Design a site like this with
Get started

The Language of Music

One of my favorite experiences in music while at my undergrad was being a member of the Collegium Musicum. It was the first group where I met people who were accepting and focused on music from the 15th – 16th century. In other words, the Renaissance and the beginning of the Baroque period in music. As in lute players, madrigals, and the ancestors of string instruments today. Have I mentioned my eclectic taste for music?

This wasn’t that big of a jump for me at the time. I’d sung in Madrigals in high school and it was comforting to find a group that I understood after leaving home for the first time. The interweaving and blending of chords and the constant ring when they met before breaking apart again brought literal tears to my eyes. The pensive, almost mournful, music is what probably led me to barbershop years later.

I started going to weekly rehearsals for the singing group of Collegium Musicum. After a few weeks, I was stopped by one of my friends who mentioned that they were down one Viola da Gamba player and would I be interested in trying it out?

“…a what?”

“A Viola da Gamba. It’s basically a cello.”

56.54.1 205

I didn’t hesitate. I already knew how to play the cello and learning a new instrument was my bread and butter. I walked into the first rehearsal confused. There it sat on the floor looking like a cello, but where my cello had four strings this one had seven. And frets like a guitar. Unsure, I hoisted what I learned later was the bass Viola da Gamba onto my lap to pull out the End Pin (it’s the metal rod you see that touches the floor on a cello).

No End Pin.

I looked for the bow. Surely the bow would be normal. Instead I removed something that resembled a bow from the carrying case, but instead of the long straight piece of wood of a modern bow, I held one that curved like a rainbow.

Utterly confused I look to the music on the stand in front of me. I squinted. Uh-oh.

“Is the printer not working?”

“What do you mean?”

“The music is incomplete. There are no measure markers or -“

“No. That’s just what the music looks like.”

I was looking at a page with staff markings and music notes looking like someone had written them in. There weren’t any measures markers and several of the notes were written backwards. At this point I’m beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

This didn’t stop me of course. The Viola da Gamba is still by far one of the best instruments I’ve ever played.

It did make me realize that I had, without knowing it, learned a foreign language.

There was a small moment, looking at this piece of sheet music, where I thought to myself, “Just think of this as a dialect. It’s still music, just different.” And then the light bulb went on. I just used the word dialect to decode notes on a page. What is it like when I hand a page of sheet music to someone who can’t read music?

I recalled all the faces of people who held sheets of music in their fidgeting hands asking for the music to be played over and over again, but never actually looking at the pages. They understood the sound, but they couldn’t comprehend what it meant by sight much like a student living in a country speaking a foreign language. 

Music, like any language, changes based on the genre or dialect. What I learned from Collegium in terms of reading music was completely different from modern piano sheet music. Music evolves just like language; it’s both modern and relies heavily on older versions. There are specific guidelines on how to write music much like the grammar is used to write a sentence.

So as I thought back to all the times I had handed sheet music to someone and they just stared down at it blankly before returning it to me, I felt ashamed. I had done the equivalent of asking someone who had taken one year of Spanish 10 years ago and asked them to remember how to read it. If they had taken Spanish at all.

It wasn’t fair of me and made me realize that I had been looking at music in a one-sided manner. Now, of course, there are people who can improv music (like Leif – remember him?), but in my mind I had a very clear distinction: you either could or couldn’t read music. In my mind, I knew Leif could play music beautifully, but there was still a part of me who drew the metaphorical line. I think this is the case for a lot of musicians. You either can read music or not and that makes all the difference.

And that’s simply just not what music is about.

Music, like any language, is multifaceted. There are several components to the creation and production of music and being able to read it is only a part of it. Reading a foreign language doesn’t mean you understand how to pronounce a word or inflections that you’d use. Hell, I was reading a book this week with French words here and there where I know that if I tried saying them out loud would sound nothing like what it should. I remember trying to learn German off of a computer program. It had audio that I would repeat back over and over. When I tried using some of the words I had learned on a German family that was visiting where I worked, they laughed and said my accent was terrible. I lost interest in learning soon after.

And that’s the part that scares me. What if I made someone lose interest in learning music before they even started simply because I pointed out that they couldn’t read music?

It doesn’t stop there though. I could never compare Choral-Aires to my love for Middle Eastern music. There’s no comparison other than they they live under the umbrella that is called music. There’s music within the world that has never been written down and can only be learned from one person to another. I think of the Griot in Western Africa – a bard that is able to orally ex-posit their history country’s through song. It’s incredible to think of someone who is able to recite an entire part of your history without referring to a single note or piece of paper; something they learned through years of practice and listening to those before them.

Before Choral-Aires, I never performed with a group that didn’t read music. Though I understood on some level that I had been discriminatory towards groups that couldn’t read music, it was just something I couldn’t seem to shake and to be honest it was something that made me hesitant to continue singing with Choral-Aires at first. When you have the knowledge, you like to use it and it’s hard to wait for others to catch up to you. 

But as I continued to come to rehearsals, I saw how hard these women worked. It isn’t about whether or not you can read music, but if you can understand it. If you can understand what the message is and how to communicate it to others. How does this piece of music actually translate when spoken as opposed to seeing it harmlessly, innocently lay on a piece of paper? The women I sing with understand that barbershop is so much more than the music on the page. It’s a lesson we’re learning to emote which if I’m to understand those who have come before me wasn’t always the case.

I stand on the risers, knowing what I know and knowing what others around me might not and I don’t care. The line I once drew in the sand is now muddled with footprints. I have to learn how to sing barbershop like everyone else.


Published by sjungblut

A woman in the workforce by day, a singer by night, an artist in between it all.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Great explanation again Sally. In Barbershop we Sing the Song! We put our life experiences, our heart and soul into the music. That’s the goal and with it comes unbelievable satisfaction.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: