Is Music Literally a Universal Language?

It has often been said of music that it is a universal language, i.e. that it can be understood by cultures around the world no matter what the society may be. When we say “universal language,” do we actually understand what we are inferring? As an ethnomusicologist I notice the functions of music in various regions around the world, and from this research I am able to see how different cultures utilize music to their benefit. In many senses, relative thought may be the only way to truly approach the study of music, as what may seem inappropriate or out of place melodically for us may be entirely normal in a specific culture. The fact that continuously presents itself is that, in the simplest terms, music is viewed differently from culture to culture.  This is why I caution people about how far they take the label of a universal language. When we say music is a universal language, I really think we must make the distinction that we infer this in a poetic sense. In a literal sense music is not a universal language as there are various factors such as dialect, philosophy, and need for music (i.e. in some cultures music is an occasional occurrence reserved for special occasions), that may in fact confuse the outsider.

As I mentioned before, I am not against classifying music as a universal language in a poetic sense, I merely caution how far we ought to take that classification. The early years of music scholarship were wrought with bad research on other cultures due to a highly Euro-centric perspective. What resulted were poor representations of the cultures’ beliefs about music, and inevitable stereotypes running rampant throughout the academic community. With the advancements in ethnomusicology, such incorrect classification has been significantly reduced, and now cultures are viewed more and more as they ought to be.

Do I believe in light of what I’ve written, however, that music is a connecting line for humanity?  The answer is unequivocally yes. Every culture on this earth possesses some form of music, and in seeking to understand said music we can draw our boundaries closer together. As long as we seek to comprehend the music in its proper context within a respective society, music can often be the most powerful tool of intercultural relations. Even nations at war with each other possess music that can collectively benefit both sides, a strong testament to the potential of music.

This is the ultimate point I wished to make with this post.  Music can connect all of humanity, labeled in a poetic sense as a universal language, as long as we make sure that no prior assumptions are made about other culture’s music. The benefit of seeing music of other cultures in their proper context is complex, but in the most simplified terms it will constantly open up your worldview. You may see things about your life or others lives that you never would have experienced without deep understanding of another’s music. This may sound crazy to some of you, so all I ask is that you try it for yourself. You don’t have to write research papers like I do, but simply pick a culture you know nothing about and research their music. Really pour your heart and soul into understanding as much as possible about the music’s function and melodic structure. You never know what may happen next.


19 thoughts on “Is Music Literally a Universal Language?

  1. I agree it is a statement that lay people throw around a lot. Like playing an instrument makes you good at math….ok
    I would say music is Universal in the fact that it can elicit an aesthetic response even without much knowledge of cultures. Although I agree that studying any music/systems/cultures can heighten the experience.
    That said a lot of Westerners like music that has a nice beat and you can dance to it!

  2. When I hear the phrase music is a universal language, and I do use it too, this is what I mean it to be: “music is a connecting line for humanity.” But yeah, there are distinctions from region to region, but that underlining connecting element is what we often allude to.

  3. This is fascinating stuff and it has caused me to check through what I wrote myself on this subject years ago. I claimed that music echoes the very nature of a physical reality that prevailed even before human beings existed and eventually developed the need to express their ideas and feelings. A gentle rising and falling of melody, for example, echoes a sine wave, producing a feeling of tranquillity (to cut a very, very long story short) . The problem is, as Derek points out, to decide if these factors have a universal effect across cultural barriers. Of course, cultural differences would be far less marked if we had always possessed modern forms of travel and communication, so that these differences, perhaps, must be superficial?

  4. Beautiful insights, thoughtfully presented. I’d like to read your papers. I think about these things, just because I love music so much. Enjoying your stuff !

  5. This is interesting and I think it can go both ways-Understand the culture= really hear the music. And really hear the music=better understanding of the culture. This might even work with subcultures if you can break through and listen to “their” music with an open ear. I am thinking bluegrass and death metal for starters.

  6. I think music is no more a universal language than words are a universal language. We speak english, and as we speak it is complete gibberish to even someone who uses the the same base germanic alphabet. We hear the words but they don’t convey the intended meaning of another language. We might assume we are being seduced from tones of voice that are really telling us how they are going to enjoy slitting our throats.

    A smile in one culture is happy and inviting, in another culture that smile is a threat of violence, an expressed intent to violence.

    What is casually a crossed leg in the USA is shockingly a horrible insult to someone in the Middle East where one insults by displaying the bottom of one’s shoe.

    There are cultures that base their music on different musical scales and tunings, what we would try to explain as microtones since they do not fall into the traditional even-tempered chromatic scale of half steps. Specific musical phrases have a certain implied meaning in one culture that is not at all the same meaning in another.

    So, as I hastily write (sorry), music as a universal language is hogwash. Music to convey emotions without words in cultures that share the same musical language can transcend words and convey meanings that words cannot adequately express. But in more alien cultures this same music will simply not mean the same thing and is thus not at all “universal.”

    1. Thanks for your feedback.

      The comparison with verbal language and music is not so easy. In fact they’re quite different.

      Music isn’t a universal language at present as you say. The difference in effect of the minor scale is an obvious example. My point is that chronic geographic separation deepened differences which are more superficial than purely musical. The way that musical forces echo our experiences is, I believe, universal, allowing for those cultural aspects that, perhaps (or perhaps not) will always prevail to a degree.

      If we assess national characteristics, there are always more similarities than differences because human needs are basically the same. What remains is superficial and, unfortunately, often laced with prejudice.

      Keep in touch, J.M.

  7. If you really think about it, music disconnect us, divided us into race, religion, intelligence, culture and social economical classes..

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