Thursday, January 4, 2018

Is Music a Universal Language?

Hello, and happy new year! I hope your 2018 is off to a good start. I’m starting the year by tackling one of the most pervasive musical clichés, one that goes beyond any individual composer or even a particular musical style. Some readers may be upset with me for debunking this aphorism, perhaps because they believe it and that belief has done some good in their lives. Other readers have been waiting for this post since the blog began. So, here we go:

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:
  1. Music is a language.
  2. That language is universal.
The first proposition is difficult to verify, as it goes beyond musicology and requires knowledge of linguistics, semiotics, biology, and neurology. My answer is a tentative, “No, but it resembles languages in some ways.” Here is the much more qualified neuroscientist and musician Ani Patel talking about music and language, if you have an hour to devote to the subject:

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):

Comic showing how science news stories get mangled in a game of telephone.
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 demonstrates the mathematical relationships between musical intervals.
Pythagoras comes up with
the weirdest drinking games. 
The math doesn’t quite work out. One way to demonstrate this is the Pythagorean Comma, which may be confusing if you don’t have music theory training. Going around the Circle of Fifths (that is, keeping track of the pitches by going up the interval of one fifth, then a fifth above that, then a fifth above that, and so on) is supposed to give you all twelve notes of the Western chromatic scale before coming back to the pitch where you started, only several octaves away. But the pitch produced by this method is not the same pitch as one you’d get by playing pure octaves to cover the same distance. There’s no way to stack ratios of 2:3 to match ratios of 1:2.

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
**For a notational representation of "Here Comes the Sun,"see

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)


  1. This post shows that a given genre of music isn't necessarily universal or translatable (I tend to agree that the pentatonic is culturally learnt rather than physically hard-wired as entertaining as that clip is, and I do wonder whether the same result would be replicated with one person rather than a large audience all hearing each other sing and converging on the same 'agreed' note). Your post also points out the obvious differences between language as something which aims to clarify and music which is ambiguous. So, I agree, the idea that music is a universally understandable language isn't true.

    But even if one type of music - or one culture's music - isn't easily translatable or fully understandable within another culture, does the truncated phrase "music is universal" still have merit? Even if an English speaker couldn't understand a French speaker, you could still call spoken language a (nearly) universal trait within our species. Are there many (any?) cultures without music or people who wouldn't understand that something is music (even if they didn't understand its specific meaning) when they heard it? In that sense music could be said to be universal. Maybe that's going too far away from the topic this post is trying to address, but the phrase "music is a universal language" itself is (ironically) kind of ambiguous.

    1. I don't know whether there is a human culture without music, but that's a useful question to ask. Also, as Jason points out below, societies vary as to what is even considered music, so there might be a society that produces what we'd consider music, but they don't perceive it as music at all.

      I had considered including a paragraph or two on Carl Sagan and the Golden Record, pondering whether aliens would be able to distinguish between musical and non-musical sounds--if they even have a sense of hearing that corresponds to ours!

    2. Just replied to your tweet on that. I don't know a huge amount about this but did see a documentary film on the Voyager missions a few weeks ago where it was covered. Would make a great post in itself! I get the impression Sagan was well aware of such issues. Plus he only had 6wks to create the record and had to cater to NASA administrators/a conservative American public who were previously squeamish about drawings of naked humans on Pioneer 10! I think he did well to get away with as much as he did when it came to 'other' cultures' music/sounds.

    3. There's definitely more than a single posts' worth of material on this topic, so I hope I can find a way to fit the Golden Record into a blog that debunks myths. Maybe a post on music and math (though this one touches on it)...

  2. Even the concept of what is or isn't music is culturally specific, e.g. the Muslim call to prayer has characteristics that most non-Muslim Westerners would think of as musical but is not considered to be music by Muslims.

  3. Great job as always, Linda. You somehow managed to sort through comments from about a dozen people in less than 24 hours, and what emerged still sounds completely like you.

    Just a footnote, but it might be worth pursuing. I often use the finale of Beethoven's quartet Op. 18, no. 2 as an example of why music in the late 18th and early 19th centuries began to strike people as universal. It's not program music, but it definitely seems to tell a story, which goes something like this: Meet the theme/character. Where is it going? When will it come back? When it does come back, what key will it be in? This is music that narrates, and it is precisely the fact that a narrative voice can be heard without reference to anything specific (including/especially emotional content) that helped foster the idea that music is a universal language: an idea that the Romantics then ran with. When I teach this, I teach it as a significant fact of music history: the Romantics believed music was a universal language, and they wrote accordingly. I also confuse the issue for them by playing them some Australian didgeridoo or Japanese gagaku, and point out that while they may sound interesting (the usual reaction to didgeridoo) or not (the usual reaction to gagaku) they communicate absolutely nothing. Sometimes I show a Japanese ukiyo-e print for comparison; the print shows images they can understand, while the music communicates nothing they don't already know. Ergo music is not universal. But for a substantial portion of our history people believed that it was, and many still do. Many also believe that music is a form of personal expression: another Romantic truism. When I ask them if they realize that those two statements contradict each other - if music is a universal language, how can it also be a form of personal expression, or vice versa - I can see some real thinking going on.

