Music Is A Language And Phrases Are The Vocabulary

Years ago, I took some lessons from a guy named Steve Woods. He was a music professor at a community college in the metropolitan Detroit area. And even though I only had a handful of lessons with him, some of the concepts I took away from those lessons has shaped the way I practice and the way I have played over the years.

One of the "sound bites" that Steve said to me that has stuck over the years is the idea that music is a language and the musical phrases we learn to articulate become the vocabulary we use to express ideas in that language.


How do you learn a spoken language?

Language is made up of words, phrases, expressions and other bits and pieces - some verbal, some non-verbal. But when you're a baby, you kind of grow into organically. You don't even realize you're doing it.

Some of us grew up with an innate ability to hear and play and feel music. It just came naturally. We never thought much about how it happened, but it did.

On the website "Very Well Family," the author, Carol Bainbridge (who has a degree in linguistics) describes the stages babies go through as they learn to speak:

  1. They learn the sounds that are made with the language. More significantly, they learn which sounds belong to the language and which ones don't.
  2. They learn to form words with the sounds they hear. " At this stage, children essentially learn how the sounds in a language go together to make meaning. For example, they learn that the sounds m-ah-m-ee refer to the “being” who cuddles and feeds them, their mommy."
  3. "During this stage, children learn how to create sentences... For example, they learn that in English we say "I want a cookie" and "I want a chocolate cookie," not "Want I a cookie" or "I want cookie chocolate." They also learn the difference between "grammatical correctness" and "meaning." In other words, they learn that "I want a cookie" means something but "I have correct hair placement chocolate horses" is not very meaningful, even if it is grammatically correct.
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It's different as an adult.

Contrary to what you first assume, it turns out there are some distinct advantages that adults have when they work on learning a new language, even if it might not be so “easy” as when we were children.

Adults don’t learn by “acquisition” like kids do; with adults, it is a conscious and deliberate process, part of which involves memorizing words and rules.

On the website “Flashsticks” author Paul Mains talks about these advantages. In short, the points he makes about the advantages adults have learning a language are:

By acquisition, kids take years to learn their first 200 or so words. By comparison, adults can learn MUCH more vocabulary in weeks with diligent effort. Also, adults understand that there are grammar rules. We already understand nouns and verbs, for instance. We already understand body language and read the body language that goes with the foreign language someone is using when they speak to us. We understand gestures.

Also, we can think critically about both the language we are learning and compare it to the one we already know. We know how we remember stuff and can use techniques to remember stuff we need to recall.

So what does this mean for you as an adult learning to play an instrument?

A lot of adults think they’re doomed to not be able to play a musical instrument because they didn’t do it as a kid. I don’t believe that is the conclusion you need to doom yourself with. I often speak of a quote from Frank Sinatra, when asked about talent, and what is talent? Frank’s response, when asked the question, was, “the drive is the talent.”

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Think about it this way. You obviously love music or you wouldn’t want to play it. So you already have the desire. And odds are, you probably already have strong tastes as far as what music you like and what music you don’t like. (Personally, I like some rock, though I’m not generally a fan of hard rock. I love smooth jazz. I also play praise and worship music, having opportunity to play with a lot of churches and guest appearances at gospel concerts and the like.)

But the music I like, I like because of the feel of the music. You are probably the same - you like what you like because of how it feels. That is something that can work for you as an adult that probably just isn’t there as a kid. So that, like many things, makes learning music as an adult more different than difficult.

So what do I do now that I'm older and I want to learn to play the saxophone?

I would say pick up a saxophone and try to start to play!

Really. If you don't have one, pick one up. Even a used one from a reliable dealer or someone you trust. A good student-model saxophone is great for starting. Get some reeds. If it's a student model, some 2 or 2 &1/2 Ricos or Vandorens will work with the standard mouthpiece that comes with that student horn. Probably 2's to start; and you'll probably eventually work your way up to 2 & 1/2.

Also, read....
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If you're brand new to it and you've never had one or tried to play before, look for my "introductory course to playing the saxophone" on here (still working on it; should be up shortly).

I'll encourage you to become a member of my site for this; and basic membership is free. Once you become a subscriber, you'll be able to access the lessons. It's about 2 hours worth of video on how to get started with the sax as if you've never held one in your life, and don't know where to start.

Hidden Content


  • It's true - kids do have an "unfair advantage" when they learn
  • But it's also true that adults have some advantages for learning, too
  • In the end, your passion and DRIVE will overcome most obstacles
  • NOW is still the best time to jump in.

So Jump in!

Feel free to sign up TODAY to access the course I mentioned above. It will give you:

  • a bunch of tips and tricks
  • a curiosity to do more
  • some food for thought, which will provoke questions so we can interact, and
  • by doing that, I can help you even better by us interacting.

Here's a link:

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