Exploring Music as a Means of Communication: Analysing its Fundamental Nature and Context

Associate Professor

School of Media & Communication Design

IMS Unison University, Dehradun, Uttarakhand

Email: shahalamamu@gmail.com


Exploring music as a mode of communication, and investigating how musicians creatively interact, provide a unique lens for understanding how we synchronize our actions and thoughts with those around us. Specifically, the analysis of the improvisational skills employed by jazz musicians to convey musical concepts and structure them coherently offers valuable insights into the intricacies of human interaction. Music therapists have successfully utilized such techniques for therapeutic engagement over the years, generating growing interest in examining communication from a musical perspective. The natural coordination of psychological elements on this level often remains obscured by layers of linguistic and societal norms, but a thorough, objective examination of music and musical performances can unveil these phenomena for scrutiny. This research suggests that music holds the potential to enhance both personal and interpersonal communication. It presents a framework for linking music and communication, contributing to a relatively underexplored field of study.

Keywords: Music, Language, Communication, Human Behaviour

How to cite this paper:

Alam, Shah. 2024. “Exploring Music as a Means of Communication: Analysing its Fundamental Nature and Context.” Sangeet Galaxy 13(1): 147-153. www.sangeetgalaxy.co.in.


Non-verbal communication plays a significant role in daily interpersonal interactions. It encompasses the use of gestures, facial expressions, and body language to convey meaning effectively. Developing proficiency in non-verbal communication can be honed through engagement in artistic disciplines like drama, dance, and music. Within the realm of music, individuals engage in a unique form of communication characterized by specific musical performance techniques, attentive listening, and creative expression. This musical language fosters a connection with others that extends beyond the mere transmission of information; it also cultivates a heightened sensitivity to their individuality (Tarr, 2000). Music is an integral part of our lives, offering both enjoyment and gratification. It presents limitless opportunities for refining listening skills, although the application of these skills in non-musical contexts is occasionally overlooked. The enhancement of interpersonal communication through music hinges on the deliberate bridge between listening skills cultivated within a musical context and their application in other spheres.

Just as spoken language is a fundamental human trait, music seems to share that universality. Across a wide spectrum of cultures worldwide, individuals partake in activities that, when viewed through a Western lens, could be classified as musical (Blacking, 1995). These various cultures expect their members to engage with music in ways that align with their specific cultural norms. Much like language, music acts as an interactive and participatory medium (Small, 1998). It appears to function as a form of communication (Miell et al., 2005), though it is frequently limited in perception to merely conveying emotions (Juslin & Sloboda, 2001). Music is widely regarded as a direct channel for expressing human emotions. Proponents of the imitation theory suggest that music originates from the intonation of speech, and for many, textual elements serve as a means to “comprehend” music. Music has evolved separately from its source of sound phenomena, resulting in a distinct communication system characterized by an immeasurable range of discrete pitches, rhythms, hues, and sound intensities. Its limitless potential for sequential and simultaneous combinations makes it well-suited for constructing audible, dynamic models representing various facets of human relationships, behaviors, internal experiences, interactions, and diverse scenarios.

In typical situations, every sound and noise convey information about the entities generating them, whether living or inanimate. This information includes details about their origin, location, and motion, as well as quantitative and qualitative attributes. This data is interpreted by individuals capable of sensing acoustic signals, allowing them to draw comparisons with their existing knowledge and discern the nature of these sounds. Genuine communication systems take shape within communities where structured connections develop among members of the community and between them and their surroundings. In such contexts, the processes of emission and reception, communication, and perception operate harmoniously and interdependently.

The versatility of acoustic communication corresponds to the intricacy of diverse human relationships, blending seamlessly in an undifferentiated unity within our daily lives. In this context, the responses and perspectives of the objective moment, participants, communicators, and recipients all form integral facets of the same scenario and its audible communication. It is only at a higher level of abstraction and generalization that the two facets of human acoustic communication—speech and music—become distinct entities. The underlying sensual dimension of musical sound imbues the message with an emotional and aesthetic quality. The balance and interplay between the rational and sensual elements are pivotal in determining the artistic and aesthetic value of music. Everyday situations find resonance with appropriate forms of musical expression, emerging as melodies, sound sequences, rhythms, signals, and suitable musical instruments, among others. These musical elements become intertwined with the situations and acquire equivalent meanings.

