The characteristics of the Language of Music and Language in Music

Updated: Apr 16, 2018



Anyone who’s ever had to learn to read sheet music will know what I mean when I say that it can sometimes literally be like learning another language. Besides parsing those tricky lines, dots, tails, and bars, there are also the snatches of foreign languages – mostly Italian, along with the occasional word of French, German, English and Latin thrown in for good measure. A quick glance at a page of sheet music reveals words like adagio, legato, staccato, piano, forte, crescendo, and diminuendo, looming in the white spaces between staves of musical content.


Musical terms can be found in printed scores, music reviews, and program notes. Why most of the terms are Italian? Because in accordance with the Italian origins of many European musical conventions - many of the most important early composers from the Renaissance to the Baroque period were Italian, and that period is when numerous musical indications were used extensively for the first time. Sometimes, the special musical meanings of these phrases differ from the original or current Italian meanings. Most of the other terms are taken from French and German, indicated by "Fr." and "Ger.", respectively.


Some terms are common, and others are used only occasionally, and new ones are coined from time to time. Some composers prefer terms from their own language rather than the standard terms.

Music can be described in terms of many genres and styles. Classifications are often arbitrary, and closely related forms often overlap. Larger genres and styles comprise more specific sub-categories.

The musical professional use the language in a number of different situations. The use of the language is changed in dependence on the situation s/he is in. If s/he is referring to an English text before a Russian-speaking audience or translating an English text into Russian, s/he will run into some special problems. Russian music is different from English music, the institutions are different. No exact equivalent institution or translation for a word may be available in Russia. It is recommended to use the untranslatable expression and explain similarities to existing Russian institutions and then the differences.

I stated above that musical concepts are rooted in a specific working environment and in national musical systems, and that each national cultural setting has its own principles for the application of concepts. There cannot be absolute correspondence, unless it is a consequence of complete identity of cultural values, provisions, interpretation rules and forms of application of art – but this again would mean the same art framework.

The scope of a comparative terminography in this way is the functional analysis of concepts within their cultural environment; it should provide an insight into the purpose of single concepts (and their terms) within the framework of a rule and a system of art.


Language in music is not a language of everyday use by a population. It is a specialized language of musical art: composition, musicology, instrumental art, art of conducting, vocal art, ochestration etc. Its distinctiveness may be seen in a number of characteristics that differentiate it from the language of ordinary use. This does not mean that the language in music is completely separated from the ordinary language. Most of its words are taken from the ordinary language. And speech is not only words but also actions.


But, there is universal language of music that comprehensible to all the nations of the world. As Beethoven correctly said: "The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man's soul. Music [itself] is the language of God. We musicians are as close to God as man can be. We hear his voice, we read his lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing his praise. That's what musicians are."

But at the same time, music is difficult to explain in words. Because music is beyond words, speech, above human life like any art and it is the highest of the arts. Music can be very inconceivable and hard to describe. For this purpose, there is a special terminology, the universal musical language of mankind, which is very conditional convey the meaning of music, but gives the landmark for people. The depth of understanding of music we can feel only with our soul.


Natalia Rojcovscaia

from Master Degree Thesis "Structural and Semantic Analyses of

Musical Terms in English and Russian. Russian Translation Strategy"

Institute of International Relations of Moldova


#music #language #linguistics #terms #God

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