Doubling up on Shak and Sax: Musical Bilingualism?

Learning languages is not a zero sum game. The notion that there’s only so much space in your brain to accommodate your linguistic competence and/or diversity, and that therefore, for example, you’re doing your kids a favour if you abandon your own home language in favour of whatever standard is used in their school, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. On the contrary, a good exposure to two or more different linguistic codes may well stand to boost your capacity in both of them. Dick Johnstone reported finding higher order English skills in children attending Gaelic medium education.

So what about music? Is there, by analogy, a chance or indeed likelihood that playing more than one instrument, say, will you make a better musician? Broadly speaking, I can see sense in that, but I wouldn’t want to push it very far without caveats. My keyboard skills are pretty rudimentary, but it’s probably true that my harmonic awareness, such as it is, which I’ve developed in part through playing around on the keyboard, has contributed in some degree to any melodic innovation I might try on the flute. If I know the chords that are coming I’ve got a better idea of where I can go with a tune.

But if you pick that apart a bit all I’m actually saying there is that harmonic awareness enhances melodic invention. The fact that I happen to play mostly chords on the piano and tunes on the flute is coincidental.

So what about two melodic instruments, say flute and saxophone? We’re in murkier water here. There’s plenty of debate (examples here) on the web about the merits or otherwise of doubling up on flutes and reeds. A lot of professionals do it, but the debate is almost always framed in terms of damage limitation rather than mutual enhancement. The consensus seems to be that, yes, it’s possible to be a very good player of both instruments, provided you put in countless hours of practice so that your lip muscles in particular can easily adjust to the very different requirements of either instrument. And the nagging doubt remains that if you chose to focus on just one of the two and put in the same hours you could be better still on that one instrument.

So, if you’re looking at this question from the perspective of musical technique, I think it’s difficult to argue very strongly for the bilingualism analogy. However, to the extent that different musical instruments are associated with, and adapted to “encode”, different musical traditions, there may well be grounds for arguing that learning two instruments, and therefore two different traditions, stands to enhance overall musical competence/capacity/creativity.

A couple of examples to finish, offered with some trepidation. They’re both from Bi Beò tracks. On Dannsa a’ Phortain I play alto saxophone, and on Hougharry Reel my own haund-knitted “Gaelic shakuhachi”.

Dannsa a’ Phortain:


Hougharry Reel:


In my case, doubling up on the two is clearly no guarantee of superior technique on either… But on the other hand experimentation with both Western and other traditions has been, for me at least, a refreshing musical experience, and offered the opportunity to create something new and different. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I finally found a place for it in a Gaelic band?

About Gordon Wells

Language learner and teacher (English, Gaelic, Hindi and Urdu). Interested in bilingualism and creativity. At home in the Hebrides.

Posted on 08/05/2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. One thing you shouldn’t underestimate is the relative difficulty of different note sequences on different instruments.

    I’ve read a lot of musicians talking about how picking up a different instrument has cured their writer’s block. The instrument presents the notes differently, and what simply falls beneath the fingers on one can be something that you would never have thought of on another. On a chromatic instrument you can get a similar experience.

    In fact, I once read an interview with Mick Jagger talking about how hard it was trying to write good rock tunes in hotel rooms with an acoustic guitar, but how the tunes that he wrote that way were actually good songs however they were performed, whereas some of the stuff he came up with on an electric sounded initially impressive but lacked substance.

  2. gordonwellsuist

    Agreed. Different instruments push you in different directions. That’s what I meant by “encoding” of traditions. In point of fact the fingering of Boehm system flute and saxophone is very similar, with some extra keys for going below C on the sax. But my home-made number is keyless – close to a low D whistle – but with a thumbhole so that you can open up for the C# without the whole caboodle falling out of your hands. A mongrel by design…

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