Music at the Root of Language

Because I am in a different culture, I am learning just as much information as I am teaching.

Written By

Judy Bozone

Because I am in a different culture, I am learning just as much information as I am teaching. I chair the department at Mahidol University’s College of Music in Bangkok where I teach a wide variety of lecture courses—form and analysis, orchestration, 20th century music, electronic music, music theory—as well as private lessons in composition. As a teacher, I want to help people make new music. In Thailand, teachers are very highly respected by students and the relationships between students and teachers are generally more formal than in the United States. All of the courses are taught in English, but coming from an area with a different education system required some careful thought on my part about what information may be needed and how best to communicate it.

In lecture courses, the instructor is the main path to internalizing information and learning more about resources. I typically found that my resources are coming from, and represent, a specific perspective about music—one that is very important and from the United States. As a teacher, I would wonder how (even if) I could balance these perspectives, or tailor them, within the class in order to better accommodate growth within this specific environment. Generally, there is a pattern of favoring Romantic music as well as other music—like rock and jazz—that are openly communicative in content but also have a comfortable and lush sound world. One result from encountering this has been to move closer towards the center of the canon and to try to think about where that might be. If I were teaching in the States, it would be reasonable to rely on that knowledge base and continue to move away from the center. But in this environment, articulating and re-articulating the pathways taken by Western musicians helps create continuity around—and from—a more middle area. I’m able to speak to experiences and the ideas and techniques often found in this music much more clearly than I can speak about other kinds of music.

What has informed my music teaching here the most has been the very gradual process of learning to speak Thai and the cultural awareness that has resulted from that. Beyond this learning process, knowing more about the culture of my students has also helped me become a better teacher. As I mentioned in an earlier post, living outside your home country can result in many challenges. When comprehension is not automatic, everything that needs to be understood is something that has to be assessed as such and then re-acquired. Being able to speak in daily life was important to me from the beginning, so I spent the first two years choosing and learning to say phrases correctly. With each new word or phrase, new doors opened and points of conversational access increased.

Learning the Thai Language

Over the course of the first year, the learning curve for new skills was quite steep. During the second year, I focused on developing a larger vocabulary to increase access to details. Although all courses are taught in English at the university, Thai is more regularly spoken in my life outside the college. The Thai language has had a strong impact on me. Having to learn to speak a different language has helped me re-consider which words to use and has made listening a high priority.

When the understanding of speech is not automatic, one has to rely heavily on the ear to repeat sounds, words, etc., exactly as they are heard. In many ways, I found this process to be very musical, and I have approached the language from a musical point of view. Observing and understanding words helps facilitate communication: What types of words are being used? What words shift to new speaker? What is the tone of the conversation? In the Thai language, words have a very beautiful sound because of the high content of shaped vowels. Words that are not smooth would not be used regularly and the direct words “I” and “you” are often avoided in conversational speaking. The side effect of learning what I do know of the Thai language has also helped me a great deal to be able to develop cultural navigation skills.

Thai is very melodic. It is a tonal language with five tones where the shapes of the tones (mid, low, falling, high, and rising) occur on the vowel sounds, making audible melodies. These five tones are just as important to the meaning and expression of the word as any vowel or consonant. In English, changes in a tone and the sound of a word are used for expression, but in Thai, different tones are different words. Mistakes in pronunciation result in confusion and unintended, but hilariously silly, meanings. Over time, I discovered that as a native English speaker, my speech was very sonically expressive; it was very full of sounds not related to the word. I would emphasize certain words to change their meaning within the context of a sentence. I also discovered that my speech was riddled with and by idioms; the amount of these idioms hidden throughout concepts was genuinely surprising. In learning to speak Thai, I had to be very mindful not to let the meaning of what I was saying result in expressions of sound that could unintentionally distort the tones of my speech and the meaning of my words.

There was a linguistic turning point after about two and half years here. I was in a taxi and had often used the phrase “mai khao jai” or “I don’t understand” to indicate I had reached a vocabulary limit in the conversation and would be unable to continue. (Thinking that “I don’t understand” implied “I don’t understand what you are saying.”) At the time, it was frustrating because it wasn’t true. I comprehended the questions, but just did not have the vocabulary to respond. Because of this taxi ride, I chose to learn the phrase “I understand but I don’t know.” And “I understand but I don’t know how to speak” (thinking that these phrases might clarify a vocabulary limit not a mental limit). Surprisingly, when I began using this phrase instead, people understood I had reached a vocabulary limit and would teach me by continuing to speak or by beginning to explain more words that surrounded the concept of the word where I had gotten lost.

Learning a new word completely changes what you have access to.

