Music/Language Analogies Part 6: Phonemes and Morphemes


Most people don’t use the words phoneme and morpheme every day, but I remember vividly a time when I did.  In fact, those words were vital to me when I experimented with new ways to teach students to read tonal notation.  I want to define phoneme, morpheme, and other linguistic terms for you up front, so we’ll have a common vocabulary.  Here is a chart showing the linguistic terms you will see in this blogpost, their musical counterparts, and their definitions. (If you want more information about these terms, you can find three sources at the bottom of this post.)

Linguistic Units and Their Musical Counterparts

                     LINGUISTIC UNIT                  MUSICAL UNIT
Phoneme—A minimal speech sound in language (as in the sounds /d/ and /t/ in the words bid and bit). An isolated pitch.
Morpheme—A minimal, meaningful linguistic unit. (You’ll see examples further down this column.) A whole, functional pattern, or a single pitch within a functional pattern.
Free Morpheme—A morpheme that can occur by itself as a whole word (as in the word chill). A whole, functional pattern.
Bound Morpheme— a word-part that cannot be broken into smaller meaningful units (as in the suffix y). A single pitch within a functional pattern.
Inflectional-Bound Morpheme—A type of bound morpheme that provides further information about an existing word (as in the suffix y that changes chill into chilly). A single pitch that is part of a pattern with one unambiguous harmonic function (such as a tonic major pattern).
Derivational-Bound Morpheme—A type of bound morpheme that, when attached to a root-word, creates an entirely new word (as in the suffix ing that changes chill into chilling). A single pitch that is part of a pattern with ambiguous functions (such as a chromatic pattern).

I hope you agree with me that these words are not all that formidable. But it might take you some time to wrap your head around them. (It took me several weeks!) I’ll talk about each term, and its musical counterpart, one by one.


In her book Teach Yourself Linguistics, Jean Aitchison defines a phoneme as “the smallest segment of sound that can distinguish two words.”  For example, the sounds /d/ and /t/ in the words bid and bit are phonemes.

Individual pitches are analogous to phonemes in that you can aurally distinguish one from another, just as you can distinguish the sounds /d/ and /t/ from one another.  For example, you can hear that the pitch A and the pitch A sharp shown below are different.  (And it makes sense that people from cultures in which music consists of quarter tones and microtones will discern differences even more acutely.)

Because the pitch/phoneme analogy doesn’t hold up for long, I want to move on fairly quickly to more fruitful comparisons.  Here’s how it comes apart.  The sound of the pitch A in the two patterns shown below remains constant despite the change in context; and, in fact, it remains constant across all examples of music notation.  But phonemes are another matter; they’re not nearly so reliable. The letter [g] may symbolize two distinct phonemes depending on whether you use it in the word sag or sage.  Here’s another example: The letter [s] in the word house symbolizes two different phonemes in the sentence I will buy a house in which I will house all my belongings.

Where does that leave us?  In a previous blogpost, I wrote about poor analogies that give us little insight into music and language. I showed that the note/letter analogy is unsustainable, and that the pattern/word analogy is equally poor.  Now, I’ve made the case that the pitch/phoneme analogy is just as flimsy—but it’s different from the other comparisons in at least one way:  we’re using a precise linguistic term phoneme instead of imprecise terms like letter and word.


I want to go on using linguistic terms by talking about morphemes, minimal meaningful sound units in language.  And here, we come to an analogy that not only holds up, but is the mother-load of all music/language analogies!  Morphemes are analogous to functional tonal patterns and to pitches within patterns. 

Don’t let that last sentence throw you!  Morphemes and tonal patterns have a great deal in common.  And by understanding morphemes, we can better understand patterns, and the pitches they’re made of.

Free and Bound Morphemes

There are two kinds of morphemes:  free and bound.  A free morpheme is a self-contained word that you can’t break into smaller, meaningful units.  A bound morpheme is a word-part that has no meaning by itself, but takes on meaning when you attach it to a word.  The last two sentences cry out for an example, so here is one.  I wish I could take credit for creating the sentence you see below, but I found it (in slightly longer form) in Aitchison’s book on page 54: The albatross chanted a dreamy lullaby.

The albatross chant ed a dream y lullaby
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Here we have a sentence made up of free morphemes (1, 2, 5, 8), bound morphemes (4, 7), and root words (3, 6)

Root Words

I know what you’re thinking.  In the chart at the top of this post, I didn’t explain what root words are.  True, because I don’t think they have a musical counterpart.  Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.

What exactly is a root word?  Typically, a word that consists of two or more morphemes has a root, which Haspelmath defines as “the base of a word that cannot be analyzed any further into constituent morphemes” (p. 19).  I prefer the definition offered by Chall and Popp; theirs is more direct.  To them, a root word is “the simplest form of a word when all prefixes, suffixes, and inflectional endings have been stripped away” (p. 156).

Here’s where things get a bit tricky:  Words are not roots until you attach prefixes or suffixes to them.  So then, the words chant and dream are free morphemes if you use them without prefixes or suffixes, as in the sentence “I chant in my dream.”  The words chant and dream become roots when they function as the base of the words chanted and dreamy.

