The Mark Blog

The Language of Music

I waited until senior year of college to complete most of my GEs. I thought they’d be easy and boring but, in my final year at UCLA, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed many of them. One of the classes I took to fulfill a requirement was Linguistics 1.

As was the case with many of my classes, only bits and pieces of what we learned really stuck with me. Something that has stuck, though, is the idea that some people’s brains attempt to interpret the sounds of instrumental music as language, while other people’s minds perceive the musical notes as non-lingual noises. This, I remember the professor saying, is the reason why some people can easily listen to lyric-free music while writing and studying, while others find it deeply distracting.

I’m one of the folks whose mind senses music—even without lyrics—as language. (Of course, it is a language of sorts. I don’t know much about music, but I do know that most classical pieces are organized in movements, which transition through an emotional journey and, in doing so, convey a story.) For those of us whose brains try to make sense of music as a language, we know that it’s tough to write while listening. It’s like there are two conflicting conversations taking place, vying for coherence and articulation.

At the same time, I know firsthand the merit that can be found in writing to music. For one, it’s a great way to cancel out noise. (I like writing in coffee shops and I can’t control the fact that there are often chatty groups at nearby tables.) It’s also an effective way for returning to a state of mind and mood; listening to a certain song sets a tone in me as a writer, which in turn lends consistency to the atmosphere of the book. It’s a sensory cue for writing, too. When I hear a certain song: ready, set, write. For me, this song is Beethoveen’s Sonata Number Fourteen.

Further, I’ve found that when I listen to this same classical song over and over my brain has a chance to make sense of it. After listening to something on repeat about 12,000 times, my brain no longer busies itself with trying to interpret the language of the music. Only the feel of the song, and the feeling it creates in my writing, remains.