Music as Language

We learn to speak through mimicry – and perhaps with an inherent template for language learning (passed on through ancestral DNA).  Our brains and physique are ‘born to speak’. We acquire a means of speaking which is backed by what we term ‘grammar’ – though this is learnt naturally (at least initially). Grammar gives continuity, logic and a technical bedrock to each language. What we hear (our fellow humans, the radio, the computer etc.), what we see (television and films in particular here), what we read (everything from ‘tweets’ to works of great literature) and their expression through our culture, forms our learnt language; the language we live within. Our ‘mother tongue’.

There are no doubt gaping holes in this brief summary but the result of us ‘being’ is for the most part (unless dumb) the ability to express ourselves through the sound of language. Further – this language can be written down using symbols – which, when ‘read’, produce corresponding sounds (language) in our head – more precisely in our MIND. A child will often love repetitive sounds – and play with words. A child’s language usually becomes more sophisticated as it grows and as it reads and reasons. We integrate language through reading and/or hearing it spoken and this integration becomes fluid and constantly aids our fluency. When we learn to speak a foreign language, say as an adult, we are thrown back into a kind of child-like state. We become the age of the language level we can speak. Becoming fluent takes time. It is a process. We want to say something; we search for the words in our head (and/or we translate the words in our head as we search); we speak these words and hope we are understood. Like learning anything – to begin with it’s ‘clunky’.

When we learn to play a musical instrument we are not fluent. That takes time. Take learning the drums. This is both physical and mental. Physically we need to know the technique of holding the sticks (to facilitate ‘ease’ and control of playing); we need to efficiently use our feet on the bass drum (kick drum) pedal and the hi-hat pedal; we need a certain amount of energy – but some female (and male) drummers though very slightly built produce tremendous energy! Different music requires different drumming skills – and in this it’s not so much a different language but maybe a dialect and certainly a different ‘accent’. As we learn the drums we are eventually able to have independence of our limbs. Meaning we can play an independent rhythm on each limb which will create a composite rhythm. In order to do this there is a certain approach: Play the right hand pattern – add the left hand. Add the right foot. Add the left foot. Thus the hand patterns becomes integrated. We don’t think about what each hand is doing – their rhythm has become one. The right foot is added and that too is integrated – then finally the left foot. Like learning to drive a car – it seems impossible to change gear before we learn to do it – eventually we simply don’t think about it. It becomes ‘natural’. In fact changing gear on a car uses all four limbs (as with the drums) – we don’t expect to be able to drive straight away, neither do we expect to be able to play an instrument straight away!

There are ‘talking drums’ (played with one hand and a crooked stick by the other) – the drum is squeezed underneath an arm as it is played, thus the pitch of the drum rises or lowers – and ‘talks’. Drums have been used to communicate over long distances across the ages. But I’m now going to talk about the relationship between playing the drums and the thoughts supporting that (or not!). Let’s take a drum solo. My ability to play the solo is limited by my technique: the grammar being the rudiments and the rudiments being that technique. These rudiments – like the ‘paradiddle’ (which is onomatopoeic) are combinations of single and double stroke strikes, sometimes with added grace notes. Therefore the core of all the rudiments is the single-stroke roll and the double-stroke roll. We could say our vocabulary is each hit on a drum or cymbal in whichever fashion – shouting (CRASHING a cymbal) or whispering (the flutter of a wire brush).

The ‘paradiddle’ is played by the hands (or sometimes feet or between the two):

 R L R R  and L R L L. They are played evenly spaced. And they sound like Pa Ra Did Dle. As you can see they are a combination of two single notes followed by a double. These rudiments can get quite complicated – but the main thing to say is that once you have learnt them they can be introduced fluently, easily and whenever requited – WITHOUT thinking about how they sound. Both the sound and the length/duration of the phrase is already known.

Okay on the drum-kit we have both drums and cymbals – all of which give different sounds and we have our rudiments underlying much of what we play. We learn how to play rhythms on the kit – which is a combined way of breaking bars and/or phrases into certain components. We can hit the hi-hat cymbal four times and play the bass drum along with the first hit and the snare drum along with the third hit. We can count to four as we play this. And thus we have a ‘bar’ of four/four time – 4/4. This beat is satisfying and fits well with lots of modern, popular music. We can also FILL around the kit. This means we can stop the rhythm – hit the toms (say four beats divided around the toms) and end with a crash cymbal at the beginning of the next bar. Each fill is like a concentrated phrase. As a beginner you think a lot before laying down the FILL – thus as you think the rhythm might either speed up or slow down beforehand. As you play the fill it might speed up (usually) or slow down. Once you don’t have to think – it should remain in exact time. Once you don’t have to think about what you’re going to play in a concentrated manner – ideas flow. Like changing gear in a car – you do so without thinking and at the appropriate time.

How conscious are we when we play the drums? This is the crux. Are we thinking? Are we consciously thinking hard about what we are going to play – or even AS we play? Are we NOT thinking? Or is it a combination of the two!? Speaking for myself, I immediately think it’s ‘directed thought’. As if I stand back from the drums and become the conductor. As I play I allow myself to channel spontaneous rhythms and phrases but a part of me is able to look and listen on and give ‘me’ ideas that – theoretically – I should be able to transition to with ease. Effectively a two-way thought-conversation with myself! My brain is not overloaded – my technique is precise(ish) and I have done many solos, so I have an overall idea of what might/will sound good. BUT. I am not conscious of a road map writ in stone! I might choose a different route from the start to the finish. The finish will be dependent on many things – my general feeling/ascertaining the audience’s response/whether I’ve boxed myself into a ‘natural’ ending. And the rather conservative nature of not going on too long! Gone are the days of 10 minute drum solos. Alas!

