Why Music Is Not a Universal Language

Physics and culture shape music, but as a recent video essay breaks it down, the results are more varied that most people think

Koto performance
Musicians from the Yanada Shinko perform at Misawa Air Base, Japan, April 6, 2013. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Kee

Every so often, a study grabs headlines as researchers attempt to answer the question: "Is music a universal language?" The way that chords can tug at heartstrings and tear ducts without words might lead people to assume that music can transcend differences of speech to convey emotions. Ethen of the Sideways YouTube channelhowever, makes compelling case for why the answer is a strong "No." Or, at least, a thoughtful "This is a badly worded question."

Yes, there are some elements that music traditions around the world seem to share. But, as Sideways' latest video essay points out, "That's because we're all basically the same from an anatomical perspective and we all live on Earth, which exists in the universe and has to abide by the laws of nature."

Is Music a Universal Language?

As the video explains, just as large animals that are more likely to be dangerous to humans made louder, low frequency sounds, small animals make higher pitched, softer sounds. So it makes sense that Gustav Holst composed "Mars, the Bringer of War" in his suite The Planets to feature low, powerful brass lines. Or why the haka, a traditional dance challenge in Māori culture, involves shouting in a deep voice rather than speaking softly.

Additionally, the physics of how things vibrate does give us a common series of notes seen in Western music and some other traditions. Human brains seem wired to associate rhythms with movement and hence dance.

But to say that music is a universal language because of this is oversimplifying things. The latest research supports the idea that music similarities aren't really all that similar. For instance, in a recent study of 200 musical field recordings from 137 countries, a whopping 1,706 were flagged as outliers by computer analysis.

Other studies offer mixed results. In one large survey published in 2018, researchers suggest that maybe people can tell if a song is a lullaby or a dance and sometimes if it is a healing song, but don't fare so well with identifying love songs. Though music in general does seem to light up areas of the brain associated with reward, this might have to do with the way music sets up patterns of expectation and then fulfills them. So people's brains do universally react to music in similar ways. But a specific song won't necessarily elicit the same emotional response in every person. As the Sideways video points out, interpreting patterns of expectation can be subjective and cultural. 

When you break it down, what does seem to be universal when it comes to music? That humans enjoy it, however their culture has learned to make it.

H/T Digg

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.