The Limits of Language

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.      

“Where words fail, music speaks.” This saying, attributed to Hans Christian Anderson, has been restated in one way or another in numerous sources. A random survey of musical quotations yields endless similar remarks, including one from Victor Hugo: “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Ned Rorem opines, “If music could be translated into human speech, it would no longer need to exist.” Charles William Wendte, a renowned Unitarian minister of the early 1900s, expanded on the theme: “When words fail to express the exalted sentiments and finer emotions of the human heart, music becomes the sublimated language of the soul, the divine instrumentality for its higher utterance.”

An assemblage of like statements from notable personalities could fill an entire volume. The frequency and eloquence with which the sentiment is repeated is a testament to its accepted truth. Without need for deep reflection or the parsing of meaning, such comments just seem to ring true. The sense that musical expression picks up where language leaves off is an inference made by luminaries and laypeople alike. Music, in its various manifestations, is felt to communicate something that exceeds the conceptual limits of vocabulary.

Exactly what this information is can only be hinted at. The fact that music’s impact occurs outside the bounds of language means that language is inadequate to describe it. Our conversations with music occur in the realm of emotions, and insights we glean from that experience are no less (and can be more) significant than that which is gained from reading or speaking.

This assessment is hardly novel. As mentioned, it is alluded to or expressly made in all sorts of literature. Still, it is striking that the observation usually comes from people of words: poets, novelists, philosophers, theologians and the like. It seems the more fluent one is with language, the more one recognizes its insufficiencies. For reasons more intuitive than intellectual, music is reached for as the next level of expression. It can be assumed that authors arrive at this point independently; but similarities between their articulations reflect a common process and shared epiphany.

Among the clearest examples of a wordsmith turning to music is Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose theological output includes one hundred separate titles. His writings span apologetics, exegesis, letters, sermons, polemics, personal confessions and doctrinal teachings. But even Augustine, arguably the most prolific Latin writer, admitted instances when music is a better communicator than words.

This is especially apparent in his commentary on Psalm 33:3: “sing Him a new song; play sweetly with shouts of joy.” Augustine asked, “What does singing in jubilation signify?” His answer: “It is to realize that words cannot communicate the song of the heart.” This inner-song—which, again, is more intuitive than intellectual—is best sung as jubilus: a spontaneous and wordless musical divulgence. “In this way,” he wrote, “the heart rejoices without words and the boundless expanse of rapture is not circumscribed by syllables.”

Whether the writer is religious or secular and whether the medium is literary or philosophical, the assertion is the same: music conveys that which words cannot. It is a reality easier to acknowledge than to explain, but a powerful reality nonetheless.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

3 thoughts on “The Limits of Language

  1. Michael Isaacson

    If this is indeed true…I’m afraid you’re out of a job…. as are critics of all the lively arts. Words do have a deep significance as a portal into the non-verbal world and as the left brained intimation of a right brained phenomenon.

    1. jlfriedmann Post author

      I get your point, but I don’t see how it relates to this article. Did I or anyone I quote say that words are incapable of addressing non-verbal phenomena? The simple point is that when words run out, music can step in. This has little or nothing to do with our ability to discuss or critique music. Also, the right brain-left brian dichotomy is a myth.

  2. Pingback: A Song Worth More Than A Thousand Words: Music and Expression - Holy Joys

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