Aesthetics / Africa / Centrism / Cosmopolitanism / Music / Quality

Is Music the “Universal Language of Mankind”?

Sometimes you can hear or read that “music is the universal language of mankind”. While this may sound plausible, I think it is wrong. My wanderings through different musical traditions of different times and parts of the world have taught me that there actually many different musical languages.

If you hear music from a totally different musical tradition from that you are used to, you will initially not understand much of it. You will be unable to perceive much of the structure and complexity contained in it. You might find it chaotic, monotonous, ugly, boring, strange, or strenuous. It might get on your nerves.

If you hear it again and again, you will get to know it. Bit by bit, the structures initially hidden to your perception will reveal themselves. You might not like it but you might respect it, or you might at some point start loving it. You have then learnt another language of music. As an example, listen to this:

I have selected this because I suspect that most of you don’t know it and it might seem strange and foreign to most of you. I think it is therefore a good example to make my point.

This is Yoruba music. Haruna Ishola and his Apala group.  Apala (or Akpala) is a music style that originated in Nigeria, starting in the 1930 and reaching its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. Haruna Ishola was one of the main exponents of this style.

So this also is music of the 20th century. It is not a style of ”traditional music” (a dubious concept, by the way) but modern African music that was played by bands and published on records. Besides its roots in Yoruba music, there are Cuban influences (and Cuban music in turn has strong Yoruba roots). The big box lamellophone that forms part of the orchestra is of South American or Caribbean origin.

For the listener who received his musical acculturation in the context of European or American music, be it classical music, jazz or any kind of rock or pop, this music probably sounds strange and is hard to digest at first listening. The musical scale used, the dissonant (for the untrained ear) polyphony and unison singing and the melodic microstructures make for a strange experience.

But listen to this again and again several times. This may be hard work, initially, like learning a foreign language is hard work, until eventually you reach a level where you can enjoy its literature or poetry.

Bit by bit, you discover the structures and rules of the music and it begins to glow, to shine and to become fascinating. Try dancing or use it as meditative music. At some point, it might carry you away. Or at least, you may develop some kind of “respect” for it even if you never like it.

We might not be able to grasp this music completely. There are aesthetic effects in it which those of us who do not understand Yoruba (which includes me) cannot grasp. Yoruba is a tonal language which means that words are distinguished not only by consonants and vowels but also by their intonation. This restricts the possible melodies that can be used with a text but opens possibilities of intertwining lyrics and melody in ways not possible in other languages (see also The “talking drum” that can be heard here may actually talk, evoking text associations in the listener. And of course, there are connections between the lyrics and the cultural context of Yoruba culture that we cannot understand without knowing the language and its cultural context.

So, music is definitely not a universal language. Just as this music might be strange to you (except you are familiar with this or a similar culture) the music you are used to might be strange for somebody from that culture. The same might be the case for people who have grown up in the context of, say rock music when the listen to classical music or vice versa.

Therefore, the saying that music is a universal language seems to me a result of narrow-mindedness and cultural “centrism”.

Probably each of you has some favorite music. You might be convinced that this or that tune is the best music ever composed or the best music of the century or something like that. However, I think there is no such thing as the best music because there are so totally different styles and traditions and they extend, sort of, into different dimensions. They are not comparable.

To find out if some music is good, you have to listen to it many times to get to know its “language”. When you do this, good music becomes better if you listen to it again and again. That is the main criterion for quality. Shallow music, on the other hand, becomes boring on multiple hearing.

There is an enormous diversity of interesting music in the world. . I really recommend trying to learn to understand different “musical languages” to open up this diversity for oneself because it can greatly enrich our lives.

21 thoughts on “Is Music the “Universal Language of Mankind”?

  1. Technically you’re correct nannus, but I think you’re taking the statement too literally.

    The youtube item you selected, as far as I’m concerned, was not a problem at all. I only listened to the first few measures of the fist track but my foot started tapping almost at once. I’m downloading it to add to my music library. I’d love to be able to go to a venue in Africa and hear such music live.

