Music as a Language Part One


Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters. Image Credit: Rolling Stone

Sam Graziano

I believe we have all heard the sentiment that music is the universal language. While I’ve never really thought much about, I now see that a lot of interesting conversations can be had about this concept and its validity. I will be spending my final few entries here at WVAU talking about this topic.

The first thing that came to mind when thinking of this idea of music as a language is the fact that I believe it is much more than that. Most music now has lyrics, which are of course language. But the song that those lyrics are found in seems like a richer experience than just reading words on a page. So, if music is a language, it’s “language-ness” is different from the way English or Spanish are languages. For now, we can say that music is language-like or language-adjacent. Whether it transcends language or not, we shall hopefully discover that later.

Recently, I saw a video which I think illustrates the distinction between music and language very well. A few days ago, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters posted a video in which he talked about how his popular song “Everlong” came to be. This explanation is followed by an acoustic performance of the song.

The video, quite nicely, is divided quite nicely into two parts almost equal in length. In the first half Grohl talks about the process of writing the riff and how it connected with him emotionally. He was going through an intense break up at the time. This emotional state led him to write the lyrics. He describes his own thoughts after he put together a demo of the song, saying “I think that’s what songs should be. They should be something that, not only the tone or the melody or dynamic of the instrumental, but also the lyric match in a way that it represents how you feel at that moment”. Here, Grohl seems to describe his song as a sort of emotional snapshot of that moment in his life. While the lyrics may explicitly express his emotions of the time, the instrumental must also work to support the formation of that emotional snapshot.

“Everlong” is a great example of this connection. The lyrics seem to describe a character who is reminiscent of a better time. It is an acknowledgement that things end. And it might share a lesson, to more truly appreciate the time we have. “And I wonder when I sing along with you, if everything could ever feel this real forever, if anything could ever be this good again.” So here, the tone of the song is set, and the instrumental must work to support that, which it does quite nicely.

While it’s a faster song that’s loud and, at some moments busy, I wouldn’t describe it as delightful or overjoyed. It’s while it is animated, it is not animated out of a sense of celebration, but rather out of a sense of longing. The droning guitars and mellow vocals reflect this sort of longing while the drums and energy of the chorus reflect the energy. The whole experience reminds me of reliving so incredible experience and feeling excited about it but then remembering it’s only a memory. It is a bittersweet instrumental for bittersweet lyrics.

This explanation is followed by an acoustic performance of the song. And here we can see the distinction between language and music. In the first half, Grohl retells the story of the creation of the work. Is that enough to fully understand the song? I’d say no. Do we get the detailed story in the performance? Again no. These languages operate on different levels. The spoken word is able to relay complex stories with incredible detail yet fails to provide full coverage of the performance, the very thing it is working to describe. The music lacks all of this detail and narrative, yet we connect with it emotionally much more than the explanation beforehand. Music, or art more generally, may be an emotional language which better allows to convey feelings to one another in a way that the spoken word struggles with.

There is definitely a lot more ground to cover in the discussion of music as language. There are more explicit forms of music as language, and this can be seen in protest music. One can look at the direction of the communication, is the artist telling us something or are we imposing our own experiences on a song? Are their benefits to seeing music as a language and are their draw backs? These are all incredibly interesting questions to me, and I am excited to continue this final project.