MetaA6. Objections to jazz having or being a language
- 1 Discussion
- 2 Reasons to believe there is a language of jazz
- 3 Reasons to believe there is NOT a language of jazz
- 4 How to resolve the controversy over whether there is a language of jazz
- 5 Brain neurology connections between language and music cognitive processing
- 6 NOTES
Reasons to believe there is a language of jazz
Robert Kraut observes that when he is playing jazz, and especially when he improvises with other players, that it seems like he is having musical conversations, and therefore to this extent music has this sort of language aspect.
“Similarly, I experience music—at least, when performing—as a linguistic phenomenon. Playing feels like talking; collaborative improvisation feels like conversation. This, for me, is a starting point: a datum to be theorized about, not the conclusion of an argument. Music presents itself to me as a linguistic phenomenon; I am thus led to theorize about the relation(s) between art and language, and to seek theories that address the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of musical genres. But once again I am put at loggerheads with aesthetic theorists—this time those who dispute the applicability of linguistic models to music production and comprehension.” (bold not in original)
In another article, "Why Does Jazz Matter to Aesthetic Theory?" Robert Kraut quotes guitarist Pat Martino as believing that beginning jazz students need to learn and better appreciate how jazz has a language.
“I find that certain students have trouble perceiving music only because of the language. If they were shown that music is a language, like any other language, didn't realize it's only couched in different symbols. Then possibly they would understand that they knew things already, inherently.” (bold not in original)
Kraut points out that the use of the phrase "language of jazz" is commonplace amongst performers and critics alike.
“Martino's view that "music is a language, like any other language" is widespread among jazz musicians. Here, for example, is a description of guitarist Jim Hall: "His concept of time is a model to emulate," says drummer Joey Barron. "Jim plays but a few notes, leaving space for conversations with me." According to Jim, "listening is still the key." Such conversational imagery dominates the genre: from the inside, jazz performance feels like dialogue. . . . . The imagery is hardly confined to performers: jazz writers, noting the constant interplay and feedback sustaining the collaborative improvisational process, inevitably lapse into a linguistic perspective; thus Martin Williams: "Ornette's musical language is the product of a mature man who must speak through his horn. Every note seems to be born out of a need to communicate."” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Reasons to believe there is NOT a language of jazz
In "Why Does Jazz Matter to Aesthetic Theory" Robert Kraut provides decisive objections to any claim that jazz is a language in the full blown sense of any natural languages, such as Chinese, French, or English.
➢ What are Kraut's objections to jazz being equivalent to any natural languages?
Kraut points out all of the features had by anything were it to be a language in the same sense as English is a language. Here are these features necessarily had by any complete language.
“But from the perspective of theorists with background in logic, linguistics, and the philosophy of language, Martino's claim is puzzling. Not all collaborative activities are languages (soccer, for example, is not a language, despite the tremendous collaborative effort and interplay among the participants.) Linguistic behavior requires propositional content. Languages require a well-defined, countable lexicon, plus a set of syntactic rules for generating well-formed sequences, plus a set of semantical rules for interpreting well-formed sequences, plus a set of pragmatic rules for indexical constructions. And so on. Linguists and logicians frequently depict languages as set-theoretic entities, susceptible to codification and study with the resources of linguistic theory. Much of this bodes ill for thinking of music in linguistic terms: neither musical compositions nor musical performances are set-theoretic entities, nor is it clear that anything approximating lexicon, syntactic rules, semantic rules, and so forth can be specified for musical genres. (bold and bold italic not in original)
By way of review of Kraut's objections to music being a language perhaps the biggest one is the first one concerning propositional content. In analytic philosophy a proposition is meant to be the primary bearer of truth-values like true or false. This by itself rules out jazz as being anything comparable to natural languages because music never has any truth-value bearers. Nothing could ever happen in music where a proper response could be "That was false." Music and it's components are never making any true and/or false claims, nor even making any vague, contradictory, or possibly true or false claims. Music makes no claims whatsoever so never has any propositional content and hence cannot be, in fact, a language like English or French.
How to resolve the controversy over whether there is a language of jazz
Once it has been accepted that the use of the phrase "language of jazz" should not be understood as a language like a natural language such as English, as opposed to formal languages that have been artificially constructed, it must be that there is an alternative meaning or use of the term language when someone uses the phrase "the language of jazz.".
➢ What meaning can be given to the language of jazz such that it makes sense to call it a language but without having all of the features of natural languages?
What other things count as a language, but are not the same thing as natural languages? One answer is formal languages.
“Mathematical formal systems consist of the following:
* A finite set of symbols which can be used for constructing formulae.
* A grammar, i.e. a way of constructing well-formed formulae out of the symbols, such that it is possible to find a decision procedure for deciding whether a formula is a well-formed formula (wff) or not.
* A set of axioms or axiom schemata: each axiom has to be a well formed formula (wff).
* A set of inference rules.
* A set of theorems. This set includes all the axioms, plus all wffs which can be derived from previously-derived theorems by means of rules of inference. Unlike the grammar for wffs, there is no guarantee that there will be a decision procedure for deciding whether a given wff is a theorem or not.”
Can music be understood as a formal language? If it can it has to meet the above requirements. Music does have a finite set of notes which can be used to construct musical sentences or units appearing to satisfy the first requirement.
Regarding this first requirement it seems we can find something analogous in musical practices and systems. As soon though as we turn to the second requirement of needing a grammar such that decision procedures exist for determining well formed formulas there seems to be an unavoidable objection. What cannot count as a well formed formula or sequence of sounds and notes when considering music? There have been very dynamically harsh sounds found in some music that was intentionally produced and has been enjoyed by some listeners.
