Speaking Music: Musical Language and the Compositional Process

In former times the term “Tondichter” (“tone poet”) was commonly used in German-speaking countries to signify a composer of music. Could it be that music really is a kind of language, and that musical compositions – at least those of the classical composers – were really a kind of poetry, written in that language? If so, what do those poems “say”? How might a person learn to “speak” music fluently, as children all learn to speak ordinary spoken languages? And how might one learn to compose musical poems?

These are questions I want to explore in this section of the website, with special focus on the musical language “spoken” by composers in the line of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Schubert and Brahms. That language developed over a very long period and is inseparable from the traditional folk music and poetry of Europe.

It would be wrong to think of this classical musical language just as something old, something of the past. In a sense nearly all contemporary popular music uses the same language! A great difference, however – which I propose to remedy with the help of others – is that the language of today’s pop is incredibly narrow and impoverished compared even to the jazz, folk music or Beatles’ music of the late 1960s. Often today there is no more than 2-3 chords, a complete lack of polyphony and a monotonous, mechanistic beat. In the attempt to compensate for this impoverishment we get ear-splitting loudness, frenetic screaming and jumping around, flashing lights and other hi-tech sensory stimuli.

This is not to suggest that today’s leading groups have no talent and no musical ideas. On the contrary! Both are amply displayed, for example, by the song “Radioactive” which inspired one of my “metamorphoses” carried on this site. If the musical language of the original “Radioactive” song and others is still very far from what it potentially could become, this is probably for two main reasons. First, successful rock groups are prisoners of a multibillion-dollar industry and an audience that has been conditioned to an impoverished musical language. Second, the musical language of the great classical masters is no longer “spoken” today in its full richness and poetic power.

That defines a main mission of this site: to work to restore the full richness of the classical musical language, by using it to “say” new things – i.e. to compose new musical-poetic works with it – and by developing methods and tools for helping interested persons to become “fluent” in that language as rapidly as possible.

Note: As indicated above, I have chosen the language of the classical European masters as the focus of this site. It would be a task for others to look at the rich variety of musical languages associated with other cultures, historical periods, regions and nations of the world. I have also chosen to put aside attempts to create artificial languages and forms of music such as the so-called twelve-tone system. The world is big enough for different opinions on this issue, but for my part I do not see the sense of trying to create a new, artificial musical language, when the existing highly-developed one is infinitely far from having been exhausted. Could the urge to create a new language be a reaction to not having much new to say? People still speak English, and say new things in it, even though this is essentially the same language as 200 years ago. So, I want to work toward bringing the classical musical language fully to life again, by expressing new ideas in it and hopefully inspiring others to do the same.