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Language and Music
The Parallels Between Learning/Teaching Language and Learning/Teaching Music
by Mark Lowe
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Communication and conversation

If the first parallel between music and language concerns the mechanics of speech, the second concerns language as communication. Here the parallel is between verbal communication and ensemble musicmaking – between talking with other people and playing music in a group. In both, we have to be proficient performers, but we also have to be proficient listeners, and we have to follow the conventions and procedures of the medium. Let us look first at ensemble musicmaking, and then examine the parallels with conversation and other forms of verbal communication, such as giving presentations and handling question/answer sessions.

By ‘ensemble musical performance’ I refer to any form of concerted music-making, including orchestral playing, singing in a choir, playing chamber music such as string quartets, wind quintets and piano trios, two instruments playing together as in violin and piano or cello and piano sonatas, singer and accompanist teams (a very special art form) – and jazz. In an orchestra, we have to blend, we have to adjust our pitch and volume to our neighbours, we must know how to project when we have the tune and melt into the background when we are part of the accompaniment, and so on. If we are the pianist in a violin sonata, we have to know who has the tune and who has the accompaniment and play accordingly, we have to agree on tempo and dynamics, we have to give and take, we have to ‘comment’ on the other’s phrases, and we have to listen to our fellow-musician. Above all, we have to empathize – and to be sensitive to our fellow musicians.

When we take part in conversation, the procedures and constraints are very similar. We adjust to our fellow-speakers, we take it in turns to occupy centre-stage and to take a back seat, we comment on what is said by others, we show interest, we empathize and we are sensitive to mood. We also abide by unwritten conversation ‘rules’. As Paul Grice showed in his classic paper ‘The Logic of Conversation’, we follow definite (and largely unconscious) conventions when we engage in conversation, and if we do not follow them, awkwardness results. Here is a summary of Grice’s four conventions:

(1) Quantity: make your contribution as informative as required.
(2) Quality: say only what you believe to be true.
(3) Relation: be relevant.
(4) Manner: avoid obscurity and ambiguity; be brief and orderly.

Relevant classroom work that has analogies in music are: question and answer exchanges, statements followed by comments, requests and responses, the use of ‘phatic communication’ utterances like really and oh, and using phrases like What do you think? and Do you agree?, which oil the wheels of many an exchange. I have found such work (and the musical parallels that inform them) particularly valuable when preparing candidates for public examinations such as FCE, CAE and IELTS, in which candidates are required to take part in verbal exchanges as well as to make ‘long turn’ speeches.


Jazz is a special case. Whereas classical music is usually written down, jazz is not. Jazz musicians usually improvise round a harmonic sequence, while classical musicians follow a score. Jazz is a comparatively free idiom, and jazz musicians can respond to changes in mood more instinctively during performance than most classical musicians. Jazz is like a relaxed and improvisational style of conversation. However, although one might think that a jazz performance can be entirely free of Gricean constraints, this is not so. The jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton tells a delightful story about this in his memoir ‘It has Just Occurred to Me’. One day some jazz musicians were engaged to play on BBC radio. The producer said: ‘play whatever you like’. Silence. Then one of the band said: ‘For All the Saints’. The musicians came to life and started to improvise round the harmonies of the well-known song. Without the framework, they were lost. Even a ‘free’ jazz session, like a conversation, follows certain conventions, and our teaching has to work on the Gricean linguistic equivalents of a harmonic sequence.

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