Music, Language, Sound

A project by Marcel Muecke
University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf
with Prof. Anja Vormann

What actually is music? Musicians and scientists have been researching this question for a long time. And yet the answer is about as ambiguous as the question of what art or design is, or where the boundary between the two lies. Detached from the questions about boundaries, justification, rationale for existence, etc. of music, however, one aspect of it can be asserted quite certainly: That it functions as language.

In this respect, music is much more universal than the language of words. While in the latter, depending on the culture, the writing systems, sound and word stems vary so strongly that members of these circles are not able to exchange information through the spoken or written language alone, a large part of the music composed today is based worldwide on the same music stave (the equivalent of the written word language) with the same 12 tones. Musicians from different cultures can therefore usually read music sheets from other cultures without any problems. The basis for this system, in turn, is provided by physical laws of nature, which are all-encompassing and not so much subject to human interpretation as, for example, speech sounds produced by human. Music is thereby in principle rather carrier of pictures and emotions, in contrast to the discursive word language.

So where do the perceived enormous differences between different genres and cultures come from, if music is so universal? In my view, music can be seen as a universal language, and the different styles as its dialects. A dialect differs from its native language only in subtleties (compared to the difference with other languages of other groups). Even if there is a basic ability to understand dialects of one’s own language, this does not mean that everyone can reproduce these dialects or understand and interpret their nuances.

Thus, music opens spaces of encounter and rapprochement. The most impressive example for me is the first encounter with Lalo at an open blues session. A native of Mexico, he had just arrived in Germany and didn’t know a word of German and only a little English. When we both went on stage with three other musicians (he had his accordion with him), it only took a short shout as to which key we wanted to play in and without any further arrangements we had made music together. Five musicians who had never before seen each other, spoken to each other, let alone made music together.

Current research even suggests that the musical differences between different cultures are smaller than those within cultures with their countless styles and genres.

There is more than only “our” minor scale

Whoever speaks of tone keys in today’s Western pop music usually refers to »major« and »minor«. That this came about was a development over centuries. Major and minor are actually only two of seven church keys in which classical works were composed, especially in Europe. The tonal character results primarily from the fact that – to put it simply – of the 12 available tones, only seven are used at intervals defined by the key.

The minor key, which is so common and widely known today, is, in addition to this temporal component, only a perspective from our geographical and cultural point of view. This so-called »natural minor« is called so because it has arisen directly from this systematics of the old church keys. If a single tone of this ladder is shifted, we get the »harmonic minor«, which is and was common especially in Eastern European and Arabic regions.

However, the tonal differences of music are not only based on which seven tones are used, but also on how they relate to each other. For example, if the harmonic minor scale is not played from the first note, but from the fifth, this results in a completely different key: Phrygian dominant, or in Yiddish: Freygish.

This key is primarily used in klezmer, the music of Eastern European Jewry. Here again, if a single note is shifted, you get the minor of the Sinti and Roma. This similarity is probably due to the fact that klezmorim (klezmer musicians) have often travelled together with Sinti and Roma and have made music along the way.

Shifts in tones and scales can thus map geographical and cultural developments in a way that can be understood universally. Modern styles such as Black American Music (BAM) show that the combination and coming together of these styles can be an enormous enrichment.


In my project I would like to make the harmony and dissonance of the different scales audible – whereby dissonance of music cannot be equated with something negative or unattractive. Quite the opposite, it is often precisely the friction of tones that makes a piece diverse and worth listening to.

The final realization of this project takes place in the form of a live performance, which is based on singing and expanded by instruments. The listeners are invited to enter into the music – by feeling and imagining.