By David Whitwell Essay Nr. 30: On Music as a Language Music is a language without words. Martin Luther



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Essays on the Origins of Western Music
by
David Whitwell


Essay Nr. 30: On Music as a Language
Music is a language without words.

Martin Luther

Virtually all philologists today agree that before there was language, man communicated through musical sounds. What do they mean? Paleontologists, judging by changes which occurred in the shape of the human scull formation with respect for room for modern vocal cords, generally hold that language as we know it was not possible before 250,000 BC. Music, meaning the voice and instruments made from natural objects, is presumed to be much older. In any case, the overtone series, the single natural law of physics upon which all music is based, was present far before man himself. Whatever prior creature had ears to hear, heard sounds organized according to the overtone series.

The musical sounds early man made were, it seems reasonable to suppose, emotional utterances using the five basic vowel sounds – much like what a dog does. This was the very point made by one of the many writers who have speculated on the idea that musical communication came before language, Richard Wagner!

The primal organ of utterance of the inner man, however, is music, as the most spontaneous expression of the inner feeling stimulated from without. A mode of expression similar to that still proper to the beasts was alike first employed by man (and this we can demonstrate at any moment by removing from our language its dumb articulations [consonants] and leaving nothing but the open sounds of the vowels). In these vowels, if we think of them as stripped of their consonants, and picture to ourselves the manifold and vivid play of inner feelings, with all their range of joy and sorrow, we shall obtain an image of man’s first emotional language; a language in which the stirred and high-strung Feeling could certainly express itself through nothing but a combination of ringing tones, which altogether of itself must take the form of Melody. His melody, which was accompanied by appropriate bodily gestures in such a way as the gestures would also appear a simultaneous inner expression, and from these gestures we get rhythm.1
Voltaire, having much the same viewpoint, differed in that he proposed that it was the addition of gesture to these sounds which created the first step from these sounds toward the earliest language.

May we not, without offending anyone, suppose that the alphabet originated in cries and exclamations? Infants of themselves articulate one sound when an object catches their attention, another when they laugh, and a third when they are whipped, which they ought not to be....

From exclamations formed by vowels as natural to children as croaking is to frogs, the transition to a complete alphabet is not so great as may be thought. A mother must always have said to her child the equivalent of come, go, take, leave, hush!, etc. These words represent nothing; they describe nothing; but a gesture makes them intelligible.2
With the five basic vowel sounds, early man expressed a variety of emotions and emotional reactions to his world. These five basic vowel sounds not only continue today as part of every language on earth, but we as individuals also carry significant remnants of early man’s musical communication. When we become excited, the voice rises in pitch. This comes from early man. Every sentence we utter has melodic contour and it is this melodic contour which clarifies the meaning of the sentence. We create emphasis for a specific spoken word by raising the pitch. We call it accent and again it comes to us from the singing of early man, as suggested by Roger Bacon (born c. 1214),

For accent is a kind of singing; whence it is called accent from accino, accinis [I sing, thou singest], because every syllable has its own proper sound either raised, lowered, or composite, and all syllables of one word are adapted or sung to one syllable on which rests the principal sound. Thus length and shortness and all other things required in correct pronunciation are reduced to music....3
The communication of emphasis by raising the voice must be very ancient.

Another example of the influence music had on developing languages is the entire realm of meter and governance of time. In his treatise on mathematics, Roger Bacon maintains that the theologian must have training in music in order to understand the Scriptures.4 Aside from the numerous references to music itself in the Old Testament, Bacon points to the many kinds of meters found in the old Hebrew text. Here he notes that while the grammarian may teach the practical rules, only Music gives “the reasons and theories” for these meters. In the same manner, he points to the issue of pronunciation, as the Scripture is filled with “accents, longs, shorts, colons, commas, and period.”

All these belong causally to music, because of all these matters the musician states the reason, but the grammarian merely the fact.
Eventually a means of notating music was developed. A Church mathematician known as John (c. 1100 AD) argues for the need for this notation.

