MetaA5. What is the language of jazz?
- 1 The Language of Jazz is Used by Musicians
- 2 Summary of the Language of Jazz
- 3 The Meta-Language of Jazz
- 4 How Is Jazz Like a Language?
- 5 Why the Language of Jazz is Not a Language Like English
- 6 Internet Resources on Language and Jazz
- 7 NOTES
The Language of Jazz is Used by Musicians
Undoubtedly the phrase "language of jazz" is used by musicians and commentators alike.
Robert Kraut reports that guitarist Pat Martino believes that jazz students need better appreciate how jazz is a language.
For example here is the opening paragraph of The Jazz Language: A Theory Text for Jazz Composition and Improvisation by Dan Haerle:"The jazz language is a specialized form of communication within the world of music. To be able to express himself fluently, the jazz musician must have a good grasp of the grammar, vocabulary and structures of this language. This simply means that he must have a thorough understanding of the construction of chords and scales and a ready knowledge of their applications as resources which are available to serve his expression."
What Dan Haerle correctly claims is that the study and theory of jazz requires a studied musician to know a vast array of specific musical information and vocabulary both to be proficient and exemplary. Here is a list of the relevant terms and concepts presented in his book that constitutes the theoretical language of jazz when it is being discussed.
- 1. INTERVALS
- Inversion of Intervals
- Intervals Larger Than An Octave
- 2. BASIC CHORD CONSTRUCTION
- 6th Chords
- 7th Chords
- 3. MODES OF THE MAJOR SCALE
- Chord-Scale Relationships
- 4. BASIC SUBSTITUTION AND FUNCTION
- Major Key Functions
- Minor Key Functions
- The II-V-I Progression
- Turn-around Progressions
- Improving Progressions
- 5. THIRTEENTH CHORDS
- 6. MODES OF THE HARMONIC MINOR SCALE
- Chord-Scale Relationships
- 7. VOICING AND CONNECTING CHORDS
- Guidelines for the Connection of Voicing
- 8. MODES OF THE ASCENDING MELODIC MINOR SCALE
- 9. POLYCHORD NOMENCLATURE
- 10. SYMMETRICAL ALTERED SCALES
- The Chromatic Scale
- The Whole Tone Scale
- Diminished Scales
- 11. ADVANCED SUBSTITUTION AND FUNCTION
- Borrowed Chords
- Secondary Dominants
- Dual Functions
- Chord Quality Changes
- Tri-tone Substitutions
- Melody Harmonization
- 12. PENTATONIC AND BLUES SCALES
- Major Pentatonic
- Minor Pentatonic
- Synthetic Pentatonics
- 13. FIVE PART HARMONY
- Expansion of Three Note Voicings
- Chords Voiced in 4ths
- Modal Harmony
- Polychord Voicings
- 14. SYNTHETIC SCALES
- The Harmonic Major
- Wrong Note Scales
Summary of the Language of Jazz
We can summarize this list more quickly by stating that a studied jazz musician needs to understand the language and concepts of intervals, chords, scales (major/minor and diatonic/pentatonic), voicings, polychords, substitutions, and harmony.
All of these aspects constitute what a jazz musician should know about and all of this vocabulary is part (presumably) of what makes up the language of jazz as regards standard Western music theory. This is the language and vocabulary that would be used by studied musicians talking about a jazz performance or composition. Of course, the language being used is actually the English language, in this particular case, since all of the above terms are found within the English language and it is indisputable that English is a language. Is this all that has been meant by the language of jazz? What exactly has been happening here?
The Meta-Language of Jazz
The answer is that these musicians in talking about these musical aspects found when playing jazz may have been using a metalanguage. A metalanguage is a language used to talk about a language itself. All natural languages contain within themselves the possibility of talking about their own language by using its own metalanguage to do so.Wikipedia on metalanguage says this: "Broadly, any metalanguage is language or symbols used when language itself is being discussed or examined." In logic and linguistics, a metalanguage is a language used to make statements about statements in another language (the object language). Expressions in a metalanguage are often distinguished from those in an object language by the use of italics, quotation marks, or writing on a separate line."
Let's stick to just English as our example language. When people are using English to discuss the weather, then this could be called a use of English at the base level, or object level. If these same English speakers begin to talk about the structure of the English language itself, such as the syntax of the language or its grammatical constructions, then they have started to use an English metalanguage that we could call a higher level language.
To picture and discuss this more easily we can use numbered subscripts. The fundamental or primary or lowest order language, often called the object level, could be called English0. When discussing the weather the object language being used is English0. If the conversation turns to a discussion of English grammar, then the speakers are now using a metalanguage of English that can be called English1. If these same conversational participants now begin to discuss the language of English1, then they would then be using English2 (sometimes called a metametalanguage) and so on.
The question remains though as to whether the base or object level of jazz is itself really a language. We know for a fact that English is a language and the metalanguage musicians are using to discuss this object level of music is itself undisputedly a language. The questions remain, however, is this foundational or non-meta linguistic object level itself a language, and if so what kind of language is it, and how does it compare to a natural language? Is musical knowledge contained in a language of music?