Before I leave the topic of root words, here’s one more thing to think about: while all roots may function as free morphemes, not all free morphemes are roots.  Thus, the word the—a word you’d never encounter with a prefix, suffix or inflectional ending—is always a free morpheme, never a root.

You won’t see an analogy between patterns and root words for one simple reason:  there is none.  Tonal patterns, as I see it, have no roots; they seem to be made of nothing but bound morphemes.  In other words, each pitch in a pattern contributes roughly equally to its function.  Take a look at the pattern shown below.

The pitches C and F are each bound to the pitch A.  If you remove the pitches C and F from the pattern, you’re left with the single pitch A.  But is that pitch the root of the original pattern?  Not at all.  On its own, the single pitch A has no tonal function.  In fact, if you remove any two pitches from that pattern, the remaining pitch has no discernible function.

A Brief Interlude

Before I press on, I want to bring up an important point.  From a linguistic point of view, you can look at tonal patterns two ways, and each way is legitimate:

  1.  A single tonal pattern is similar to a free morpheme, in that each is a self-contained, meaningful unit.  Or…
  2.  A single tonal pattern is made of discrete pitches that, somehow, glom onto each other like bound morphemes, despite having no “root” to hold them together.

Each way of thinking is valid.

Inflectional-Bound Morphemes

If you look back at the chart at the beginning of this post, you’ll see two kinds of bound morphemes.  That’s right.  Not only are there two kinds of morphemes: free and bound.  There are also two kinds of bound morphemes:  inflectional and derivational.  Here’s where we soar into the stratosphere! Let’s talk about inflectional- and derivational-bound morphemes.

An inflectional-bound morpheme (such as the -ed in chanted) gives you more information about a word, but it doesn’t change the meaning of that word significantly.  What is the musical counterpart to an inflectional-bound morpheme?  One example is the pitch C sung after the pattern F – A to create the three-pitch pattern F – A – C (which, in the context of F major, is the tonic pattern do-mi-so).  If do-mi is tonic major, then the added so gives you even more certainty of the pattern’s… tonicness.  The note C (added to F and A) doesn’t change the function of that pattern.  In fact, it clarifies the tonic function.

Derivational-Bound Morphemes

What about derivational-bound morphemes?  Let’s say you’re in a movie theater watching a horror film.  The theater may be chilly, but the horror film is chilling.  Derivational-bound morphemes (such as the -ing in chilling) create not only a new word, but an entirely new meaning!  Take a moment to sing the two series of patterns shown below.  They are identical, except for the final note.

 Series 1:  I – IV – V – I

 Series 2:  I – IV – V – VI (Deceptive Cadence)

If you look at the final pattern in Series 2, you’ll see an example of a derivational-bound morpheme in music—the final note D.  You expect a cadential pattern in F major, but the pitch D, sung after the notes F and E, creates the submediant deceptive cadence do-ti-la.  Or does it?  Is that final D, in fact, a deceptive cadence in F major?  Or is it the hint of a modulation to d minor?  Either could be true.

In short, derivational-bound morphemes are analogous to pitches in tonal patterns that have multiple, often ambiguous functions.

Practical Application

And now for the big question:  How does all this help us in real life?  Is this just an intellectual game?  Far from it.  These speculations may help music teachers to understand (finally!) how to teach students to read music notation most effectively.

In a previous blogpost, I talked about the four groups of students who participated in my doctoral study.  Here, again, is what the four groups were asked to do:

All 4 groups learned to read (that is, to sing at sight) familiar tonal patterns. One group read whole patterns only; a second group read individual pitches within patterns only; a third group learned to read whole patterns, followed by individual pitches within patterns; and a fourth group learned to read individual pitches within patterns, followed by whole patterns.  It was a classic design: one group learned A; another learned B; a third learned A before B; and a fourth learned B before A.

Just to give you a taste of what it’s like to teach students to read individual pitches within patterns, I’ve asked my daughter Celia to sing patterns at sight.  Actually, she and I sang the following patterns as a team.  Please listen to the audio track below as you follow along with the patterns.

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 12.25.12 PM

Students in my study had learned only tonic, dominant, and cadential patterns (and not chromatic, multiple, or modulatory patterns), For that reason, the students who read whole patterns, read them as free morphemes; those students who read individual pitches within patterns (just as my daughter Celia did), read them as inflectional-bound morphemes.


This post has been fun to write, mainly because I got to relive the best moment of writing my dissertation—the breakthrough moment when I figured out how to teach tonal reading a whole new way.  At no point during my study did I compromise my students’ audiation of pattern functions and tonality.  On the contrary, during each moment of each lesson, students learned the musical equivalent of phonics (individual, notated pitches) while still audiating tonal syntax.  Triumph!

I mentioned in a previous post that I found no significant difference among the groups.  Upsetting? Yes, it was, until I remembered what Carl Sagan once said: “In science, a negative result is not at all the same thing as a failure.”  To those MLTers who insist that the best way to teach tonal reading is with whole patterns, I say… maybe not.  And to those who insist that students will not learn to notationally audiate if they read individual pitches, I say—absolutely not!  As my adviser Darrel Walters put it, “Eric, you kicked the stilts out from under the extremists.”

