Language and Music

How music and language connect


Did You Know?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”

How do we communicate? Through language, of course, but also through gestures and images—and yes, music.

Like language, music is a system of symbols and rules that communicates specific ideas. Music can also communicate emotions, and even tell stories.

Cracking the Code

Written language—whether it is English, Chinese, Hindi, or something else—is a code that represents the ideas and sounds of spoken language. Written music works the same way. Notes, or musical sounds, can be thought of as the musical alphabet. But unlike the 26 letters in the English alphabet, music only has 12 notes (and some scales, like the one below, don't even use all of them).

Musical Scale


Reading, Writing, and Rhythm

Rhythm is patterns of strong and weak beats organized into groups and repeated. In language, you most easily hear rhythm in poetry, where rhyming words are often emphasized. In music, rhythm—along with harmony and melody—is an important building block.

Try It!

Read this poetry excerpt aloud, nodding your head each time you say an organge word to see whether you sense the rhythm:

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
“Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!”

—from “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Rhythm also helps us tell different types of music apart. Take two types of music that has 4 beats per measure, like marching music and a lot of rock music. Marching music has strong first and third beats. Rock music often features strong second and fourth beats. Catch the difference by counting and tapping on your desk a steady 1-2-3-4 beat, a few times with more energy on beats 1 and 3 and a few times with more on beats 2 and 4.

March beat vs. rock beat

Now try to hear the rhythmic differences between:

a march song (“Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa and performed by the U.S. Marine Band):

and a rock song (“Hound Dog” performed by Elvis Presley):


Did You Know?

Music Notation

Many musical terms, like mezzo-forte (MET-soh FARW-tey), are Italian words because many of them were first written down by Italian composers.

Music Speaks Volumes

Whether in speech or music, the word dynamics describes the overall volume level of the sound. It can be loud, soft, or something in-between. Music played loudly gives a very different message from music played softly. Think about how this works in language. What’s the difference between a shouted “YES” and a whispered one?

In music, Italian words describe musical dynamics. Forte (FAWR-tey) means loud, piano means soft. Variations on these words describe degrees of loudness or softness. For example, moderately soft is mezzo-piano (MET-soh); very loud is fortissimo (fawr-TIS-uh-moh).

Make a Point (!)

How would you write a word that you wanted to be spoken with excitement? How about an exclamation point (!)? In music notation, think of the accent mark (>) as music’s exclamation point. When musicians see the accent, they know to play the note stronger or more forcefully.

Here’s a quick look at how some music symbols translate into sounds.

Musical notation


Spooky Sounds and Scary Tales

Now that you are in tune with the ways language and music connect, you might especially enjoy exploring how music conveys Spooky Sounds and Scary Tales—but beware the scare!

Grand “Slams”

Expression and communication can sometimes be competitive. Consider a poetry slam, where poets compete before an audience to have the best poem and performance. Or a free-styling event, where rap musicians make up new words to a song in a competition. More than 100 years ago, composers (people who write music) similarly tried to one-up each other by writing variations of popular music.

Now you be the judge. Compare the similarities and differences of these two variations from the 1800s of a traditional Italian folk tune, “The Carnival of Venice.”

Listen to Jean-Baptiste Arban’s variation for cornet (trumpet):

Listen to Niccolo Paganini’s version for violin:

Try It!

Language and music also share the ability to express emotions and ideas. Think about how you could communicate an idea (like pride) or a feeling (like happiness) in each of the following ways.

  • Speaking aloud
  • In writing
  • With gestures or body movement
  • Visually, like in a drawing, painting, or model
  • With music (humming, tapping a familiar beat, and so forth)

And remember, as you perform or listen to different types of music, keep thinking about the qualities it shares with language and how different arrangements of music communicate different feelings and ideas.



Marcia Friedman

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources


Adapted from the Cuesheets created for the Connections concerts developed by National Symphony Orchestra cellist Yvonne Caruthers and performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Illustrations by Carla Badaracco


"The Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa (1896), performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin conducting (1991). RCA

"Hound Dog" by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (1952), performed by Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black and DJ Fontana (1956). RCA

Variations Sur 'Le Carnaval de Venise' by Jean-Baptiste Arban (1864), performed by Wynton Marsalis and the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Donald Hunsberger conducting (1990). CBS/Sony

Variations on 'O mamma, mamma cara' from 'Il carnevale di Venezia' Op. 10 by Nicolo Paganini (1809), performed by Salvatore Accardo and the Chamber Orchestra Of Europe, Franco Tamponi conductor (1984). EMI Classics

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