the music in heaven trancends any grammatically based language, but communicates still the highest praise. I don’t know if you take any of those as authoritative at all, but, there ya go.

    So, with all that said, I agree that most of the time that concepts cannot be communicated from the musician to the listener like a conversation. But, do you believe that God can use the music as a tool to communicate to a soul? Of course it is not a question of whether or not God Can, but for now I refuse to believe that all music simply empowers a certain deep introspection.

  2. As I said in last line of the “language and music” post, the next post is about music and communication, which is possible, in limited ways… maybe… depending on your definition of “communication”. Re: your question, “do you believe that God can use the music as a tool to communicate to a soul?”, there is little doubt that God can use nearly anything to communicate to a person, certainly including music. That may have more to do with the power of God than with the power of music, though….

    Check out the next post on communication and music, and we’ll have some interesting conversations…. which may or may not include actual communication. We’ll see. 🙂

  3. In your post, you said:

    “Music has (more often than not) grammar, syntax, spelling, micro-structure and macrostructure.”

    Do you have to use this kind of hyper academic language?

  4. It would seem that Dr. Shack is trying to help students concieve of music in a new way, perhaps more free from cultural misconceptions. He could be speaking as if to a 5th grader, but then again, wouldn’t that support his point regarding the apathy among many music students in exploring the true nature of the fullness of thier vocation?

    The topic of God in music deserves all the mind power we can give it, and if a change is to take place, I propose that it be for someone to expand thier vocabulary, and not for Dr. Shack to be forced to be be less specific. That is the kind of raising the academic bar that this University needs.

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