Language, Tonality, and the Grammar of Western Music

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“Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
– Genesis 11:7

Part 1: Music and Language

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Over the past five years, I’ve been exploring (slowly) the world of music that exists outside of conventional Western tonality – which is to say: music not tuned to a piano. Most all of the music we hear and listen to (with a few exceptions) is tuned in 12-tone equal temperament (hereafter referred to as 12-ET). 12-ET is, simply put, the notes on the piano. C, C#/Db, D, D#/Db, et cetera (click here for a detailed explanation of 12-tone equal temperament). Most conventional instruments are fretted in this tuning, and even fretless instruments are rarely used to play something other than 12-ET.

As lifelong listeners of music, we know on an implicit level, before the first listen, what an album will sound like. I’m not speaking of our assumptions about instrumentation, arrangements, or melodies and harmonies in any given genre. I’m speaking directly of the one implicit assumption we all have when we approach new music: tonality. We take 12-ET for granted, never considering that music could be written using a completely different tonal base.

We do this because we are exposed only to music written in 12-ET from a young age. During the critical, formative periods of our young years, we exclusively experience music written in conventional 12-ET tuning. As we progress in our musical experience, we often look for new, challenging sounds (especially we in the metal community); but what we do not always look for, and indeed, something we may not even consider, is to change the basic framework of Western music. We approach new music with the same presuppositions we approach reading new concepts or writing using more complex language; that is, from an English standpoint.

Let’s explore further the similarity between our understanding of music and our understanding of language: we are exposed to language very early on in our lives, and it continues to be a subject of speculation how young children acquire language as quickly as they do. What we do know for certain is that children exposed to language are able to learn it, and eventually speak in complex sentences, conveying the meaning in their thoughts to other people in their social circles. Initially, we give this acquisition of knowledge little thought; it’s only later in life that we start giving grammar lessons, or spelling bees, to ensure our children’s understanding of language is of a high enough calibre to be able to communicate effectively in reading, writing, and speaking.

How often have we remarked “she is out of tune” or “he can’t carry a tune”? We recognize tonality as though it were a language, a common ground of comprehension, and interact with music based on that implicit assumption. 12-ET is our first music language, and to break from its mold when challenged with an alternate musical language is difficult – more difficult, in ways, to learn a second language, since encountering a different language is more common in life than encountering an alternate tonality.

Tonality is our way of understanding music — it is essentially our grammar. It is the framework, the rule, through which a wide variety of statements can be made. When we encounter a new tonality, we are as lost as we would be speaking with a person whose language we couldn’t understand. We may be able to grab onto a few things here and there, but as far as understanding goes, we’d be hopelessly unable to make any kind of meaningful communication.


Part 2: Acquisition

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There have been many theories of language acquisition, most of them dealing with how infants learn their first language. I’ll focus on only two of these theories here: Blank Slate and Nativism. Blank Slate theorists maintain humans are born with nothing more than instinct, and any bit of knowledge, including language, can be taught at any time – ergo, a first language can be learned at any point in a human’s life. Nativists argue that language is too complex for infants to be able to understand as rapidly as they do, so in each individual there must exist a genetic predisposition to learn language at a young age. (I feel it necessary to point out this is both a generalization and a fraction of the study of language acquisition. Anyone more interested in the field of languages can find a great deal of research on the subject via a quick Google search; however, exploring its nuances is not the object of my intent.)

As it’s quite difficult to find any children who haven’t had enough social interaction to not have learned a first language, most theories on language acquisition stay theories. However, there has been one case – a simultaneously fascinating and particularly unhappy case – of a girl pseudonymously called Genie who never learned a first language. This case provided the world of linguistics with one of its only chances to examine the Blank Slate vs. Nativist debate.

