“Where words fail, music speaks.” This quote by Hans Christian Andersen beautifully, yet simply, captures the power of music as a means for communication. Music can express deeply held thoughts and feelings without words. There is even an argument for the consideration of vocal songs to be a “universal language,” due to certain shared musical elements.
In my opinion, there are two important parts to understanding music as a universal language. The first is the ability of music (and sound) to express emotion and thought, which is the purpose of language. At the heart of all language is the need to communicate ideas, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Think of music in this sense in relation to the development of spoken languages.
The second part is understanding the “language” of music itself. In other words, knowing the music theory that allows musicians to easily play with each other. Think of music in this sense as language systems that are culturally-agreed upon, but aren’t universal in form and structure.
Communicating Through Music in One-on-One Relationship
As a music therapist and counselor, people sometimes come to work with me because they want to communicate better. When people come to me looking for this kind of help, we may explore communication skills through music. One way this is done is by improvising musical conversations on different instruments. There’s back-and-forth turn-taking and a need to listen to each other. Each person needs to wait until the other person has completed their musical thought before responding back.
In the following video, I talk a bit more about communicating and communication skills that are relevant when making music with others:
Still, others may want to feel more confident in being able to express themselves. A powerful way for working on this is through voicework and by singing. Working in this way, we may tone, chant, or sing together. The person may choose to do so with me playing a musical instrument along with them if they want such support.
In these situations of working individually with people, music is mostly used as a means of communication and expression. There can be a form and a structure to it that parallels spoken dialogue, but there is no fixed meaning to what is being expressed. It’s purely open to the individual’s interpretation and sensation.
By taking away the need to use words, the person is able to reconnect with their thoughts and feelings. This helps them to express the pure essence of their experience. As well, making music with another person whose focus isn’t on a perfect product can help the person tap into their creativity and playfulness.
Communicating in a Group Through Music
Besides working individually with people, I also facilitate community music and music therapy groups. In these groups, we may sing and/or play instruments. I may introduce songs for the group to learn or musical structures for us to improvise within.
When working with groups, music is still a means of communication and expression. Each person comes to the group with their own background of experiences and skills. They may feel nervous about making music in a group and having others “hear” them. While other participants may relish the thought of others hearing them.
Communication skills also apply – or perhaps especially apply- in the group setting. If we’re going to perform as a group together, we need to be able to hear each other. We need to know when to respond and when to give space. Ultimately, the goal is for us to get in sync with each other through the music.
Music Theory and the Language of Music Helps Provide Structure
Yet at the same time, I’m also introducing to the group the language of music. I’m using music theory concepts as appropriate with them so that we can successfully play together. This is because playing together in an ensemble requires some type of structure and a shared language in order to experience success. (It also requires some self-control and
Knowing where to begin and knowing where we’re going as an ensemble is important. The result is chaos and confusion when we’re all playing together. Except we’re not, we’re simply playing at the same time.
While this isn’t fun when it happens, it can also provide useful feedback to me as the facilitator and to the group as a whole. Fruitful dialogues about how we interact with each other can be the result of such sonic explosions. Thereby, providing us with more opportunities to improve our communication skills with each other.
Exploring Musical Communication For Yourself
If you’re making music with others, how in sync with them do you feel when you’re playing? Please share your thoughts down below in the comments. Also, let me know directly if you’d like to explore musical communication for yourself, but don’t know where to begin.