In this video (starting around 00:28:30) the interviewer, Bryan Magee, and Noam Chomsky discuss musical composition as a form of thinking without language.

But it seems trivial to me that music is a language like any other: a set of sound symbols with a corresponding written notation and grammar-like rules. It wouldn't be a stretch at all to imagine that meaning can be associated with fundamental chords and melodies and then music will be no different than English or Chinese.

What am I missing? Why do Magee and Chomsky consider music to be proof of thinking without language?

  • 1
    Music may have a content-expression structure and a "regime of signs" for its notation (then again it may not!) but nevertheless it is sometimes understood as asignifying in relation to oral or written communication -- I suspect this is what they may be getting at
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 2:55
  • 3
    Music is not a language because it does not convey any meaning. When somebody plays a tune, the listener will not get any idea of any intricate thinking the player might have in his head when he plays. So music is clearly not a language. Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 8:11
  • Music. Music is created from language. Music without words could be considered a way of communication, and that is a language. People have used music as communication, for example: "Loud Noise", This tells the person(s) to look at that way. You are correct.
    – Firepatch
    Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 2:12
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    English is a language. You can translate Crime and Punishment into English. Or Sade's works, or the Tractatus. And you can expect that a reader of the English translation will understand Crime and Punishment, the Tractatus, or Sade more or less the same way than someone who read them in Russian, French, or German. But you can't translate these works into music - and even if you claim to do so, listeners won't have an idea of what Dostoevsky, Sade, or Wittgenstein intended to say. So music is not a language - or at least, not a language the same way English, Swahili or Nahuatl are. Commented Oct 16, 2017 at 13:47
  • It seems just as good to say music is language without thinking. It would depend on the definition of language we are using and where we draw the line between thinking and unconscious processing.
    – user20253
    Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 9:48

7 Answers 7


The answer is straightforward in the context of Chomsky's universal grammar, which music does not fit. However, the innate grammar structures postulated by Chomsky were not as universally encountered outside of the major European and Oriental languages, and the conception has little purchase with modern linguists, see Does majority of linguists accept universal grammar? So let us compare music to conventional languages outside of that context.

Leibniz would seem to agree with the OP, he called music “an unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind does not know it is counting”. But despite the well-known phenomenon of "lost in translation", most English texts can be "adequately" translated into German, Chinese, Swahili, and vice versa. Many pages though it would take, but even texts of specialized languages with terms like "decoherence" or "symplectomorphism", can still be translated into colloquial English. But in an English "translation" of say Vivaldi's Four Seasons almost everything that matters will be lost, and that even for an uncharacteristically "contentful" piece.

First thought is to distinguish music from conventional languages by saying that it lacks the content or meaning, but few musicians would concur that music is meaningless. Still, it looks like there is an equivocation going on here, "meaning" is used with two different meanings, pardon the pun. When Frege was developing the first modern semantics he distinguished two different components of "meaning" (actually three, but the third is moot here), sense and tone. In more recent times Frege's theory of tone was developed by Dummett, see Kortum's Varieties of Tone. The sense is that side of meaning that determines the "propositional content", the truth conditions of a sentence, what would make it true. It is therefore also essential to determining its reference, if any. Tone, which Frege also called "coloration" or "illumination", has little effect on those:

"It makes no difference to the thought whether I use the word ‘horse’ or ‘steed’ or ‘nag’ or ‘prad’... What is called mood, atmosphere, illumination in a poem, what is portrayed by intonation and rhythm, does not belong to the thought".

Schopenhauer, who developed an influential philosophy of music, expressed himself more poetically, "music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the Will itself". It is not that music is entirely contentless, but it strongly prioritizes tone over content, whereas natural languages prioritize content over tone. Their expressive means are lined up accordingly, hence the futility of translation. "Rules" for stringing notes into musical phrases are more aesthetic/psychological heuristics than structural prescriptions of conventional grammar. One could of course construct a soritic chain like logic - rhetoric - poetry - chanting - singing - music, and "dissolve" the Fregean distinction with the no-boundaries-no-difference trick so popular in postmodernism. But if music is a "language" it is not just another language, it is a language of another sort.

"Music is the universal language of mankind" is credited to Longfellow, although apparently the expression was used before him, "though music be a universal language, it is spoken with all sorts of accents", Shaw added later. The metaphor of "language" is often used informally because while music largely does not convey content (and lacks reference), it is generally felt that it does convey something. If the point of languages, especially theoretical languages, is primarily to inform and refer, the point of music is perhaps to evoke, emotions, moods, attitudes, volitions, etc. Apparently, that is also the point of Frege's tone. So we could say metaphorically that music is a language of qualia. I'll end with Schopenhauer:

"The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain… Music expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, never these themselves."

  • There are some short musical clips that from their use in movies/TV could well be considered "words".
    – celtschk
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 7:47

In the context of the linked interview, both Chomsky and his interviewer have an understanding of the term "language" that excludes music from it.

To put it as a syllogism:

  1. (P) All language activities involve the use of words, whether those words are expressed externally (spoken/written) or internally (your internal monologue).
  2. (P) Music composition does not involve the the use of words. (Emphasis on music because we are not talking about lyrics and songwriting)
  3. (C) Thus, music composition is not a language activity.

Magee uses the phrase "without words" to describe a feature of the mental process of composing music; Chomsky follows up with a more concrete picture that there are different kinds/types of mental machinery, and musical composition does not involve the "language machinery" used to process and generate words. The idea, which as far as I can tell is accurate, is that when composers are composing they aren't (for the most part) having an inner dialog, they internally hear the sounds that they want, and then write it down.