Genie grew up with a viciously abusive father who hated noise. At 20 months old, Genie’s father kept her locked in a room, either strapped to the toilet in a homemade harness or in a crib, strapped into a sleeping bag, under a metal grate. He refused to speak around her, and would either beat her when she would make noise, or he would bark and growl and scratch her.  Genie’s father would beat her brother and mother if they spoke too loud or too close to Genie. She lived this way until she was 13, at which point she was rescued.

Her story is incredibly sad, though she did survive (and is still alive today). However, her particularly horrific circumstances provided scholars with an unprecedented opportunity to study a child who never learned a first language. Because Genie’s father ensured, through force, her silence, at the time of her rescue she had not learned how to speak. According to the Blank Slate theorists, Genie ought to have been able to learn her first language at any time in her life, though she suffered from severe issues stemming from her traumatic childhood.

This ended up not being the case, striking a huge blow to the Blank Slate theorists and marking a triumph for the Nativists. Genie was never able to learn a “first language” (her nonverbal communication was excellent; however, linguists don’t consider nonverbal language to be a “first language”), which aligned with an earlier theory proposed by Noam Chomsky: there is a specific time in a child’s life in which they are able to learn a first language; after that time, the child stops learning language and learns grammer, explaining why a second language can never be learned like a first language. Genie’s case seemed to support this theory, though the debate continues to this day.

If we take Genie’s case and Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition and apply it to tonality, our common language of music, an interesting thought occurs. What if, as I suggested earlier, language is like music? What if we’re taught the language of music at a young age, a specific tonality, the tonality that becomes our framework for understanding music for the rest of our lives? 12-ET is our “first language.” We learn it as infants, and spend the rest of our lives understanding our world in our tonality. To learn a second tonality is to learn a second language: it is no longer natural past a certain age.

This would explain why out-of-tune-ness is so difficult for us to digest, and why auto-tune is so prevalent in modern music. We are so accustomed to our “language” we can’t interact with music outside of it.  In interpersonal relationships it’s much more difficult to avoid having to communicate with people who may speak a different language, yet in music the understanding is one-sided: the music doesn’t care if you understand it, and you may feel you don’t need to bother. If you move to a different country where nobody speaks your language, existence will be quite difficult. If you put on an album that speaks a different “language”, you can simply turn it off rather than bother with attempting comprehension.


Part 3: World Language

World Languages

Across the world there are some 6,500 languages spoken. It is a given that travelling to a different location will raise some questions about how to communicate. Beyond the language difference there are myriad cultural differences, social customs, policies, laws, architecture – the list is unending. In this, the key point of cultural difference that I wish to outline is music; specifically, the tonality of music.

Is it not fascinating that different cultures employ different tonalities in their folk musics? Indian music utilizes quarter tones. Western music primarily relies on 12-ET. Mongolian throat singing uses a harmonic overtone series which does not include the majority of the full 12-tone scale. Across the world different tonalities are used as are different languages: to communicate to those who understand. And these people understand their own language. As outsiders, we hear quarter tone music and it sounds exotic, or strange, or just plain wrong. And yet they understand it, in a way that we do not (and, likely, a way we never will). This is their “first language”, and unless we grew up in a “bilingual” home (a concept I will revisit later) we will never understand their “language” in the way they do.

For example, let us take folk music from the island of Krk, Yugoslavia (which can be heard here). While it is clearly music (much in the same way Swahili is clearly a language), it is music that is incredibly foreign to our ears. When we try to pick out the “grammar” of the music, the tonal centre, it becomes apparent we are dealing with different rules, different understandings than our own. The spaces between the notes themselves are not anything like the regulated and ruled spaces in 12-ET. The music becomes a different language, one easily understood by the people of Krk, but one foreign and difficult to understand to our Western ears – albeit one difficult to understand without the benefit of “second language acquisition.”


