Is music a universal language?
Since this question is the title of the post and I’m big into Betteridge’s Law, you have probably already figured out that my answer is a resounding NO.
The notion of music as a universal language is practically ubiquitous; it’s often treated as a truth that “everyone knows,” even if they don’t remember where they heard it. Some attribute the phrase to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote in 1835, “Music is the universal language of mankind,—poetry their universal pastime and delight.”* Longfellow was referenced ironically by George Bernard Shaw in an 1890 review: “Though music be a universal language, it is spoken with all sorts of accents.” Both quotes come from the 19th century, a period during music lovers argued the extent to which music could convey meaning—a debate that produced (among other things) a lot of programmatic music, in which the music corresponds to non-musical ideas.
According to Quote Investigator, however, the first English use of the phrase (in print, which is really all we can track) was in 1826, in The Ladies’ Monthly Museum: “Music is the universal language of nature.” The general idea of tying music to the universe is older still, going back at least to the ancient Greeks and Musica universalis, “the music of the spheres.” It’s much more than a cliché; it’s one of the oldest ideas about music in the Western imagination.
So, why am I adamant that this truism is false? The phrase encompasses two propositions:
- Music is a language.
- That language is universal.
If you aren’t able to view the video, I offer one difference between language and music to ponder before I move on: Most spoken language seeks to clarify and to fix a specific meaning to the phrases, though it occasionally exploits ambiguity for artistic (or comedic) effect. Music, however, thrives on ambiguity, and mostly does not correspond to one specific meaning. Anyway, I’ll leave this question for now, though I may pick it up in a future post.
As for the second proposition, that music is “universal,” I can give that a confident NO, despite this engaging demonstration from Bobby McFerrin:
This video has circulated on the internet as “proof” that the pentatonic scale is hardwired into the human brain—otherwise, why would everyone in the audience spontaneously move to the same unknown pitch?
It does have to do with how the brain is configured, but it’s the result of environment and exposure, not something in our DNA. McFarrin’s audience has been steeped in a world of Western tonality since birth. Even if they didn’t listen to classical music, they still heard mostly tonal music (or, at the very least, music based on the 12 tones of the Western chromatic scale) in popular music, movie and television scores, commercials, children’s songs, and so on. That leap to an unknown pitch wasn’t spontaneous; it had been prepared by the music the audience had absorbed all their lives prior to that demonstration.
What about people who haven’t been exposed to Western music? They are getting harder to find, as Western culture extends its influence. David Huron, who specializes in music cognition, has expressed concern about the loss of “cognitive diversity” in the world as Western culture (particularly pop music) encroaches. However, such people exist, and some have participated in studies about music. Some of these studies spur online articles that claim the cliché is true. As with any article that uses scientific (or scientistic) language to describe the effects of music, I urge you to keep in mind “The Science News Cycle” from PHD Comics and consider how accurately the article reflects the original study (if a study is cited at all):
|How many layers has your science news been filtered through?|
Not only that, but you can also find similar-caliber articles arguing just the opposite, also citing scientific studies with people who don’t respond to Western music as consistently as one would expect of a “universal language.”
With nearly the whole world of musics available on the internet, I invite you (the reader) to explore the music of non-Western cultures, such as Native American and Tuvan. Listen before you read the YouTube descriptions or comments (better yet, just don’t read the comments at all). Can you figure out what these pieces are communicating? Their meanings rely on cultural contexts that may be unfamiliar.
Yet what do people actually mean when they say that music is a universal language? I’ve heard people elaborate that even people with no knowledge of (Western) classical music can still understand, say, the specific anguish in a Beethoven sonata, or the distinctively religious joy of a Bach cantata (even without understanding German). After all, major means happy and minor means sad or angry, right? Well, not necessarily, even in Western tonal music. Here is an operatic expression of grief in major and a “merry” Christmas carol in minor.
Some partisans go even further, suggesting (or even outright stating) that Western music is universal because its tonality is determined by physical laws of the universe, resorting to mathematics rather than biology. You can see how this idea informs the beginning of Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land. This claim goes back to Pythagoras, and I’ve mentioned it on the blog before. He and his followers assert that the notes of the major scale are based on the ratios of the intervals—that is, the distance between two pitches. A ratio of 1:2 produces an octave, 2:3 produces a fifth, 3:4 produces a fourth, 4:5 a major third, 5:6 a minor third, and so on through the overtone series. Put these pitches into the same octave, and voilà! It produces the major scale—except no, it doesn’t.
|Pythagoras comes up with|
the weirdest drinking games.