When I play I’m not constantly thinking of what I’m playing (that’s a disaster in fact) and not ruining what might happen with thinking about what I might do (too much). And this is where it’s exactly like language. You direct thought but if you try and speak and think exactly of what you’re saying simultaneously – it won’t happen. It’s like talking and hearing a very pronounced echo. It puts you off – in fact with such an echo it’s very difficult to keep speaking or speak ‘in time’/rhythmically. All of the practice skills, all of one’s technique, the ambiance and how you feel (very creative?) and – I would add – a sprinkling of ‘magic’ (if you’re lucky) means that you play naturally, almost effortlessly and with joy. Joy is communicated with the audience and that resonates back. You have enough storage in the brain to stand back and direct yourself to where you’re going next – it might even surprise you! You might try something new. You might drop a stick (which could take you out of the narrative you’re creating – like a ‘typo’ in a piece of writing). Our job is to allow the spirit of music to pass through us – and that means we can’t be too tense or allow too much thinking. We have to express the music and give ourselves over to it.

When we learn a new rhythm or melody – we are VERY concentrated. It seems at times as if we won’t be able to play it. We break the piece down, practice it and then re-assemble it! Often when we are nearly there (the rhythm/melody feeling so close) we play and try and listen to what we are playing at the same time. This usually means that we mess up and stop! At this point it is best to leave the rhythm or melody for a time and then when coming back to it we often find we CAN play it – our mind having sorted things out for us subconsciously. This is quite magical. Yes it all takes time. But then when we read something complicated (say about Quantum Physics) and have to explain that to someone it takes time to read, understand, integrate and be able to express that competently to another – or like this essay, be able to type squiggles and trust the brain of the reader will comprehend what I am trying to say!

The more technique we have (the grammar) the easier we can make the drums talk for us and communicate. The spirit of the music is unlimited but when it passes through us we can indeed limit it – that is dependent on us, our level of skills and, to an extent, the quality of our instrument. Fortunately this spirit understands that we are doing our best to serve it and it is generous-hearted. Beginners through to experts have need of this spirit. When it flows perfectly we can glide along with it and simply will its movement through us. This might sound fanciful – but something definitely goes on; something deep – unconscious or sub-conscious. It’s like when you speak about something you love or begin to write a story or paint a picture – magic can happen. And each time you do it you’re learning and extending the vocabulary of technique and experience. At that moment – everything you have done previously becomes the focus for your creativity. You can reach a creative pinnacle.

I’m thinking about this and even typing as I think and the ideas and meaning of what I’m doing musically or am trying to explain arrive or arrives spontaneously. And yet – sometimes I need to have a break because it’s exhausting too (especially so with the practising example mentioned above). And after a break new ideas will often flow. If I am IN the flow then I cannot break from it or that flow (and its ideas) will be lost. That is when the spirit is passing through us. You can’t abandon that moment. And this applies to any creative act – and even talking/speaking creatively! (The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was disturbed by ‘the visitor from Porlock’ while he was writing his famous poem Kubla Khan (1707). Such an intrusion can cut or kill creativity!)

I took a break and an idea came to me – thus I’m pulled back here.
Just as with speaking (especially in public) performing suffers from certain things. And these things are also an insight into how we think/don’t think/play. Over-concentration/nerves/tiredness/lack of preparation/an uninterested audience/fear of failure/unwillingness to take risks/not knowing the subject properly (or the genre of the music) – all of these things will take away fluency and creativity.

What am I trying to do when I perform a drum solo? Demonstrate skills/entertain/excel/communicate/become absorbed/create an atmosphere/make folk dance (perhaps). It’s a mental/physical/spiritual approach. I’m ‘showing off’ too! That’s the hardest part for me. That’s when I can step back and criticise myself (my ego) and then the solo is in danger of collapsing! Like a climber scaling a cliff – whatever the reason to be there he/she/we need to get to the top. We can’t freeze. If we freeze we’re stuck on a ledge and might fall.

Finally – we are at our best speaking/talking when we don’t overthink – when we speak fluently and naturally – when all of our ideas and reading experience are at hand to draw from – our memory in tip-top form. When we are both talking and listening – and truly communicating. Maybe everything that we do or say is pre-determined and we just mouth our lines like an actor. Maybe we have a little leeway regarding controlling our present and what we say and do in it. In this sense playing a drum solo (or any solo or rhythm on any instrument) we just have to stay in control of the reins and allow the spirit to move us. Perhaps our essential character comes out in a solo. Wouldn’t the best solo also be the most authentic?

Music can also be written down, where its meaning like a closed book, lies dormant until we – the reader – bring it to life. When we read and play an instrument the sound of that instrument is the words, the phrases, the chapters, the story. It is understood in a very primordial way by the listener as well as in any intellectual fashion. Music appeals to the senses and emotions. Maybe playing music is a refined form of spoken and written language – or maybe even their antecedent. Speaking and playing are both mysteries in their own ways. Notes and words drift into our minds like snow. Settling or not. We receive far more than we will. Language can snow us under. ‘Too many notes Mr. Mozart’ – an infamous quote supposedly from none other than Emperor Joseph II!  Mozart was quick to retort: ‘Just as many as necessary, Your Majesty.’  

Has this answered the question of thinking and playing (an instrument) or thinking and talking or writing or singing?  Maybe partly. And when all’s said and all’s done – we are simply making sounds using our vocal cords and tongue etc. And I am just banging some plastic stretched tightly across the head of a drum or striking some plates of metal! The consequences of these sounds can, of course, be highly profound and/or deeply moving.

Language and music are our essence. And when music as language truly speaks to us – it is SUBLIME!

Now where did I leave my sticks? 😉

Tim Bragg is the authour of many books including Lyrics To Live By and Lyrics To Live By 2

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay


1 Comment »

  1. My drum channel (if any folk are interested):


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