I Understand Only Station

“It’s all Greek to me!”

Languages pick on the foreignness of other languages to express a communication breakdown. Many pick on Chinese, probably because of its complex script and pronunciation. Some choose Hebrew, some Russian, presumably for their non-Roman alphabet and their perceived difficulty.

So why not pick on music? This language is a model of impenetrability; it surely offers a ready target. To the outsider written music is an incomprehensible tangle of dots and lines; to read it from the page takes study, and to be able to communicate with it takes hours of practice. Yet it is a language that has avoided the opprobrium of bewilderment-equivalence. Rarely do people shake their heads at a problem they can’t fathom, saying “Pour moi, c’est de la musique!”

In the 1960s I used to watch the few Welsh language TV programs provided by the BBC and Harlech TV, despite not understanding a word of what I was hearing. Only one person I knew spoke Welsh, my family didn’t live in Wales and certainly didn’t speak the language, and so the chances that I would ever understand it were very slim. Yet I was drawn to its rich sound world and beautiful cadences. I could pretend that it meant whatever I wanted it to mean, and in a childish attempt to join in I made up my own Crabtronian Gobbledygook that I thought would pass as Welsh. In my eight-year-old opinion I was fluent.

Here is the kind of language that I found so captivating
, with its singsong melodies and glottal exoticism. It’s what Debussy, perhaps, sounds like to a person who doesn’t speak music. Tellingly, for want of instruction I never picked up more than a few words of the real language, and it remains for me an idle interest. I am, however, still fluent in Gobbledygook.

Out of fear that it might be lost forever, Welsh has undergone a revival in the last fifty years because only the older generations were using the language, and little new interest and facility were being fed in from below. National educational intervention has prevented the language from becoming a nostalgic relic in a museum. With political organization and backing by the government, fifty years later 41% of schoolchildren in Wales are bilingual English/Welsh. Bilingual children’s TV makes the language and the culture fun and ensures the engagement of the next generations.

Emboldened by the revitalization of Welsh, the Scottish Parliament adopted a Scots Gaelic Language Plan in 2005 affording Gaelic equal respect with English, with the hope that the European Union would recognize it as an official language, which it did in 2009. The new Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh has bilingual signs in English and Gaelic, and Edinburgh University signage is now bilingual. Most importantly the Parliament developed a national education plan, and although still fewer that 1% of Scottish students are taught in Gaelic, long gone are the days when they would be beaten for speaking in their native tongue.

The elimination of music education from schools has led to a general decline in musical literacy, and as a result there has been a decline in overall musical engagement and communication. In the US, cuts to public education affect the arts first, and so music is not a shared experience, beyond TV jingles. The singing that breaks out at Welsh Rugby matches would be impossible at a baseball game.

Listening to foreign media without speaking the language is shallow and exhausting entertainment, and yet classical music presenters hope that the public at large will buy tickets to their concerts, despite an enormous communication gap. Orchestras might alter their repertoire to make their shows more appealing behaviorally to the general palate, but still, spending money to sit in silence for two hours focusing on the more or less incomprehensible is draining work, and a hard choice to make when there are so many convenient in-home streaming media choices such as Netflix to choose from in the vernacular.

There is communication gold in the artifacts bequeathed to us by Mozart et al, but they will remain forever inscrutable and perceived as addurniadol wastraffus if the audience does not speak the language.




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