The Instigator
Con (against)
The Contender
Pro (for)

Music = Language?

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Debate Round Forfeited
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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 9/26/2017 Category: Arts
Updated: 2 years ago Status: Debating Period
Viewed: 893 times Debate No: 104147
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (4)
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First off, I would like to say that I am a musician. Second, the famous comment, "Music is a language", sparked my curiosity, which led to my research.

I have come to the conclusion that in literal terms, Music is not a language. Please state why you think it is and I will answer.


I am arguing that music is a language. Considering that my opponent is the instigatoe, the burden of proof is upon his/her shoulders. I accept this debate. Good luck.
Debate Round No. 1


The definition of language is very complex, you could spend hours looking into what language really means. Because of this, I will water it down to this extremely simple definition. (Also, I will cite my sources at the end of this debate)

Language is a communication system which has two components.
1. A set of meaningful symbols (words)
2. A set of rules for combining for symbols (syntax) into larger meaningful units. (sentences)

Music and Language have similar qualities, but there is one big difference that unqualifies Music from being an actual language.

John Hopkins conducted a study and found that during music improvisation, (in this particular study, jazz music) the areas of the brain that process the grammatical structure of sentences were operative, but those that process the meaning of language were shut down.

Many species have forms of communication but because they are missing one component or the other, they are not considered an actual language. Music communication, we all know it means something to the listener, but that meaning can't really be described.

Dr. Charles Limb states, "It doesn't have propositional elements specificity of meaning in the same way a word does. So a famous bit of music, Duh duh duh duhhhh, we might hear that and think it means something but nobody could agree what it means.

Interpretation is an essential part of both Language and Music, differing slightly in its definition for each.
1. Interpreting a Language means to understand so that a spoken word or sentence means the same thing to many people.
2. Interpretation of Music, however, doesn't have to mean understanding but can mean anything as simple as production or performance of music. Everyone may not have the same interpretation of a piece of music, but would still be playing the same notes when performing it.

Music & Language are similar in many ways. They are both forms of expression. To function, Language is used as a means of communication and is essential for creating social bonds. Music can be used for communication as well but is primarily a source of entertainment or a means of personal expression. Many of the brain areas that process language also process music. But this doesn't mean that music is a language.


By my opponents wording, a language has two components for something to qualify as a language.

1. A set of meaningful symbols.
2. A set of rules for combining such symbols into larger meaningful units.

Let's take classical music for example. Classical music has a set of notes and sybols that are used to write music. They are meaningful and universal to most countries just like numbers. These symbols have rules as to how you place them upon the measures of your sheet music.
For example, a 4/4 time could only have 4 beats and one quarter note is worth one beat for all the bars that are within the 4/4 time.

Togerher, you combine these symbols to make sheet music for a musician. Together with other musicians you could have an orchestra.

This is the same for moderne music. Singers put words into music and sing them along with a band. This requires sheet music and symbols put together for musicans to play.

By my opponents definition, music qualifies as a language.

My opponent claims that musical improvisation disqualifies music as a language. Think of musical improvisation as saying uttering random sounds out of your mouth that sound nice to you. That is the equivalent of musical improvisation for you are not thinking about what you are playing or saying. You are only listening to it to hear whether it sounds nice or not.
If the association of making random noises that sound nice (or technically don't have to sound nice since it is improvisation) disqualifies music as a language, would not babies who babble nonsensical sounds disqualify any language as a language? A baby can cry and two people could interpret it as two different things. Since this baby is hypothetically learning english, does this association suddenly mean english is not a language? Someone could say "to", yet one person could hear it as "too", or "two". Does this mean english is not a language?

My opponent then tries to compare Interpreting a Language and Interpretation of Music. While those may look very similar, there is a stark difference between Interpreting and Interpretation. Interpreting music is understanding it. Just like interpreting the english language is to understand it. Therefore I do not get why my opponent would try and compare those two terms.

My opponent does bring up a good point about interpretation of Music and how one musician might have a different sheet music to the musician next to him, yet they are playing the same thing. This is called transposing in which a composer would transpose his music for different instrument to play the same thing. Each instrument is it's own language just like French is it's own language compared to english. Transposing is like translating these different languages.

I can't say anymore cause I'm leaving for a bit. Could you wait a day or more before posting your reply?
Debate Round No. 2


Thank you to Con for keeping this debate civil. :)
I will try to refute all of your statements in this last round.
I realize, especially now, (after reading a couple books about Language) that my first definition was a very poor one. Thank you for pointing that out.

Music is a grand way to convey shared human experiences and emotions, but you can never say a sentence in precise words as you can with Language. One word alone in Language may have a precise meaning. Contrasting, one note alone in Music does not have a meaning, it is simply a lone note. You can decide what kind of emotion you feel from that one note, but you can't have a definite meaning from that one note as you well can do with Language. How would you say, "My name is Polly.", in Music?

