Music Isn’t the Universal Language We Once Thought It to Be

After further examination, psychologists argue that it’s not a universal language thanks to the cultural diversity that surrounds it.
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After further examination, psychologists argue that it’s not a universal language thanks to the cultural diversity that surrounds it.

Musicians and music lovers alike tend to claim that music is a universal language. In other words, it’s supposed to be a way to communicate across all languages, cultures, countries, and races.

The sentiment is certainly appealing, but after further examination, psychologists argue that it’s not a universal language thanks to the cultural diversity that surrounds it.

A Video Examination of Cultural Music

The creator of the YouTube channel Sideways decided to test the notion that music is universal. They created a video called “Is Music a Universal Language?” in which they examined a variety of countries and cultures to see how music affects each one.

His findings revealed that it’s true that “all humans literally all over the planet have some sort of association between rhythm and movement, or, dance.” He also talks about how we all biologically respond to music in ways that affect our emotions.

However, when more closely examining a variety of cultures, he concludes that music in general can’t quite connect us with others. Each culture has its own traditions, trends, and tastes that don’t translate across all borders. In some cases, the separations is so distinct that “you literally could not play music from some cultures if you sat down at the piano because they have different tuning systems,” he says.

The conclusion of the video concedes that music can be understood and enjoyed across all cultures, but like jewelry, the differences in tastes and designs of each piece won’t translate the same messages and emotions around the world. Even in the same culture music can translate different things. Some people simply like vintage engagement rings while others prefer modern, one-of-a-kind pieces.

A couple of years ago, a research group at the Tokyo University of Arts also attempted to end the debate about music being a universal language. They examined more than 300 music recordings around the world and could not find enough similarities in any of the pieces they analyzed to argue the case for a universal language.

"People have been interested for a long time about what is universal in music across cultures because it can tell us a lot about how music evolved," says Patrick Savage, a key researcher and member of the Department of Musicology at Tokyo University of Arts. "[But] there is nothing we found that is absolutely universal.”

Music Is Too Complex to Be Universal

Music has a simple, but oh-so-complex way of communicating. Musicians, songwriters, and artists often choose to sing a certain song because they like the message or feeling that comes with it. They develop fan bases for the same reasons.

“Like language, music has syntax—rules for ordering elements—such as notes, chords, and intervals—into complex structures,” explains David Ludden, Ph.D. in a Psychology Today article. This is why many people call it a language.

“Yet none of these elements has meaning on its own,” he continues.“Rather, it’s the larger structure—the melody—that conveys emotional meaning. And it does that by mimicking the prosody of speech.”

And for that reason, music as a whole is too complicated to be universal. It has ordered elements, but there’s so much freedom to the process of ordering those elements, that a language everyone can understand is nearly impossible to create.

Yet, Music Speaks to Every Culture

There is absolutely no denying that music is a language to every single culture and every individual, however. Dr. Savage of the Tokyo University of Arts agrees that the concept of music can be considered universal.

“Things that are really statistically universal are important to help us to understand human music. For example, dance is not by itself a universal language, but if the music does involve dance it tends to be connected to a beat."

Savage also says that cultures are connected in that music is a staple in all civilizations. In fact, this concept is so universal that it applies to animals.

"Music is extremely important in building communities and bringing people together and one of the reason why music evolved was to bring people together," he says. "For a long time, people thought that humans were the only species that could dance to a beat, but a couple of years ago, evidence emerged that [songbirds] could dance to a beat…Perhaps music was the first step and language built on that.”

Dr. Ludden also agrees in the universality of this concept.

“Music certainly isn’t a universal language in the sense that you could use it to express any thought to any person on the planet,” Ludden says. “But music does have the power to evoke deep primal feelings at the core of the shared human experience. It not only crosses cultures, it also reaches deep into our evolutionary past. And it that sense, music truly is a universal language.” 

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