Healthy Beginnings

If You Can Speak A Language, You Can Play Music

Do you consider yourself to be musical? For many, that question requires some thought. Many students want to learn how to play music, but believe they do not have a musical bone in their body…to give them an experience of being musical, they are asked to repeat the sentence “I haven’t got a musical bone in my body” several times. After a few repetitions of this sentence, one can easily hear a natural rhythm each time the sentence is spoken. That is musicality. What is being heard actually demonstrates that a single sentence cannot be spoken without the existence of complex rhythm. What this reveals is that we are all profoundly musical, even people who think they are not.

If we take the relationship between language and music one step further, we discover what is known as “improvisation.” In truth, improvisation is really what we do when we speak with one another; it is a musical language musicians use to converse with each other. They learn this language just as anyone learns to speak any language; not from books, but by ear and doing it.

How did you learn to speak your native tongue? Did someone teach you to speak? No, of course not. You learned by listening to your parents speak. At about age one or two, you began to babble; babble became words; words became sentences; and by the time you were about age four or five, you had a command over complex rhythms and were speaking fully. As you learned a new word, it went into your “word bank reservoir” and you learned to stitch those words together into more meaningful patterns–patterns that got you the results you were seeking.

How many of you have studied a foreign language in school for three or four years but were still unable to speak that language? Yet, if for a period of time you had been placed among those to whom that language was native and had to speak that language, your ears would become attuned to it. Your brain would work out the rhythms and patterns on its own because it is a “pattern seeking” organ and its job it is to do just that. It happens automatically. You would develop a vocabulary and learn how to put words and phrases together in order to speak it with some fluency. The longer you remained immersed in that situation, the more fluent and sophisticated your language skills would become.

Another fun way to relate playing music, speaking and improvisation would be to take an example like typing on a computer keyboard. If you can say, OUT LOUD, all the letters as you type them, you will be able to play music (on a piano) the same way. It’s a great way to feel what it’s like to improvise!

When individuals immerse themselves in language or music, their hearing develops and they start copying other’s styles, articulations and phrasings. Meanwhile, a vocabulary of the language is being developed. The more they apply themselves, the broader their skill fluency and vocabulary become. When they tire of imitating others, they begin to use their acquired skills to put forth their own ideas and to express their own feelings.

When several musicians come together to play there is also a dialogue with each other. One musician may call out a “question” and another will “respond” with an answer–a musical theory called “Questions & Answers.” Apply this to our clearer picture of people talking together, that which makes for a meaningful conversation in which they exchange thoughts and ideas based upon their knowledge of a specific subject. In conversation, the more one speaks with others, the more they ingest and absorb the knowledge and ideas of others. As they try to educate themselves and refine their own skills of communication they, in turn, become better speakers with greater abilities to both listen and respond…to converse. This is the same process musicians use to become fine improvisers, except they use their instruments.

It is difficult to put into words what causes one to play in a specific way, at a specific time, because one is prompted to play extemporaneously, just as we talk extemporaneously. Do we think about speaking? Is our speaking prompted by the situation at hand, based on our need to respond to that situation by expressing our own ideas and thoughts, letting loose our own feelings and emotions, thereby creating a dialogue with those who elicited that response? Playing music and improvising, like speaking, is just that, but even more. Knowing we have these “transferable skills,” demonstrates that if we can speak a language, we can play music.




3. Marvin Stamm, Jazz Trumpet Player. Summer Journal, 1998.