Chapter 3: Literacies across the disciplines

3.6.3 The language of music (prospectus)

Alana Thigpen

English 102, November 2020

In my essay, I will be focusing on the language of music. Some may say that music is not a viable language simply because it does not always contain words or an active conversation. But to those people, I would like to make the claim that music is a means of communication between groups of people, varying in many genres, and there is a little something for everyone. I do not think it is actually humanly possible to dislike all forms of music, because music conveys emotion, something we can all understand thoroughly. Although music can appeal to everyone, it has generally been taught in schools that music is supposed to be one way, while in the real world you hear a combination of techniques and styles. I believe this mash up of genres and sounds is a person’s specific discourse in a musical language, and everyone, whether formally trained in music or not, can speak their own version of a musical language.

This topic is one that many musicians, music professors, linguists, social scientists and even philosophers may be interested in. In my sources, I have work from at least two music teachers as well as a linguist. I plan to discuss some of my past experience in learning a new instrument in a formal versus informal setting, then compare it to the findings of the teachers in their articles. From there, I will discuss what constitutes musical literacy, cross referencing it with Gee’s what is literacy journal. Finally, I plan to make the claim that music is a language that you do not need to be textbook literate in in order to enjoy it and be good at. Musical skill can be acquired knowledge that thrives in an informal setting just as well as in a classroom, and even arguably better. The lack of restriction in a secluded setting allows for noodling with chords, sounds and tempos that give the player more experience than sitting in a room while the instructor juggles two or more instrument sections at a time, not giving you their full attention or allowing the player to fully utilize their practice time.


When we communicate, we do not often think “what is a language and how does it work?” because it is in our nature to make then noises that pass as words. But what happens when you do analyze what is considered a language and what is not? Do we find that more things pass under the definition than we previously expected, or is it proven that some of the words we even use today are not considered part of our native language? In this essay, I will focus on what a language is considered to be, and show you there is more to language than just words on a paper.

As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, language is a means of communication that consists of words, sounds, or gestures between people. This is structured in a conventional way that is easy to comprehend. But, why is it that language is limited to what is writing in the pages or spoken word between people? I believe that while there are many languages in the world, one that is universal to all humans, and even some other species, is music. While music does often have words to it, I am focusing on non-verbal music, or instrumental compositions.

  • What is language
  • How is music a universal language
  • How do instrument compositions convey emotion the same way words do?
  • “Is music considered its own language?”

How music is taught

  • Musical literacy exists, but is it standardized the same way English is
    • (SWE is considered the default and then is subdivided to become AAE etc., and music is the same way in a sense)
    • “Does it also have its own subdivided discourse dependent on clefs, key signatures, instruments and music genre?”
  • “what is “school standard” music literacy?”
  • “are there other ways to be musically literate?”
  • “how do you determine how musically literate a person is?”
  • “are there other ways of musical literacy?”

How to fix a flawed system

  • This way of thinking of instrumental music is flawed, in the sense that music is not taught how English or Spanish would be taught in say a high school setting.
  • If from elementary school, all students were taught how to read and compose music, not only would students interested in music be thriving, but it would become common knowledge and the industry would thrive as well.
  • The comprehension of harmony, melody and the methodical process of music would be better understood by all
  • People would be more appreciative of the time that is necessary to compose a successful piece
  • We would have better means of communication through music when our words failed to convey our feelings.

Research Questions

Is music considered its own language?

– When thinking of music, especially songs without words, do you find yourself attempting to interpret the meaning behind the song?

-For example, listening to a classical lullaby, do you imagine the composers flow of emotions as they performed this piece for the first time, or the instrumentality and how the harmonies intertwine with the melodies to convey an emotion.

-You can say “this song is sad” but will you be able to tell another listener why it is sad?

Does it also have its own subdivided discourse dependent on clefs, key signatures, instruments, and music genre?

-If I play the violin and you play the cello, we obviously do not look at the notes on the pages the same way because while I play in treble clef, you play in bass clef.

-Some key signatures induce a certain type of sound, which can be used to make a song seem hopeful, sober etc.

-How do these key signatures, as well as the instruments chosen help dictate the musical genre it is grouped in with?

How do people of different instruments come together to form a song?