Music is one of the seven liberal arts -- and a natural one, as are the others. Thus we sometimes see jongleurs and actors who are absolutely illiterate composing pleasant-sounding songs. But just as grammar, dialectic, and the other arts would be considered vague and chaotic if they were not committed to writing and made clear by precepts, so it is with music.5
While he acknowledges the jongleurs managed to compose and perform quite well without theoretical knowledge, he argues that one cannot really be called a musician unless one can read notation and, by implication, understand the theory behind it. One can learn to read music, if one “devotes unremitting labor to it and perseveres without pausing or wearying.” A singer who cannot read music he compares to “a drunken man who does indeed get home but does not in the least know by what path he returns.”6 Finally, he concludes that the musician who performs without reading or understanding theory is “a beast by definition.”

We have only a dim idea of language before the age of writing (c. 3,000 BC), but it seems reasonable to us to suppose that the further back you go, the closer you get to early man’s musical-emotional utterances. But one wonders what were the intermediate steps on the way to modern language? Perhaps there was a step represented by the Rhapsodist. If only we could hear once again this artist who performed before the advent of the written form of the Greek language. Plato, in Ion, describes his as a kind of musician, performing epic poetry in something in between music and speech, and discusses the emotional impact he had on his listeners. Because of him for two millennia poetry would be sung and not recited. Perhaps a last remnant of this was the “canting” heard by the underworld of London in the 18th century. Thomas Dekker, in an essay of lowlife in London, describes canting as follows,

This word canting seems to be derived from the Latin verbe (canto) which signifies in English, to sing, or to make a sound with words, that is to say to speake. And very aptly may canting take his derivatio a cantando, from singing, because amongst these beggarly consorts that can play upon no better instruments, the language of canting is a kinde of musicke, and he that in such assemblies can cant best, is counted the best Musician.7
Perhaps some clues of intermediate steps might be found in the history of oratory.8 Numerous early treatises not only speak of relationships with music but emphasize the relationship of movement and emotion. The oratory treatises emphasize the importance of communicating emotion to the listener, something, ironically, early music treatises almost never do.

When written languages first appear they were essentially primitive pictures, that is the symbol for house looked like a house. This was not only natural, but effective for man’s experience corresponded with the written language. Eventually this form of writing became too complicated and so symbolic writing began. In this form of writing a relatively few number of symbols (as in the alphabet) can be combined to form unlimited words. The problem was that now man’s experience was no longer is connected to the written form. The letters, “C-A-T,” have nothing about them to resemble a cat. Thus learning a language now became a separate step, as was the experience of Plutarch (46 – 119 AD).

Upon which that which happened to me, may seem strange, though it be true; for it was not so much by the knowledge of words, that I came to understanding of things, as by my experience of things I was enabled to follow the meaning of words.9
Having a language which is by its very nature something separate from the experiential side of ourselves, the real us, causes problems in communication. Already in the 5th century BC, the philosopher Gorgias pointed out that we have language, and reason which must be built on language, which are incapable by nature of communicating anything precise relative the our senses.

For how could any one communicate by word of mouth that he has seen? And how could that which has been seen be indicated to a listener if he has not seen it? For just as the sight does not recognize sounds, so the hearing does not hear colors but sounds; and he who speaks, speaks, but does not speak a color or a thing. When, therefore, one has not a thing in the mind, how will he get it there from another person by word or any other token of the thing except by seeing it, if it is a color, or hearing it, if it is a noise? For he who speaks does not speak a noise at all, or a color, but a word; and so it is impossible to conceive a color, but only see it, nor a noise, but only to hear it.10
And if that is not bad enough, St. Basil (4th century) reminds us that language fails even to communicate very well our rational left hemisphere of the brain.