PS.  If you want more information about the linguistic terms I used in this post, here are three sources that I have found particularly helpful:

Aitchison, J.  (1999).  Teach yourself linguistics.  London:  Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

Chall, J. S. & Popp, H. M.  (1996).  Teaching and assessing phonics:  Why, what, when, how.  Cambridge:  Educators Publishing Service.

Haspelmath, M.  (2002).  Understanding morphology.  London:  Arnold Publishers.

Music/Language Analogies Part 5: Deep Structure and Surface Structure

This topic is for dense treatises, not for blogposts.  How shall I discuss so complex a topic without the space (or background knowledge, frankly) to do it justice?  Answer:  The best I can.

What do the words “deep structure” and “surface structure” mean?  In his book Understanding Reading, the linguist Frank Smith defines surface structure as the physical properties (aural and visual) of language.  He defines deep structure as the meaningful aspect of language.

A surface structure is, for instance, the sentence you are reading right now; and in fact, this sentence is a surface structure whether you read it, write it, speak it, or hear it.  A deep structure is the underlying meaning of the sentence you just read (though such a definition, as you’ll see, is less than stellar).

Although music is not a language, music has surface structure and deep structure.  In Learning Sequences in Music, Gordon (2012) writes,

…Music being audiated will have foreground, middle ground, and background. Complete patterns make up foreground; essential pitches and durations, middle ground; and tonality and meter, background.  Complete patterns constitute surface structure of what is heard but essential pitches within a tonality and essential durations within a meter constitute deep structure  (p. 115).

Back in the late 1950s and 1960s, Noam Chomsky made a big splash with the terms surface structure and deep structure.  I tried reading Chomsky’s work and got nowhere, to be perfectly honest.  But I have, over the years, enjoyed a book by Jean Aitchison called Teach Yourself Linguistics.  With the help of that book, and Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question, I’ve cobbled together a few lessons about linguistics.

The following example comes from Bernstein’s book.  He presents this linguistic deep structure:

Jack + love + Jill.

And then he shows the following sentences, all of which are surface structures based on that deep structure:

“Jack loves Jill.”

“Does Jack love Jill?”

“Jack does not love Jill.”

“Doesn’t Jack love Jill?”

“Jill is loved by Jack.”

“Is Jill loved by Jack?”

“Jill is not loved by Jack.”

“Isn’t Jill loved by Jack?”

These sentences, different as they are on the surface, come from a common source—the deep structure Jack + love + Jill.

One surprise I got from reading Aitchison’s book is that many linguists, including Chomsky, abandoned the terms surface structure and deep structure.  Why?  Perhaps because deep structures have a built-in contradiction: the moment you present a deep structure—which ought to take place only in the mind—it’s no longer a deep structure; it has climbed to the “surface” for all to see and hear.  In other words, the boundary between deep structure and surface structure is unclear; maybe it doesn’t exist.  Still, Jack + Love + Jill isn’t a sentence that anyone would say; so maybe deep structures exist in limbo, no longer housed only in the mind, but not normal language either.

What interests me is that various sentences—“Jill is loved by Jack,” “Is Jill loved by Jack?”— derive from the same deep structure, the same underlying string of words, Jack + love + Jill.  (Or perhaps they derive from the basic surface structure, “Jack loves Jill.”  But I’ll leave that for linguists to decide.)  In short, they are variations on the same theme.

As variations go, however, they are not all that creative.  You can transform “Jack loves Jill” into “Jill is loved by Jack,” but so what?  Things don’t get interesting until you learn more words to manipulate.  I love the way Bernstein, in this lengthy quote, explains it.  This is again from his book The Unanswered Question, p. 70:

A child is born with the capacity to learn sentences.  Right?  Let’s say he learns three basic ones:  “The man hit the ball”; I like green ice cream”; and “Chomsky loves Skinner”.  That won’t get him very far.  What does get him far is his equally innate capacity to learn certain types of rules that will transform those sentences into exponentially greater numbers of them.  These types of rules are called “transformations”, and they are the combustion engines of language.

Take the passive [and negative] transformations, for instance.  Once the child grasps [those], very early on, he can already say: “The Ball was hit by the man,” and “I don’t like the green ice cream”; to say nothing of, “The man did not hit the ball”, and “Green ice cream is not liked by me”.  Then he learns the interrogative transformation, and now he can say: “Wasn’t the ball hit by the man?” and “Doesn’t Skinner like green ice cream?” and “Am I loved by Chomsky?”  It is a breathtaking explosion:  The sentences multiply like rabbits: “Does Skinner like to hit Chomsky?”  Doesn’t the green ball love ice cream?”  I’m going mad, but only out of excitement.  And what excites me is that the transformational process is a creative one which is responsible for the varieties of natural human speech, from a child’s sentence to the most intricate word patterns of Henry James.

Bernstein lived a life filled with great moments, but this may be his greatest!  Not only does he take us from the realm of dry linguistics into creativity, but he points out (inadvertently, of course) a misconception many people have about Gordon’s MLT.  “Gordonites teach patterns, but not real music.”  Of course, this is nonsense: “Real music” is what we’re all about!  But many critics of MLT fail to understand this basic point:  A series of patterns, such as Series A, is not a musical surface structure.