-Association between harmony and melodies as well as counter melodies.

Why is communication in the rehearsal space important?

-How do you learn how to play with other musicians?

How do you determine how musically literate a person is?

– In schools, a musically literate person is determined based on skill, acquired knowledge of the instrument, as well as repetition of a particular piece of music and performance of it.

-When auditioning for chair placement, you are given a song to practice in anticipation of the audition. But what happens when you are asked to sight read a piece?

– Sight reading tests the musicians natural grasp of tempo, instrumentation, tone, and more. This is a more accurate way to measure school standard musical literacy

What is “school standard” musical literacy?

–  In short it is practice, play, improve, perform.

Are there other ways of musical literacy?

– Naturally acquired musical literacy from say a musically inclined parent, you are open to a similar track of musical literacy, but without the arguably unnecessary coddling provided by a music teacher.

– The “today we are going to learn how to…” is replaced by simple trial and error in a comfortable setting where you get to establish your own pace.

Can you still play an instrument if you are not musically literate?

-Similar to learning a language in your home, you can acquire the knowledge to play the instrument naturally over time

-This leads to improvisation, which is a unique skill that can sometimes trouble the school taught “musically literate” player.

Annotated Bibliography

Amox, J. (2018). Chapters 1 and 2. In 971570742 754142304 P. Quest (Ed.), Polished Gems: A Supplemental Curriculum for Developing the Musical Literacy and Musical Expression Skills of Junior High Flute Students (pp. 1-12). Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest.

This article is a research paper on the flute students at an Arkansas middle school, who are transitioning to high school marching and concert band. She, as a teacher, observed her students and their capabilities, quickly realizing they were limited because of their lack of knowledge of their instruments. This article will be useful in the argument that instrument knowledge is the first step to achieving musical literacy, as well as to disprove that learning an instrument in school is the only way to properly become a musician.

Callahan, R. (2013). An Examination of High School Directors’ Use of Cooperative Learning Approaches in a Marching Band Setting (Master’s thesis, Tennessee State University, 2013) (pp. 1-4). Ann Arbor: ProQuest.

This thesis covers the history of marching bands, as well as how the evolved into the large and loud musical groups seen on tv and at football games in today’s times. Callahan then transitions to the role of the band director, and how this element of a band is one of the most crucial factors to the band’s success. His claims on the responsibilities of the director aligns with my claims for required musical literacy in schools.

Gee, J. (1989). What Is Literacy? Journal of Education, 171(1), 18-25.

Gee’s journal entry “What Is Literacy?” discussed the concept of discourses, primary and secondary, as well as how we adapt to a change of discourse. He then discussed the connection between discourses and literacies. He concluded with the claim that no matter how good the education program is, “non-mainstream” students will have a more challenging time understanding and learning in an educational setting. My paper will focus briefly on the struggles of a non- mainstream student in a musical setting. A self-taught music should not be compared to the student from a music school as far as musical literacy is concerned.

Goodstein, R. E. (1987). An Investigation into Leadership Behaviors and Descriptive Characteristics of High School Band Directors in the United States. Journal of Research in Music Education, 35(1), 13-25. doi:10.2307/3345165

This journal focuses on the many factors that the band director can control in order to produce the desired sound of a marching band. He focused on band size, funding issues, teaching styles, demographics, and director age amongst other things, all directly correlating with the productivity of the bands. This will be especially useful in the argument that class sizes have an effect on the students learning of an instrument and the music. I will also use this article to discuss what directors and music teachers can do to improve their curriculum and be more inclusive to all students no matter their skill level.

Jaffurs, S. E. (2004). The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned how to teach from a garage band. International Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 189-200. doi:10.1177/0255761404047401

This journal is written by a music appreciation teacher in a school, where his students started a garage band and never brought it to his attention because they did not see how it would be relevant in correlation with the music class curriculum. The teacher was shocked and attended many of the last-minute rehearsals from the band in order to learn their style, skill level and assess their productivity amongst other things. She learned from them how to create a more hands-on environment in her class, which will be relevant to my work in the sense that I want to encourage change within the classroom for better participation and general knowledge of music.

Music Theory. (2015, September 23). Musical colors and timbre. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from


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