Music is made of the same medium as speech: the sound sequence. Just as language is made up of separate, ordered parts, music is made up of notes, chords, measures, phrases, tunes, and so on. Because both language and music have structure, our ability to understand and learn them comes naturally.
Just as we are able to separate the sounds in spoken language, we can distinguish the individual sounds that musical instruments make. When we hear someone speak a foreign language, we notice how continuous the speech seems, but we cannot distinguish single words. The experience of hearing a foreign music is sort of the same. We aren’t sure what counts as a note, or where one note ends and another begins.
The sound system of a musical language defines musical sounds. This is why we are able to distinguish one sound from another, to recognize the difference between A and A-sharp. And, just as spoken languages limit their sounds to a small number of all of the sounds that the human voice can make, so do musical languages limit the pitches to a small number within the octave.
Like spoken language, music has syntax. Musical syntax refers to the relationships such as the hold between notes and chords and phrases. The primary purpose of musical syntax is to control and order the flow of information streaming to the ears. Musical syntax reduces the randomness of sound. It produces patterns of melody and harmony, thus allowing us to process a phrase and to understand it.
Music, like language, evolves over time. An example of a sound change in a musical language could be the introduction of a new instrument or the slow advance of a particular vocal technique—things that change the color of the sound.
When two musical communities come together and compete, musical influences are at the heart of this contact. One of the most dramatic results of competition in music is American jazz. Two very distinct musical languages, the African and European, had existed side by side in American society, so the ground was fertile for the evolution of jazz, a new musical language containing elements of both African and European music.