Once a word is spoken, its power is out of our hands.
Once an idea is defined by a word, it is humanized, limited, as we are.
Take the word God. Many centuries ago, one could not name or casually write Yod Hei Vav Hei (YHVH). Why name something that is beyond all names with one single word? How can one word represent all that humans can barely grasp?
Sonata and Symphony are musical forms that restrained creativity. During two centuries they were extended and transformed by great composers who developed musical language, pushing boundaries. Nowadays those words are insufficient; composers invent their own forms to express ideas. Some still pay tribute to tradition, but outside of their social context, those words, Sonata and Symphony, have exhausted their potential meanings.
Sometimes words seem to point to the same idea, but on a closer look, they imply more than their definitions in a dictionary.
Take another common word, “happy.” In the current English speaking world, partly thanks to Bob Marley and Pharrell Williams, the word “happy” has come to exude more of its exciting aura, as in “being joyful, delighted or blissful” than reflecting its more subdued connotations, as in “being pleased, satisfied, or glad.”
For the French, the word “heureux” has retained its contemplative flavor, more often associated with Content (contented), Bonheur (happiness), or Comblé (Filled).
In Vietnamese, the word “Hạnh Phúc” consists of two words, both of Chinese origin. Hạnh means “beloved, lucky, or blessed.” It connotes something precious one receives from outside as in befalling luck. Phúc is a word that can be understood only through the beliefs and customs regarding karma and veneration of ancestors, both well established in Vietnamese and Chinese cultures. Phúc is the immaterial goodness one leaves behind for future generations. By extension, it is our ancestors’ heritage.
“Hạnh Phúc” suggests a communal society for whom ancestry is valued. It is Confucius’ legacy. Perhaps the extroverted “happy” insinuates the value of an extrovert American society where assertiveness and self-confidence are valued over other virtues.
Thus in learning a new language, a new word, one also learns its construct, its implication, and the culture it represents.
What about learning the musical language?
When teaching a beginner, should one limit the definition of “p” as “soft” and “f” as “loud”?, or “p” as “as loud as the lullaby a mother sings,” or “the natural sound from the weight of one’s bow or arm,” and “f” as “the amplified sound one projects when talking in a Roman amphitheater,” or “when our whole body participates,” or “when a warm breath is blowing evenly as the wind blows through a leafless tree?”
As “p” is now used in books estranged from its original context of the Renaissance where dynamic markings were inconsistent, why should we assume that one definition is enough to communicate articulation, mood, sound texture, temperature, attack or decay? Moreover, many musicians have their own “p” sound for particular stylistic period and adapt this “p” not only to the composer, the particular work, but as well, to the acoustics of the performance space and the audience.
In separating a sound into its components, as most introductory method books do, one loses qualities not so valued by a specialized society: imprecision, ambiguity, adaptability, hence, creativity.
Dynamic, tempo, or pacing signs are elements that make music, and they are interrelated. It may be useful to break them down into components, but dangerous to teach each element as separate entity from all that makes music, for music is a much larger encompassing word. It is bigger than the sum of its parts.
When learning a new song, should a beginner learn only the pitches first and then the rhythm? How often should a student repeat the whole song with focus on getting only the pitches correctly? Would it be better to incorporate rhythm and pitches, but only play one short phrase at a time? For the more advanced players who can read both rhythm and pitches, should correct fingering and technique to express the articulation or dynamic be the simultaneous goals of one short phrase, or should one just play through the page to get a sense of how it goes, and add dynamic and articulation later when the page is in tempo?
When these words, tempo, articulation, dynamic, were invented, they were signs for a whole meaningful experience with sound.
“In the Beginning was the word,” and the word became sound.
That is how we should be initiated to music. Like a baby recognizing a mother’s voice after being introduced to air, so shall we be recognizing sound before seeing its representation, or hearing its definition.