Now, you might complain that I've just pushed the definition off onto the term words. But, in this context, words means the subset of sounds that are organized into phonemes, which are specifically structured. Chomsky would argue that there is specialized mental machinery to process and interpret sounds that are composed of phonemes (which bubbles up to language processing), and different mental machinery for handling other types of sounds.

The preceding argument is based just on the local context of the interview; if you take Chomsky's view of language as a whole, you can construct a more general argument. Chomsky's key finding was a set of patterns/rules that (seem to) apply universally to human language. (AFAIK) No one has proposed that these exact same rules manifest in the structure in music, or even that there are close analogs between rules of the "universal grammar" and the patterns/structure of music when examined cross-culturally. Thus, in terms of Chomsky's view of language, music is not a language because it lacks these features.


According to Psychology Today

Music is a universal language. Or so musicians like to claim.... [But is it?] That depends on what you mean by “universal” and what you mean by “language.”

Every human culture has music, just as each has language. So it’s true that music is a universal feature of the human experience. At the same time, both music and linguistic systems vary widely from culture to culture. In fact, unfamiliar musical systems may not even sound like music. I’ve overheard Western-trained music scholars dismiss Javanese gamelan as “clanging pots” and traditional Chinese opera as “cackling hens.”

Nevertheless, studies show that people are pretty good at detecting the emotions conveyed in unfamiliar music idioms—that is, at least the two basic emotions of happiness and sadness. Specific features of melody contribute to the expression of emotion in music. Higher pitch, more fluctuations in pitch and rhythm, and faster tempo convey happiness, while the opposite conveys sadness.

Also, according to The Atlantic, researchers found

The brains of jazz musicians who are engaged with other musicians in spontaneous improvisation show robust activation in the same brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language and syntax. In other words, improvisational jazz conversations "take root in the brain as a language," Charles Limb said.

I would say that it is a language, but that language is not necessarily universal. What "music" is is a question up for debate, let alone the "words," and "phrases" that make up the language of music itself.

Having said that, I feel that it's a language because layered upon other experiences it gives additional meaning, depth, and context to what's happening. An example of this is what happens in the movies or video games. The music (and associated words) playing in a scene can add a richness to what's being shown on the screen. On the other hand it can provide a counterpoint to the action on the screen.

It's a language because it's so fully and seamlessly incorporated into our daily lives. We listen to music enroute to work, and listen throughout the day. We hear it while we go shopping at the stores, and the tunes can affect our habits. We set our days by it, many times by waking up to it or going to sleep by its rhythms. Our ceremonies use music to give cues as to when someone should be coming up on stage. Watch the "Sound of music" towards the end when the Von Trap family was supposed to come up for awards. It can allow us to access emotions that we would rather not feel, and put them into a context that makes it acceptable to open up. For all these things, our lives would be that much less rich without its presence.


Your assumptions are wrong. 1) Music does not have a set grammar --different musicians and musical traditions innovate their own rules, which then are quite often broken. 2) While arbitrary meanings could be assigned to musical phrases, that does not make music itself a "language." By analogy, it is quite possible to assign meanings to gestures, we call that sign language. But the gestures people make naturally do not constitute a language, outside of those few gestures that have universally understood meanings.

In general, while people find music meaningful, they do not assign the same meanings to the same music --the meaning they draw from it is personal and idiosyncratic. And while music can be a form of communication, the things it communicates are often things that are arguably difficult or impossible to express in language.


In the video, Chomsky begins his argument by drawing an interesting analogy between the developments in 20th century physics and 20th century music. Just as the rapid development of our physics has given us a theory which is unintelligible to our intuitions, developments in 20th century music has produced music which is unintelligible to the average listener.

It is not that the atonal music of the 20th Century lacks "written notation and grammar-like rules". It is that the tone-row rules are so nebulous and loose that there may as well be no rules. The tonal centre is absent, as may be meter and measure. The idea of imposing language-like structure on composition is actively frowned upon in this style of music.

Contrast this with music of the preceding centuries where composers intentionally mimic the spoken work, expressing their ideas in phrases and arranging them in "call and response" styles, where multiple voices exchange musical phrases invoking a sense of "question and answer" - the "call" phrase ending on an up-note to infer an questioning inflection, while the "response" answers appropriately. Unlike the atonal music of the 20th century, this style of writing intended to communicate as language.

Chomsky argues that language communicates while unintelligible music does not. While we can listen to an atonal composition by Schoenberg and think about what we are hearing, the unintelligible nature of the music means that it does not communicate with us and is therefore distinct from language.


According to Wittgenstein in his Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus:

4.014 A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world.

They are all constructed according to a common logical pattern.

Wittgenstein, L. (1961). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by DF Pears and B. McGuinness (London, 1961).

  • I made an edit mainly for formatting. You may roll this back or continue editing. Welcome to this SE! Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 10:14


Gödel, Esher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter

there are numerous examples of isomorphisms between music an other 'languages'.

Hofstadter asserts in I am a strange loop

that meaning is derived from translating between isomorphic systems. From this it follows that one could think, for instance, about arithmetic by employing a musical language. Here then the particular definition of language come into play: if one takes 'language' to be a symbolic system that is operated on when thinking, then certainly music is simply another language. But it may be argued that because of the dynamic nature of music, 'symbols' are not an appropriate characterization, rather 'ideas' are relationally expressed. On the other hand if we consider music not to be directly isomorphic to the spoken language the again we must conclude that thinking can be done without language.

Edit: Maybe "'ideas' are relationally expressed" is a bit vague. What I mean is: as written, the musical notes are not complete expressions, rather the ideas of musicit is formed by a succession of notes and their relations to other such successions. In contrast "words" have meaning in themselves.

  • And also what language did Mozart think in when composing.
    – christo183
    Commented Oct 20, 2018 at 17:06

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