The universal language

One of the most famous Old Testament stories is that of the Tower of Babel. It goes like this: After the Great Flood, all people spoke the same language. Then they got the idea to build a city with a tower as high as Heaven.

When God got wind of this, he didn’t like it at all. Maybe he hadn’t had his coffee that day. Truth be told, the Old Testament God was often a little cranky, to put it mildly. So he scattered all the people throughout the Earth, and as an extra bonus he made everyone speak different languages as well. Was he having a bad day or what?

I’ve always wondered how different it would be if one could approach someone from another place or culture and speak their language. Can you imagine how transformative that would be? It would be so easy to establish a rapport with them.

There is actually a language called Esperanto that was created to be one common world language but it never really took off. No one except language junkies has the time to learn an entire new language that hardly anyone else is speaking.

I was giving this some thought the other day when it occurred to me there is after all a universal language that many people from all over the world can understand. Can you guess what it is?

Hint: I’ve been learning to play the guitar, which means if you guessed the answer is written musical notation, you got it right. Yes, the notes and staffs from music class or the hymn book are indeed a universal language.

Though I never had any formal musical training, I always knew about written music. It was mostly where you got the words to the hymns in church (you got the tune from following the stronger singers). All those lines and funny little markings were cute in their own way, but it may as well have been Greek to me.

Then I married a world-class piano teacher, organist, and choir director. Over the years, she slowly got me to where I had some idea of what was going on with written music. That was great. But it was only recently, when I started learning to play guitar, that I finally understood the true power of this universal language.

A lot of guitar players — even some very famous ones — don’t know how to read music. Many of them just want to “jam,” as they say, and some go very far using various fret-board tricks and techniques. Still, there is real power in understanding written music.

Here’s one example: Once I was outside running during my lunch break at work. All of a sudden, I don’t know from where, this tune popped into my head. It was a really pleasant tune. So I stopped running and pulled out my flip-phone (this was a while ago), called my wife, and hummed the tune to her over the phone.

Would you believe she was able to take that tune and write it out, using music notation, such that it could easily be played on the piano? Man, that was so great. If you play any kind of music, why wouldn’t you want this awesome ability?

The real power of music notation is that anyone, anywhere in the Western world who knows even the rudiments of music notation can pick up a piece of sheet music or a hymn book and at the least get a feel for the piece or even play or sing it outright.

What is really incredible about music notation is how simple and straightforward it really is: You have just seven notes from A to G that repeat to give us the musical sounds; the staffs with horizontal lines and vertical bars, where each note fits on a line or on a space between the lines; the clefs (treble, bass, or other) to identify what kind of staff it is; the key (the tone or “pitch”) to tell us what musical range it’s in; the time signature (the beat); and various other markings to indicate speed (tempo) and dynamics (soft to loud).

Oh, one more thing: There are also sharps and flats, which are notes that are a semitone above (sharp) or below (flat) another note. Don’t get confused by sharps and flats; they are just the black keys on the piano (though some can be white keys as well).

Music notation is really not that complicated, yet what you can achieve with it is simply amazing. From “Happy Birthday to You” to Beethoven’s “Symphony #3 in E-flat Major” (the famous “Eroica” symphony), to everything in between, it can all be written out and played back in a language that many disparate people all over the world can easily understand, even if they don’t speak the same language. Wow!

It’s easy to extend written music from the foundation I’ve described above. You can indicate to play a note in an abrupt or disconnected fashion. This is known as “staccato.” Or you can make the notes long and continuous. This is “legato.” Or you can accent a note. This is “sforzando.” You can also play a bunch of notes smoothly and without separation. This is known as a “slur” (and it’s not a bad thing).

Have you noticed that many of these words sound very Italian? It’s because they are. Italy was where music notation really developed and took off. Just one more thing to thank us Italians for (as if great food, literature, science, music, painting, sculpting, and such warm, heartfelt, joyous and beautiful people weren’t enough).

In fact, from studying music notation, I discovered that very, very loud music in notation is called “fortississimo.” If you know me personally, you know that kind of describes me to a T, for better or worse. Oh well, I just like to have fun.

Another interesting part of music notation is the “rest.” It’s like a note except you don’t play or sing it. Turns out a lot of music depends on what you leave out.

You’d think this would be great for a beginner like me — fewer actual notes to play wrong — but you have to be careful to get your rests in at just the right time or it screws everything up. That’s right, it even takes skill to play well what you don’t actually play.

If you have any interest in music notation or music theory, I highly recommend the book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory,” second edition, by Michael Miller, Alpha Books, 2005. This book is easy to read and makes what many find rather boring or tedious very fun and exciting.

I’m basically reading it over and over in the hope that it’ll really sink in. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll be able to write the tunes in my head down on paper myself without having to call my beautiful wife. She has enough to do as it is.

The Old Testament God was really having a bad day when he scattered folks all over the world and made them speak many different languages. However, not long after that we got the gift of music and it’s incredibly versatile notation system that to this day is shared all over the world by people of different cultures to allow us to enjoy the supreme gift of music. Maybe that was God’s plan after all.