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VI. The “Music is a Language” Analogy

This is the one place where Mr. Woetzel strikes a chord with me, because in one way he is right, but he is also incomplete in his analogy. He writes that music “is also referred to as the universal language.” When we look at music around the world, we find that this is inaccurate. Music is not a universal language. We find ourselves faced with Middle-Eastern music, which we can identify as music, but which doesn’t sit well with us westerners because of the unusual combination of tones, rhythms, and instruments.

Music is identifiable as music, just as speech is identifiable as speech, but just as each people and culture have their own language, so they have their own music which speaks to their heart. And some of these use the precise rhythms and harmonies considered “immoral” by some people. If music were a universal language, then there would be no need for the study of ethnomusicology, which precisely studies the differences in music around the world, tries to understand and document it, much like linguistics does with the languages of the world.

When we look at the music is a language analogy, though, a lot of things fall in to place. However, Mr. Woetzel doesn’t use full linguistic principles in building his analogy. Language is made up of certain sounds ordered in a certain way to produce a certain meaning. We call these sounds syllables, which become words, and from there sentences. The sentences follow certain structural rules, called grammar. The combination of sounds and grammar differs from language to language. Take for example the word “peach” in English. This might be a perfectly acceptable term to use for a sweet, if slightly hairy fruit that ripens in late summer. However, if you use the same word in Turkish, you would be referring to the canine origins of a person’s mother thus insulting them. What determines the meaning of the words? It is the culture surrounding the words, not the sounds themselves.

Music is very much like a language in that certain sounds are ordered in a certain way to produce a certain result or meaning. If we take the analogy to its bottom-line conclusion, then the rules for certain types of music are similar to the rules for certain types of grammar. What may be acceptable in one type of music will not be in another, simply because the laws surrounding that genre make up the meaning.

Mr. Woetzel claims that, “Just as language cannot be neutral, neither can music.” The problem is that, from a linguistic point of view, language is neutral. If we begin to claim that language is moral or immoral based upon what sounds and grammar it uses—which would be the logical comparison to claiming that certain types of music are moral or immoral—then we would be hard pressed to find which languages were moral. If we were to take the Biblical languages as an example, then we’d be in quandary as well. Hebrew is formed on a Verb-Subject-Object grammatical structure, as is Aramaic, making it the preferred model for a moral language. However, Greek is formed on a Subject-Verb-Object grammatical structure and both are used for Scripture! Which one is moral, which one is immoral? Shall we extend the analogy to words as well? Should we all stop using the word “peach” in America simply because it is a cuss word in Turkey? Who is to say that the Turks are “immoral” for imbuing such a negative meaning in such a positive sound in our language? What about basic grammatical rules? Does a language that is verb-based, like Hebrew or Arabic, have a moral superiority over a language that is noun-based, such as English or Latin? What about talking about prefixes and suffixes? Which is moral and which isn’t? What about infixes?

Let’s apply the concept of only certain moral languages to Bible translations. If only the Biblical languages were to be considered moral, then we’d have to burn all our English Bibles and Wycliffe would have to get into the business of teaching Hebrew and Greek rather than translating the Scriptures into the heart-language of the people they are trying to reach.

If we come down to the bottom line, a thinking that language in and of itself is moral will result in a linguistic superiority similar to that of the Muslims in claiming that Arabic is God’s only language and hence we must pray to Him in that language.

But what about the heart-language of people? Have you ever seen a foreigner in America light up when they hear their native tongue? There is just something about speaking your own language that touches you deeply. What about when you visit a country where few people speak English? How would you feel if you suddenly heard someone speaking your language? Clearly there are languages that God has placed on our hearts. Each language has its own way of expression that cannot be fully translated into another which suggests that God is the creator of all languages.

If we take a language-is-moral attitude we end up espousing a cultural superiority similar to that of Great Britain in the colonial age. We will look down on the people because of their poor, immoral languages and believe that God has given us a mandate to force-feed them our language, our cultural values, and our religion, because we are moral and they aren’t. This attitude has harmed missions more than anyone can think.

When it comes down to it, viewing language as moral in and of itself will actually kill missions, because it will make us hesitant to learn another language, due to the fact that we consider it immoral to speak it. We will never be able to communicate the depth of God’s love to the people of that culture, because we cannot reach them in their heart-language and we will alienate them both from ourselves and from the Truth of the Gospel.

The results of such a view are staggering and it brings us to the question what makes language moral or immoral. The answer is simple: it is the person speaking the language. The words he or she chooses, the meanings that he or she places within those words affect the morality or immorality of the language. It also depends on the person listening to the language. If a Turk who cannot speak English has an American say to him in English, “Would you like a peach?” he will naturally be offended, even though neither the meaning, nor the words of the American were in the least immoral. The morality is determined first in the speaker and secondly in the listener. Language thus becomes moral or immoral, depending on the sender, the receiver and the circumstances of the communication.

If we apply this to the language of music, then we can run aground on the same errors. As every person has a heart-language, so each person has a heart-music. This is probably formed by exposure to music as a child, perhaps by changing tastes in the teenage years, but by the time a person reaches adulthood, they have certain musical styles that speak deeply to them. Music that strikes you deeply might leave me completely cold and vice versa.

Taking the music-is-language analogy to its logical conclusion, we would have to say that if music is a language, then the morality of the music lies not within the sounds strung together, the rhythm used, or even the lyrics set to it, but within the song-writer, the musician, and the listener. Thus the music becomes moral depending upon the above variables.

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Copyright © 2003 J.M. Diener. All Rights Reserved.