Series A (no subtitle)

Like the underlying string Jack + Love + Jill, a series of patterns in music exists in limbo—not a deep structure housed in the mind, but not yet real music either.  Notice in the last sentence, I used the phrase “not yet,” because Series A is like a horse at the starting gate, waiting to run free.  By that, I mean we can take Series A and transform it, toy with it, add pitches and rhythm patterns to it, until it takes on a distinct melodic profile, as in Melody #1 shown below.  In other words, we can transform Series A into art.

Melody #1

Suppose we transform Series A once more by creating Melody #2—a variation on the first melody.

Melody #2

After hearing Melodies 1 and 2, we can, as astute listeners, generalize that they grew out of the same creative inspiration.  How do we do this?  We audiate the essential pitches of the two melodies; then we realize that those melodies come from the same well-spring, namely Series A (or a series of patterns very much like it).  In short, we reduce—this is a crucial point!—we reduce the two melodies into a mental structure, a series of patterns, that reveals a vital truth:  though superficially different, the two melodies are, in a deeper sense, the same.

Let’s take this a step further.  Suppose we had two deep structures:

Jack + Love + Jill

Jack + Love + NEGATIVE + Matilda

From these deep structures, we could create at least these two sentences:

“Jack loves Jill.” 

“Jack does not love Matilda.” 

But we can also join them (or conjoin them, to borrow a linguistic term), and maybe add information to them as well, a linguistic process called embedding.  And by doing so, we can create this sentence:

“Although Jack feels undeniable love for Jill, he has never felt the least bit of love for Matilda.”

To finish this post, I’ll show you some pieces I’ve composed; and I’ll show how conjoining and embedding helped me to create them.

As a prelude to that, here is one final thought:  I want to challenge you to see generalization and creativity not as two distinct levels of learning, but as processes that work in continuous, mutual reversal.  By that, I mean something very simple:  when we generalize, we contract; when we create, we expand.

Please take one more look at melodies 1 and 2.  When you generalize that those melodies have a deep sameness, you do so by reducing them to a bare-boned series of patterns like Series A.  When you create, you start by audiating essential pitches and durations; then you combine them into patterns in various series—a skeletal structure; and then, through creativity, you add to the skeletal structure.  You expand.  (Of course, a large part of creativity is not expansion, but deletion.  A handy example of that is this blogpost:  I’ve cut dozens of words out of it so far.  Mainly, though, you delete words not when you write, but when you rewrite.)

Maybe you’ve found this post difficult to digest.  Thank you for sticking with it until the end.  As a gift, I offer the following compositions for your enjoyment (and to illustrate some points I’ve made).  Let’s say that I wanted to create a two-part invention and a sinfonia (at least up to the first modulation, because that’s all I had time to compose).  And let’s also say that I had the following deep structures to work with:  Series A and B.

Series A (Confirms A major)

Series B (Modulates from A major to E major)

Conjoining Series A and B was easy.  After all, Series A suggests some kind of exposition, while Series B suggests some kind of modulating bridge.  Embedding (that is, adding filler) was the challenging part.  I will leave you with these two compositions: an Invention in A major and a Sinfonia in A major that I created from (and can generalize to) the same deep structure series of patterns:  Series A and B.


Invention in A major (up to the modulation to E) by Eric Bluestine


Sinfonia in A major (up to the modulation to E major) by Eric Bluestine

Music/Language Analogies Part 4: Sound-Before-Sight-Before-Theory

In my last blog post about music/language analogies, I wrote about poor analogies that fall to pieces shortly after we start to talk about them.  In this post, and in the 3 posts that will follow, I’ll discuss analogies that hold together long enough to be of real use to us.

Of course, I must start with sound-before-sight-before-theory because it’s legendary.  The basic idea behind it is this:

Though music is not a language, the skill-learning sequences of music and language are similar.  Children learn their native language by acquiring large listening and speaking vocabularies; after they acquire listening and speaking skills, children are ready to learn to read and write language with comprehension; they are then ready to study grammar, which consists largely of explanations of how words are classified as they function in context.

In a parallel way, students learn to understand music by developing audiation skill, and the ability to sing functional tonal patterns in tune in various tonalities.  (Students also acquire the ability to perform rhythm patterns with a consistent tempo in various meters.)  After attaining these skills—audiation and performance ability—children are ready to learn to read and write notation with comprehension; students are then ready to learn music theory, which consists of explanations and definitions of such things as intervals, chords, and symbols.

When music teachers compare the roles of the aural, oral, visual, and theoretical dimensions of language and music learning, the processes are parallel.  When we try to compare musical and linguistic content, however, we find that such comparisons have a short shelf-life.

Let me interrupt myself for a moment to tell you of the time I was accused of plagiarism (or, to be fair, coming “close to plagiarism”).  It happened when I was writing my dissertation proposal.  I wrote a paragraph explaining the skill-learning sequence in broad terms, much like I did in the paragraphs above.

Even though I was not, at that point in the document, using Gordon’s terminology, a member of my proposal committee took issue with the fact that I had not cited Gordon.  (In fact, Gordon’s name was liberally sprinkled over virtually every page of the 58-page introductory chapter; but that was, apparently, not good enough.)  This committee member could have offered the simple suggestion—Insert Gordon reference here—without using the “p” word, but no.  This person used the word plagiarism, which impelled me to defend myself in the following unpleasant exchange.  For the record, I kept my cool.  Never was I hesitant to defend my ideas.  (After all, that’s what the dissertation process is all about.)  But I was more than a little miffed at having to defend my integrity!  This person’s comments are in italics; my response is in bold print.

