Ask Damian Erskine: Music as a Language

Q: I often hear people speak of music as a language but for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to relate to that idea and make it useful. Any thoughts?

A: You’re not alone. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’ve been in the same boat you’re in.

I have chosen to think of it this way: there is the rhythmic language as well as the harmonic language. Each style has it’s own dialect. Some of us can speak with more authority when playing jazz and others with funk (or any other style). Others can only speak reggae while others can only feel country music. It’s usually a combination of both the rhythmic vocabulary and harmonic vocabulary.

You could say that each style is it’s own language or that each style is more of a dialect (i.e. urban slang or southern slang). However you think about it, consider a few of these things when exploring new styles on your instrument.

The more words we fully understand, the more clearly we can speak.

Each style has common phrases, licks, melodies and tonalities used to communicate the feel of the song. For example, you hear a lot of pentatonic licks in the blues (as well as funk), and you hear more chromaticism and angularity in jazz.

You will also hear different rhythms that relate to each style of music. For example, clave in latin and African music, swinging in jazz, emphasis on 1 & 3 in bluegrass and so on.

We need to explore the language of the style we want to play in order to speak it with authority. Learn the common licks, phrases and rhythms so you can dialogue with the musicians around you!

Our own voice

This is where we have amassed enough of a vocabulary to form our own thoughts. The way we phrase a line. That lick you came up with that you’ve never heard before. The way you discovered to navigating certain chord types, etc. These are all parts of our vocabulary, and when we are speaking from our own minds and not regurgitating ideas we’ve memorized from others, this is when we are “speaking with our own voice” on the instrument.
What do you have to say? (Not, “what did Victor or Jaco say in a similar situation.”)

My biggest problem is that I’ve spent all of my time having a bit of an understanding of any given style so that I may work with any given band and sound good. Because of this, I don’t think I “own” any given style. I guess I speak a hybrid language. This, however, has become my voice, and I apply things in different ways than many and use elements of all styles within all styles. This only works because I put the music first and never try and fit anything that doesn’t fit.

If you want to speak any one language clearly, you’ll need to learn the vocabulary. If it’s blues, that means learning a lot of tunes so you can internalize all of the common blues endings, common turnarounds, common feels, and so on.

If it’s jazz, you’ll need to be able to swing and will want to work on all of the various turnarounds and changes, and learn how to play them wether walking or soloing.

If it’s funk, you need a strong pocket, great time and you’ll want to learn the common phrases and licks inherent to the style.

How well you feel the style could be said to be akin to articulation of your words.

How well you play in context of other people is more akin to what you have to say and how well you can navigate the conversation (interact with the other musicians and play the style with authority, thereby adding something to the discussion).

Victor Wooten makes a great point when we writes about learning to speak music as we learned to speak our native language. Not by being told, “this is right” and “that is wrong”, or by having to practice in a room by ourselves until we are deemed capable enough to speak with adults.

No, we learn by making mistakes and doing it with others who can do it better. All in real time and every day.

In order to speak the musical language with authority, you will need hundreds to thousands of hours speaking everyday with other people. The more you play (speak) the better you will play (speak). And the more you play with other musicians (especially those better than you) the quicker you learn what to say and how to speak appropriately and with authority.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

Get Ask Damian Erskine in your inbox.

Don’t miss an Ask Damian column. Sign up for email alerts (every Wednesday).

Share your thoughts

  1. Scott

    To me, there are two ways of looking at this. First, is the practical side. Let’s face it, stick a sheet of music in front of anyone from any country who is a musician and they at least understand it (regardless of clef, key, etc). Common elements of music are universal and understood by those who have learn the language.
    The other is the innate, almost spiritual part. Everyone responds to music, whether they’ve learned music of not. Just hearing music opens up all kinds of internal doors. Something in us is just wired to respond to music.

  2. Barry Johnstone

    I tend to completely accept music as a language – albeit a non-specific one, but still most importantly a means of communication. To my mind, the two elements (conceptually) comprising ALL music is the vertical element of frequency, (melody and harmony etc) and the horizontal element of time (meters and rhythms etc) and like any other language must have accents and dialects!

  3. Damien, Where is that Victor Wooten quote? A video, book, etc? Thanks.