Music as a (Second) Language

There is a great video from bassist Victor Wooten where he talks about music as a language (you can watch the video here).  There is certainly nothing new about likening music to a language. Poets, writers and authors have been doing so for some time now…

Music is the universal language of mankind.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”
~Kahlil Gibran

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.”
~Victor Hugo

Music is well said to be the speech of angels.”
~Thomas Carlyle

The idea of music as a language has taken on an increased focus in my life ever since I came to work with Little Kids Rock through my job at Amp Up NYC about a year ago.   At Little Kids Rock (LKR), their pedagogy is based upon the idea of treating music as asecond language.  The basis of LKR’s pedagogy was developed by founder Dave Wish, a former first-grade, ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.

As explained in in a document created by Little Kids Rock called “Our Method”, Little Kids Rock approaches music as if it were a second language. Why a second language?  Because no one is born into a family where music is the primary language.  Like spoken language, music can express the full range of human emotions and does so by using its own distinct grammar, meter and vocabulary. Like language, it has a both a ‘spoken’ and a written form.

Although a pedagogy based around the idea of music as a language is not new (Suzuki comes to mind), LKR has taken this idea further to incorporate the work of renowned linguist and educational researcher, Stephen Krashen, most notably his “Theory of Second Language Acquisition.”

Here is a summary of Stephen Krashen’s Theory of second language acquisition, followed by some commentary.   This summary is only an introduction to Krashen’s theories, and a more detailed explanation of how his theories provide a framework for thinking about music education and music aquisition is a project that is currently in the works by LKR founder Dave Wish.

 Acquisition vs. Learning

There are two, separate ways of for people to become bilingual. The first and most effective is the “acquired system” which is a natural, subconscious process similar to the way people pick up their primary language. It relies upon meaningful usage of the new language and natural communication. Speakers focus not on the “correctness” of their speech, but on the communicative act.

The second way of processing a second language is the “learned system”. This relies on direct instruction and is a formal, conscious process. This results in academic knowledge ‘about’ the language, for example understanding specific grammar rules. According to Krashen, the ‘learned’ system is far less important and effective than the ‘acquired system’.

The Monitor Hypothesis

The “Learned System,” is the one that consciously grapples with grammar and rules. It does so by means of what Krashen refers to as a “Monitor”. While a second-language learner attempts to speak or even before opening their mouth, he/she use their Monitor to internally scan for errors, and uses the Learned System to make corrections.  According to Krashen, the role of the monitor should be minor, being used only to correct deviations from ‘normal’ speech and to give speech a more ‘polished’ appearance. Self-correction occurs when the learner uses the Monitor to correct a sentence after it is uttered. Such self-monitoring and self-correction are the only functions of conscious language learning. Only the acquired system is able to produce spontaneous speech. The learned system is used to check what is being spoken. In other words, you can’t rely on your Monitor to enable you to speak a second language

The Natural Order Hypothesis

The acquisition of grammar follows a natural and predictable order. For a given language, certain grammatical rules tend to be acquired early while others late. This order is not independent of the learners’ age. Krashen however points out that the implication of the natural order hypothesis is not that a language program syllabus should be based on the order found in the studies. In fact, he rejects grammatical sequencing as a means of language acquisition.

Input Hypothesis

According to Krashen, people acquire language when they receive “comprehensible input” or messages that they can understand. Put simply, if messages in a second language aren’t consistently understandable to the learner, they cannot acquire a new language. Messages are understandable to second language learners when they are just one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence.  The input should be easy enough that they can understand it, but just beyond their level of competence. This is often referred to in ESL circles as “input + 1.”

Affective Filter Hypothesis

Krashen claims that learners with high motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety are better equipped for success in second language acquisition.  A student’s debilitating anxiety, low motivation and

low self-esteem can and often do combine to form a ‘mental block’ that prevents successful second-language acquisition. Krashen calls this mental block the “affective filter.”

Synthesizing these ideas-

Krashen’s theories are used by Little Kids Rock to help form a framework for how music is brought out of students (as opposed to drilled in).  Here are a few takeaways, using the words of Victor Wooten.

“Although many musicians agree that music is a “language” it is rarely treated as such.  Many of us treat it as something that can only be learned by following a strict regiment under the tutelage of a skilled teacher. Think about the first language you learned as a child. More importantly, think about how you learned it.  You were allowed to make mistakes.  You were a baby when you first started speaking and even though you spoke the language incorrectly you were allowed to make mistakes – and the more mistakes you made, the more your parents smiled!

Learning to speak was not something you were sent somewhere to do only a few times a week. The majority of people you spoke to were not beginners, they were already proficient speakers.  To use a musical term, as a baby you were allowed to “jam” with professionals. If we approach music in the same natural way we approached our first language, we would learn to speak it in the same short time it took to speak our first language.

Here are a few keys to follow in learning or teaching music:

  • In the beginning embrace mistakes instead of correcting them. Like a child playing air guitar there are no wrong notes.
  • Allow young musicians to play and perform with accomplished musicians on a daily basis.
  • Encourage young musicians to play more than they practice. The more they play, the more they will practice on their own.
  • Music comes from the musician, not the instrument.
  • And most important: Remember that a language works the best when we have something interesting to say.  Many music teachers never find out what their students have to say. We only tell them what they are supposed to say.
  • A child speaks a language for years before they even learn the alphabet. Too many rules at the onset will actually slow them down.

Learning music in a natural way, just like learning to speak, is not only about increasing skill and proficiency but enjoying the process of learning. This outlook is about developing as a musician rather than learning rules. That removes a lot of the pressure some music students experience, which diminishes their enjoyment of learning music.”

-Victor Wooten


Krashen, S. (1987) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition.  Prentice-Hall International,

Krashen, S. (1988) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice-Hall International, 1988.

Little Kids Rock, Our Method.  

Wooten, V. (2012) Music as a language. YouTube video.

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Bryan Powell DMA is the Director of Programs for Amp Up NYC, a partnership between Little Kids Rock and Berklee College of Music in support of the New York City Department of Education’s efforts to expand Modern Band music education programming for thousands of public school students in the district. Additionally, Bryan serves as the Executive Director of the Association for Popular Music Education, an organization dedicated to promoting and advancing popular music at all levels of education. Bryan is a musician and music educator with elementary, secondary, and college teaching experience. Dr. Powell is an adjunct professor of music and education who teaches at Hunter College and Bergen Community College and also facilitates online Masters and Doctoral level courses for Boston University.Prior to joining Amp Up NYC, Bryan served as the Executive Director of GOAL- Giving Open Access to Learning, an educational non profit organization based in East Harlem, NY that focuses on youth development through high quality enrichment programming and social and emotional education. From 2003-2008, Bryan taught in the New York City public school system as a full time music teacher, where he served as a Project ARTS Liaison and a Hunter College Mentor Teacher. Bryan has a Bachelor of Music degree from Pepperdine University, a Masters degree in Education from Chapman University, and a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Boston University. He recently received certification in the Developing Leaders Program for Nonprofit Professionals from the Columbia University Business School. His research interests include alternative music education, informal learning practices, popular music education, urban education, philosophy of music education, and community music research.

One thought on “Music as a (Second) Language”

  1. Nice parallels between language acquisition and learning music, but I strongly disagree with the idea that music is a language. Yes, we say it is casually but strictly speaking languages have syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Music lacks the latter e.g. you can’t ask for a coffee in music, so it’s not a language. And it’s precisely because it isn’t a language that it’s so powerfully expressive and essential to human existence. Sounds contradictory, I know, but there it is.

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