Luciano Berio and the problem of musical language

  • Stefano Oliva
Keywords: Musical Language, Berio, de Saussure, Chomsky


Among the various themes that have characterized Luciano Berio’s reflection, the comparison between music and language is one of the most representative and documented. Berio’s interest in linguistics and philosophy of language led him to an in-depth study of some among the main contemporary orientations and marked an important passage in the history of Italian reception of currents as different as structuralism and generative grammar, from which Berio drew his own theoretical synthesis. This article aims to clarify why Berio speaks of music as a «language of languages», through a comparison with some key texts by de Saussure and Chomsky, authors explicitly mentioned by the composer.


Berio, Luciano (1965), Meditazioni su un cavallo a dondolo dodecafonico, in Berio (2013), pp. 37-41.

Berio, Luciano (1975), Una domanda a Luciano Berio. Intervista di Brigitte Marger, in Berio (2017), pp. 85-87.

Berio, Luciano (1976), Luciano Berio sulla nuova musica. Intervista di David Roth, in Berio (2017), pp. 115-122.

Berio, Luciano (1983), Intervista con Luciano Berio. Di Philippe Albèra e Jacques Demierre, in Berio (2017), pp. 149-159.

Berio, Luciano (1993a), Esplorare la musica. Dialogo tra Luciano Berio e Nicola Bernardini, in Berio (2017), pp. 265-275.

Berio, Luciano (1993b), Testo dei Testi, in Berio (2013): 74-77.

Berio, Luciano (2006), Remembering the Future, Harvard UP, Cambridge-London.

Berio, Luciano (2013), Scritti sulla musica, ed. by A.I. De Benedictis, Einaudi, Torino.

Berio, Luciano (2017), Interviste e colloqui, ed. by V.C. Ottomano, Einaudi, Torino.

Chomsky, Noam (1959), «Review of Verbal Behavoir by B. F. Skinner», in Language, vol. 35, n. 1, pp. 26-58.

Chomsky, Noam (1965), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).

Chomsky, Noam (1966), Cartesian Linguistics. A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought, Harper&Row, London-New York.

De Palo, Marina (2009), Psicologia e mente linguistica fra secondo Ottocento e primo Novecento: il caso Saussure, in S. Gensini, A. Rainone (eds.), La mente. Tradizioni filosofiche, prospettive scientifiche, paradigmi contemporanei, Carocci, Roma, pp. 185-204.

Hanslick, Eduard (1854), Vom Musikalisch-Schönen, Leipzig (tr. eng. The Beautiful in Music, Liberal arts press, New York 1957).

Hermann, Richard (1995), Theories of Chordal Shape, Aspects of Linguistics and their Roles in an Analysis of Pitch Structure in Berio’s Sequenza IV for Piano, in R. Hermann, E. West Marvin (eds.), Concert Music, Rock, and Jazz since 1945. Essays and Analytical Studies, University of Rochester Press, Rochester (NY), pp. 364-398.

Jakobson, Roman (1960), Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics, in Style in Language, ed. by T.A. Sebeok, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA), pp. 350-377.

Kivy, Peter (2002), Introduction to a Philosophy of Music, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Kivy, Peter (2012), Music, Science, and Semantics in Id., Sounding Off, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 164-188.

Lerdahl, Fred, Jackendoff, Ray (1983), A Generative Theory of Tonal Music, MIT Press, Cambridge (MA).

Oliva, Stefano (2020), «Musical Language», in International Lexicon of Aesthetics, Spring 2020 Edition,


Oliva, Stefano (2019), «Music and Language? Deleuze, Guattari and Berio on Visage», in La Deleuziana, special issue Rhythm, Chaos And Nonpulsed Man, ed. by Obsolete Capitalism and Stefano Oliva, vol. 10, pp. 223-231.

Osmond-Smith, David (1991), Berio, Oxford UP, Oxford-New York.

Patel, Aniruddh D. (2008), Music, Language, and the Brain, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ruwet, Nicolas (1959), «Contraddizioni del linguaggio seriale», in Incontri Musicali, 3, pp. 55-69.

de Saussure, Ferdinand (1916), Cours de linguistique générale, Payot, Paris 1995 (Course in General Linguistics, tr. eng. by W. Baskin, ed. by P. Meisel and H. Saussy, Columbia UP, New York 2011).

Wolff, Francis (2015), Pourquoi la musique?, Fayard, Paris.

How to Cite
Oliva, S. (2020) “Luciano Berio and the problem of musical language”, Rivista Italiana di Filosofia del Linguaggio, 14(1). doi: 10.4396/2020114.