This material is readily available in Gordon’s works and in Jump Right In: The Music Curriculum.  Your presentation of the ideas without references is very close to plagiarism.

Gordon deserves credit for his insistence that the “sound” part of sound-before-sight must always be functional and contextual.  When I discuss such issues (as I do on pages 4-6 of this proposal), I refer to Gordon’s books numerous times, and I believe I do so appropriately.  Furthermore, I cite the Jump Right In Curriculum in Appendix D.

I have always made every effort to be scrupulously honest and meticulously accurate in my citation of sources.  While I strive always to give credit where it is due, I do not want to give credit where it is not due.  In my opinion, Gordon does not deserve credit here.  He is not the first person to believe that sound-before-sight-before-theory is a viable skill-learning sequence in music.  (I cite, at the bottom of page 10 of this proposal, numerous writers in music education to provide ample evidence of this.)  Nor is he the first person to draw this particular music/language analogy.

My purpose in writing about this analogy is to build up to the final sentence of that section:  The roles of the aural, oral, visual, and theoretical dimensions of language and music learning processes are parallel; that is, analogies between language and music hold up until one tries to compare linguistic and musical content.  Gordon has never, to my knowledge, expressed this thought.


One good thing to come out of this plagiarism accusation is that I finally tracked down (with the help of my advisor Darrel Walters) the origins of the skill-learning sequence sound-before-sight-before-theory in American music education.  (If you read my book, you’ll see that I referenced Lowell Mason.  I was wrong.)

The skill-learning sequence actually goes back to 1830 when William C Woodbridge mentioned it in a speech to the American Institute of Instruction.  Woodbridge cited the writing of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who, in a work entitled How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, wrote the following:

The first elementary means of instruction is sound.  It is important that [spoken sounds] reach [the child’s] consciousness in their whole compass as early as possible.  This consciousness should be perfect in him before his power of speech is formed; and the power of repeating them easily should be complete before the forms of letters are put before his eyes, or the first reading lessons [are] begun.

Woodbridge then went on, in his speech, to present several key principles of music pedagogy.  The first five are as follows:

  1. Teach sounds before signs and…make the child sing before he learns the written notes or their names.
  2. Lead [the student] to observe, by hearing and imitating sounds…instead of explaining these things to him—in a word, to make him active instead of passive in learning.
  3. Teach…one thing at a time—rhythm, melody, expression…before the child is called to [attend] to all at once.
  4. Make [the student] practice each step of each of these divisions, until he is master of it, before passing to the next.
  5. Give the principles and theory after the practice, and as an induction from it.

And there you have it.  While I’m on the subject of references, you may notice that I play kind of fast and loose with references in these posts, mostly to save time and space.  If you are interested in a precise reference (name, title, publication date, etc.), please let me know and I will post it.

In the next essay in this series, I’ll discuss how surface structure and deep structure function in language and music.

You can find the reference to Woodbridge (and the 5 principles of music education) in the following source:

Monroe, W. S. (1969). History of the Pestalozzian movement in the United States. New York: Arno Press. (Original work published 1907.)

Music/Language Analogies Part 3: The Poor Ones First

Why am I taking your time to show you analogies that don’t work?  To get your minds into the swing of thinking about music in the same way you think about language.

—Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, pp. 60-61.

So far, I’ve written two posts about music/language analogies.  They were mostly general and introductory.  Now that I’ve set the stage, I’m ready—almost—to examine a few analogies in detail.  Keep in mind that there are two kinds of music/language analogies:  1) those that go nowhere; and 2) those that hold together just long enough to spur our thinking about music pedagogy.  Is it worth our time to delve into poor analogies?  Yes, because, as Bernstein reminds us, even poor analogies can get our minds going.

In this post, I’ll discuss two of those poor music/language analogies—notes and letters, patterns and words—just to gently put them to bed; and in the next few posts, I’ll write about music/language comparisons that I think are more helpful:  pitches and phonemes; pitches and certain types of morphemes; patterns and certain types of morphemes.  Finally, I’ll compare music with language to make the case that Composite Synthesis is not a skill-level at all, but is actually a crucial stage of music reading development, analogous to a stage of language reading development.  But we’re not there yet.  Onward to the poor analogies!

Poor Analogy #1:  Notes and Letters

In the 2012 edition of Learning Sequences in Music, Gordon speculated that notes are analogous to letters, while patterns are analogous to words.  He wrote,

When we read [language], our experience with objects, thoughts, and ideas gives meaning to words.  Letters with very few exceptions, do not symbolize meaningful objects, thoughts, or ideas.  Pitch letter-names and time-value names of notes are the alphabet of music….Just as we read groupings of letters (words) to discover meaning through language, we read groupings of notes (tonal patterns and rhythm patterns) to glean musical understanding (pp. 36–37).

To understand why the note/letter analogy is flawed, we must first draw a distinction between letter names and letter sounds.  Letter names remain constant no matter the context, whereas letter sounds may vary according to the context they occur in.  For example, the letter [p] may symbolize the sound /p/ as in pit, or it may be silent as in the word pneumonia.  (The distinction between letter names and letter sounds is particularly relevant to language literacy:  when students learn to read English phonetically, they attend to letter sounds, not letter names.)   In language, the word letter refers to a consistent symbol, but not to a consistently corresponding sound.