One of the things that becomes very clear as new words and skills are learned is the impact new skills can make. Learning a new word completely changes what you have access to. When new ideas are applied, things can really open up. I have learned most of my Thai from the people around me and, in return, teach English words. This experience is very common. I practice using a new word in a sentence and teach the English version of that same word.

Finding Ways to Adapt the English Language

Not all cultural concepts found in English translate outside of English well. Through teaching, particularly in private lessons, I have realized that as a native speaker my speech contains many idioms unique to English that affect the ease of comprehension. There are so many! “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is one of my favorite creative examples of this. I also realized that, as a native speaker, I emphasize certain words to change their meaning within the context of a sentence, resulting in a distorted idea for the listener. Sarcasm, although very common for native speakers, is not effective for transferring information. Spoken humor often experiences a similar fate. So when I teach, in response to becoming aware of these idiosyncrasies of English combined with the melodic, fluid nature of the Thai language, I try to keep an even tone of voice. It sounds simple, but many good things have come from it.

Sarcasm is not effective for transferring information.

English’s strong skeletal grammar tends to hold intent well through many different pronunciations. (If a word is spoken incorrectly, its meaning is often still understood.) Overall English also has a high capacity for precision with various amounts of decorative words. English is very clear. Although English is also a difficult language, especially when written, the precision and clarity of grammar beyond pronunciation is one of the reasons it is relied upon as a common go-to language between multiple speakers. However, it is also common that the clarity of the English language can result in essential losses of sentiment and meaning of expressions from other languages. In written English, letters are used to make words that explain ideas in a row. But in some languages, letters and words have symbols in every direction, much like music. (The poet E.E. Cummings is a great example of someone using English in this way.) This feature makes space for symbols and letters to effect each other in a more nonlinear way.

Student musicians rehearsing at Mahidol University’s College of Music

The Language of Music

My approach to teaching now is more multi-lingual with music at the root. Clarity has become a primary tool for doing this and remaining focused on a practical approach built for clear responses to the ideas and materials found in the class are central to understanding the effectiveness of that clarity. I often focus on cultivating a firm grasp of the fundamental ideas that concern the vocabularies of the music at hand. In both music and language, listening for, seeing, and finding patterns is critical. Some patterns are easier to hear and some are easier to see.

In both music and language, listening for, seeing, and finding patterns is critical.

Although abstract concepts found in music can be difficult to articulate verbally, they can be made more accessible by examples where the abstraction is seen in a clear way—like in a diagram, flow chart, card series, or score. Many times, I will talk about how abstractions are easy to experience by looking through the lens of a camera. When doing this, it’s clear to see many similarities that relate to musical thinking. I can move through the depth of an image by focusing on something very close, something found in the middle, or something that is very far away. I can blur everything, or blur just a little bit. I can put an image in full focus or focus on just a small point. I can let all, or some, of the light into the image and change the colors. In cameras, I can capture one image at a time, but I can choose to combine many images into one image later. Once I capture an image, it lives in the camera even though I leave the place where I took the picture. One picture can be made and remade many times (and so on).

The students here ask such wonderful questions about composition, and I like to give as much information as possible. Beyond focusing on the music created for the week, in response to questions, I have often found that answers are sometimes best articulated through the process of solving a different problem that can help explain and inform the how, why, and what. Notation is great example of this. Notation exercises have been very useful additions to composition lessons. Practicing a wide variety of essential techniques (away from the piece they are composing and not a theory assignment) can inform future choices that will require detail and strengthen mental flexibility.

Beyond practical concerns, another aspect of teaching composition is how to constructively approach creativity. It can be difficult to make space for creative ideas and experiences. This is something I change around from semester to semester, but the general idea is to exit your routine on purpose, “shock the system” and document the experience somehow. A straightforward example of creativity practice is taking a different mode of transportation to the places you need to be for one week. If you drive a car normally, take a bike or a bus or ride with a friend instead. Take photos of what you see during the experience, take a video, or write words while it’s happening. See what happens. A change of pace can also help keep the mind more alert and taking a different path will result in different experiences. There may or may not be clear outcomes here, such as a completed pieces of music, but healthy creativity is a long-term part of being a composer. In returning to the music at hand during the week, I will often recommend a series of reasonable choices for students to consider until they find a good fit.

I teach music and learn about Thailand, and the students teach Thailand and learn about the music.

Being able to experience the clear side effects of learning so many new skills myself—from language to locations—has really encouraged me to develop my teaching towards a focus on responsive results, practice, and expanding chances for experience. I became much more aware of the pace and paths of learning because the learning process requires observations, considerations, implementation, observation of efficacy, and then adjustments. This is an experience my students and I both share even though the topics are different. I teach music and learn about Thailand, and the students teach Thailand and learn about the music.