Even when I was writing to your Eloquence, I knew well that every theological expression is less than the thought in the mind of the speaker and less than the interpretation desired by him who seeks, because speech is in some way too weak to serve perfectly our thoughts.11
Exactly like early philosophers such as St. Basil, we today find ourselves observers of numerous situations in which two people seem to have difficulty communicating through their common language. Why is this? Conceptual information (left hemisphere of the brain) should be perfectly capable of communication through conceptual symbolic language, providing the speaker/writer is capable of using this symbolic language correctly, and the listener/reader has an equal background in the subject and understands the agreed conventional meaning of the symbolic language. But, as Voltaire points out, this “agreed conventional meaning” fails in common usage. Under “Abuse of Words,” in his Philosophical Dictionary, he goes to some lengths to demonstrate that language, and books, “rarely give us any precise ideas” and are often taken by the listener in an incorrect sense.12 In this regard, he mentions that he finds it curious that “the same word (Adoration) that is used in addressing the Supreme Being is also used in addressing a mistress.”

We not infrequently go from hearing a sermon, in which the preacher has talked of nothing but adoring God in spirit and in truth, to the opera, where nothing is to be heard but the charming object of my adoration, etc.13
The problem, as Voltaire indirectly suggests, is that the speaking/writing part of us, the left hemisphere, cannot express non-rational concepts very well, as anyone knows who has ever tried to write a love letter. This is why we have retained, since earliest man, a separate non-rational language, which we call Music. Among the other gifts we possess from early man is a certain amount of genetic, universal musical information and genetic universal forms of the basic emotions. Languages are very recent in the history of man and they exist in the left hemisphere of the brain as dictionaries and agreed upon usages. But these languages carry no feeling.14 When we speak, feeling is added by the emotional content in the right hemisphere. In other words, feelings are natural. Language is artificial. Voltaire goes further and suggests that feelings are more important even than scientific facts.

What will I gain from knowing the path of light and the gravitation of Saturn? These are sterile truths. One feeling is a thousand times more important.15

The inability of language to convey feeling is why music is so necessary as a special language of feeling. During the long centuries when the Church controlled what could be published in books, little can be found on this subject since the Church had taken a position of trying to eliminate emotion from the life of the Christian. But with the dawn of the Renaissance, so characterized by the return of the importance of feelings, one finds frequent references to the failure of language in describing feeling, together with observations on the importance of music to take over that function. Guillaume de Machaut (1300 – 1377), for example, describes good speech as “moderate, well-chosen, and appropriate, based wholly on Reason....”16 But, what happens to Reason-dominated speech when Love is present? It can, Machaut observes, force one,

to cut short his words and interrupt them with sighs, drawn from the depths of his being, that render him mute and silent, and he has no choice but to remain speechless....
His great countryman of the following generation, Froissart (1333 -1405) made a similar complaint,

Pleasure sets him on fire so forcefully

And true love has such power over him

That, when he wishes to express his feelings,

He cannot move his mouth or bring forth words.17
But what Machaut could not express in words, he found he could express through music.

So I decided that I would compose, according to my feelings towards you and in praise of you, a lai, a complainte, or original song; for I did not dare or know how to tell you otherwise how I felt, and it seemed to be better to tell in my new song what was oppressing and wringing my heart than to try by some other method.18
Furthermore, Machaut points out that it is in the music, not the words of the song, that his beloved will discover Truth.19

And if it please you, my dear lady, to consider the last little song I sang, of which I composed both words and music, you can easily tell whether I’m lying or speaking the truth.20
In Italy, in Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375), we find the identical thought, “listen to the music, not the words” if you want to know the truth!

Love, heed not what my voice sings, but rather how much my heart, your subject, is filled with desire.21
These kinds of observations continued as the Renaissance progressed. Erasmus, in a poem of 1504, cries, “My tongue is not adequate to my feelings,”22 and in an unusually obsequious paper praising archduke Philip, he pretends that it is the strong feelings of joy which prevent him from communicating his thoughts.

Something strange has just happened: now I have reached the point where not even the most carefully chosen words could have been sufficient, even ordinary language suddenly fails me. It seems almost phenomenal, but the richness of my material is overwhelming my natural talent, the throng of events chokes and strangles the flow of my eloquence, and this strange and unwonted force of happiness, which does not permit silence, at the same time cuts off my power of speech. I have no idea what this can be, unless it must be what the tragic poet expressed so elegantly: light feelings can speak, strong feelings have no voice.23
Michel Montaigne (1533-1592), who was generally critical of academic education, points out that it is difficult to talk about the really important things in any art form.

