Music: The Universal Language and the miracle of Notation

“Music is the universal language!”

So begin countless speeches and essays. It is a popular sentiment, spoken and written by musicians, music lovers and community leaders the world over. It may be a rallying cry to save music education; it may be the opening salvo at a gala; it may be the first line of a dissertation or biography. Music is the universal language–the, not a. It is an absolute. 

Music is the universal language–even western art music, so often referred to as ‘classical music’ and increasingly maligned as elitist and out of touch. In fact, despite this accusation, one may say that it is especially western art music which is universal, as it seeks to express human emotion and idealism through sound. But it is the frequency and often casual nature with which the sentiment of universality is expressed which tends to detract from the power of that very message. Are we fully aware of just how awesome this force is–and how lucky we are to have such a system of codification?

Musical notation is often considered by non-musicians to be a mystic language.Even trained–and, dare I say it, professional–musicians some times take it for granted. Musical notation contains a vast amount of information. It has certainly evolved over the centuries, not least of all due to reasons of practical culture. To read one of the preludes and fugues of Bach’s encyclopedic ‘Well Tempered Clavier’ would seem to a lay-person to be devoid of direction, especially if it were being compared to a page of a symphony by Mahler; but this is where oral tradition would have taken precedent in the age of Bach, as he would expect the musician playing his work to understand the style and thus be able to make informed decisions almost instantly. Returning to our comparison with the latter is perhaps a bit unfair, speaking musicological, given not only the century and a half between the creation of Bach’s magnum opus and the symphonic career of Mahler, but the radical shifts in culture and practice, musical and general. Allowing ourselves this comparison, for the sake of argument, we are taken from a single musician playing in a style to a society of musicians playing his (Mahler’s) style, with the composer now willing to leave nothing to chance and therefore providing an encyclopedia of his own.

In each case, however, we have been left more than a simple guide to the music. We have been given a map, complete with topographical detail, landmark histories and even weather reports. We are given everything, even where information seems to be missing. A universal language indeed! We are reminded that the universe is not merely the physical expanse of space, but also time (past, present and future), dimension and the world of the metaphysical. 

How often do we stop to realize how lucky we are for this gift of notation? This has been a recent realization for me. In doing research for an upcoming concert, pouring through recordings and articles, I kept coming across videos of ‘reconstructions of the original (choreography.) Ah–reconstructions! How often must we reconstruct other art forms? We can often only guess at the choreography of a 19th century ballet, or what a completed painting of a great master lost long ago would look like, or what Shakespeare’s pronunciations would sound like–and then we must create a context for that. It makes for wonderful scholarship, of course, and a fine exercise in empathy and understanding–but it also leaves us with little more than conjecture and speculation, sophisticated though it is. 

How fortunate we are, then, to be able to know exactly what Bach meant? Or Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler–the list is endless. Scholarship (formal or informal) is essential, naturally, to become a well-rounded musician and to understand style. But when starting to rehearse a Beethoven symphony or Mozart opera, we do not have to guess; we do not need to start from scratch. The map exists, and we may spend our time interpreting–and understanding–rather than trying to remember through reconstruction.

This is not to say that the musician is reduced to an animated scholar. Imagination is crucial. Through a knowledge of style, history and the individual’s own virtuoso technical ability, music springs from the page and is brought to life. And what life! Each performance, when given the proper attention and enthusiasm from ensemble and audience alike, may become a premiere. What an opportunity for time-travel and empathy. For even in the 21st century we may find ourselves astounded by the invention of Bach; by the endless wonder of Mozart; by the raw power of Beethoven; by the epoch-making (and forward-looking) Mahler; and countless others.

Style could easily take up a series of articles and I cannot begin to delve into such a complex subject in such a modest essay, but I will allow one brief comment concerning musical responsibility.

A musician has two responsibilities: understand the style and honor the intent of the composer. Style is the realization of notation while intent is the interpretation and manifestation of empathy with the soul of the composer. Any good musician may master style but it is in the search for intent that we may become artists.

Notation allows us to communicate in spite of our human limitations. Yes, it truly is the universal language.

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