Learning a New Musical Language

drums is music a language

Today’s guest post is by Melibee’s Kate Kirk, a lifelong learner and lover of music.  Kate explores the link between music, language and culture in this fascinating post.

Are music and language comparable forms of expression? Having been raised by a singer for a mother and trumpet professor for a father, I’ve often wondered about the idea of music as language. This led me to study music and philosophy in college and, when I went off to graduate school, my overactive imagination even caused me to associate the sound of any trumpet playing with that of my father’s voice. However, the idea took on new meaning when I decided to do my thesis fieldwork in Ghana, focusing on West African drumming and dance.

In 2010 I enrolled in a summer music and culture workshop led by Maputo Mensah. Maputo is a professional drummer and dancer who contributes to a growing West African diaspora in Boulder, Colorado. My adviser had brought him down to Arizona to give a few clinics, and after taking a few classes, I was inspired to follow him, along with seven other students, to Ghana.

During the workshop in Ghana, we practiced four hours of drumming and dance daily. What I came to truly enjoy was the communal nature of this type of music, which I often lacked in my musical studies back home. Though it was intensive training, it didn’t have the stress of scrutiny and ongoing judgment that came with the study of classical music, at least in the pedagogy I grew up with.

West African drumming is notorious for its difficult polyrhythms. There are usually two or three different drumming parts for any given piece. Depending on the part you play, the person on either side of you might be playing a completely different part with its own completely distinct rhythm. To create different tones, you use your fingertips, palms, and sides of your hands. Add singing on top of this, and you get quite the exercise in coordination!

With singing, I found that I had to leave my classically trained voice at the door, and almost re-learn how to sing, and this time in what felt like a purer, uninhibited way. In both drumming and singing, it felt like learning a new language – at least a new musical one!

I quickly became aware of how very intertwined West African drumming (and song and dance) and local culture are. It is communal in nature and also used for various purposes. Though there are specific music schools for performers, I noticed that many locals knew the songs, and would stop and join in when they heard us practicing on our drums. In addition, radio or live music could be heard playing at all hours of the day and night. It never stops. Whereas in America, we tend to compartmentalize art from work and daily life (unless, of course, you are a performer!), it literally is a part of daily life in Ghana.

So is there something to the idea of music as language? Certainly music is a form of expression, but so are dance, photography, and other art forms. Perhaps the variety of genres in the musical world is comparable to the variety of languages themselves. Some music theorists argue that there is a particular math to music that makes it universally accessible to all (think golden ratio). I’ve started to think of it more in terms of its ubiquity. Like verbal languages, some musical languages are more utilitarian than others. There is the widespread English or French, and the almost ever-present rock and jazz. For me, I found a crowd favorite in the realm of world music. Interestingly, although its language counterpart (or I should say counterparts) is not nearly as widespread, West African music’s influence stretches across the Atlantic into the Americas and Caribbean. It’s certainly cause to wonder: Is musical language a more accessible and useful form of expression than verbal language? Or is West African music simply too cool to keep a secret? (I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the latter, but perhaps I’m a little biased!)

Being a perpetual learner, I find that reflecting on one’s experience and then sharing that newfound  knowledge – like musical languages – is satisfying for both giver and receiver. In Melibee’s new Re-entry packet, one tool allows returned musicians to reflect upon their experiences and create a playlist of music they have gathered abroad. How fun would it be to turn around and share this with future travelers? If you are really tech savvy, maybe you have recorded performances of yourself or others! Though I’d be a fool to identify myself as such, I was still able to make recordings of rehearsals, and looking back on a playlist of my fellow students and me performing made it all the more powerful of a reflection and re-entry tool.


About the Author: Kate Kirk is an international recruiter for a bilingual school in Honduras and one of the Melibee team members. In the past she has worked in international education and student services across the US. She is a perpetual learner and enjoys elective studies in various subjects including global education, music, and philosophy.


  1. Hai kirk. let me introduce my self my name is Mesak Meljers im 21th years old im from Indonesia, im interest when i read your article, i love music too, and about drum, in Papua, East Indonesia we have a some kind of drum calls ‘Tifa’, Papuanese is ‘black’ like people in Africa, i think u have to try this drum…

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