In music, the word note may refer to a pitch, a written symbol corresponding to that pitch, or both, with no loss of consistency.  To put it simply, a G sharp always sounds like a G sharp.  Of course an instrument may be out of tune, but that’s another matter.  And some may argue that, in period instrument recordings, the tuning is lower than the standard tuning.  Yes, but the period instrument tuning (A = 415, let’s say) is consistent throughout the performance of a given work.  In short, note sounds remain constant; letter sounds may vary.

What if we tried a simpler comparison?  What if we left out the issue of context?  We now have this:  An isolated, written note (one with no definite tonal context) is analogous to an isolated, written letter.   But even here, as Bernstein points out in The Unanswered Question, we’re on shaky ground:

[If] a note equals a letter, then, by extension…a scale equals an alphabet.  That is, all the notes we use equal all the letters we use.  But whose notes, and whose alphabet?  The twelve notes of our Western chromatic scale?  Or the Chinese pentatonic scale?  And which alphabet—the German, the Russian, the Arabic?  We have arrived at chaos (pp. 57–58).

So, enough with the note/letter comparison.  Let’s move on.

Poor Analogy #2:  Tonal Patterns and Words

The pattern/word analogy holds up a little longer than the note/letter one, but still falls apart before it helps our thinking much.  And that’s a shame because, at least for a brief time, it does work.

Let’s take the following words—face, scrub, ship, book, spot, and cover—and play with them.  In his book The Art of Plain Talk (1946), Rudolf Flesch (one of my long-time spirit-helpers) pointed out that you can “face a scrub” or “scrub a face,” “book a ship” or “ship a book,” “spot a cover” or “cover a spot.”  All Flesch did was put words in various series.  The words took on meanings, and grammatical functions, once they were put into sentences.  Sound familiar?  It should, if you know about partial synthesis.  What is the musical counterpart to “Spot a cover” and “Cover a spot”?  I offer an answer to that question in these series of patterns:Screen Shot 2018-07-19 at 11.04.27 PMPlease take a minute to sight-sing them.  You’ll notice right away that the patterns in each series are identical.  And yet, by mixing up the tonal patterns in each series, I changed the functions of those patterns.  (And in fact, from one series to the other, I also changed the keyality.)  A bit of partial synthesis slight-of-hand!

At this point you may be thinking, The functions of the words changed; the functions of the patterns changed.  Doesn’t this prove the utility of the word/pattern comparison?  Up to a point, yes.  But let’s pursue it.

Think once more about “Spot the cover.”  What makes that sentence go?  What motorizes it?  The verb “spot.”  And what propels the sentence “Cover the spot”?  The verb “cover.”  As I change the positions of the words, from sentence to sentence, the grammatical functions change.  In a similar way, as I change the placement of a given tonal pattern—let’s say a tonic pattern in Series A—the harmonic function of that pattern changes to a subdominant pattern in Series B.

But here’s where things break down:  In music, there is no verb—that is, no single pattern propels each series forward in time.  Even when a series of patterns (such as Series A) has no distinct melodic rhythm, no single pattern in that series makes it go.  Either no pattern in Series A is a verb, or else every pattern in that series is a verb!  In language, words take on grammatical functions because they convey prosaic meaning.  Is “cover” a thing?  Or is “cover” something we do?  In music, there is no clear distinction between patterns that propel the action, and patterns that are acted upon.  We musicians need no such distinctions because music does not convey prosaic meaning.

What about words in poetry?  Yes, poets often choose words for their sound, not for their prosaic meaning; and poets often arrange words so that their grammatical functions are murky.  But this really means that words can be used for poetic and prosaic purposes, whereas tonal patterns cannot.  I’ll let Bernstein, in The Unanswered Question (p. 79), have the final word:

Language…has a communicative function and an aesthetic function.  Music has an aesthetic function only.

I know what some of you are thinking:  Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question has its share of flaws.  He talked about musical syntax and musical grammar, as if music had grammar, and as if syntax and grammar meant the same thing.  And he confines musical syntax to rhythm only, as if there were no such thing as tonal syntax.  And there are a few other things he said that bug me—but still, those lectures are so cool, and filled with so much great stuff, that I forgive him!

And that’s all I have to say about letters and notes, words and patterns.  Gordon used these analogies to make the case for teaching musical syntax.  Ironically, his case was so compelling that he had no need to reach for these poor analogies at all.

Music/Language Analogies Part 2: A Few Words of Caution

A few years ago, I wrote a blogpost about interdisciplinary education.  Basically, I made the case that when we combine music with social studies, music with math, music with science, we’re on the wrong track.  These subjects have little-to-nothing in common with music, and so we strain to make connections.  I argued that we should try a different approach:  If we’re going to teach across the curriculum, we should teach how music intersects with dance and poetry, which are, as disciplines go, music’s closest neighbors.  (For those who want to read more, here’s the link to that blogpost:

This idea challenges many music teachers—not the dancing part, but the poetry part.  We generally don’t know a whole lot about the musical qualities of poetry (meter, metrical feet, line structure, etc.); and that’s a pity for lots of reasons.  Of course, it’s a shame for our students who miss the chance to learn about poetry from our unique, musical viewpoint.  But it’s our loss as well, because by looking closely at poetry, we see where language ends and music begins; or to put it another way, by not teaching poetry, we miss a chance to remind ourselves that music is not a language.

