I am a musician. I read an article in the NY Times that suggested both words and musical melodies follow Zipf's Law. I had never really thought about it before, but I started wondering do linguists consider music a language? By "language", I mean loosely a method of communication that has words, a grammar, a syntax, and an alphabet.

(Other questions I have but need not be answered: does it have an alphabet? Are there words? Is there a grammar? Are music and intonation related?)


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    Language is a way of sharing information (mostly, about objectively existing things), while music shares emotions. They both share some attributes (writing, alphabet, grammar, etc), but they are certainly not interchangeable. You may want to narrow down the question, otherwise someone (like me ;) would consider it too broad to be answered. Jan 5, 2015 at 12:52
  • I'm with @bytebuster. The short answer to your main question is NO. But you're actually asking five different questions that should be given their own posts. A hint--linguists consider orthography and language to be two different things. Jan 5, 2015 at 14:48
  • Do you have a link/reference for the NYT article?
    – fdb
    Jan 5, 2015 at 15:45
  • @fdb I will see if I can locate it. It was 2 years ago, but I may be able to. Jan 5, 2015 at 16:51
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    @fdb Amazingly, I found the article! mobile.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/opinion/sunday/… Jan 6, 2015 at 17:13

2 Answers 2


This is not a question which can be answered with a yes/no answer. Music is like a natural language in some respects and very much unlike one in others. Here are some suggested similarities and dissimilarities.

Music is like (a) language in that:

  • It can be described through a system of rules that operate on a limited vocabulary
  • It combines small building blocks into large components that are like words, phrases, sentences and text
  • It is recursively expressive
  • It has dual articulation in that smaller segments like scales are organized independently of large segments like movements
  • It has phraseology and idioms
  • It can cross-reference between compositions (texts)
  • It can communicate emotion both segmentally (sequences of notes) and suprasegmentally (expression, emphasis, etc.)
  • It has styles, genres and dialects
  • It can be acquired and learned
  • It is culturally conditioned

Music is NOT like (a) language in that:

  • It cannot be used to directly communicate propositional meaning
  • It has radically smaller set of building blocks and rules for their combination than language
  • It does not have internal instruments of disambiguation
  • It can only be universally acquired in the most rudimentary sense (i.e. everybody can hum a tune but very few people can play an instrument)
  • There is much a greater difference between receptive and productive competence
  • There is much greater variability in individuals' ability to produce music beyond the most trivial
  • Much more of the production process requires cooperation among individuals
  • It is much more limited in its dialogic potential (i.e. is most often used for a one way communication between few producers and more recipients or joint co-production of producer/recipients)

I'm sure many more similarities and differences could be identified and the ones above could be refined but hope this will give you some idea of what's involved.

Regarding Zipf's law: It is not really surprising it would be observed here because it mostly concerns distribution of units in a human generated corpus. But it does not follow that music is a language.

UPDATE: I've added parentheses around the indefinite articles in (a) language to reflect the comments that music is (dis)analogous to human language in general rather than in particular. I think we could have some more analogical fun here arguing both sides, but it would not be particularly fruitful.

  • This is a really good answer along the lines of what I had hoped. Thanks! Jan 6, 2015 at 17:13
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    Excellent answer. I think the indefinite article should be dropped, though: the analogy (insofar as it holds) is between music and language, not music and a language. Different genres or traditions of music would then be analogous to different languages.
    – TKR
    Jan 6, 2015 at 18:19
  • These are good lists, indeed. I agree with @TKR about dropping the definite article. Jan 6, 2015 at 21:00
  • I would also argue that the lists don't get at the question "IS music (a) language?" I can come up with analogous lists for many other pairs of things--birds' eggs and fruits, pets and children, schools and bodies of government--that highlight their similarities and differences. Making such lists would not speak to whether an egg IS a fruit, whether pets ARE children, or whether a school IS a body of government. @StanShunpike, if this answer was what you were looking for, I'd recommend changing the question to something like, "In what ways are music and language similar/different?" Jan 6, 2015 at 21:04
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    @musicallinguist I agree that the question of identity was not answered but I'd argue that most questions of identity are actually analogical questions because they relate to categories whose membership is ultimately based on similarity. E.g. is the war on terror a war? Are schools businesses? Is this a chair? People will often feel that the similarity is too close for the word 'like' to intrude but in most cases disanalogies to an ideal 'exemplar' can be found. Jan 10, 2015 at 0:08

Thank you for digging up the article. I am afraid I find it really feeble. “Zipf’s law” (named after the American Nazi Zipf) is an application to word frequency of a very common statistical relationship known in mathematics as the power law. It had been observed, long before Zipf, by the economist Pareto with regard to income distribution, and by the physicist Auerbach (incidentally a victim of Zipf’s beloved Hitler) with regard to population distribution. And, of course, it manifests itself also in music with regards to the harmonics (as has been known at least since Plato). So there is nothing special about the relationship between music and language.

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