Thursday, January 19, 2006

Music as language

I'm in my senior year of my Bachelor's degree, and my elective courses in both semesters have been French and Linguistics. My schedule has created a neat compartmentalization of domains: Monday, Wednesday and Friday are my language days (excepting my piano lessons on Wednesdays), and Tuesday and Thursday contained music courses. Linguistics, especially, has edified the clich¿ of music being a universal language.

Chomsky is credited with establishing the idea of Universal Grammar (UG), the notion that language is something innate in humanity, as every human has the capacity to learn at least one language. There are certain aspects of language that are now determined to be "acquired," as opposed to "learned." Children "learn" through what they hear spoken around them, not through correction or instruction - yet this input alone is not enough to account for the sentences, and indeed, systematic errors that they utter in development. Similarly, music has its own lexicon and its own syntax, some of which can be taught and some of which can only be gleaned through osmosis. It could be argued that the ability to conceive and perceive music is another distinctly human trait (and no, I'm not counting the damned "Jingle Bell" dogs as an exception to this). There is music in bird calls and other natural phenomena, but animals do not perceive this musicality in the same way we do. If anyone knows of studies that prove me wrong, let me know.

The past week or so has contained a startling unity between my musical philosophies and experiences and my academic readings. Lately, I've started reading many blogs on music of various types including those by Kyle Gann, Darcy James Argue, and Dave Douglas, which contain many phenomenal essays on the intersections of various music. My Linguistics reading in the past week includes an essay on multilingualism by Suzanne Romaine.

Romaine opens her paper by stating that multilingualism is not the anomaly many Western English-speakers presume it to be; rather, it is the way of life for the majority of the world's population. It is monolingualism that is the aberration. And, indeed, every language speaker (multilingual or not) switches among languages, dialects or styles, depending on context. Within multilingualism, there is still a lingering notion in studies involving children that languages are segregated by parent, though there are studies in which research refutes this practice. There is even a whole field of study called "contact linguistics" which investigates the process and outcome of the contact of two or more languages.

The correlation between domains became quite evident to me. Despite the prescriptive sects of purists across the board, many musicians are fluent (to varying degrees) of many styles of music, and it would almost be delusional to think that these genres would have no influence upon each other. It is limiting to the musician, the audience, and music as a whole to prohibit the cross-talk of languages and styles.

So far as jazz goes, we are well into the generations of musicians who were not raised on that music initially. Classical, rock and/or hip-hop are just as prevalent in each musician's personal upbringing at this point (if they don't, in fact, eclipse jazz in early importance). It is downright foolish to promote a monolinguistic view of jazz; jazz with tunnel vision; jazz in a protective bubble, removed from the outside world. Let's not forget that all the great jazz musicians were polyglots: Miles' entire career is a prime example; Bird was known to have checked out Stravinsky (who wrote the "Ebony Concerto" for Woody Herman's big band); Billy Strayhorn knew the music of Debussy and Ravel as well as the Tin Pan Alley tradition; Vladimir Horowitz once said he'd have loved to play piano like Art Tatum; and the list goes on. Never mind that our revered Great American Songbook is comprised of music that once were popular tunes, heard on the radio and on jukeboxes. And why is it that we're no longer allowed to amend that book and add chapters?

Additionally, what of subgenres (or dialects, if you will?) In my estimation, the greatest free improvisers have reached their level of proficiency and musicality due to their understanding of the syntax and structure of composed music. Conversely, when musicians with a history of free improvising address standard or composed repertoire, there is this freedom within composition that is entirely due to their adventures in spontaneous creation.

As Pat Metheny said this past summer, for music to be relevant, it must reflect the context of which it is a product. This is a key reason why Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and all the masters still sound "fresh" today. They were connected to their community and, above all, themselves. If we are to truly carry the torch of any music, that is the golden rule.

In my brief musical lifetime, I have played jazz, rock, hip-hop, funk, gospel and musical theatre (and hacked my way through classical); I have played compositions, composed myself, arranged and re-arranged other peoples' work, and I have improvised freely. I am indebted to artists that cross the globe and the musical spectrum. I speak some languages more fluently than others, but like a person's linguistic proficiency and even language itself, that is open to change.


Clo said...

Lovely post, I like the analogy between multilingualism and music a lot. I would be interested in reading the essay on multilingualism by Suzanne Romaine, is it widely available?
I look forward to more posts!

Ryshpan said...

Thanks for the kind words. I should make it very clear that I am not a linguistics scholar by any means! :)

I'm honestly not sure about the availability of the paper. It's in the coursepack I have for this class (Linguistic Aspects of Bilingualism), which are various essays from various sources. It can be found in M. Aronoff & J. Rees-Miller, The Handbook of Linguistics, Blackwell 2001 (pp. 512-532). I would think that any university that offers a linguistics program would be able to track that book down.

birdwire said...

Hey, I really like your blog and this post particularly. I'm not familiar with some of the people you mentioned, I'll have to check them out. Have you read Joachim Ernst Berendt? He's written some books about jazz, but my favorite book by him, Nada Brahma, touches on a lot of the stuff you mention in this post. One of the best chapters compares and contrasts Hindusthani music and jazz.

Ryshpan said...

Thanks, Birdwire. I haven't heard of Berendt but I'll keep an eye out for his books. I'm really getting into artists like Vijay Iyer and Ronan Guilfoyle who apply Carnatic concepts to jazz, so having the Hindustani perspective as well would be quite intriguing.