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Is Music language?

Because Music is involved in my everyday life, the issue of whether Music is an actual language or not has piqued my curiosity.

Language is a communication system which has two components.

  1. A set of meaningful symbols (words)
  2. A set of rules for combining those symbols (syntax) into larger meaningful units (sentences).

Many species have forms of communication but because they are missing one component or the other, they are not considered an actual language.

John Hopkins University did 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. 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 or specificity of meaning in the same way a word does. So a famous bit of music, Duh duh duh duhhhhh, we might hear that and think it means something but nobody could agree what it means."

According to Wikiversity, 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.

Although Music may not be technically a language, Music does have the power to evoke deep feelings at the core of the shared human experience. It not only crosses culture, it also reaches deep into our past.
In this sense, music truly is a universal language.

This particular subject is very interesting and complex. If you're interested in it, I encourage you to go research! I did so and found much more than I expected to. Here are some articles that I found insightful.

Psychology Today
Pacific Standard

September 15, 2017



As a musician myself, I would definitely say that music is a language.

When a typical person listens to music of any kind, all they recognize are the sounds. However, when a musician listens to music, they recognize keys (and key shifts), tone, the style (more in reference to classical music), etc.

Being taught how to read music feels, to me, like learning a different language. When I listen to music, I see the different notes in my head. I don't have to think, "Uh, is this a D or an E flat?". I just read and play the music as if it was my first language.

I also think it's possible to become fluent in the language of music. I kind of described it in the paragraph above.

Thanks for posting this!

Edit: Also, whether a song is in English or Japanese, I still feel the words. Music is like a universal language that people can connect to. It doesn't limit anyone based on their native language (or languages that are known). Well, knowing the language of the song can be helpful for interpretation, but it still touches people all the same.


"As a musician myself, I would definitely say that music is a language."

How would you translate 'Please direct me to the nearest train station' or 'What's your opinion on the current situation in North Korea' into music?


Hm... Good question. That is a bit literal, but allow me to elaborate.

In a closed universe of music, I find it as a language. There is a sense of translation when it comes to the English alphabet into musical notes. So, if we are going to be technical, no, music is not a language. BUT, in the closed realm of the arts, music, in my opinion, can be considered a language.

Though, it is just that, an opinion. If you don't think music is a language, then that is perfectly fine. ^ ^


Ideas can definitely be communicated through music, even without words. Emotions, imagery, etc can all be expressed through sound.


"Emotions, imagery, etc can all be expressed through sound."

Like speech!

I see what you mean, but music is a much more limited form of communication than language. Simple emotions can be conveyed through music, but it can't convey complex notions or even basic questions.


In that case I definitely consider myself fluent in the language of music. :D (Hey does this mean I get to consider myself bilingual? XD)


Sure! You know, what if Duolingo made a music course... That'd sure be interesting. :)


I would take that course so fast if Duolingo made one!


Glad you like it. :)
Yes, I agree with what you said. Also, it is possible to learn music the same way that's best to learn a language. Immerse yourself!


I don't think so. How do you become fluent?

I played four instruments in the past, and I was pretty great at them.

But, music is used metaphorically to mean that it flows and it has meaning. That doesn't really make it a language.


I watched this video the other day and think that it may be of some interest in this discussion. The subject is a language made up of whistles that parallels the spoken language in a small village in Oaxaca, Mexico. What I found most interesting is how closely the whistled language resembles the spoken language when both are represented graphically. The graphical representation clearly shows how a tonal language, unlike English, can be very closely translated into whistles---and, I suppose, music.



I don't know why, but I can't see the article. Probably my computer. But, I've heard of this "Whistling Language". I thought about mentioning it in this post but decided not to. I think it's worth looking more into. I've actually posted about this particular language a while ago.

The Whistling Language


The short answer is, yes. However, it may be more of a emotional communication and means of connection. :) Clearly Lingot worthy.


Yes, Music definitely is. Thank you for the lingots! :)


I would say it is a form of expression, communicating messages and emotions often undeliverable through words... however, I see language as a separate term for vocabulary and grammar, while music is through tunes and instruments. I think it's a form of communication, but in my opinion it's not a language, unless we start composing chords/intervals/tunes translated from our English words (eg, an apple is an A dom. 7th, followed by two DMaj 5th chords in semiquavers, black is 3 Edim. chords). For this reason, my answer and opinion is no, sorry.