Intervals are found both in horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) structures in music. A musician in any idiom of music must be thoroughly grounded in a solid understanding of intervals in the following ways:
- 1. He must know how to spell (construct) them in any key.
- 2. He must be able to identify them both visually and aurally when he sees or hears them.
- 3. He must be able to conceptualize the intervals by singing, either vocally or internally.
- 4. He must be able to play them anywhere within the range of his instrument.
An interval is simply the distance between two notes. This distance is measured by the number of whole and/or half steps between the two notes involved. Sometimes an interval may be defined as a combination of two smaller intervals. An example of both ways of thinking might be the following: A perfect 5th consists of 3½ steps or is the combination of a major 3rd and a minor 3rd.
There are basically two kinds of intervals: melodic and harmonic. Melodic intervals are those which involve two successive tones while harmonic intervals consist of two tones which occur simultaneously.
Another way of conceiving intervals is to relate them to some portion of a major or minor scale. For example, a major 3rd is composed of the 1st and 3rd notes of a major scale. A good knowledge of major and minor scales is essential to many kinds of theoretical and practical musical activity.
What is the language of jazz about?
How Is Jazz Like a Language?
To what does this refer? How is it like a language and how is it not?
At The Jazz Resource's "Playing the blues scale" explains one sense in which musical knowledge relates to a natural language in terms of the use of phrases.“Once you know the notes it's time to begin coming up with some interesting melodies. This is the part that can take a lifetime to master. Making "good" melodies is a nearly ineffible artform in itself so let's begin.
One shouldn't merely play a constant string of random notes from the blues scale (unless that is your artistic intent), melodies are broken up into groups of notes called "phrases". Phrases are similar to sentences in language. There are certain aspects to consider and experiment when playing melodic phrases, the length of the phrases, the contour of the phrases, whether notes are repeat or are consecutive or if they jump around, the length of the individual notes, how the rhythm relates to the beat of the music, which notes fall on which beats, are there repeating patterns in with the phrase, and so forth. It is good to have a start and an ending to each phrase. Also, leaving space between your phrases (between a beat and a few measures) helps the ear digest what it just heard.
Now when soloing, you want to build energy to a climax and then release that energy and start over. So in order to build energy:
-Repeat phrases and/or just repeat notes.
-Play ideas that ascend.
-Constantly switch directions up and down.
-Play busier which means faster and/or with less space.
-Play louder and crescendo.
-Play long intense notes.
-Bend notes (sometimes via grace notes for some instruments)
Now in order release energy:
-Play descending ideas.
-Play slower and with more space between phrases.
-Play long relaxing notes.
-Don't play anything.
When stringing phrases together, sometimes it is good to play contrasting concepts such as playing a couple short phrases followed by a long phrase or playing something really loud and then really soft, or playing something fast and crazy and then play something slow and more relaxed. This is where your artistic individualism can shine. (bold not in original)
Oxford Living dictionary defines a phrase in natural languages as “a small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit, typically forming a component of a clause,” then continues with the definition of a musical phrase as “a group of notes forming a distinct unit within a longer passage.”
Why the Language of Jazz is Not a Language Like English
Is jazz knowledge at the performance level in fact a language in the same sense as English or Chinese is a language? See MetaA6. Objections to jazz having or being a language in Ontology:Metaphysics for more discussion on this specific topic.
The basic conception of what constitutes language is that it is a formal system of signs or symbols governed by grammatical rules of combination to communicate meaning.
Does music have signs or symbols that are governed by grammatical rules to communicate meaning?
Reasons Why Jazz Satisfies the Definition of Language
To satisfy this definition of Language jazz must meet the various requirements of the definition. Jazz would need to have signs or symbols, these symbols need to be governed by rules, and the resulting symbolic constructions that follow the rules need to create meaning.
What are signs or symbols in instrumental jazz?
The symbols in jazz could be notes, musical phrases, even melodies.
Wikipedia on Semiotics, which is the study of signs, explains how semiotics is a broader science than linguistics (the study of language) because:Semiotics differs from linguistics in that it generalizes the definition of a sign to encompass signs in any medium or sensory modality. Thus it broadens the range of sign systems and sign relations and extends the definition of language in what amounts to its widest analogical or metaphorical sense."
Were musical components to function as signs then they would fall within the domain of semiotics because music qualifies as a sensory modality when perceived.
Wikipedia characterizes a sign as:something that can be interpreted as having a meaning, which is something other than itself, and which is therefore able to communicate information to the one interpreting or decoding the sign. Signs can work through any of the senses, visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory or taste, and their meaning can be intentional such as a word uttered with a specific meaning, or unintentional such as a symptom being a sign of a particular medical condition.
Another feature of Language is that it be rule governed.
What is a rule? What is it like to follow a rule?
Reasons Why Jazz Cannot Satisfy the Definition of Language
Internet Resources on Language and Jazz
- Cambridge Advanced Learner‘s Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dictionary online. Available at metalanguage . Internet. Retrieved 20 November 2010.
- The Jazz Resource's "Playing the Blues Scale," paragraphs 6-9.