Using English is like composing music

Using English is like composing music

I have a question for you. How necessary is it to learn how to read music and understand formal music theory if you want to play music? I recently came across an interesting online discussion among musicians and music teachers on this topic and it immediately occurred to me that the same question could be applied to learning a second language.

The consensus was that if the players merely want to have fun performing simple pop songs or blues tunes with their friends (and there's certainly nothing wrong with that) then the ability to read music and understand formal theory, although never harmful, is not necessary. But if the person ultimately wants to become a competent musician, especially an accomplished classical or jazz player, or a composer, then the ability to read music and understand theory becomes essential.

In other words, if the goal is immediate or "instrumental"-playing some popular tunes at an upcoming festival or just jamming with friends-then the focus should be merely on learning the tunes, following the music tabs, and practicing the specific songs you plan to perform. And while this might be pleasant and practical, it won't really enhance one's overall musical development.

As such, learning how to play some simple tunes for an upcoming performance can be likened to practicing daily English conversation, bringing to mind questionable calls to make this a component of compulsory English education in Japanese schools.

How so? What if there is no immediate plan to perform some tunes for fun? Likewise, an overwhelming majority of Japanese students have no immediate plan or reason to use English for any immediate "performance." Therefore, making the learning of conversation, or practical daily English, a major component in compulsory English education doesn't make much sense. It would be like learning the tabs for a few select songs that the student has no plan to actually play. A tiny bit of technique might be retained, but not enough to have any real long-term musical benefit. In short, introducing so-called "practical daily English" or "practicing conversation" into Japanese compulsory English education is in fact largely impractical.

Conversation is generally dynamic-often spontaneous and unpredictable. But if there is no immediate plan for specific usage, the learning of conversational "tabs," or gambits, will tend to become an exercise in rote memorization. See the tab, copy the note. You say X then I say Y. The former is not really playing music and the latter is not really conversation.

Generating real-time conversation in English is more akin to composing or improvising in music in that you need a foundation of formal theory and an informed technique to manage these tasks well. In terms of compulsory English education, this means that in order to develop skills that will best allow students to produce and participate in communicative English scenarios in the future, the teaching and learning focus should be academic. This academic approach carries greater potential for creative and practical applications and better avoids a rote-like approach to language acquisition.

That last point may surprise you. But academic English need not mean only passively dissecting syntax, nor imply a dry, teacher-centred, lecture approach. Grammar, which is only one description of how language is managed to achieve communication, should imply far more than the memorization of set formulas or the ability to identify the names of elements in a sentence. To use a musical analogy, simply knowing that a certain tune consists of relative major scales in the Dorian mode with a 5/4 time signature will be unlikely to help one understand or appreciate the music more deeply, let alone play it better. But knowing and appreciating how modes, scales, chords, and time signatures can be flexible, varied, and applied together in intriguing combinations can aid one's sensibilities, thereby providing guidance and structure when you produce your own music, compose, or add your own playing variation on a theme.

In other words, understanding how the English language works to actually produce communication (not merely conversation)-how we manage different types of interactions, how we express modality or attitudes using our linguistic code-goes well beyond "grammar."

Honing one's senses and developing intuitions as to how structures can be manipulated to produce or express emotional or intellectual content better provides a foundation for those who wish to apply English to professional or private situations in the future.

Think about it-if you went to music school and learned how to play a few tunes but developed no sense or appreciation for how music works holistically, any future application of your studies would be severely hampered. Likewise, practicing daily English conversation in public schools is largely impractical, divorced from students' lives. It's not what we expect from compulsory education.

For those who want to rock out as a hobby, as with those who want to practice English for an upcoming trip abroad or make foreign friends, memorizing the tabs or practicing conversation is fine. But that's not what public schools in Japan should be doing.

Guest is an associate professor of English at Miyazaki University and author of the novel "The Little Suicides." He can be reached at

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