Part 4: Second Language Acquisition

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Why learn a second language? There are many situations in which understanding a second language would be helpful. Even if there is no practical reason for learning a new language, the insight one gains into a different culture and people group by understanding their language is unparalleled. Language can tell us about the history of entire groups of people, yet is fluid, alive, and flowing – enough to be unique from country to country, or even changing within cities or between streets. Spanish, for example, is spoken all over the world, yet pronunciation and grammar rules can change from country to country, or even within a country. The language, while still falling under the umbrella of “Spanish” (which in turn comes from Latin, or is a “Romantic” language), takes on a highly personal, highly specific form in specific contexts.

So why learn a second musical language? For many of the same reasons. While there may be no obvious practical reason to immerse yourself in microtonality, understanding it opens up doorways to different cultures, different experiences, different sounds. There is, literally, a world of different tunings available to listen to. People, even in Western music, have been experimenting with microtonality for quite some time. Certain musics from around the world are based off of these different “grammatical” rules, giving them an odd, yet beautiful sound — once an understanding of the musical language is achieved. Many different parts of the world understand and experience music differently than we do. Is this not an experience that, as avid listeners of music, we desire? Why limit ourselves to conventional tonality when there are so many fundamentally different sounds to hear?

When we learn a second language, it becomes exponentially easier to learn a third. In learning a second language as adults, we don’t simply learn words and grammar, we learn the tools that allow us to grasp a second way of communicating. Once we have those tools, it is simpler to tackle a third, fourth, or even fifth language, because the method is in place. The same is true of music. Say you only listened to pop rock for fifteen years, at which point you were introduced to heavy metal. Initially, it would be mind boggling. It would probably sound like noise, rife with screaming, distortion, and all manner of things completely foreign to pop rock. But, if you stuck with it, little by little you’d perceive chord progressions, words, even melodies. And suddenly it’s no longer noise, but music. Once you’d realized there were other genres of music out there besides pop rock, and you’d gotten yourself to a place of fundamental understanding of heavy metal, moving out into, say, hip-hop would be significantly easier. Or folk. Or any other genre — because the building blocks fundamental to understanding new concepts are there. The same is true of understanding microtonality. Once your understanding of its “language” shifts from experiment to true comprehension, moving to newer, more complex forms of tonality will not be nearly as difficult.


Part 5: Experimentation

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If music truly is, as I have speculated here, a second language, something that we learn as kids and then can learn again as adults, and there is a plethora of “languages” to be learned, why would we not expose our children to these “languages”? If the Naturalism case for language acquisition is correct, then we limit our children when we exclusively expose them to 12-ET. Is it not better to raise a child bilingually (provided the parents are bilingual) than unilingually? The child will grow up speaking and understanding two natural languages — clearly a desirable trait. In the same way, we should desire our children understand more than one musical language.

So expose your children to different tunings at a young age. Allow them to have an understanding of that different language that you never got to have. I believe that exposing children to microtonality (that is, tunings outside of 12-ET) will only benefit them in the long run. Children who hear two languages growing up are able to speak two languages, not as something learned in a classroom, but as something implicit, something completely natural. I hypothesize children who hear different tonalities growing up will be able to “speak the language,” or have a natural implicit understanding of tonalities that we, in our exclusive exposure to 12-ET, never had the option to have.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn. If we can learn a second language, then we can learn a different tonality. And while the prospect of learning a second language can be daunting, difficult, and frustrating, just remember we’re all here because we love music. We may not have a passion for language, but what we all do have a passion for is music. When you care about something deeply, then learning about it becomes not a chore but a privilege, not a job but a hobby. And if there’s a world of microtonal music out there that I don’t understand, then I’ll be damned if I don’t want to understand it. When we stop challenging ourselves, when we stop learning languages, we stagnate. It’s the death of creativity and personal growth. Too often people dismiss music because it doesn’t align with their very narrow paradigms of what they like, or what they have deemed as good — I believe this is a childish mistake. I implore you to not make this mistake, and instead continue to learn the language of music, to expand your vocabulary, and to continue to grow.


Header image from “Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz” by John Stump.

Thanks to Christian Molenaar for showing me a song featured in this article, and for generally exposing me to excellent microtonal music.

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