    1. My music appreciation students are forever telling me that one piece or another sounds "like it tells a story." In Western culture we often use music to help tell a dramatic story, and we love our narratives, but the story is an extramusical layer, not a message in the music itself. Sagan's ETs would be unable to discern the story in a Lizst tone poem without having it spelled out for them, as would any human listener. I challenge my students to get into the specific musical aspects of what makes music "sound like it tells a story," which is much more relevant and difficult.

  4. This is indeed a great blog post, and will be so useful as a resource for students who want to wander down the "universal" path.

    I am so thankful for my studies of Peircian semiotics with Tom Turino at the University of Illinois. I think of my understanding of Peirce as a kind of theoretical foundational garment. Like underwear, it should be there, but no one wants to see it.

    Peirce is extremely complicated, but the basic premise is that there are different kinds of signs and these different signs relate to their objects in different ways. Icons represent their object through resemblance (photos are icons, for example). Indexes represent their objects through co-occurrence (smoke = fire, for example). Symbols represent their objects through arbitrary shared agreement (the word "tree" represents the green, leafy thing outside because we have all agreed on this arbitrary relationship). (More on Peirce here:

    Language most often operates in the symbolic realm, but can sometimes be iconic (onomatopoeia) and sometimes indexical (as in some poetry).

    Music, on the other hand, most often is deeply meaningful because of indexical relationships that we establish through exposure to music in film, TV, commercials, childhood songs, being rocked to sleep by our mothers as infants, etc. Sometimes it may be iconic (sirens, horse galloping, etc.) and I'm sure that someone could argue that music is sometimes symbolic, but I argue that the emotional world is the indexical realm.

    In short, I believe that music is a universal phenomenon, but it does not denote like language. Like Robin said, I think we are tricked into thinking it is denotative because of the strong, shared responses we have to composers like Beethoven or Brahms and how we talk of "narrative." But, like you pointed out above, it's all cultural conditioning!

    Thanks again for this great resource!

  5. This is great. :)

    I have two pieces of supporting evidence about the context required to understand what a musical piece is...uh...saying.

    One is Jonathan Bellman's amazing book, "Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as a Narrative of National Martyrdom." Nineteenth c. Polish audiences understood this work very differently from how modern listeners understood it.

    The other is Mozart's Musical Joke. You need to be a tonal native to get the jokes.

  6. Those interested in these topics should be aware that Lawrence Zbikowski has a new book out called Foundations of Musical Grammar. I'm neither recommending it or not recommending it, but it makes for an interesting read in this context.

  7. Linda,

    "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"

    Any music lover who argues for the worth and value of music in terms moralistic, character-building, or utilitarian needs to have their kneecaps broken (figuratively speaking, of course).

    Any argument for the worth or value of music along any of those lines is not only IMBECILE but destructively wrongheaded and entirely in error. There is zero moral anything involved with one's musical listening.

  8. I am very reluctant to tell anyone that they love a piece of music for the WRONG REASONS, so I can't say I agree with your comment.

    You and I do agree that music's worth shouldn't be based on "moralistic, character-building" terms, and bad things have resulted from that. Moreover, using music to "improve" a person IS utilitarian and serves Neoliberalism, in that art's value is determined by how it affects a worker's productivity. That goes against my personal beliefs about art.

    But so long as people realize that their reasons for listening to and loving music are THEIR OWN and can't be inflicted on others, I don't want to interfere.

    "Bach's 'Sheep may Safely Graze' makes me feel so peaceful and reminds me to treat others kindly," is fine; "You should listen to Bach because it will make you a kinder person," is decidedly NOT fine; and, "I am a kinder, better person than you because I listen to Bach and you don't," is HORRIBLE--yet, unfortunately, how far too many people think.

  9. Wonderful post, as always Linda!

    I think the question of music's universality is very bound up with music as uniquely human. As a bird-lover, this strikes me as a tricky stance to maintain, especially in light of recent, pretty compelling work on avian musicality (ex. this wonderful study by Hollis Taylor:

  10. Of course, music is not a language, but you could have mentioned that music and languages are sharing a lot of inner properties. On this topic, I recommend this lecture at the College de France: .
    Also, when discussing the inner property of musical language, there is always the argument of the extra-european music.

    You wrote that that our tonal system is the result of environment and exposure, however, you seems to forget that all around the world, even remote tribes that had no contact with europe has music that share similar properties with european ones: hierarchy between the degrees, the octave as the standard, importance of the strong degrees...

    Listeners being accustomed to tonal music is a myth that could be worth a post in your blog.

  11. Thank you for your response! I made a quick nod to music and language having things in common, but you filled in some information I didn't know.

    I think the octave is one thing that will be standard across the universe (even if it turns out some extraterrestrials don't interpret vibrations as sound), because that 2:1 ratio is, well, fundamental.

    Unfortunately, I don't have much knowledge about other cultures' music (besides one year of playing in UCSB's gamelan), but your comment about hierarchy between degrees made me think of the Medieval church modes, and how the final and reciting tone are privileged and are determined by the mode. There are also chants that predate the Gregorian repertory and did not "follow the rules," so they got adjusted to fit the standardized modes (which is why I say the mode determines the strong degrees, not the other way around (oh, early theorists!)).

    Again, thank you for your informative comment!