Language Grid

Simon Emmerson
Date of publication: 

The Language Grid is a table that can be used to describe the types of sonic materials (which are referred to as syntax) within a fixed-media composition and their intended discourse. It was developed by Simon Emmerson in 1986 and can be found in the The Language of Electroacoustic Music book of the same year.

What is the Language Grid?

Rather than focus on one particular sound event or structure the Language Grid considers the piece in its entirety. It juxtaposes the syntax of sounds (abstract or abstracted) with the type of discourse (aural or mimetic). Of course no composition is that black or white and the grid allows a third hybrid for both continuums, that of a combination of abstract and abstracted syntax and a combination of aural and mimetic discourse, creating nine compartments within the gird in total. However, Emmerson does stress that these 'compartments' are only "arbitrary subdivisions of a continuous plane of possibilities" (Emmerson 1986: 25).

Language Grid Framework

The table is structured so that the syntax framework is vertical and the musical framework is horizontal. Numbering of the compartments based on the discourse columns starting with 1 in the top lefthand corner, counting down the first column, and ending with 9 in the far right column.

Syntax Continuum

The syntax continuum ranges from abstract to abstracted syntax. It focuses on the compositional style of the work and whether materials are chosen conceptually, or due to their sonic qualities.

Abstract Syntax

Formulated or conceptual schemas "created independently of the perceptual qualities of the materials used" (Emmerson 1986: 26). Can be described as a top-down compositional style.

Abstracted Syntax

Sonic materials are used and juxtaposed because of their sonic qualities (primacy to the ear). Can be described as a bottom-up compositional style.

Combination of Abstract and Abstracted Syntax

A compositional style that "harnesses some aspects of the perception of sound, and yet rely on formal schemes at other levels of language" (Emmerson 1986: 27).

Musical Discourse

The Musical Discourse continuum is broken into two discrete parts: aural and mimetic discourse. The former deals with perceptual structures within sound related to pitch and rhythm whilst the later considers the referential aspects of the sounds structure.

Aural Discourse

Aural discourse refers to a classical musical consideration of structuring musical works based on perceived pitches and rhythmic structures. Listeners are "free of any directly evoked image" (Emmerson 1986: 19). 

Mimetic Discourse

The use of mimesis within the article is not only to describe the imitation of nature, but also "aspects of human culture not usually associated directly with musical material" (Emmerson 1986: 17). Because of this the mimetic discourse is often "evidently the dominant aspect of our perception of the work" (Emmerson 1986: 19).

Combination of Aural and Mimetic Discourse

By combining both aural and mimetic discourse the composer "intends the listener not only to appreciate the more abstract aspects of the work, but also to recognise and appreciate a series of images evoked by the material as an integral part of the composition" (Emmerson 1986: 29).


EMMERSON, S. (1986) The Relation of Language to Materials. In EMMERSON, S. The Language of Electroacoustic Music London, Macmillan Press Ltd, pp. 17-40.