Language of Music

The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

Verso of page CXII (p. 254 online) from UCB’s copy of the Missale monasticum secundum consuetudinem ordinis Vallisumbrose (Venice, 1503)

Music occupies a unique position in the field of languages in that it operates as both an independent language in itself and also as an element which can be combined with spoken/written languages to create musical settings of text. In the latter case, the juxtaposition of textual language and musical language produces a more complex, multi-faceted language which embodies the meaning and expressive qualities of both of its component languages.

In the years BCE, music remained primarily an oral tradition, and although references to written music by some of the ancient Greek writers indicate the existence of notated music in their time, no extant examples of written music from the years BCE have been found.  One of the earliest forms of Western musical notation, called Dasian notation, which first appeared in ninth century music treatises, was derived from signs used in ancient Greek prosody.[1] A system of symbols, called neumes, developed at about the same time to serve as a mnemonic tool to recall a previously memorized melody.  Since most melodic tunes continued to be passed on through oral tradition at that time, neumes provided a way, albeit a limited way, to preserve existing tunes in written form. Around the beginning of the 11th century the system of neumes was expanded so that the notational symbols were written on a grid of four horizontal lines to indicate when pitches went up, down, or remained the same. Christian chant written during the late Medieval and early Renaissance periods made extensive use of this system of neumes, and the example provided in this exhibit from the Missale monasticum secundum, consuetudinem ordinis Vallisumbrose (1503) illustrates this early form of music notation. In the latter half of the 13th century, as musical notation continued to develop, the notational system expanded to indicate both pitch and the rhythmic value of pitches on a staff which, by that time, had expanded to five lines (except for chant notation, which, in most cases, continued to be written on four-line staves).

Verbal texts have been used as the basis of solo songs, vocal duets, trios and other ensembles of solo voices, as well as choral music for centuries, and it is not uncommon for a particular text to be set to music in original ways by multiple composers. Different musical settings can provide varied insights into the meaning of a text, or different interpretations of the text. Thus, music serves as a collaborative type of language which can be combined with verbal language to create an enriched, and sometimes complex, result. For example, the English bawdy song in Renaissance era was noted for presenting a text in a contrapuntal fashion in which multiple voices sang the same text, simultaneously, but at carefully paced intervals so that the words combined in different ways and created a significantly different meaning from the original text statement. The French composer Francis Poulenc was known to set well-established, serious, sacred texts to his own, personal style of music which was highly reminiscent of French dance hall music.  (As an example, visit this link for a performance of Poulenc’s setting of the text Laudamus Te from his Gloria.)[2]

Of course, innumerable music works have been created that have no text component at all. Generally, this music can be divided into two categories: program music and absolute music. The former is conceived with an intended narrative association, and thus, communicates meaning as a language. Absolute music is composed without that narrative intention, but many listeners may still find meaning in this music even if it was not consciously intended by the composer.  Examples of program music can be found throughout the literature from the time of the Renaissance and include such works as Andrea Gabrieli’s Battaglia, Antonio Vivaldi’s The Seasons, some of Joseph Haydn’s symphonies, and numerous tone poems from the 19th century.[3] The concept of absolute music, on the other hand, has been a topic of debate for more than a century. Many believe that certain musical works can be appreciated for their structure and design without any external associated meaning. While others believe that all music reveals (or, communicates) something about humanity, the human condition, human thought, etc. Examples of absolute music might include the Wohltemperierte Klavier of J.S. Bach, and the instrumental works of Anton Webern.[4] Numerous publications about absolute music are available for exploration.

As musical ideas have evolved, composers have changed the notation of music to accommodate ideas that could not be conveyed to the performers through traditional notational practices. The 19th and early 20th centuries brought a veritable explosion of expression markings to notated music in order to convey the composer’s expressive intentions to performers. Composers also sought new systems of musical notation to express their ideas, which often included media or performance techniques (such as “extended techniques,” electronic music notation, graphic notation, etc.) which had not been previously represented in the realm of music notation.[5] The French composer, Olivier Messiaen went so far as to invent an entire system of “translating” words and sentences into musical notation. His notation system is called langage communicable (“communicable language”). A summary of this system can be found on these two pages from the preface of his late organ cycle, Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, where he introduced the system: (1) and (2).[6] In the 21st century musical notation continues to evolve and expand to accommodate the composer’s aural concepts as well as developing technologies.

The Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library at UC Berkeley provides a wealth of resource material for musicologists, music theorists, composers, performers, and other scholars in areas such as the history of music (including notation), the study of consonance and dissonance, studies in performance practice, and compositional studies of text setting, text painting, sound design, electronic music, and environmental sound. Hargrove’s special collections are world-renowned for their holdings in music primary source material dating from the early Renaissance and extending into the 20th century. Furthermore, the library’s print and media materials support studies in a wide variety of musical genres, including concert works, folk and popular music from around the world, rock music, and musical theatre. Concert music of the 20th and 21st centuries represented in the music collections include works based not only on highly organized procedures, such as those used in serialism, stochastic music, and computer-generated music, but also aleatoric and improvised music.

Contribution by Frank Ferko
Music Metadata Librarian, Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library

Source consulted:

  1. Grove Music Online,, (accessed 11/19/19)
  2. YouTube,, (accessed 11/19/19)
  3. YouTube,, (accessed 11/19/19)
  4. YouTube,, (accessed 11/19/19)
  5. “The art of visualising music,” (accessed 11/19/19)
  6. and (accessed 11/19/19)

Title: “O Eterne deus” (from Missale monasticum secundum consuetudinem ordinis Vallisumbrose)
Title in English:  O Eternal God
Composer: anonymous
Imprint: Venice : per Luca Antonio iuncta Florentino, 1503.
Language: Music
Source: Music Special Collections, University of California, Berkeley
Entire work:, See pages 254 or CXII (verso) and 256 or CXIII (recto).

Select print editions at Berkeley:

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The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).

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