When many people think about language, they conjure up images of language arts classes in school. They think about conjugating verbs, learning how to spell correctly, eloquently composing a paragraph, etc. However, all of this is predominantly associated with written language. In the entire history of human language, written language has been a relatively recent innovation compared to spoken language. Written language and spoken language are actually very different.
Linguists have carefully catalogued many elements of spoken language which are not easily encoded into the written word. Spoken language can communicate a great deal through inflection, rhythm, and tone while written language must always create its own context in a highly structured way. Written language is very easily misinterpreted by being taken out of context. As a result, many language students must be constantly reminded not to write as they speak. However, almost no one speaks as they would formally write. For this reason, spoken language is probably the more natural/authentic form of human language when compared to written language.
Musicologists have written extensively about the structural relationships between music and spoken language for decades. These articles have always fascinated me. Shin’ichi Suzuki developed an entire method of teaching music to children to imitate how we are taught language from our parents and environment at a very young age. While this method has had its share of criticism over the years, it has also had its share of success.
As I continue research for my doctoral dissertation about harmony, I have become increasingly aware of an intense relationship between musical harmony and spoken language. Specifically, our perception of harmonic stability is closely tied to our ability to recognize vocal formants. Evolutionary advantage has given us the ability to recognize words from various combinations of vowels and consonances independent of timbre or register.
By attempting to recognize vocal formants in all sounds, we also perceive timbre, intonation, and harmonic stability in musical chords. In other words, musical harmony is a wonderful byproduct of our auditory system’s natural ability to understand and decipher various aspects of spoken language. Music is tied very closely to the language parts of our brains. If someone is capable of learning to speak and understand speech, they are capable of learning how to play and listen attentively to music. We are all inherently musical, in one way or another.
As musicians, we must always find ways to use this interrelationship to our advantage. As a trombonist, I often am asked by band directors about tone quality. Particularly, they want the trombonists in their bands to sound “more mature” or produce a “more full” tone quality. They ask me to give them simple breathing or lip slur exercises which they can incorporate into their warm-ups before rehearsals. Well of course there are exercises. There are quite literally hundreds of thousands of exercises that anyone can do to develop their ability to control their breath and embouchure.
Unfortunately, the problem with their students is usually a bit more fundamental than poor playing mechanics. The problem is that, to them, the way they currently sound is what a trombone sounds like. After all, they have likely been hearing that sound on a daily basis for many years. The words “better tone” or “fuller sound” simply do not mean very much to them. In my own playing development many years ago, I only began to care about my tone once I realized that the way I sounded was not how I really wanted to sound. It is something I still address everyday in my practicing.
The idea of imitation is fundamental to language development, and it is also fundamental to musical development. We imitate the sounds we hear, yet we simultaneously develop our own unique speech patterns. We eventually develop an aural image in our minds of how we wish to sound, and our body manipulates our tongue, respiration, and lips to create those sounds. Those same functions apply to musicians as well. The first step toward a “better tone” for those young trombonists is to first develop their idea of how a trombone should sound. Once someone knows how they want to sound, all of those wonderful exercises become valuable tools. However, without that concept of sound the exercises are just meaningless tasks.
Before playing the first note of a practice session, always ask yourself the following questions: 1) How do I want to sound if someone were recording me right now? 2) How do I want to sound to someone sitting 50 feet away from me? 3) How do I want to sound to the person sitting right next to me? 4) How do I want to sound if I were playing very loudly? 5) How do I want to sound if I were playing very quietly? 6) How do I want to sound if I were playing a solo in front of a large ensemble? 7) How do I want to sound if I were playing in a chamber ensemble? 8) How do I want to sound if I were playing a melody in unison with four other musicians?
These questions only begin to scratch the surface. We always imitate what we first hear in our mind. We don’t always make a perfect copy. However, the first step is always to create that strong aural image. This is not just true for high school trombonists either. I often ask my piano students what they want a particular phrase to sound like, and their answers usually indicate that they are not really sure. One cannot begin to discuss which fingering would be best, where to break a phrase, or even what tempo to practice a passage without first having a musical goal.
Absolutely all of our practicing assumes that we know how we want to sound, yet so many musicians skip that first step. Knowing how we want to sound is not just a matter of listening to more recordings or attending more concerts either (see The Art of Interpretation). It is much more basic than that. It is about teaching ourselves to hear very subtle differences in tone quality, intonation, rhythm, note shapes, etc. and deciding which combination of those is most appropriate at any given time.
Becoming a better performing musician is about far more than gaining more control over our fingers, lips, or respiration. It is ultimately about gaining more control over the aural images in our minds, and then using our bodies efficiently to turn those mental images into beautiful sounds. The listener then absorbs those beautiful sounds which in turn become their own aural images, to be reproduced at a later time in their own way. Music moves from one mind to another, from memory to sound energy and back to memory again. Like language it is passed from person to person over time, each time being interpreted just a bit differently. Music isn’t just something we can compare to human language. Music IS human language.