Language Lessons I

A few weeks ago, I watched this talk by bass legend Victor Wooten. Then I watched it again. Then I watched it again. Then I watched it with my girlfriend and sent it to several of my friends.

Victor’s central point is simple- that the most natural way for us to learn is very similar to the way we learn language, through deep immersion and constant interaction with people of varying skill levels.

He’s not the first person ever to tout the “music as language” comparison- the resemblance is fairly well accepted by experienced musicians. Each genre or style of music is distinguished from others by a “vocabulary” of rhythms, melodies and sounds.

Blues has a vocabulary. Bebop has a vocabulary. Baroque music, contemporary pop, EDM, and even more nebulous genres like “indie pop” have their own vocabularies and even dialects. Irish music displays noticeable differences in playing style and even repertoire from county to county, even in the age of rapid travel and global communication. Jazz jams in different cities and even different clubs still favor different tunes or feelings.

Setting aside technique, learning to “play music” is really about developing a musical vocabulary- melodies, harmonies and rhythms that we use to express experience in a way similar to (and yet so different from) spoken words and physical gestures.

We know this, and yet we typically teach music by sequestering students with other students of similar levels of ability (short-changing them on models of higher-level playing), putting theory before ear training in most public music curricula (failing to develop their ability to actually recognize and work with the various sounds we name or read from a page), and relegating training in improvising or composition to brief moments in jazz band (though some schools do strive to foster improvisers and composers among their students).

This is backwards, and we’re failing our students when we do this. Language is passed from generation to generation by immersion and experience. When a person starts to learn to play music, regardless of age (and occasionally regardless of experience when an older musician starts learning an unfamiliar style or a new instrument), they’re a baby again.

What do babies do? Make noises, mostly- they babble, they shriek, they cry, giggle, gurgle, and they listen. And at some point they figure out how to make a noise that really means something to everyone else- they say a word.

Then the years fly by, they suck up vocabulary, start talking in sentences, learn how to joke, to converse, to debate, argue. They imitate the speech of their friends, elders, and favorite cartoon characters. They make references. They quote. They do it all in their own voice with their own style.

In the jazz idiom, the idea is commonly stated: “imitate, assimilate, innovate.” Every speaking human on Earth has done this to some degree or another in their native language. If you want to advance as a musician, it might be time to start doing it with your music, too.

What now?
If you’re reading this and have been in the music game for any less than a few years, realize something: while you may be 14, or 18, or 26, or whatever, as a musician, you’re an infant, or perhaps a toddler. The same way you can’t converse fluently in French without learning how to make the sounds that French people make and attaching them to the same meanings, you can’t expect to make a musical statement without musical vocabulary.

I’ll be writing and recording a fair amount in this vein with the hope of offering some guidance applying this model to your practicing and playing. Stay tuned.


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