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Language and Music
The Parallels Between Learning/Teaching Language and Learning/Teaching Music
by Mark Lowe
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The Imagination

Music can also generate language by stimulating the imagination. We play the music on a CD player (or live, if we can and if we play the guitar or if there is a suitable instrument available), and we ask students to talk about (or possibly to write about) the images or feelings or stories that the music conjures up in their minds. Programme music (i.e. music that tells a story) and atmospheric music are most suitable for this purpose. Here are some examples: J.S. Bach – Badinerie for flute and strings: for its brilliant vitality; Bartok – the Concerto for Orchestra and Violin Concerto for vigorous modern sounds that seem to tell stories; Beethoven – The Pastoral Symphony for nature; Brahms – the A major violin sonata for warm affection; Britten – The Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes for evocative atmosphere; Bruckner – something from symphonies 7, 8 or 9 for vast spaces; almost anything by Chopin – for romantic dreams, swagger and proper pride; Debussy – La Mer or the Piano Preludes for the sea, sunken cathedrals, dancing nymphs, mists and subtle tone-pictures; Manuel de Falla’s Vida Breve for dark passions; Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for ghosts and the impression created by mighty architecture (The Great Gate of Kiev); Mozart’s G minor quintet for grief; Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony for the erotic; Rimsky- Korsakov’s Scheherezade for the exotic; Smetana’s Ultava (from Ma Vlast) for the story of a river and the life on its banks; Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony for brutal goose-stepping totalitarian armies; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – for violent, elemental ritual; the closing minutes of Verdi’s Aida for death; parts of Wagner’s Ring (Brunnhilde’s Immolation and Siegfried’s Journey down the Rhine) and Tristan (the Act 2 love music and the final Liebestod) for myth, legend and starcrossed love. Much film music is also suitable: for instance, John Berry’s scary James Bond music, and the menacing zither music used for ‘The Third Man’. Such music can help the tongue-tied and hesitant to lose their inhibitions and to speak fluently. Such music can also lead to interesting written work, if students are asked to write down the impressions or images or stories suggested by the music.


Music can lead to imaginative writing. Can music also help students to write coherent academic and professional texts? What follows is speculative, but I think there are two ways in which music can assist this kind of writing. The first is concerned with detailed structure, while the second is concerned with more general principles of coherence. Let us start with detailed structure.

In his wonderful book ‘The Classical Style’, the musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen argues that there are close parallels between sonata form in music and drama in language. (Rosen uses the term ‘sonata form’ to refer to the structure used in almost all first movements in classical music, whether symphonies, concertos or sonatas. He uses the term ‘drama’ to refer to any ‘story’ in which conflict is resolved). Sonata form and drama both open with a statement of two contrasting or conflicting themes or ideas. Both continue with a development section in which these themes and ideas are worked out together. Both conclude with a denouement in which the themes and ideas are united and reconciled. This basic plot is often expressed through a story of a man and woman meeting, going through trials, and emerging purified and more mature as man and wife (as, for instance, in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’). The same underlying plot can also generate quest stories, conflict and reconciliation stories – and many other kinds of story. An analogous logic also applies to certain kinds of academic and business texts: the ‘argument’ essay, the ‘policy options’ report and so on. Two or more contrasting or opposing ideas are presented and discussed, and a solution proposed. A teacher who is familiar with the ‘logic’ of a sonata form movement by Mozart or Beethoven can use the constructional principles of that music as an analogy to help the student’s writing.

The more general role of classical music in helping students to write is simply to provide models of clarity and organization. Again, let us consider music first, and then consider the verbal parallels. Most classical music is organized according to the principles of tonality. The details of how tonality functions take us beyond the scope of this article: it is sufficient to know that the principles are logical and rooted in the laws of physics. Classical music is organized round key relationships (both at the level of the melody and the level of a whole movement). In many
works (for instance those of J.S. Bach), counterpoint is also vital, and in the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner – and many others – thematic development is important as well.

Equivalents in text to key relationships, counterpoint and thematic development are: paragraph construction – including the way topic sentences and derived ideas are organized; the use of discourse markers to show the relationship between ideas; wider discourse features that give coherence to whole texts (such as narrative or problem/evidence /solution), introductions and conclusions, and so on. Syntax governs the organization of smaller stretches of text, as harmony governs the organization of melody. Although music is primarily concerned with emotion, its construction follows very ‘cognitive’ rules, and those ‘rules’ have a role to play in improving students’ writing.

People often think of music as being a sort of unorganised drifting of the imagination. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most classical music is constructed with the precision and skill of a Swiss watch-maker. Music’s most important role for students needing to write clear and well-crafted English is simply to provide models of that precision and craftsmanship, which then influence the written text.

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