Music As a Language

by Joseph Pingel

This video by Victor Wooten is about as down-to-earth as can be.  He talks about learning music just like learning language when we were babies.  It’s very specific to a mind-set that all pianists would benefit from and is a good perspective to keep in mind playing music on any instrument.

We generally learn music using age-old teaching methods that have been around for hundreds of years.  While those are tried and true methods of teaching, we often forget the power that comes with self-expression to allow our hearts to sing out freely what we feel when playing music.  He doesn’t discuss the particulars of how to play by ear but the underlying sentiment is such that perhaps we should pay more attention teaching this skill than what we presently do.

I really enjoy how Mr. Wooten is able to make his point without being preachy or over the top.  This particular video comes from the TED-ed project.  The transcript for the video is below.

Music As A Language

By Victor Wooten

Both music and verbal languages serve the same purpose. They are both forms of expression.

They can be used as a way to communicate with others, they can be read and written, then can make you laugh or cry, think or question and can speak to one or many and both can definitely make you move.

In some instances, music works better than the spoken word because it doesn’t have to be understood to be effective. Although many musicians agree that music is a “language” it is rarely treated as such.

"Music works better than the spoken word because it doesn’t have to be understood to be effective."

Many of us treat it as something that can only be learned by following a strict regiment under the tutelage of a skilled teacher. This approach has been followed for hundreds of years with proven success… but it takes a long time. Too long.

Think about the first language you learned as a child. More importantly, think about how you learned it.

You were a baby when you first started speaking and even though you spoke the language incorrectly you were allowed to make mistakes – and the more mistakes you made, the more your parents smiled!

"You were allowed to make mistakes."

Learning to speak was not something you were sent somewhere to do only a few times a week. The majority of people you spoke to were not beginners, they were already proficient speakers. Imagine your parents forcing to only speak to other babies until you were good enough to speak to them! You’d probably be an adult before you could carry on a proper conversation.

To use a musical term, as a baby you were allowed to “jam” with professionals. If we approach music in the same natural way we approached our first language, we would learn to speak it in the same short time it took to speak our first language.  Proof of this can be seen in almost any family where a child grows up with other musicians in the family.


Here are a few keys to follow in learning or teaching music: 

  • In the beginning embrace mistakes instead of correcting them. Like a child playing air guitar there are no wrong notes.
  • Allow young musicians to play and perform with accomplished musicians on a daily basis.
  • Encourage young musicians to play more than they practice. The more they play, the more they will practice on their own.
  • Music comes from the musician, not the instrument.

And most important: Remember that a language works the best when we have something interesting to say.

Many music teachers never find out what their students have to say. We only tell them what they are supposed to say.

A child speaks a language for years before they even learn the alphabet. Too many rules at the onset will actually slow them down.

In my eyes the approach to music should be the same.


After all, music is a language too.

Facebook Comments Here