Because you can't very well cram the whole meaning of the entirety of language into this small space, I will try to simplify while still getting the meaning across.

What is meant by Language? Consider the following expressions:
Body Language
Spoken Language
Written Language
Sign Language
Computer Language
**The Language of Music**
Animal Language
And many, many more!

Plainly, the word "language" is being used in many ways - some technical, some figurative - and the senses go in various directions. If a reviewer were to remark, after an impressive orchestral concert, "The conductor and the musicians were all speaking the same language", we would interpret this to be a comment about their playing, not their chatting. The same point applies to other linguistic terms.

COMMUNICATION, however, is a much broader concept, involving the transmission and reception of any kind of information between any kind of life.

There are 5 modes of human communication because there are only 5 human senses which can act as channels of information: sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste. The information we send and receive using these modes is usually called the MEANING of our communication. But the 5 modes are not equally relevant for the transmission and reception of meaning. However, the use of sound -the auditory-vocal mode, is fundamental to the notion of Langauge. Speech is the primary manifestation of language, in all cultures. Sound is also fundamental to the notion of Music.

Language enables us to talk about events remote in space or time from the situation of the speaker: I can talk about what happened in the near or remote past and speculate about the near or remote future. This property of language is often called displacement. Human Language is unique in its ability to communicate or convey an open-ended volume of concepts: we are not limited to talking about present situations, we can use Language to talk about past and futuristic situations.

Music cannot "talk" about past or futuristic situations. If so, explain to me how, in an orchestra, a skilled flutist would say in a complete sentence, "I used to be lonely, but tomorrow I'll find love." You might experience the EMOTION, but you won't have a definite meaning until you use the wonder of Language.

It is best to avoid the term, "Music is a language" and to introduce the term, "Music is a communication". They are two different things.

The contrast between what counts as a language and what does not is usually clear enough, but it can be fuzzy at times.

Yet, another contrast between Language and Music:
We cannot speak out of tune. Prosody - and intonation in particular - has often been called the 'melody' or 'music' of speech, but the analogy is not really a good one. There are two main differences. Music, typically, is composed to be repeated; speech, typically, is not. And, if we examine modern Western music, we find tones that have been given absolute values, whereas those of speech are relative. The consequences of this second point are far-reaching. Notes have fixes frequencies (e.g. middle C now has a frequency of 264 Hz) and instruments can be tuned to ensure that their notes are compatible. But speech is not like this. Men, women, and children use tones with the same linguistic function (for stating, asking, etc.), yet produce them at widely differing frequencies. Moreover, two people of the same sex may both use the 'same' rising tone to ask a question, but one may produce it with a higher frequency range than the one. And even within a single speaker, the pitch at which a tone is produced may vary from one moment to the next, without this affecting the meaning of what is said.

Language is not affected by these biological or random variations. The tones of intonation are relative, not absolute. People are not instruments. They do not speak out of tune.

However, as you well know, Music can go out of tune and when it varies, it will affect the sound, or the meaning, of the song produced.

[The following quote is from a person I encountered who is a Professor of Audio Technology and Popular Music]
"Saying that Music is a "universal language" is somewhat Euro-centric, as European music that is presently studied in music appreciation courses has particular characteristics that are presented as universal, but they are really not. There are also many examples where our scale systems do not fit into other cultures, and our values about what is consonant and dissonant do not match. There's a whole other iceberg here with semantics and semiotics, analogies and metaphors, and more sophisticated structures present in linguistic information that can't be similarly identified in Music".

The only way Music is truly universal is the sharing of emotions. We can all, no matter our race or differing languages, listen to a piece of Music and feel some kind of emotion.

With having read the book written by David Crystal, "How Langauge Works", (I have quoted him many times in this debate) I do not see how Music can be defined as a Language. From various other books I have read and web articles I have seen Music is defined as a form of communication, not a Language.

I encourage y'all who read this to research this subject, it's quite interesting! I'm still reading about it.

Good luck to you Con!

My sources:
McWhorter, John. The Power of Babel. New York: Times Books, 2001. Print.
Crystal, David. How Language Works. New York: The Overlook Press, 2005. Print.
This round has not been posted yet.
Debate Round No. 3
4 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 4 records.
Posted by TeenDebater0236 2 years ago
Alrighty, I shall post my argument. :)
Posted by HellishPanda 2 years ago
Im back
Posted by TeenDebater0236 2 years ago
Yes, birdsong is definitely music. But this doesn't mean music is language. Playing the whole of a song, you can communicate a meaning or an emotion. That is what birdsong and many other forms of animal communication do. If we tried to translate birdsong into precise words, we wouldn't' be able to; but we could translate the entirety of the birdsong into a meaning. Do you see? :)
Posted by Masterful 2 years ago
Birds sing to communicate with other birds. Bird song is definitely a form of music.
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