Music That Speaks
Written by Jeffrey May
First printed c.1980 in “The Blue Sky Journal” - Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

music – (‘mu -zik) n. the art of combining sounds or
sequences of notes into harmonious patterns pleasing
to the ear and satisfying to the emotions.

This is one popular dictionary’s definition for the word “music”, and I imagine most people would think it to be rather adequate. That music is a form of art is undeniably true, however there is another side to the subject that is perhaps not given due consideration in our present society.

Music is as much a language as it is an art form – a universal language that speaks to our souls and spirits in a way that other languages fail to do. Music speaks the same message to all its listeners, no matter what their mother tongues may be. Music goes beyond words, speaking directly from the hearts and minds of musicians to the hearts and minds of all true music lovers.

As with any other language, music does contain both its written and spoken traditions. To be able to improvise would be just another way to say one could “speak the language”. To be a composer, a musician must go one step (and perhaps a giant step) further and educate him/herself sufficiently in the grammar of this language, so as to be able to write down what he/she is able to say, or even think. Most great composers ever to have lived (I dare say all!) have been noted as proficient improvisers, able to spontaneously compose beautiful, complex music, every bit as worthy of appreciation as any written composition. Yet today we have only what these great masters have left for us on paper. Unfortunate that the tape recorder was not invented in 1800, so that we today might be blessed by the sounds of a Bach fugue, improvised by Johann Sebastian himself at the organ!


In our century (this was written in 1979!), a style of music has evolved that is commonly known as jazz. Jazz has its own history, its own innovators, and its own masters. But there is one pre-requisite to being called a jazz musician. One must be able to speak the language of music with as much freedom and ease as we all speak our mother tongue. A musician might be limited to one particular style or idiom, or he/she may be versatile enough to cover all the idioms – but in either case, spontaneity is of prime importance. The jazz musician speaks to us in the moment, and must accept his/her musical statement as it comes forth. In this way, we can equate jazz to daily life, for how many of us know precisely what we will think, say, or do in the course of a day? We all improvise each day – this is the reality of life – and so it is the reality of jazz. We have faith in our ability to communicate ideas, old and new, ours or someone else’s, through the use of language. We need not wait for someone to hand us the script, to tell us what to say next, or how to answer a question (although we may at times wish this could be so!)

The jazz experience is a search for truth and understanding of the life force within us, both on the part of the musician and the avid listener. It communicates individuality, spontaneity, co-operation, and freedom. The jazz masters are attuned to the same Creative Spirit as were the classical masters, with one difference. Today we are able to experience this divine flow of energy first hand, for these musicians are alive now, performing their music in our own times. The composer and the performer are contained in one person – and indeed there are many such masters among us!


This article was first printed in a small independent newspaper called “The Blue Sky Journal”, originating out of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, circa 1980. I omitted the final paragraph, which follows, for thankfully the future seems to have arrived. Jeff May, Nov. 15, 2000

It is a shame that the public media allots such little time for this highly evolved music of today. Must our public radio stations be museums that exhibit primarily the works of artists who have come and gone? Perhaps with a little nudging from the public, we might hear more from these living masters in times to come.

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