Music as a language: Solresol

We’ve heard several times of the saying “Music is the universal language of the world,” though we have begun to learn in our World Music class that given the diversity and significant differences between musical systems across several cultures, this is not exactly the case. There are, however, actual languages constructed from music. Not for music, as in the mezzopiano ritardante music jargon used to help us interpret music, but actual conversational languages constructed with the help of music.

Re dofa do fasi resire fa sidosi! But they take some time to get used to. A lot of time, actually.

(Mouse over the bolded words for translations.)

The sentence above was written in Solresol, one of the earliest artificially constructed languages to ever exist and the only particular musical language this post will focus on, though there are other musical languages engineered after this. Developed by François Sudre, a French author and musician, from 1827-1866, Solresol was the very first artificial language to be taken seriously as an interlanguage, as well as the most successful music-based language to exist. The only syllables used are do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and si, so not only can the language be spelled out, but also played on an instrument (treating each syllable as its appropriate solfège notation), painted (with each solfège syllable assigned each of the 7 colors of the rainbow), or written in its own script:


For example, the sentence “La solresol do fasi resire fa sidosi" can be written as:


And when written with proper colors (though not necessary in this case as it is already spelled out):


The downside of Solresol is that it is an a priori language, which means that it’s not based on any existing language. Therefore, any background knowledge of major extant language families cannot be applied in learning Solresol (I should have made my sample sentence “The language is not very hard to learn if you have a dictionary nearby.” My bad.) Also, because Solresol lost prominence over the years, it has a very limited vocabulary — there’s enough to get around but there may not be enough to express thoughts as well and as clearly as one can in English or other natural languages, especially in the modern context. I had to run several variations of the sample sentence through the translator before it came out with a complete translation.

On the upside, given the diversity of the ways it can be expressed as a musical language (what other languages can be spoken, written, played, painted, and still convey the same universally understood meaning?) and its simplicity (with only 7 syllables and 10 letters), Solresol gives people with special learning needs and illiterate people an easier communication alternative. Plus, wouldn’t it be cool to carry out full conversations with other people simply by humming or whistling a tune to each other?

(Yes, it would.)



Further reading

  • Sarus is another musical language created by Adam Phillips, based on Solresol. It has a slightly different system of pronunciations and, in my opinion, has a more comprehensive learning guide for anyone interested. Definitely worth looking into!