This mismatch of ratios led to the development of “equal temperament”—it nudges the pitches slightly away from their perfect ratios so the fifths will be consistent with the octaves. Western tonality was inspired by acoustic properties, but cultural factors (such as standardization) also influenced the arrangement of pitches. It is not “universal” in the sense that a separate culture would independently come up with the same system purely through mathematics—other cultures handle the inconsistency of the overtone series in different ways, some by not considering it a problem at all.
Thus, as pervasive as it is in Western culture, the 12-note chromatic scale is not purely based on natural or universal properties and has no privilege over scale systems in other cultures, such as the two scales used by the Javanese gamelan, slendro and pelog, neither of which corresponds to the Western division of the octave. The erroneous belief that the equal tempered scale derives directly from the laws of physics can feed an unwarranted sense of cultural superiority, which can have very nasty implications, as we see all around us today.
And what about rhythm? Do all humans perceive time and duration the same way? There appear to be fewer scientific studies of rhythm (rather than pitch) across cultures, but from what I’ve been able to find, they mostly focus on entrainment—whether people can “find the beat” and reproduce what they’ve heard, which can be affected by the subjects’ familiarity with the culture that produced the rhythm.
Even beyond that, there are at least two different ways of perceiving how rhythms can be generated. Western music, especially dance music, tends to treat rhythm according to a meter, a fixed cycle of strong and weak beats. It is an inherently hierarchical system: Some beats are more important than others. Rhythms can either reinforce or subvert the beat—even syncopation and hemiola need a meter to play against. In Western music, the emphasis falls on the first beat of the measure. In Javanese music, which also features hierarchically organized beats, the emphasis is on the last beat of the cycle. Still other cultures, such as some styles of Indian classical music, use additive rhythm—instead of conceiving of rhythms as fitting into an implied pattern of strong and weak, individual rhythmic units are strung together. There are patterns of emphasis, but they vary according to the structure of the tala (rhythmic cycle).
One example from Western culture that demonstrates the difference between metric and additive rhythm is “Here Comes the Sun” by George Harrison, the Beatle whose songs reflect the most Indian influence. Though most of the song is in a straightforward 4/4 meter (containing 8 eighth note pulses), the chorus ends with a passage that can be understood as 3+3+3+3+2+2 eighth note pulses. In the bridge, there’s a different grouping of 3+3+3+3+2, a total of fourteen pulses that a 4/4 meter just can’t accommodate.**
By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that music is too dependent upon the previous experiences and cultural context of the listener in order for it to be a truly “universal language.” Yet I should mention that I often hear people imbue this phrase with a quasi-spiritual quality, implying that our reactions to music are something that unites the human race. It’s a powerful, even humane idea, and that’s why I suspect that some readers are going to be upset or disappointed with this post.
If the idea of music as a universal language means a lot to you, and you believe that it has made you a better person and encouraged you to behave kindly to your fellow humans, I don’t want to stop you. You can still find meaning in an idea even when you know it isn’t literally true.
*The citations for all three of these quotations can be found on https://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/06/20/music/.
**For a notational representation of "Here Comes the Sun,"see https://www.aaronkrerowicz.com/beatles-blog/harrisons-everest-part-3-rhythmic-sophistication-in-177-here-comes-the-sun.
Thanks to Marian Wilson Kimber, Kendra Leonard, Brooks Kuykendall, Robin Wallace, Julie Roth, Matthew Michelic, Andrew Dell'Antonio, Sarah Latanyshyn, Robin Wildstein Garvin, Michael Cooper, Katelyn Horn, Imani Moseley, Jason Busniewski, and Robert Fink for their feedback on a draft of this post.
David Huron, "Issues and Prospects in Studying Cognitive Cultural Diversity" from The Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (2004)
Josh H. McDermott et al, "Indifference to dissonance in native Amazonians reveals cultural variation in music perception" in Nature (2016)
Daniel J. Cameon et al, "Cross-cultural influences on rhythm processing: reproduction, discrimination, and beat tapping" in Frontiers in Psychology (2015)