Music as an Art Form:

Music predominantly evolves from “vocal” components, progressively moving away from the tangible representation and portrayal of specific objective phenomena as it develops into an art form. Its mode of communication diverges from the conventional, presenting its meaning as enigmatic, intangible, and mysterious to practical thought. It serves as a conduit for interaction with supernatural forces in animistic rituals. There has never been any doubt that music functions as a form of communication, facilitating human connections. Nevertheless, debates have arisen regarding the essence of music’s expression. Some individuals seek concrete, objective references and visual realms akin to those found in other art forms. When they cannot identify such phenomena in music, they regard it as a direct manifestation of universal natural laws.

An alternative historical perspective views music as a direct conduit for conveying human emotions. This perspective tended to mechanically equate musical patterns with corresponding emotional expressions. This approach, known as the doctrine of affections, defined a significant period in European music interpretation. Typical everyday situations become intertwined with suitable modes of musical expression, emerging alongside them as melodies, sound sequences, rhythms, signals, and appropriate musical instruments, among other elements. These musical elements are associated with specific situations and acquire identical meanings. They are also invoked within major musical compositions, thereby becoming ingrained in the collective consciousness of communities.

The concept of music as an ‘honest signal’:

Certainly, a ‘natural sign’ holds a prominent place in various perspectives on music. The widely accepted notion, which can be traced back to classical Greek philosophy, posits that music’s primary function is the conveyance of emotions, a concept not limited to Western musical traditions (Basso, 1985). When approaching music from an evolutionary standpoint, Charles Darwin (1872) entertained the ideas put forth by ‘Mr. Litchfield,’ a correspondent who extensively studied music. Darwin suggested that music serves as a reflection or conduit for the emotional connections that exist across a broad spectrum of species. He proposed that music provides subtle clues about the emotional state of its creator within its melodic signals. Darwin went on to assert that “a significant portion of a song’s emotional impact is contingent upon how the sounds are produced,” with this ‘manner’ being influenced by the emotional state of the music’s originator. Nonetheless, Darwin acknowledged that this explanation does not fully encompass the more intricate and specific emotional effects that can be described as the musical expression within a song. Consequently, music, as an avenue for emotional expression, serves as an ‘honest signal,’ revealing aspects of the music’s creator to the listener that are inherently intertwined with the nature of the signal itself.

Indeed, music often appears to convey consistent emotional meanings to listeners, albeit in broad terms. Researchers have utilized this observation in numerous experiments that delve into the behavioral, cognitive, and neural aspects of affective states. Music serves as a powerful tool in these studies, effectively inducing various emotional states through what is known as Mood Induction Procedures (Albersnagel, 1988). Moreover, music plays a pervasive role in various media forms, including film and video games, where it is strategically employed to manipulate the emotional responses of audiences as they engage with unfolding narratives or scenarios (Gorbman, 1987; Kassabian, 2001). Interestingly, music is a preferred choice in Mood Induction Procedures (MIPs) due to its proven effectiveness, surpassing alternatives like linguistically or biographically-based Velten MIPs. However, the literature on Mood Induction often falls short in providing a compelling explanation for why music possesses such influential powers. Similarly, the emotional impact of music in cinema and multimedia remains relatively unexplored and unexplained, with a few exceptions such as the works of Boltz (2001; 2004) and Cohen (2001). Nonetheless, recent theories on animal vocal communication may offer insights into why music holds such potency in shaping the emotional states of listeners.

Influence of Music on Human Development and Well-Being:

Music functions as a universal medium for expression and communication across diverse age groups and cultural backgrounds worldwide (Mehr et al., 2019). Anthropological and ethnomusicological research underscores the integral role of music in human existence over millennia (cf. Blacking, 1976; Brown, 1999; Mithen, 2005; Dissanayake, 2012; Higham et al., 2012; Cross, 2016). However, while the potential for musical engagement is innate in all individuals, its realization is shaped by personal experiences and the surrounding environment, often within social groups (North & Hargreaves, 2008; Welch & McPherson, 2018). Activities such as listening to music, singing, informal and formal instrument playing, and participating in creative processes like composition and improvisation, whether pursued individually or collectively, constitute daily practices for a significant portion of the population. Music not only offers personal enjoyment but also wields a profound influence that extends beyond mere entertainment.

