Lost In Translation: The 8 Languages of Music

I don’t speak Korean. I also don’t speak most of the 7,000 different languages spoken on our planet. In order to have a pleasant visit to Korea or communicate with those who speak Korean I need to either learn their language, have them learn mine, or acquire the services of a translator. Otherwise I will be lost, they will be confused, and we will probably just end up trying to communicate by pointing.

What can also seem equally as foreign, is trying to communicate between the many languages we speak as musicians. Frustrated pointing, confused faces, and best attempts to work together don’t have to be a part of your experience if we will take the time to first realize that we don’t all speak the same language and then seek to bridge the communication gap.

There are 8 main languages that we use in music.

  • Ear
  • Visual/Demonstration
  • Chord Chart
  • Nashville Number System
  • Solfège
  • Standard Notation
  • Tablature
  • Sound Engineering

The first is the most basic and yet most varied by ability. That is to be able to play ‘by ear’. Everyone can glean some level of instruction from simply hearing the music you are attempting to play. However, while some are capturing vague impressions of what to do there are some who know exactly what to do. This form of communication generally works well for lead vocalists, most drummers, and terrible for instrumentalists.

The next level is for the visual learners who need to see how to play what they hear. Either by someone showing them in person, taking a lesson online, or even by studying footage of ‘live’ performances. They still don’t know what they are playing but at least they know how. This form of communication seems to be standard for lead guitar players.

The chord chart is one of the most basic forms of written music communication but still relies heavily on playing ‘by ear’ for style and timing. It also leaves a lot of room interpretation, as everyone must know or guess what to do based off of one letter such as ‘G’. While it is often better than nothing, this style of communication lends itself to a lot of duplication of parts between instruments, only provides the words for vocalists, and does little to nothing for lead instruments or drummers.

Very similar in concept to the Chord Chart is the Nashville Number System. It’s an even simpler version of communication because instead of talking about notes concretely by using their standard notation names of ‘C D E F G’ you refer to them based on their relative distance from each other with numbers ‘1 2 3 4 5’. For instance, a chord progression of ‘C F Am G’ would be written as ‘1 4 6 5’ because if ‘C’ is the 1 then ‘F’ is the fourth note of the scale, ‘G’ is the fifth note, and ‘A’ is the sixth. While some indicate a chord being minor (6m) it is not necessary as the 2, 3, and 6 are always minor. One of the biggest benefits is to help you see the pattern of chord progressions rather than remembering the names, which helps with memorization and changing keys. While this system is still a vague road map developed for people who were creating music rather than duplicating existing parts, it does represent a major difference in the names we use for the notes we are playing.

By watching “The Sound of Music” and being in a high school choir I learned how to use Solfège. ‘Do..a deer a female deer… but on a trip to South America I was shocked to learn that’s how they talk about all music. I asked them to play ‘A’ and they didn’t know what that was. They not only had to translate from English to Spanish but then to Solfège, which is ‘La’. There are two types of Solfège: Relative and Fixed. Relative is just like the Nashville Number system where no matter what key you are in, the first note of the scale is always ‘Do’ instead of ‘1’. However, Latin Americans use the fixed variety where ‘Do’ is always ‘C’. ‘Rey’ is ‘D’, ‘Mi’ is ‘E’, and so on.

The most challenging to learn is also the most comforting to those who know how to read it. Standard Notation is literally another language of lines, squiggles, and shapes that tell you exactly what to play at the exact moment you are to play them. Put written music in front of these people and they flourish, take it away and they will either not want to participate or will play as much as they can all the time. Mostly because they were never allowed, never expected, or were even trained how to play something other than what is written.

Written communication for Bass and Electric Guitar players needs a different format to match the layout of the instrument. Often used in combination with Standard Notation, Tablature or TAB for short, creates a drawing of the strings of the instrument and places numbers that correspond to the fret location on the string that is to be played. So ‘10th fret on the high E string’ equals ‘D’. Those that don’t read standard notation, which is most, gather the rhythm to play by ear, and others read it from the attached line above.

Last but not least is how we talk about music in the world of Sound Engineering. Where notes are referred to by how quickly and intensely they vibrate in terms of Hertz and Decibels. In this language ‘A above middle C’ is translated to 440Hz with each following ‘A’ doubling the number up and halving the number down. Every note has a number but few people are able to correlate the two.

Amongst all of the craziness of the major differences between how we talk about music is that it is not instrument specific. Not all keyboard players read music, not all singers can pick up a harmony by ear, and not all guitar players read TAB. You have to identify the unique set of skills of each of your team members and then plan accordingly. This might mean that you require a certain skill set in order to participate or that you seek out and provide the materials to help people succeed.

I hope this helps you become aware of why you might be having some struggles and at least points you in a direction to go. Email with questions.