Tonal languages in communication

Aspects of the formulation of music

Traditions and possibilities

In many cases the specific musical tradition experienced and internalised in every culture over the course of an individual’s socialisation places a wide-ranging tonal language at the disposal of musical communication. This tonal language as such has arisen within a specific regional cultural setting, where it makes its mark on a musical culture and is understood by most listeners sharing the same cultural space – because they are accustomed to it.

Beyond this, there are a host of other characteristics of acoustic artistic expression as well: tonal languages lying outside of one’s own tradition. These tonal languages themselves have a historically developed musical syntax of their own and must be viewed as foreign – because unaccustomed – musical languages vis-à-vis the listener’s own musical tradition. These foreign musical languages are frequently harder to understand, and in terms of communication they tend to resist efforts at understanding.

Hence, the creative musician and composer are aware of this diversity of tonal languages within a field consisting of subjective tradition and objectively available avenues for artistic expression.

If the maker of music should find the resources of his or her own cultural tradition, as appropriated over the course of his or her own individual musical socialisation, too limited or imprecise for a clear and persuasive presentation of the matters calling for artistic expression, he or she may find tonal languages outside of the indigenous tradition a wise and useful supplement for purposes of artistic formulation.

The adventure of new music begins beyond traditions. Just as a painter’s palette offers unfettered use and combination of all of the colours perceptible to the human eye – regardless of which paintings have already been painted, and how – the creative musician also has all of the humanly perceptible tones at his or her disposal, for use in the unfettered creation of music.

Aspects of communication

Any composer or an improvising Instant composer can measure the progress of his or her artistic development based on the degree of clarity and distinctness of what is to be communicated, dedicating his or her work to the purification of content.

Reflection as to how best to convey content in one’s presentation is wise, logical and beneficial to an approach to artistic communication that concerns itself with intelligibility. Where necessary, this is also for the work begins of striking a balance between the clearest possible presentation of content and the effort to make this content understandable. In this connection, known tonal languages can serve as a useful vehicle; creative enlargements, on the other hand, are often inevitable.

The 6 perceptions


What makes music the universal language are the six perceptions of its essence, perceptions every listener can identify, across cultural boundaries and regardless of any tradition-based musical dialects:

  • Rhythm
    or, in its elementary form:
  • Melody
    or, in its elementary form:
    the formulation of a musical ‘movement’ in the shaping of a beginning, development and end to a particular line
  • Harmony
    • As fundamental sound
    • As progression of sound (functional harmony, modal progressions, etc….)

    Or, in its elementary form:
    Acoustic space

    • As a statically audible environment (soundscape, etc….)
    • As a sequence of different audible environments
  • Form
    • Beginning
    • Development
    • End
    • Symmetries
    • Proportions
    • Structure
  • Concentration and energy
  • Virtuosity

On hearing and saying

Music as a vehicle for artistic expression serves:

  • The presentation of a specific content
    • The presentation of content fosters communication
      • Communication helps facilitate encounters between human beings

The following are discernible in musical communication:

  • Whether something is being said
  • How something is being said
  • What is being said
    and perhaps
  • Why something is being said

Theory & Practice / Tonal Languages in Communication © Norbert Stein Pata Music