Reasons why music is NOT a universal language and other reflections

Notes on

Ø      why music is NOT a universal language

Ø      the relationship between music and language

Ø      a relationship between popular and classical music


“From the perspective of cognitive science, music ranks among the most bizarre and fascinating features of human culture . . . Music stands in sharp contrast most other enjoyable human behaviors (eating, sleeping, talking, sex) in that it yields no obvious benefits to those who partake of it.  The evolutionary origins of music have thus puzzled scientists and philosophers alike since the time of Darwin.”  McDermott & Hauser


Why Music Is NOT A Universal Language


Music fails to communicate specific messages or meanings across cultures.  Example: the subtle emotional, seasonal, and time-of-day associations with particular Indian ragas.


Music is observed to appeal across cultures.  For example, reggae is performed around the world, as is Mozart.  However, Chinese food also appeals across many cultures, and we do not say that "food is a universal language."  Why not?  Perhaps because food does not generally convey specific meanings about the world.  Similarly, music often does not refer to anything but itself.  If I sing a descending major third, that musical idea is transmitted successfully to anyone hearing me, but it does not point to anything else in the world.  (Is this musical gesture actually too short to be “music”?)  This is a function that we would expect any language to do.  We want languages to communicate ideas about the world we live in, not just about themselves.


Another problem with the "music is a universal language" idea is that our languages do not agree on a single definition of music.  For example, some cultures have terms that are broader and more inclusive than our term "music."  Example: the Indian term for music, "sangita," includes music and dance.  In the other direction, cultures such as the Inuit have specific names for their musical genres, but no umbrella term such as "music" to refer to them in a general way.


However, there is more to say about this, since music is found in all human cultures, and some musical ideas seem to be understood across cultures without much training or enculturation.  Additionally, there are many language-like properties that we want to attribute to music, and it has long been speculated that our capacity for music arises from our capacity for language.  (Some anthropologists have even argued that our capacity for language evolved from an earlier capacity for music.)


One mental capacity common to music and language is "parsing."  The in-class demonstration of this was my continuous smear of vowel sounds “a-o-i-e-u” that we insisted on hearing as 5 vowel sounds.  Similarly, we parse very fluid melodic performances and find scale structures, often pentatonic, in them––if they are not incompetent, a key point.  We could judge the competence of a performance of totally unfamiliar music in a way that we could not the judge the linguistic competence of a spoken stream of a totally unfamiliar language.


Great efforts have been made to link musical order with the syntax and grammar of the deep structure of language, but, while interesting and often useful, these attempts rarely apply to all music found in the world, and usually only make good sense for the hierarchical organization of European tonal music.


As much as language-based models of music can tell us, even the best ones seem to leave out a great deal of musical experience.  For me, there is a great tension between language and music.  Russian literary theorists, inspired by structural linguistics, sought to study was makes poetry different from ordinary spoken language and written prose.  They noted that, "poetry is speech made strange."  I like to extend that formula, and say that song is poetry made strange, and that when an instrument replaces a singing voice, that is song made strange.  (As music develops through history, we certainly find that melody gets made pretty strange, too.)  There is that part of human experience which we can capture in language, and the remainder is what drives us to create art, to dance, to involve ourselves with music.  Applying this binary categorization to music, I would classify some pieces as being more language-oriented, and others are oriented to those expressive growls and cries to which we instinctively respond.  This is not to say that one of these kinds of music is better than the other, or that one is "intellectual" and the other is not.  One could set up an illustration of these two poles, putting an instrumental fugue by Bach at one end and a breathy, moaning recording by Ms. Spears at the other, but there are plenty of exceptions, shades and variations.  For example, jazz clearly includes strong moments of both, and perhaps all music shifts between these ways of creating emphasis.  Certainly all music contains both elements simultaneously at all times, but of course to varying degrees.  One way of observing this is to note the difference between discrete and continuous quantities in music.  If pitch and rhythm are used in a very precise, quantifiable way, then we are at the language-like end of the scale.  Meaning comes from the exact position in time & pitch-space of the individual notes.  The structure is the meaning emerging from contrasting positions in systems of very discrete and quantized steps.  In a pop vocal, more meaning is derived from the expressive bends and ornamentation around the structural pitches of the melody––something continuous and in fact often very difficult to describe or analyze.  In a way, the stronger the language component is in the piece, the farther away is from the “discrete” language-like end of the scale.  While rap music certainly has many musical qualities, it is certainly dominated by language, and one could imagine many changes being made to the musical accompaniment that would not disrupt the basic identity, meaning or intention of the piece, whereas similar small changes in a piece by Bach or Chopin would make a mess of things.


Perhaps the difference is more in text-centered music vs. instrumental music, rather than popular vs. classical.  It is simply difficult to write about the nuances that distinguish a great performance of a Brahms piece from a mediocre one.  It could be a matter of hands-on music-making experience.  If a brain is not trained to perform/perceive basic (scales & their functions, harmony, melodic contour etc.) musical structures, they are less likely to be meaningful to that brain.  Most criticism of popular music at least uses the text as an entry point into discussions of meaning.  It is much easier to write about words than music.  The less experience the non-linguistic, musical parts of the brain has, the more likely meaning is going to come from words and visual information.  Note how jazz is as marginalized in terms of record sales.


This two-part division is perhaps too simple.  In his book How the Mind Works, Stephen Pinker presents his "cheesecake" theory that music is so satisfying because it simultaneously stimulates many mental faculties.  These are

1.  Language functions, especially when synchronized with melody.  I would add the complex nested and hierarchical structures of syntax, the language-like aspects of music.

2.  Auditory scene analysis–– the instantaneous analysis of the frequency components of sounds is part of auditory scene analysis, and that leads us to prefer as musical sounds sounds that have well-behaved harmonic overtone relationships in those high frequency components.  This somehow gets generalized into a preference for sequences of tones (melodies) that have similar simple frequency relationships. 

3.  Recognition of emotional calls–– growls, cries, moans, whining, whimpering, weeping–– often part of the singer's bag of tricks to trigger an emotional response, and often imitated by instruments.

4.  Temporal/spatial resolution–– identifying the location of that twig snapped by a predator animal stalking us; also possibly part of the mental faculties that isolate consonants from vowels in a stream of spoken language.  (Consonants can often be modeled as bursts of noise.  By noise we tend to mean sounds that does not have simple harmonic relations in its high frequency components.)

5.  Motor control and bodily rhythm.  Pinker suggests that our evolved enjoyment or favoring of repetitive or regular rhythm––so helpful in learning to walk–– is the basis for our general enjoyment of rhythm.

6.  Something else?  Perhaps there is some evolved inner satisfaction in having the above mental functions functioning in synchrony.  [I find this to be a compelling suggestion.]


David Meckler

2003, rev. 2008