Language is a way to share information in a way that many people can understand. Therefore, it only stands to reason that music is a language. That is, written music is a language; the actual sounds of the music are purely artistic and abstract. (Composers can certainly evoke certain images or emotions through their music, but those evocations aren't universal and rely on the shared history and knowledge of the listeners.) Musical notation can be considered as much a language of music as mathematics can be considered a language of science.
So where did this language start?
Picture this scene. Back in the 8th century there were two Monks: Thelonius and Chip. They were bored. After all, what do Monks do? They don’t talk a lot, some don’t talk at all. They do pray a lot, eat together, and enjoy chanting. One day, Theolonius said to Chip “You know, it’ s really hard teaching the guys these chants. I wish there was a better way.” That gave Chip an idea. They got together with a few fellow Monks and after a few weeks of hard work had come out with something that became the pre-cursor to music notation.
Ok, I took poetic license on this story for dramatization. I don’t know his / her names and there is no one person connected to this story. But the basics of this story are true. Monks used these drawings of dots and strokes over text as a simple way to show a 5-note scale and conduct Gregorian chant. In this pre-electronics age, this ancient form of music notation became a way to pass on and build on each other’s musical genius.
This simple system began to evolve over the years. Guido Aretinus (better known as Guido of Arezzo) is considered the inventor of modern music notation. Guido invented a staff with 4 lines, which was sufficient at the time. But the evolution continued long after Guido.
Each new generation and age had new dimensions. From the invention of the organ, then the harpsichord, came a complete retuning in the Renaissance and Baroque eras: 12 equal half steps instead of a 5-note scale. Then came the piano…the GRAND piano - the mother of all instruments. We experienced a complete “shift” in musical grammar and form in the Classical age.
From the Romantic to the Impressionist eras we experienced a complete disregard of those musical forms and harmonic rules. Musical notation wasn’t discarded…it just continued to become more and more complex, moving farther and farther away from its initial simplicity. It reached a point where it was more of an actual barrier to learning music than an aid, much like Chinese characters are barriers to learning the spoken language.
Try to consider music from the viewpoint of a linguist. Western music is a both written and 'spoken'. The written language, as with most languages is a reasonable approximation to the spoken form. The written language is not universally applicable to all music as listening to any middle eastern music illustrates. For one thing, it has no standard provision for microtonal embellishments that interpolate the semitone. Although many complications can be written, microtones are not. As the written form of western music crosses human language barriers, written western music has a functional similarity to Chinese ideograms. The written form is practically a language unto itself. It's possibilities and rules are also its constraints. To write music is to limit what can be expressed.
No one in China learns Chinese by these abstract characters. They learn to speak the language from assimilation and imitation – or just doing first – and then they learn how the language they are already fluent in is represented. It is no different than any other language…we all learn to speak first before studying the language in school.
How old do you think you were when you began speaking your first words -- probably within your first year of life? And did you learn those words by attending a language class first? No – everyone learns their spoken language by interaction with parents, siblings, and others, emulating and imitating what is said and done. This provides historical and indisputable evidence proving that human beings learn their spoken languages naturally, NOT by learning the technical elements first or by being in a classroom.
Is learning the language of music easy? Of course not, it takes hard work, patience, and practice. But if you structure the learning process in accordance with the way we naturally learn a language, the learning process is easier – and more fun.