Music has many universals. It can be found in every culture in history from any time period. Everywhere, social identity and borders are reinforced with music. It is universally used for spiritual enlightenment, atheistic expression, and religious ceremony. However, it is not a universal language.

Webster 1913 defines language as "any means of conveying or communicating ideas". The idea that music can convey ideas regardless of society or culture is flawed. Just as spoken languages differ, so do so musical languages. Just as an Indonesian wouldn't understand English, he wouldn't understand the awesome power of a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo or the lyrical genius of John Lennon. Just as most Americans would hear nothing more than tonal babbling when someone is speaking Japanese, they would not understand the subtle, philosophical implications of Japanese Sankyoku. Just as a Sub-Saharan African drummer would find many Western modern rock drummers pounding out uninteresting, repetitive beats, we would find a disturbing lack of harmony and chords in Chinese Peking Opera. From a Western point of view, classical Indian music is well admired for many reasons, such as the lightning quick fingering of sitarists and the insanely fast, complex drumming beats on the tabla. However, those native to Indian music appreciate the creativity of improvisation more than musical accuracy or speed.

In short, no culture really understand another culture's music. While music can seemingly communicate between cultures, it is interpreted as if it were made for listener's culture. Personal expectations and assumptions of music distort what a foreign piece may be trying to express. Music as a universal phenomenon would be more accurate than a universal language.

A couple years ago, a friend of mine said "But if you have to know how to hear a type of music..." (He said it in response to what I said: that most people don't grow up hearing jazz, and thus don't know how to listen to it.) His opinion is pretty much standard: how to hear music is not something you learn -- it's deep, intrinsic. And, indeed, it certainly feels intrinsic: hear a minor chord and it's like someone's just fired a burst of electricity into the Sad region of your brain. What music makes us feel seems like a fundamental objective truth, as self-evident as the shape of a circle.

There's certainly no objective resemblance between a chord and the emotion it evokes (at least, none visible with our current understanding of neurology). Music is the ultimate in abstract art, pure untethered symbolism -- just like langauage: there is a similar lack of resemblence between the word cat and the image it invokes (namely, a cat). So perhaps, if we stretch our definitions a bit far, music can be called a language.

But why would it be a universal language? Certainly no other language is universal. Though the ability to match concepts to sounds (and some of the mechanics underlying that matching) seems to be universal, which particular sounds map to which concepts is a product of environment -- infants have the harwired ability to pick up language, but they pick it up from the people around them.

But enough rambling rationality. That stuff didn't get Plato very far (incidentally, Plato thought all music but patriotic hymns should be banned). Let's look for some concrete evidence.

To start, the Greeks. To them, the mixolydian mode (our major, but with a lowered seventh) was the saddest. The dorian (effectively our minor) they considered peaceful. (The lydian (common in neighboring Lydia) was thought to cause moral decay.)

More recently, in the 15th century, a common practice in local churches was for sacred music to be sung in complex arrangements with the main part (the one with the Godly words) on the very bottom, pitch-wise. Obviously, nobody could hear it there, so eventually the catholic church forbade the format (called a motet) -- at least, that's the way it was explained to my high school humanities class by the choir director, who seemed to have fallen out of 1957. Since at least the '60s (earlier in jazz and barbershop quartets), plenty of songs have put their melodies on the bottom or in the middle (some Beatles exapmles: Nowhere Man, In my Life, Because); more likely the church, steeped in a tradition of gregorian chant, simply didn't understand, shared with the choir director an inability to hear melodies that weren't on top.

Later (a couple hundred years ago), an emperor of Japan, in an effort to confer respectability and openness to the world, invited a world-class European orchestra to play Mozart for his court. After sitting politely through the concert, he and his aides discussed how unbearable it had been to withstand an hour and a half of the most horrendous dissonance they'd ever heard (a similar reaction (minus the politeness) greeted Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in reviews of its premier).

(Around the same time, Brahms was considered Mozart and Beethoven's equal, and Bach was mostly unknown.)

Jewish Kletzmer music uses a middle-eastern scale that sounds anguished and depressing to most american ears (there was an SNL sketch where a family stands in glaze-eyed horror before the Chanukah candles singing "burning burning burning..."). The deep, instinctual reaction of most people to that scale is not the same as the deep, instinctual reaction of kletzmer fans (I'm not much into kletzmer, but I've played it at the JCC, where people requested it again and again and danced exuberently around with smiles on their faces).