Possibly. If we were to say words through tunes/notes though, it would have extreme atonality, it wouldn't sound pleasant at all.


Where is the English translation?


Top left hand corner it shows you how the name Haydn is turned into a motif for the music. H A Y D N :)


This post is amazing! Thank you for taking the time to make this great contribution to the Duolingo Community! Also, I agree with the music being a 'universal language'. Music can be used to communicate so many different feelings, it's quite amazing. Just because one person might speak Portuguese and the other French, music can still express such a variety of emotion that they could understand the other's emotion through music.


This is a really excellent discussion to have, because I think it makes people really think about both language and music, both what they share and what they do not. I was asked a similar question on my doctoral qualifying exams.

Music lacks the structures that language relies on to operate - nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc. There is simply no way to analyze musical material into subject, verb, etc. We do use the term "phrase" in music, but it's not the same thing when you get down to nitty gritty details.

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 many musical cultures around the world that do not use, for example, keys. 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.

I think it's probably better to say that Language is a type of Music -- and each language is slightly different just like each music is. Though we translate sentences between languages, the meaning is not always identical -- such a thing is not possible musically... although "Bi-musical" is another interesting thing to consider...


Interesting. I did not know that bit about the European music... I like that, "Language is a type of Music". When I really think about it, it does make more sense than to say "Music is a Language".

Thanks for your comment!


@MissThorson I got a notification this morning that you replied but I can't find it right now -- I think what you want is this -- there are other writings on this subject I have printed somewhere in a notebook, but here's a good place to start if you want to cite something --



teletype1, I'll send you a copy of MissThorson's response via direct message (a mod tool, hopefully temporary). If you've got a valid email registered with your Duolingo account, it will reach you. :)


Ah, wait. It looks like the comment was deleted. So, I'll hold off on sending the text from it in case MissThorson changed their mind about having posted it.


Thanks for that! However, what I was going to ask you was this.

Is it alright with you if I use the middle paragraph of your first response in a response to an individual? I will give you the credit, e.g. a person I encountered or something else. I definitely wouldn't quote it as my own words. If you don't want me to, that's perfectly alright. :)

I deleted it because I wasn't sure if that was okay...


If you meant ok with me or Duolingo, I don't see why not. It's still relevant to the topic at hand. I should hope the conversations we have in the forums are interesting enough to want to share with the wider world. And crediting a source is much encouraged over plagiarizing. :)


Okay, thanks for clarifying that bit. :)


For that matter, don't forget the deaf cultures and how some people in them enjoy rock concerts by feeling the bass more than by hearing the sounds...


Very good input, thanks.


I would totally agree that music is a language. I was lucky enough to go to China with a music group and we got to play at a university in every city we were in and we got to interact with students at every university. At one point, a group of trumpet players were hanging out and our guys didn't speak Chinese and their guys didn't speak English. But someone just started playing and both sides had a ton of fun figuring out what they all knew and playing familiar music together. Given all of the laughter and grins that occurred with this I would totally say music is a language.


That's awesome! But what I see from your experience is that Music is more of a means of communication than a language. The technical meaning of the word language doesn't apply to Music. You can't talk using words in a language unknown to you. But, no matter the language barrier, you can always convey emotion and feeling, just like you can do so with language. This is probably one of the most common reasons why musicians will state Music is a language. :)


Not necessarily. It conveys feelings, but I am a musician who doesn't believe music is a language.


My opinion is starting to shift as I hear more that people, even musicians, think music is not a language. Which is sad because I honestly believed in its own unique, closed universe, music could be considered a language.

Yes, it conveys feeling. But, in the real world you could not speak to someone else through music. The thing is, if you are speaking to a group of people in French and the audience only knows English, it would be difficult to get your message across. Music, on the other hand, can be interpreted and made meaningful to others, regardless of if you are a musician or not, whether you understand musical notes or not.

So, music does what language often cannot do. At the same time, language can do what music could never accomplish.