It is not likely then that music, and also all of the principles utilized during musical performances by musicians, is a full blown formal system satisfying all of the above requirements for being a formal language system.
➢ What, then, is left for an interpretation of what kind of language could jazz and other musicians be talking about?
It may well be that the use of language vocabulary and language talk is by analogy with natural languages. What could be said to be shared in common between natural language users and performing jazz musicians? Fortunately, answers have already been provided by theorists such as Robert Kraut.
Kraut points out that during group improvisational practices the musicians feel like they are conversing with each other. They are responding communicatively with sound and using numerous musical conventions and practices and even musical rules and principles as to how to proceed when performing with each other.
“Similarly, I experience music—at least, when performing—as a linguistic phenomenon. Playing feels like talking; collaborative improvisation feels like conversation. This, for me, is a starting point: a datum to be theorized about, not the conclusion of an argument. Music presents itself to me as a linguistic phenomenon;” (bold not in original)
Kraut supplies descriptions that relate musical practices to practices achieved by using natural languages, including claims of conversations and dialogues and needs to communicate using musical notes:
“"Jim plays but a few notes, leaving space for conversations with me." According to Jim, "listening is still the key." Such conversational imagery dominates the genre: from the inside, jazz performance feels like dialogue. . . . . The imagery is hardly confined to performers: jazz writers, noting the constant interplay and feedback sustaining the collaborative improvisational process, inevitably lapse into a linguistic perspective; thus Martin Williams: "Ornette's musical language is the product of a mature man who must speak through his horn. Every note seems to be born out of a need to communicate."” (bold not in original)
➢ What other connections exist between music and natural languages?
It is claimed at "Why Music Is a Universal Language," by Jennifer Patterson, Founder and President of California Music Studios, that there are these connections, “The same components that make up music—pitch, rhythm, and tempo—are also present in everyday speech no matter what language is being spoken.”
Brain neurology connections between language and music cognitive processing
Same brain areas process syntax in language and when listening while improvising with others 
Recently, in 2014, Charles Limb and his team of researchers put eleven male improvising pianists into a functional MRI machine with a custom built plastic keyboard and asked them to jam by trading fours (swapping solos every four bars of the beat) with another musician as the MRI machine recorded their brain activity.
The results appear to show that the same areas of the brain are used when processing the syntax of spoken sentences as when generating improvised solos during performances with others. Interestingly, the semantic processing brain areas are not active when musically improvising.
“The results took a big step toward describing the complexity of music's relationship to language. During the improvisations, the syntactic areas of players' brains—that is, the areas that interpret the structure of sentences—were super active, as if the two players were speaking to each other. Meanwhile, the semantic areas of their brains—the parts that process language's meaning—totally shut down. The brain regions that respond to musical and spoken conversation overlapped, in other words, but were not entirely the same. (bold not in original)
The author reporting on Limb's results concludes that the brain uses comparable neurological structures for language syntax processing as it does during improvised musical performances.
“This distinction has two big implications. First, because our brains don't discriminate between music and language structurally, we may in fact understand the structures of all forms of communication in the same way. Secondly, the way we understand the actual meaning of a conversation, though—the message its lines deliver to us—appears to depend on the medium of communication.” (bold not in original)
➢ How does any of this help explain how there could be a language of music?
The fact that comparable brain structures fire while processing the syntax of spoken sentences or when musically improvising by itself does not show that there is any such thing as the language of music. To better understand why not suppose that the same brain areas fire when you are playing dominoes as when using language. Would this establish that there is a language of dominoes? It doesn't seem that it has to so establish it.
What remains intriguing, however, is the massive amount of apparent syntactical processing discovered by the MRI studies because this makes sense that the brain could be processing both spoken language and heard music in some comparable ways. Both language and music have structures that require brain processes to be comprehended. The fact that music is relatively semantically empty is in accord with finding lack of cognitive structures firing that are responsible during language comprehension of the meanings of words and sentences. Music has no focused singular semantic meaning for musical notes. Beethoven's Da da da daaa (short, short, short, long) that opens the 5th symphony does not mean anything by itself in the same way that the word "dog" has meanings attached to it. Thus, it is not a surprise that the semantic areas of musician's brains are relatively quiescent during cognitive processing of music. On the other hand, it likely would be a surprise if the syntactic processing areas of the brain did not fire during musical performances because syntax deals with structure and structural relationships and music has plenty of that. See Wikipedia: Musical form.
- "Aesthetic Theory for the Working Musician," Robert Kraut, American Society of Aesthetics, Volume 32, Number 2, Summer 2012, 1.
- Quoted in Julie Coryell and Laura Friedman, Jazz-Rock Fusion, Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 1978, 171.
- "Why Does Jazz Matter to Aesthetic Theory?," Robert Kraut, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 63, No. 1, Winter, 2005, 9.
- "Why Does Jazz Matter to Aesthetic Theory?," Robert Kraut, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 63, No. 1, Winter, 2005, p. 10.
- "Formal Systems," New World Encyclopedia.
- See "Analogy and Analogical Reasoning" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Jennifer Patterson, "Why Music Is a Universal Language," Education Week's blogs: Global Learning, January 12, 2016, tenth paragraph.
- See Charles Limb's TED talk on "Your brain on improv."
- For other research relating language and musical neurological connections see Lutz Jäncke, "The Relationship between Music and Language," Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 3, 2012.
- Paul Biscegliofeb, "Is Music A Language?: If not, why can we use it to communicate?," Pacific Standard Magazine, February 26, 2014, 6th & 7th paragraphs.