Lessons in Learning: Speaking the Musical Language

by Abby @ Quaver on July 8, 2014

in Music Matters,This Month in Music

We love hosting voices like Jeannine Everett’s on the Quaver Music blog!

As a lifelong musician and now principal second violin in the Reston Community Orchestra; Jeannine brings a performer and a student’s perspective to the blog that we are grateful to share!

Today Jeannine is back and talking about the foundations of music as a language for students to learn!


Speaking the Musical Language

Musical Language

To learn how to speak a language, one must first learn how sounds and words and pauses fit together. Music is also a language, the universal language, and follows the same sort of principles. The building blocks may look a little different, but they work in a similar way.

Consonants and Vowels

Some notes are consonants and some are vowels. Some have wide open articulation, full of breath, like a sigh. They don’t end, as much as swell and fade. Others are short and clipped, as much percussion as tone.

Have your students look at the notes within a passage. Are they legato, or staccato? Are they slurred or disconnected? Do they require a strong attack, or a swelling entry? Give the note a letter equivalent. It is a T, an S, or an OO? Knowing what kind of note one is playing makes a huge difference in how it’s played. Leroy Anderson uses a lot of consonants. Debussy, not so much.


Even when we play orchestral music, we are playing words and some have greater weight than others. I used to put words to classical music and sing them to my son. Singing Beethoven’s 5th as “Get out of bed” worked much better than “Time to get up.” Imagining the words I’m playing helps me put the emphasis in the correct place.

Sentence structure

Some phrases are statements. Some are questions, and some are exclamations. When I sang “Get out of bed,” to my son, it was not a polite request.

Some phrases are part of a dialogue with another player. It might be query and answer, or an echoing response, or a contradictory exchange. If we don’t know who we’re talking to and what kind of conversation we’re having, half of the meaning is missing.


Rests are the punctuation of musical language. Without silence, there is no music, only notes.

The note is over when the composer says it’s over, not when the musician runs out of breath, or bow, or interest. End too early, and the phrase is truncated, or some key element of the harmony is missing. End too late and the note steps on the toes of the next phrase, or it becomes an unintended solo.

Sentences have commas, too, and we need to agree about where they are. Just like “eats, shoots, and leaves” is different from “eats shoots and leaves,” where we pause changes the musical idea. Periods are generally written. Commas are often implied.

There are fermatas (aaaaaaand), and grand pauses (wait for it), and empty measures (uncomfortable silence). They all serve a purpose — to add to the character and mood of musical speech.

When practicing or rehearsing, it’s natural to concentrate on the notes themselves. Getting the pitches right, mastering the movement from one note to the other, and being in the right place at the right time is the first step.

Learning the more subtle elements of language turns notes into music, and sound into poetry. This is where we put the final chord and take our bow. The end.

Have you ever approached musical elements as language with your students? What other comparisons can you draw?


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