The Dialect of the Soul


“It’s rare that I ever meet a musician who doesn’t agree that music is a language. But it’s very rare to meet a musician that really treats it like one.”–Victor Wooten

The concept of music as a universal language has been hotly debated.  And while I believe music is universal to the human species, the sense of everyone understanding music with the same musical meaning is a stretch.  I do think there is some validity to the concept, however.  Music has been written to describe love, war, struggle, triumph, comedic events–you name it.  African drumming can describe a conversation in great detail.  Balinese music can accompany dance with deep meaning and tradition.  An orchestral tone poem can reach deep into the individual and collective soul.  Music functions as language if we allow it.  And as musicians, it is a great responsibility to keep speaking with intention.

 I once read a great description of all of the world’s artistic traditions as beautiful stained glass windows in a huge, many-chambered building.  This building has many doors from which to enter and many individual rooms.  Some rooms are larger and their windows influence the subsequent building of other rooms, each with their own window.  Some windows shine brightly, focusing light from above in a myriad of color.  Others are dim, but still have reflections and refractions of remembered light.  Still others are boarded up and dark, perhaps awaiting rediscovery and repair, allowing light to illuminate the window once again.

It’s a great metaphor for all of the world’s musical traditions.  And like language, each can be a unique expression, a dialect of the soul.  Also like language, we can study a tradition totally outside our own and gain insight and even expertise.  This helps us to see details and meaning at a deeper level.  It may even change our own unique way of speaking and understanding.

Sit and study the light of each window you encounter

The only problem I have with this concept is that everyone seems to be stuck in their individual room, reluctant to peek around the corner, to explore other traditions.  What if we ventured down the hallway to another room?  What if we were to pick up another instrument, from another tradition?  What if we were to open our ears as well as our minds?  Rarely do we stop and listen to something that is different.  And when we venture into the unknown, we generally don’t pause long enough to ponder before moving on to the next tune of the queue.  

When I think of musicians who are totally committed to their performance, their message reaches beyond boundaries of genre.  I can hear meaning in the work of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Bob Spano.  I am intrigued by Ravi Shankar, Nigel Kennedy, and Chris Thiele.  They are artists with something to say, something to share, regardless of training, complexity of their music, or potential audience.  But I must stop and regard what I am hearing.  If not, it simply goes into the mix of the noise of life.  But when I listen with open attention their dialect becomes quite clear. 

“How should those who know of God meet and part?

The way an old musician greets his beloved instrument,

And will take special care as a great artist always does

To enhance the final note of each performance.”—Hafiz, 14th century

So what are you afraid of?  Venture into another room.  Peer with wonder at the windows.  Let the sound of light bathe your soul.  Better yet, just pick up that harmonica, didgeridoo, or sitar and make some music!

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin


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