Let me expand on this a bit.  Among MLTers, the notion that music is not a language is commonplace.  Gordon repeatedly said that music is not a language because it does not have grammar.  (Incidentally, I think Gordon was slightly off the mark here.  My belief is that musicians — who express themselves through a medium with no prosaic, communicative function — have no need for grammar.) Still, we MLTers bring up parallels between music and language where we think they fit.  We don’t hold Bennett Reimer’s extremist point of view.  During his infamous debate with Gordon from 1994 (which I hope you will all take the time to search out and listen to), Reimer said, “Music is not a language…and it should be taught in ways unlike language.”

Not so, sir!  By drawing analogies between the two disciplines (even while we keep in mind the autonomy of each), we understand music and language—and certainly music pedagogy—more clearly than if we draw no analogies at all.  I like the traditional MLT stance on this issue:  We unhesitatingly compare music and language, but we try our best to avoid the trap of equating the two.  As long as we keep firmly in mind that music and language may be compared but not equated, we’re fine.

Do MLTers cross the line?  Sometimes.  I used to hear overly zealous music teachers say to parents, “Of course we teach aural skills in music before we teach children to read music.  After all, that’s the way we learn language.  We learn to speak before we learn to read.”  But this goes too far.  If our immediate goal is to explain to parents what we’re doing, then comparing music and language may serve our purpose; but we must never use such a comparison to justify our pedagogy!  Sound-before-sight in language does not prove the validity of sound-before-sight in music.  We can justify such a skill-learning sequence on musical grounds only.

So, as you read more and more about the links—or attempts at finding links—between music and language, please keep this firmly in mind:  If our music curriculum is poorly designed, then no analogy can lend it legitimacy.  On the other hand, if our music pedagogy makes sense, then it makes sense for musical reasons, and for child-developmental reasons; we, therefore, need no analogy to validate it.

Now that I’ve cautioned you about putting too much stock in music/language analogies, let me begin to tell you how they can help us.

In my next blogpost, I’ll discuss specific music/language analogies in detail.  Before I do though, here’s one final thought:  all analogies between music and language are short-lived; none hold up under prolonged scrutiny.  In his provocative 1997 book Musical Languages, Joseph Swain wrote,

Seeing where music and language part company can be just as important to the understanding of each as knowing how they act alike…There will always come a point at which the analogy [between music and language] will break down.  If it didn’t, then it wouldn’t be an analogy at all but an identity. [Emphasis added] What matters is not whether it breaks down but where (p. 5).

I divide music/language analogies into two broad categories:  1) those that are illogical and untenable, and 2) those that—despite their precariousness—provide insight into music and language literacy.  I take a pragmatic approach to this issue.  Some analogies give us little or no insight into music pedagogy—for instance, comparing pitches to letters, or comparing patterns to words.  I’ll discuss these analogies (only because Gordon discussed them), but I’ll dismiss them quickly; they’re not worth our time.  On the other hand, as you’ll see in a later blogpost, some analogies that may seem esoteric at first, hold up just long enough to give us valuable insight into our profession.

Music/Language Analogies Part 1: A Prologue

Right off the bat, my title is misleading.  Yes, I’ll talk about music/language analogies soon, but I need this blogpost to ventilate a bit first.

Some folks on facebook have written about music/language analogies—not just the analogies themselves, but whether or not drawing comparisons between music and language helps anybody at all.  Let me go on record as saying that when we compare how children learn music with how they learn language (even when the comparisons don’t take us far in our thinking), we deepen our understanding of music education.  Even poor analogies can help us think better, because they spur us on to finding better analogies.  So yes, drawing music/language analogies is a good thing to do.

Let me tell you a story.  Sit back because it’s a long story, but it has a happy ending.

More than a decade ago, I conducted a doctoral study having to do with teaching tonal music reading to elementary school students.  These kids (the subjects who took part in my study) had already learned to audiate and perform tonic, dominant, and cadential patterns in major and minor tonalities.  They had moved nicely through the pre-notation skill levels (aural/oral, verbal association, and partial synthesis).  They were, at least based on the principles of MLT, ready to read tonal patterns.  My task was to see how best to teach them to do that.

In the proposal (and also in my later dissertation), I inserted the following quote from Gordon’s  Learning Sequences in Music (2003, p. 111):

In symbolic association, students learn to read tonal patterns and rhythm patterns as entire patterns.  That is, individual pitches and durations are not given consideration, just as in the Chinese language, for example, which has no alphabet, logographs are read and written as complete words, and individual characters are not given consideration.

Rarely, back then, did I disagree with Dr. Gordon—and even today, I’m with him a solid 90% of the time—but for me, this quote was a red flag.  Whole patterns for beginning readers?  Where was the research to support such a statement?  The results of more than 100 language-reading studies showed, beyond any reasonable doubt, the indispensable value of systematic phonics instruction.  I knew that children don’t simply read whole words, at least not at first.  I had read Jeanne Chall’s brilliant book Stages of Reading Development, in which she spelled out the role of phonics in children’s education.