Take an arts professor; converse with him. Why is he incapable of making us feel the excellence of his arts....?24
But of all 16th century writers, the one who felt most strongly that music was a special language of feeling was Martin Luther. In 1538 Luther wrote the preface for a collection of part-songs based on the suffering and death of Jesus. In addition to mentioning the emphasis on music in the Old Testament, together with his own awe of the art, Luther touches on the most fundamental purpose of music, to express feelings.

Here ought one to speak of the use one might make of so great a thing, but even this use is so infinitely manifold that it is beyond the reach of the greatest eloquence of the greatest orators. We are able to adduce only this one point at present, namely, that experience proves that, next to the Word of God, only music deserves being extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.
Luther expands his testimonial to music’s ability to express feeling in his preface to Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae, published in the same year. He could not be more correct when he says “music is a language [of feelings] without words.” And notice he calls music the “mistress and governess of the emotions which as masters govern men.” There in a sentence is what should be the purpose and curriculum of music education.

Here it must suffice to discuss the benefit of this great art. But even that transcends the greatest eloquence of the most eloquent, because of the infinite variety of its forms and benefits. We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation that this can be found -- at least not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate -- and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good? -- what more effective means than music could you find?...

Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul, while in other living beings and [sounding] bodies music remains a language without words.

The Baroque Period was obsessed with music’s ability to communicate feeling and from this time forward there is much commentary. Johann Scheibe wrote in 1739,

Music which does not penetrate the heart or the soul…

Is quite dead, and lacks spirit and vitality.25
A more typical expression of this purpose during the Baroque is given by Georg Muffat, in his Florilegia (1695). He writes that he has given each suite the name of “some state of the affections which I have experienced,” namely, Piety, The Joys of the Hopeful, Gratitude, Impatience, Solicitude, Flatteries, and Constancy.

Johann Mattheson wrote extensively on performance practice and about the “doctrine of affections,” a label given to the theory of the expression of feelings through music.26 In one place he notes that although the emotions are like a bottomless sea, one can write very little about them (in words).27 He also adds that he regrets that some composers fail to express feelings through their music. He finds the reason for this must be in the fact that they do not know their own desires or what they actually wanted to achieve. But failure in this has significant implications for the listener.

Is it then astonishing that with pieces thus formed, where true natural theory of sound together with the pertaining science of human affections are completely absent, merely the ears of the poor, simple, and self-righteous listeners are tickled, but their hearts and minds are not aroused in proper measure.28
The German Baroque philosopher who gave the most thought to our present topic was the great mathematician, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716). It frustrated him that he could not explain in scientific terms what thought itself is.

Thought is a sensible quality either of the human intellect or of something “I know not what” within us which we observe to be thinking. But we cannot explain what it is to think any more than what [the color] white is....29
It did seem obvious to Leibniz that speech itself must be an important key to the function of the thought process. For this reason he speculated rather broadly on the origin of speech, on the chronological development of the parts of language and, for example, which came first, proper or generic names.30 After noting that monkeys have the physical components for speech, but do not speak, Leibniz considered the possibility, as did Voltaire and others at this time, of creating a new language consisting of musical tones.

We must also consider that we could speak, ie., makes ourselves understood by the sounds of the mouth without forming articulate sounds, if we availed ourselves of musical tones for this effect; but more art would be necessary to invent a language of tones, whilst that of words may have been formed and perfectly gradually by persons who found themselves in a state of natural simplicity. There are, however, people like the Chinese, who by means of tones and accents vary their words, of which they have only a small number.31
We have mentioned above the Rhapsodist of ancient Greece, a performer employing something between speech and music. We might add here that we have wondered if the ancient Chinese language with its great vocal variety might offer us an insight into the long lost art of the Rhapsodist.
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