In 1945, following the lift of a WWII recording ban, bebop burst into the open. Most people find it jittery and dissonant; to its fans, it's not. Quoting myself:

...(not having been played much jazz during my formative years) when I listened to it I heard discordant noise...It wasn't until my trumpet teacher actually bought me a book of bop solos and made me learn to play some of them (which required that I go over them slowly and find all the hidden leaps that had eluded me at the lightning pace on the records) that I actually realized what it was I had been missing and reconfigured my hearing, that I could finally appreciate that famous Charlie Parker quote, Music is finding the beautiful notes.

Today hip hop is going through a golden age; great MCs are churning out great records (many of which are underground and don't get airplay). But in the wider world, it's mostly unnoticed; a lot of people consider rap, at best, poetry read over a beat, which is missing most of the point -- the MC's style, their inflection, the texture of their voice, is analogous to a musician's tone. More importantly, they're not just saying things; the lines form polyrhythms, a complex interplay of expectation against the background track, with pauses strategically offsetting lines and countervailing subrhythms implied by inflection. I don't pretend to fully understand hip-hop, but there's a hell of a lot there.

One possible objection to all this is that if music is divided into different languages, where are the lines? The Beach Boys are a bit like the Beatles and the Beatles are a bit like the Vines and the Vines are a bit like Nirvana, but the Beach Boys aren't like Nirvana. Ella Fitzgerald is a bit like Cinematic Orchestra is a bit like Daft Punk, but Ella Fitzgerald isn't like Daft Punk.

But actually, this is a phenomenon that occurs in language in exactly the same form (linguists call it a dialect continuum). From my textbook:

This is a situation where, in a large number of contiguous dialects, each dialect is closely related to the next, but the dialects at either end of the continuum (scale) are mutually unintelligible. Thus, dialect A is intelligible to dialect B, which is intelligible to dialect C, which is intelligible to dialect D; but D and A are mutually unintelligible. A situation such as this is found near the border between Holland and Germany, where the dialects on either side of the national border are mutually intelligible.

Taste in music is not just a matter of taste.

In response to bizza's w/u:

First, even if western pop is effectively a universal language, music itself isn't. The wide spread of one particular musical language doesn't make other musical languages intelligible.

That's a bit of a sidestep, though -- I think the real issue is whether (and where) inadvertant misunderstandings are taking place within the western musical framework -- or, to put it another way, how many different musical langauges there are (though I think there's a bit of metaphor shear; dialect continuum and all that) -- do people more often dislike a genre becuase they don't have experience with (or enjoy) the emotions it usually evokes, or becuase the emotions they think it evokes are unpleasant and not the emotions it's intended to evoke?

When you look at the attitudes of people who primarily listen to single genres, there's a symmetry -- a majority (or at least a large minority) find other genres either (A) repetitive/boring or (B) dissonant/painful or (C) both. (There seems to be a spectrum of music, with genres at one end more likely to be misheard as dissonant and genres at the other as repetitive. I think an (rather stretched) analogy can be made to the development of (and desensitization to) swear words -- see Kidman's thesis on the topic at ) Examples -- Folk, Punk, Emo and some Electronica (house, hardcore, etc.), are widely seen as boring (by each other!); opera, bebop, and modern classical music are widely seen as painful (hip-hop is often placed in both catagories, sadly).

A personal example: I bought OK Computer on sale in an airport in 9th grade. On first listen, it seemed ultra-dark, an incredibly bleak (though not entirely hopeless) concept album about alienation and oppression; I respected it as powerfully imagined stuff, but didn't like listening to it much. Now, 5 years later, it hardly seems dark at all -- there are all sorts of hidden modulations and what are in effect extended versions of leading tones; it's about alienation, but also about beauty, about sheer britpopy joy and transcendence. It wasn't that I didn't like it because it was dark, it was that it wasn't really dark; it wasn't that I didn't enjoy what it was saying, it was that never heard it. (One reason, for me, that the music-language metaphor seems a bit of a reach is this ease of misunderstanding. I might not understand someone speaking dutch, but neither am I likely to incorrectly think I understand them.)

Similarly, with regard to Kurt Cobain meaning Pain -- well, yes, sometimes he did; I'm under no impression that the Beach Boys and Nirvana attempt to communicate all the same emotions. But Cobain's songwriting was so wildly creative, with chord sequences totally unseen in most rock, that it can easily be misinterpreted as intentionally horrible when it's meant to be something else. (Incidentally, I think rock, jazz, and electronica are fairly equidistant, so to speak.)

tdent has pointed out that the idea of music being a universal language probably originated in centuries-ago Europe, which was divided into dozens of spoken langauges but united by a single, common musical langauge.

While, theoretically, music is not an universal language, it practically may as well be. As a language, the current rules and conventions of European/Western music (e.g., a song in the key of C major being happier than a song in D minor) are phenomenally widespread, far more so than, say, English or French.