Engaging in these musical activities serves as a means to express inner emotions and can yield a multitude of positive effects for participants. A growing body of empirical and experimental research exploring the broader advantages of music highlights those various aspects of human life, spanning physical, social, educational, and psychological dimensions (including cognitive and emotional aspects), can experience significant improvements through meaningful involvement with music (Biasutti & Concina, 2013). The process of acquiring knowledge through music can take place within structured formal settings, such as school-based music lessons, as well as informally in less structured environments like homes among family and friends. Informal learning in music often occurs in a non-linear manner and doesn’t necessarily entail a deliberate pursuit; individuals may voluntarily engage in music education, particularly in community settings (cf. Green, 2002; Folkestad, 2006; Saether, 2016; Welch & McPherson, 2018).

Communication in Situations of Social Uncertainty: Language and Music:

Human beings are a deeply social species, marked by remarkable complexity (Foley, 1995; Dunbar, 1996). Given our social inclinations, effective communication holds tremendous significance. The survival and reproductive success of an individual rely not only on their capacity to navigate the physical environment, including dealing with threats and resources but also on their skill in interacting with fellow members of their species (Shennan, 2002). Therefore, when considered from an evolutionary perspective, it may initially appear that language, with its ability to indicate resource locations, convey information about resource availability, alert others to potential threats, facilitate the transmission of behaviors, share intentions and intentionality, and foster social bonds, offers a comprehensive tool for effective communication.

Exploring the Human Aspects of Musicality:

Hence, it is crucial to acknowledge that motivational-structural principles constitute only one aspect or dimension of music’s capacity to convey meaning. There exist additional factors, such as the personal associations that develop over time, which infuse music with a sense of communicable significance. Individual responses to music are molded by their unique histories of engagement with it (Davies, 1978). Nonetheless, these personal histories are not entirely isolated; they are influenced and interwoven with the broader cultural context. People’s reactions to and aptitude for music are shaped by their active participation in specific cultural environments and processes, as well as by their distinct life experiences. These responses are shaped by how music is conceived and employed within a particular cultural framework (Nettl, 2005), the dynamics of cultural evolution and transformation (Feld, 1996), the processes of cultural integration, formal and personalized learning encounters (Deliège & Sloboda, 1996), and the personal connections individuals establish between music and episodes in their life narratives (MacDonald et al., 2002).


The results stemming from these participatory and culturally specific elements and processes can lay the groundwork for a culturally enactive layer of musical meaning, coexisting alongside the motivational-structural dimension. In contrast to the relatively inherent nature of the latter dimension, the workings of the culturally enactive dimension, which ascribes meaning to music, may appear somewhat arbitrary. This is evident, for example, in the utilization of music as a cultural symbol, such as the selection of different musical pieces by followers of various football clubs. It can also be observed in the categorical distinctions made within a culture, such as the differentiation between music and other phenomena—often religious or transitional—that might, from the perspective of another culture, be perceived as music. Moreover, it is apparent in the existence of restrictions on the types of musical behaviors considered appropriate for different age groups within specific societies.

Now, we can postulate the existence of two dimensions in the perception of meaning in music. One dimension is connected to aspects of our interaction with the world that are influenced by our biological heritage and potentially shared across species—this is the motivational-structural dimension. The other dimension arises from the particulars of the cultural contexts in which we develop and participate—this is the culturally enactive dimension. Both dimensions operate simultaneously in the experience of music, creating a sense of an authentic signal while allowing meanings in music to appear as flexible and subject to debate within personal and cultural boundaries. This differentiation between the biological and cultural aspects in defining the dimensions of musical experience seems to align with the traditional nature-nurture distinction. However, certain aspects of the experience of musical meaning challenge such a simplistic dichotomy. Even without prior cultural knowledge, we can perceive the sound of music from another culture as music in its own right.