Learning Music as a Language: A Starter’s Guide

How do you know what to play? How do you learn how to interact with people? How do you keep an overall structure in mind while being “in the moment”? Both young Jazz musicians and music teachers ask these kinds of questions all the time, trying to figure out how to learn and pass on that knowledge to other students. The best answers I’ve heard are those that compare learning music to learning a language. Even though learning classical music is different, I’d argue a lot of the process is similar.

Let’s look at how you learn how to speak as a toddler. You hear words and phrases, you ask everyone “what’s that?” and you try your best to imitate. You start holding your own little conversations, which might be silly at first but grow more meaningful over time. It’s a process of simply, doing, imitating, absorbing, and forming your own vocabulary. Involved? Yes. Complicated? Kind of, but it’s a pretty organic development.

Now let’s reframe some common music questions with that in mind.

How do you know what to say?

Well, you spend a while listening to other people “talk.” That means going to a lot of concerts, and in general listening to a lot of music. Ironically, this is something that a lot of musicians in conservatories forget. If you don’t know what to do with a piece, listen to someone else play it, or get some advice from a friend who is equally fluent in the language of the music. Sitting in a practice room going over your own “words” sometimes doesn’t cut it.

How do you learn how to interact with people?

Mainly by having a lot of conversations, and not being afraid to make a fool of yourself. This is where the judgment part often comes in. If you’re afraid of talking with people (i.e. performing) then it’s hard to get too much more comfortable with the whole process. On the other side of things, your listeners need to be accepting that you’re still learning how to talk. Critiques are useful, but remember that you don’t laugh at a toddler when they mess up a word or create a sentence that doesn’t quite work. People are not judgmental when kids are learning to talk, nor should they be when students are learning how to play.

How do you structure conversations/improvisations?

Usually you have an overall point in mind, like “do you want to go out to dinner tomorrow night.” That’s going to be the place that you arrive at after a few pleasantries and other tangents. At the same time, you’re not thinking about that exact point during every single sentence, as you have to be open to talking about other things if they come up.

Now some common pitfalls that young speakers and young musicians both have to be aware of:

Not listening-probably the most prevalent issue in young musicians, there is a tendency to just say what you want to say regardless of what the other person says. That’s kind of like exclaiming “whee!” to every serious question that someone asks you.

Not being clear-kids like to use “big words” so that they sound impressive to other kids and adults. Problem is, others don’t know how to respond to that other than using big words of their own. Pretty soon you end up in a meaningless conversation.

Talking too much-If you have three people in a conversation, each person theoretically talks for a third of the time. Even though musicians play together, there’s often a tendency to assert ideas all the time instead of leaving space for others to talk first.

So the next time you’re in a tough situation with a new language like music, just think: what would you tell a young person going through the same thing?

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