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.