Gordon’s blanket statement about reading only whole patterns made no sense to me.  A decade earlier, in the first edition of The Ways Children Learn Music (1995), I had written about my doubts.  Even back then, I knew that I wanted, someday, to conduct a study to investigate the role of whole patterns in music reading instruction.  But I wasn’t sure how best to go about it.

I ended up, 12 years later, designing an experimental study in which I compared 4 groups of beginning music readers.  All 4 groups learned to read (that is, to sing at sight) familiar tonal patterns. One group read whole patterns only; a second group read individual pitches within patterns only; a third group learned to read whole patterns, followed by individual pitches within patterns; and a fourth group learned to read individual pitches within patterns, followed by whole patterns.  A classic design:  one group learned A; another learned B; a third learned A before B; and a fourth learned B before A.

At the end of the treatment period, I administered to all subjects a test of sight-reading and a test of sight-singing, each of which I designed.

When the dust settled, when all the statistics were in, I found no significant differences among the groups.

I concluded that no one method of teaching tonal music reading used in my study was superior to any other.  And there you have it.  Years of work went out with a whimper, not a bang.

But that’s not the end of my story.  To design the study, I had to think and think and think.  And because I knew that non-MLTers would be reading my dissertation, I really had to spell things out.  Some members of my committee (both the proposal and the doctoral committees) knew nothing about Gordon’s MLT; some knew a smidgen about it, but they were vehemently anti-Gordon. (A few anti-Gordon folks were on my proposal committee, but, thank goodness, they were not on my doctoral defense committee.)  I also faced some interesting adventures with some MLT folks who—to put it kindly—saw no need for my investigation.  Not counting my wonderful adviser Darrel Walters, I had to contend with 3 groups: 1) the Who-The-Hell-Is-Gordon? group; 2) the Who-The-Hell-Does-Gordon-Think-He-Is? group; and 3) the Who-The-Hell-Am-I-To-Question-Gordon? group.

I wrote a 58-page introductory chapter spelling out, in copious detail, why I believed the study was necessary.  No easy task:  I had to explain Gordon’s MLT, and then explain how I was breaking from Gordon’s MLT.  This was not a good way to make friends.  (For those of you who have a doctoral defense in your future, here’s a word of caution:  If you don’t already have a thick skin, you’re in trouble!)

In that introduction, I included a long section about music/language analogies.  Mostly, I focused on the analogies Gordon typically made to explain (and sometimes defend) his thinking.  I also wrote about a few analogies I came up with that helped to explain what I was doing and thinking.  One committee member questioned whether such philosophical writing belonged in a quantitative study.  Here is that written exchange.  The committee member’s comments come first in italics; my response follows in bold print:

Keep in mind that this is a doctoral study, not a position paper.  Your design and procedures, even your rationale can be explained without recourse to analogies and other diversions.  If you must include them, then I suggest you read linguistics research, and you’ll find others who have considered the relation of language and music.  Reporting their work will strengthen your proposal.

I agree that citing the work of others who have compared music with language strengthens the proposal.  I have attempted to do so.   However, simply because “others have considered the relation of language and music” does not mean that their studies—or their thought processes—are related to mine.  For example, after conducting literature searches (through ERIC, Dissertation Abstracts, etc.), I can say with a high degree of certainty that no one has compared whole tonal patterns to free morphemes; nor has anyone compared pitches within patterns to inflectional bound morphemes.

Let me emphasize that this section—The Nature of Music/Language Analogies—is nothing more than philosophical speculation. The question I have wrestled with is, Does this section belong in a quantitative study?  After much reflection, I have chosen to retain it for two reasons:

First, I want to make it clear to the readers of this proposal (and ultimately to those who will read the dissertation) that my study is not simply a comparison between 1) Gordon’s whole-pattern approach and 2) the “traditional” approach of teaching students to read one note at a time without regard for syntax.  The linchpin of my study is that it is possible to teach students to read individual pitches without jeopardizing their audiation of functional patterns in a tonal context.  I cannot “prove” the validity of this teaching approach by comparing music with language.  All I can do is use music/linguistic analogies to help readers to better understand what I am doing.

 Second, this section reveals the thought processes out of which the design and procedures of my study were constructed.  In a sense the teaching methods and the music/language analogies “grew up” together. The new teaching approach I have been trying with my students (teaching students to read notes within patterns) gained precision as I began to think of pitches as morphemes rather than phonemes; and as the analogies grew more precise—as I began to understand that whole patterns are analogous to free morphemes, and that pitches within patterns are analogous to inflectional bound morphemes—my teaching improved.

I told you earlier that my story had a happy ending, so here it is:  individual pitches without context are analogous to phonemes in language; whole patterns are analogous not to words, but to free morphemes; and pitches within patterns—this is the clincher!—are analogous not to letters, and not to phonemes, but to inflectional bound morphemes.

The End

Wasn’t that a nice story?  Maybe you think it cries out for a sequel, and so it does.  In the next series of blogposts, I’ll go into detail about music/language analogies—those that don’t help us much, and those that do.  And I’ll also make sure to explain, as clearly as I can, all those intimidating linguistic terms.  Please stay tuned.