Is Music a Language?

Adorno, Voloshinov and the Language Character of Music

in Historical Materialism
No Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?



Marxists regard works of art as meaningful, and look for political meanings in apparently non-political literature, films and paintings. But where does music’s meaning lie? The conventional view is that music is non-referential, capable only of supporting other artforms or of expressing emotions. Adorno rejects the idea of music as a language of emotions, and does not believe that music has universal grammatical and syntactical rules. Yet he claims that music has language characteristics which make it as political as other artforms. What does he mean, and is he right? To answer those questions, we need to know how he understands language. This article examines how Adorno’s view compares with the Marxist theory of language and consciousness developed by Valentin Voloshinov, and explores the extent to which approaching music from this direction might clarify a Marxist understanding of music and contribute to solving the thorny question of musical meaning.

Is Music a Language?

Adorno, Voloshinov and the Language Character of Music

in Historical Materialism



AbelMark 2014Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured TimeHistorical Materialism Book SeriesLeiden: Brill.

AdornoTheodor W. 1982Against Epistemology: A Metacritique; Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies translated by W. DomingoOxford: Blackwell.

AdornoTheodor W. 1984The Essay as Form’ translated by Bob Hullot-Kentor and Frederic WillNew German Critique32: 151171.

AdornoTheodor W. 1992a ‘Music and Language: A Fragment’ in Adorno 1992c.

AdornoTheodor W. 1992b ‘Vers une musique informelle’ in Adorno 1992c.

AdornoTheodor W. 1992c Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern MusicLondon: Verso.

AdornoTheodor W. 1993a ‘Music, Language, and Composition’ translated by Susan GillespieThe Musical Quarterly773: 401414.

AdornoTheodor W. 1993b Hegel: Three Studies translated by Shierry Weber NicholsenCambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

AdornoTheodor W. 1995 [1964]On Some Relationships between Music and Painting’ translated by Susan GillespieMusical Quarterly791: 6679.

AdornoTheodor W. 1997Aesthetic Theory translated by Robert Hullot-KentorLondon: Continuum.

AdornoTheodor W. 2002 [1965]Little Heresy’ in Essays on Music edited by Richard Leppert and translated by Susan H. GillespieBerkeley: University of California Press.

AdornoTheodor W. 2007Theses on the Language of the Philosopher’ in Adorno and the Need in Thinking: New Critical Essays edited by Donald BurkeColin J. CampbellKathy KilohMichael K. Palamarek and Jonathan ShortToronto: University of Toronto Press.

AlthusserLouis 1996For Marx translated by Ben BrewsterLondon: Verso.

BailesFreya 2007The Prevalence and Nature of Imagined Music in the Everyday Lives of Music StudentsPsychology of Music354: 555570.

BenjaminWalter 1993On Language as Such and on the Language of Man’ in Selected Writings Volume 1: 1913–1926 edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. JenningsCambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

BowieAndrew 1989Music, Language and Modernity’ in The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin edited by Andrew BenjaminLondon: Routledge.

BürgerPeter 1984Theory of the Avant-Garde translated by Michael ShawMinneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

CallinicosAlex 2004Making History: Agency Structure and Change in Social TheoryHistorical Materialism Book SeriesLeiden: Brill.

ClaytonMartinTrevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (eds.) 2003The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical IntroductionLondon: Routledge.

CollinsChik 2004Marxism and Language: A Response to McNallyHistorical Materialism122: 169187.

CookNicholas 2003Music as Performance’ in ClaytonHerbert and Middleton (eds.) 2003.

CookeDeryck 1989 [1959]The Language of MusicOxford: Clarendon Press.

CrossIan 2012Music as a Social and Cognitive Process’ in RebuschatRohrmeierHawkins and Cross (eds.) 2012.

EngelsFrederick 1883Frederick Engels’ Speech at the Grave of Karl Marx’ available at: <>.

EngelsFrederick 1934 [1876]The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to ManMoscow: Progress Publishers.

GandeshaSamir 2006The “Aesthetic Dignity of Words”: Adorno’s Philosophy of LanguageNew German Critique97: 137158.

HanslickEduard 1957 [1854]The Beautiful in MusicIndianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company.

KantImmanuel 1987 [1790]Critique of Judgment translated by Werner S. PluharIndianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

LangerSusanne K. 1969Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason Rite and ArtCambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

LecercleJean-Jacques 2009A Marxist Philosophy of LanguageHistorical Materialism Book SeriesChicago: Haymarket Books.

LerdahlFred and Ray Jackendoff 1983A Generative Theory of Tonal MusicCambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

LiikkanenLassi A. 2012Musical Activities Predispose to Involuntary Musical ImageryPsychology of Music402: 236256.

MarxKarl 1973 [1844]Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels on Literature and Art edited by Lee Baxandall and Stefan MorawskiNew York: International General.

MarxKarl and Frederick Engels 1970 [1845]The German IdeologyLondon: Lawrence and Wishart.

McNallyDavid 2001Bodies of Meaning: Studies on Language Labor and LiberationAlbany, NY: SUNY Press.

MüllerHarro 2009Mimetic Rationality: Adorno’s Project of a Language of PhilosophyNew German Critique108: 85108.

NelsonAmy 2004Music for the Revolution: Musicians and Power in Early Soviet RussiaUniversity Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

PaddisonMax 1991The Language-Character of Music: Some Motifs in AdornoJournal of the Royal Musical Association1162: 267279.

PaddisonMax 1997Adorno’s Aesthetics of MusicNew EditionCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

RaffmanDiana 1993Language Music and MindCambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

RebuschatPatrickMartin RohrmeierJohn A. Hawkins and Ian Cross (eds.) 2012Language and Music as Cognitive SystemsOxford: Oxford University Press.

RoseJacqueline 2016From the Inside out. Review of The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBrideLondon Review of Books3818: 1112 available at: <>.

SchopenhauerArthur 2010 [1818]The World as Will and Representation translated by Judith Norman and Alistair WelchmanCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Statista Research Analysis 2014Share of People who Play Music in the United States in 2014, by Age’ available at: <>.

SwainJoseph P. 1995The Concept of Musical SyntaxThe Musical Quarterly792: 281308.

ToynbeeJason 2003Music, Culture, and Creativity’ in ClaytonHerbert and Middleton (eds.) 2003.

VološinovValentin N. 1973Marxism and the Philosophy of Language translated by Ladislav MatejkaCambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

WilliamsRaymond 1977Marxism and LiteratureOxford: Oxford University Press.

WilliamsonVictoria J. and Sagar R. Jilka 2014Experiencing Earworms: An Interview Study of Involuntary Musical ImageryPsychology of Music425: 653670.


Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 430 430 69
Full Text Views 55 55 32
PDF Downloads 47 47 22
EPUB Downloads 1 1 0