The descendants of the Japanese that Tlogmer describes as finding Mozart dissonant essentially listen to the same music I do here in Australia. The only fundamental differences between J-Pop and Australian pop are things like production style and the language the words are sung in - the harmonies, rhythms and melodies are essentially the same. Moreover, Popbitch has been saying recently that several Mujahiddin in Afghanistan have admitted a love for Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart, of all things. In 2003, I suspect that the basic rules and conventions of Western music are understood almost wherever you go, largely thanks to American cultural imperialism.

By the way, music is a language (or, more accurately, languages) in many ways, as defined by linguistics: there is a limited amount of language units (ie, notes/phonemes) in both music and speech; the meaning of language units is completely arbitrary in both music and speech; meaning in speech and music is largely conveyed by the relationships between individual language units - i.e., "easy" can mean completely different things based on context, and C major means a different thing if it follows a D major to if it follows a D minor; with both music and speech, we usually intend to convey meaning. The main difference between music and speech is that language has tenses, while music does not; e.g., we have no idea whether a Nirvana song is describing current or past misery.*

Anyway, to extend the idea and metaphor of music as a language, it's perfectly possible to say different things in the same language. To use Tlogmer's examples, the Beach Boys and Nirvana might both be speaking in Rockish, but it doesn't mean, in musical terms, that both of them have to say "i'm picking up good vibrations" or "pain!".

However, Electronicaish and Jazzish might be different but related languages; someone who listens mostly to the likes of Daft Punk can should be able to get the general idea of what Ella Fitzgerald is trying to say. However, this is only a general idea, in the same way that someone who speaks Spanish has a general idea of what someone who speaks Italian is going on about.

*quiet, you.

It's clear that music is not a language at all, at least not in the way that the things we normally call languages are.

There is no way to say "pass the salt, please", or "That will be fourteen pounds eight shillings and sixpence, but I will accept your finest camel instead" in music. You can set the words to music, of course, but that is cheating.

This is kind of self-evident, but I think that it is necessary to point it out in this context.

Music is, however, a medium of communication, and as such it is capable of saying things which are difficult or impossible to say with words. I can try to describe the feeling I had listening to the opening of Beethoven's C# minor quartet one night several years ago, lying drunk on the carpet, but any combination of words I might come up with will be trite by comparison. You just have to have been there, and what's more you have to have been me. That's just how it is. I'm sure some others have had such moments too.

Perhaps it is apt to say that music communicates not ideas (like real languages), but emotion, in a very pure form. And not only simple individual emotions, but complex palettes of the things can be combined and transmitted, pretty much in parallel, in a way which words are generally too clumsy to achieve.

Not only can music say things which are generally inexpressible through words, but it also can have a certain universality. By this I mean that sometimes we can have a strong affinity for music that we have had no real cultural exposure to. Often, we don't have to learn anything much for the meaning to communicate itself.

A musician friend of mine, an american lady who is a professional classical singer, has had a lifelong obsession with dhrupad (a style of North Indian classical music which sounds quite outlandish to many western-ears). She has not only become very skilled at it, she has performed successfully to large audiences in India, learned the Marathi language, and so on. Although I am quite a skilled musician, that music does not speak to me with the same resonance.

However, the sounds and rhythms of black american jazz impressed themselves on me deeply, even as a child. My earliest clear musical memory is of hearing Louis Armstrong on TV in the late 60's, before I had any idea who he was. This was in a rural area of Wales, and I had no previous exposure to that sound that I know of. That joyful sound stayed with me, and later on I did indeed develop a strong passion for that genre.

Who knows why it is that some types of musical "language" speak so clearly and immediately to some specific people, independently of their cultural or educational background? We don't really know, but the phenomenon does exist. It does not always happen, far from it, and some genres will remain forever opaque to some listeners, even with the best intention to "get it". (On some level, I believe that the answer may eventually found in some deep correspondence between certain types of rhythm, combinations of frequency, and something in our bio-emotional apparatus. But this is pure conjecture, and I don't much care if we never find the answer. Like other good things in life, it just works.)

At any rate - I think that this is what is meant by talk of music as a "universal language". Taken literally, the epithet is cute and inexact of course- but the English language is often like that, and that does not reduce its communicative power. There are many other phrases that are somewhat ridiculous when taken literally, but which do have a useful function.

Don Burrows plays clarinet. He once told a story of being in Germany, of walking through a square and hearing a violinist busking. He listened for a while and then took out his clarinet and played with him. They jammed together for two hours, despite having no common spoken language. For Don it was an unforgettable experience.

Patterns of music, perhaps, are learned, or unlearned may not be universal, but music can connect across language barriers. Dance might also be learned, but can be joined and celebrated across language barriers. Perhaps reciprocity is the universal language; listening, responding.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.