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What Is the Role of Music as Discourse?

Christina Hall
Christina Hall

The concept of the role of music as discourse originally stemmed from the realization that music stimulates the organs in the ear, and in this regard, fits the definition of discourse or language because it conveys information to a discerning listener. Music’s ability to enhance emotional states like serenity, regret, or exuberance has led some researchers to title musical discourse as the “music of the emotions.” Music as discourse is thought by most experts to be highly subjective and its interpretation can be altered by culture, quality, and personal emotional composition. For example, if a class of students listens to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, one may find it melancholy, one may be moved to tears of joy, and still another can be benevolent. In fact, studies show that some people have a significant lack of musical listening ability, which, by all accounts, renders them deaf to music as discourse, as a blind person would be to the written word.

Another avenue to explore in the role of music as discourse is to compare it to physical written language, especially syntax. Music’s most apparent relation to language stems from the systemic linking of significant sounds, much like phonemes in cultures throughout the world. Specific tones are inherent to almost all established culture, suggesting that tonality is the primitive link to music as a universal phenomenon that utilizes many of the same artistic renditions and primal human sounds. The traditional theory of music is also taught in rhetoric that undoubtedly resonates with language structure. It uses terms like segment, phrase, and sentence when describing writing and learning to play music. Musical notation is written and, in turn, read in much the same way an essay would be conveyed on paper as well.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Some musicologists, like Deryck Cooke in England, propose that in addition to being a medium by which to experience and express emotional variance, tonal music is a strictly codified system of language and communication. He stresses that the experience of music is not as subjective as the majority of researchers believe. Cooke and other researchers, who support music as a discourse that can stand alone as a complete system of communication, purport that each degree on a given scale signifies a certain shade of an emotion and causes a precise reaction from people from contrasting cultures. For example in this proposed role of music, researchers affirm that a rise in pitch on a minor scale can be shown to induce excited and aggressive personal affirmations. Another concept that is on the forefront of musicology is the definition of musical discourse as a language for which there exists no known words; a type of collective poetry born of humankind’s capacity for deep emotion.

The proctoring and mentoring of student musicians has close ties with the role of music as discourse. Some professors contend that the function of musical language as an art form is to tell or remind of an experience from the past or perhaps inspire creative endeavors in the future. In this sense, musical discourse can be thought of as not merely music or language, but as a created entity of its own, which is capable of conveying unique implicit meaning for the listener and performer.

Discussion Comments


@stoneMason-- I agree with you. Every emotion can be expressed with music. Just as we raise our voice to show that we are emotional or upset, the high notes in music give the same kind of feeling.

I learned recently that in history, music was one of the main treatments used for people with emotional disturbances. Soothing, calm music, dominated by the flute, was played to calm the emotions. The value of music as discourse has been known since a long time.


Those who want to understand how music is a form of discourse ought to watch a film with the sound off, especially a horror film. Or one could read a film script, then watch the film and compare the effects of both.

I realized the importance of music as discourse after watching a film about music. The story of the film was not very special and in fact there were many shortcomings of the story and screenplay. But the music was so effective and it used so well that none of it mattered. Whatever emotion a scene wanted to get across to the audience, the music heightened that emotion. It was almost like the glue that tied the story together.

Music is definitely a discourse like speech and the written word. In fact, I think that sometimes music can be even more powerful. And when these different discourses are used together, the effects can be unbelievable.


I've never thought of music as discourse before. I thought that discourse only happens with words-- spoken or written.

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