localization in the language of music
localization in the language of music
  • Did you know that music has a language?
  • Did you know that it is both written AND spoken?!
  • Did you know that we need “localization” for the language of music?

Let’s start from the beginning…

Musical “notes” must be written according to a set of rules, just like the English language has its own rules. In the same way that people learn English grammar at school, musicians learn how to “write” music according to the rules of “music theory.” Writing music implements symbols, and this is called “notation.”

What is music notation?

Well… Have you ever seen “sheet music” for a song or melody that looks like the image below?

Excerpt of Sheet Music

What do the symbols on sheet music mean exactly?

To a musician, it is a language that tells the person how to perform the notes on their instrument (or how to sing the notes). Primarily, the various symbols represent…

  1. The notes to be played
  2. The rhythm with which to play them
  3. The stylistic way to perform them (soft, loud, accented, et cetera)

How does this “language of music” work?

Well, this is comparable to alphabet letters that create syllables (wa), syllables that create words (wa-ter), and words that create phrases (drink water)!

Therefore, music is quite literally “composed & written,” then it is “read & performed.” In fact, a highly trained musician can perform what is called “sight-reading,” which means they can pick up their instrument and start playing what is written on the sheet music in real-time.

Since music has a language, musicians around the world must use it the same way, correct?

WRONG! Just like sign language has differences geographically, for example, ASL (American Sign Language) versus BSL (British Sign Language), music notation evolved to have different branches of its own language.

HOW?! Well, keep in mind that music notation evolved over HUNDREDS of years, and different cultures influenced its development.

For example, this is what music notation looked like in the Middle Ages:

Music Notation in the Middle Ages

Linguistically, it is still common to find that most of the “music terms” are in Italian. Most notably, the “dynamics” (which tell the musician how loud or soft to play) are used as follows:

Dynamics in Music Notation

Now, there is one important problem…

These branches of evolution caused a major difference between two groups of people:

  1. Those who learned to name the notes with alphabet letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  2. Those who learned to name the notes with syllables: la, si, do, re, mi, fa, sol

For example, here is a “musical scale” below:

A Scale in Music Notation

An American musician will read these notes as C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

A French musician will read these same notes as do, ré, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do

The same principle applies to “chords” in music:

A Chord in Music Notation

An American musician will read this chord as C Major

A French musician will read this same chord as Do Majeur

Is this just in terms of written music?

UNFORTUNATELY… NO! It means that if a French musician travels to the U.S.A. and asks an American musician (while speaking English) to play the chord “Sol Major,” the American might ask, “What’s a Sol?!”

What does this mean for international musicians?

Well… if you are already a linguist, it is likely that you have just had the proverbial “light bulb” moment and realized that we need to “adapt the language based on culture.” That means LOCALIZATION!

Therefore, in the translation industry, we need “music localization specialists” to create documentation that is culturally appropriate. The space in which this truly becomes important is music education.

At the end of the day, music itself (harmony, melody & rhythm) has been a universally shared practice amongst humans for thousands of years; however, the language of music is a tree of evolution with branches that need localization in order to have correct communication!

How can you help?

If you are intrigued by localization, plus you have a passion for music, then you might be interested in becoming a music localization expert!

Read more about the University of Strasbourg’s TCLoc Master’s program to get started!


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