In all, I'm starting to think that music is not a legitimate language. But, music is more than just... Music. Communication doesn't always mean language, so I suppose music is simply a means of communication. Pretty disappointing, but it's more realistic than calling music a language...


MasterZsword, even if it isn't a language, that doesn't mean it's not powerful and beautiful and meaningful. :)


And, he can still refer to music as a language, just remember that it is a metaphorical rather than technical use.


Metaphors are great. <3


BelgianStr, then we can probably refer to pretty much anything as a language.


Not disappointing, music is a very enjoyable source of conveying feelings undeliverable through words. Languages have brought many people joy too, but the two forms of communication are very different. For the same reason written in your third paragraph, I just cannot see music being a ''language''. Communication yes, but language no.


I will say that there is overlap between music and language, and that people can use music to communicate. However, I'm not convinced that music is a "language".

From what I'm observing in your OP, the article you've drawn from has been stripped of fine tuning in order to be distributed to a general audience, not a technical one. The two criteria given for language are oversimplified. If one relies on those two criteria as they stand, many things that are systems of communication, but not language, could be classified as "language", including things like morse code and semiphor.

The most thorough definition of language I've come across was from The Linguistics of American Sign Language. I have a copy of the 4th edition upstairs, it's brilliant. I'm not surprised that it was thorough, considering ASL had to prove how it met every criteria in order to be taken seriously by the linguistic community, which at the time had classified ASL as a system of "gestures". A communication system to be sure, but not a language. That refusal to acknowledge it as a language had harmful consequences on those who relied on it for communication. So, it was a big deal when ASL was finally acknowledged as a language by the linguistics community. Google's definition is so simplistic that if applied, would include codes, which are not languages, and it excludes things which are languages, such as Sign Languages.

The book lays out the technical requirements of the classification of "language" from pages 1-13, which you can access the 5th edition by using the Google Books link for it here.

EDIT I just realized that it won't take you directly to the book. So, from the page that link takes you to, follow the black arrows in the linked image below that take your through these steps: 1. Type the title The Linguistics of American Sign Language. 2. Click page 1 in the drop down menu. 3. Use the side arrows as you navigate through pages 1-13.

Click to view Image Instructions

13 pages is a lot to read. So, if you don't want to spend that much time, I recommend just scrolling through the bolded headings. Page 8 is where they begin listing those attributes that make language unique from other communication systems. Altogether, pages 1-13 take us through a set of parameters that separate communication systems from "Language".



Yes, I will admit that I did simplify it quite a bit. To really study this whole subject thoroughly, I do agree that it is much much more complicated and not so simple. You're right in that I basically wanted to make it easier to understand.

Thanks for the info! I'll definitely look into the ASL definition of language.


Regardless, I found this discussion very interesting and a good opportunity for people to explore the topic of language as a category itself. So, it definitely got an up vote from me. ^_^


I was saying:music isn't a language in the sense most people understand it


I think by those terms, someone could call anything a language.


By those terms someone could call anything something else.

For example: "Apples are dinosaurs! I wasn't saying apples are dinosaurs in the sense most people understand dinosaurs."


very funny (sarcastic)


This is quite old, but I still wanted to answer, because I can see the problem in the comments. As a musician myself, having practiced piano for 11 years straight, I understand music. Combined with perfect pitch, it allows me to reproduce the melody of any song on the piano. Many of you did say that it was a language, because a musician can "understand" another musician from the other side of the world. But like it has been said, music is not a language in the technical terms - apart from the ones that try to translate words into combinations of chords, etc. - but it does help communicating things. It is in fact a tool of communication, to communicate feelings in particular, and not only simple feelings. To me, music is the best way to express our feelings, because of how detailed a music can be : joy ? sadness ? surprise ? fear ? or even anger ? You can do all of that and make it as clear as a pixel on an HD picture. Or should I say way clearer than if expressed with words from any spoken language.

In big words, music is not a language, but a very strong and powerful tool of feelings communication.


Yes it is a very powerful language. Universal


Music is a language indeed! What's more, it's one of my favourite language. Music isn't a language in the sense most people understand it, but when you have a song with words, the melody usely will 'present' the words to you by style or what kind of word it is


I would love the opportunity to enroll in a Duol4 Music Composition Course. I would trust Duolingo.

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