    There are certain visceral, organic aspects of music that are indeed universal. Rhythm, beat, syncopation, harmonies and harmonics. I think this is more what is meant by the “universal language” statement.

    The mood of music is often carried in the chord structure and tempo. One can often sense when a piece is gay and upbeat or dark and sombre.

    While there’s definitely some music I don’t care for, it doesn’t prevent me from recognising the universal aspects within it.

    I think the more basic and raw the music is, the more universality it offers. While living in New Mexico I became very interested in traditional native american music. With nothing more than percussion and voices, it can create some incredibly complex and intricate structures while never losing that organic aspect, the connection to Life. I like to think of it as the biology of music.

    I think this biological, physiological aspect of music is what the “universal language” concept is all about.

    All that being said, perhaps the fact that I’ve been a performing musician myself makes a difference. I may be more predisposed to respond to the fundamentals of music without worrying too much about the details.

    Before I migrated to WordPress, I was using blogger. Then google pissed me off with their dictatorial attitude and I kicked them to the curb. The site I had created was actually four separate sites linked together using a common visual theme. There was the blog, a digital art site, a music site and a news site.

    I’ve already begun expanding my WordPress site in the same way by adding my “Galleries” link in the top menu.

    The music page on my previous site consisted of embedded youtube videos of music from all over the world. Your post has inspired me to recreate that for my WordPress site.

    I would welcome any suggestions you might offer since you’re well traveled, well read and obviously fond of music.

    • I agree. If you have an open-minded attitude, music is universal. But I have heard that statement mostly from people who meant it to mean only one type of music (like classical music, for example). I have searched the web and it turned out it is actually a quotation from a 19th century author called Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. What I read on Wikipedia about this author fits to my idea of the mindset this quotation was coming from.
      I think in your case, I am preaching to the converted 🙂
      I noticed you put Galleries into your blog and I would like to listen to your music. Of course, there are also differences in taste, but we might have a shared area (you like “The Gates of Delirium” for example. I like that music too (although I am a bit reserved about the text)).

      • I didn’t know that idea came from Longfellow. Thanks for that. I suppose it’s quite possible that he was speaking of “music” in a very narrow sense. Some people have an arrogant tendency to discount anything other than what they consider music as nothing more than noise and not music at all.

        There are a couple of pieces of my music already on my page. They’re under the “Originals” tab on the top menu.

        Yes, it’s true that Jon Anderson’s lyrics can be a bit abstruse. That’s also true for a lot of poetry and, in reality, most lyricists are just poets putting their words to music.

        Once you’ve heard him speak about the piece however they become a bit less so. The emotional or visceral aspect of “Gates…” is, for me, so profound that it doesn’t even really need lyrics to make clear what it’s about.

      • In my youth I heard a lot of classical music and a lot of “Genesis”. Yes brought these traditions together in a really good synthesis. It is absolutely ingenious music. The “Gates” is also a good example of my point here, that you have to learn a style of music. There are some obviously beautiful sections in it (the “soon oh soon…” part), but there is a fast complex section in the middle that somebody not familiar with it might at first perceive as chaotic. But it is full or interesting and intricate and ingenious structure that you discover when you hear it several times. It is a masterpiece that can reach deep emotional levels.
        When I first heard this music, I did not understand the lyrics at all (my English was not so good back then and for a non-native speaker it is hard to understand song texts anyway), so I never cared.

        • Well, if that middle part you’re referring to is the section I suspect it to be, it’s supposed to be chaotic. It’s the pitch of battle. Armageddon, the clash of good vs evil, war. But it never looses that underlying visceral, biological metronome of the beat.

          But, as you said above, I am the “converted” so my view is significantly biased by my direct experience of music.

          I can understand where the language barrier might have been a problem. The first time I listened to “Gates Of Delirium” I, of course, had no foreknowledge of its theme. But the moment I heard the opening lines of “Stand and fight we do consider, reminded of an inner pact between us”, I knew what was up and was prepared for what followed.

          I most heartily agree when you say of “Gates”, “It is a masterpiece that can reach deep emotional levels.”

          I have never, before or since, been so completely overwhelmed by any piece of music.

  2. I’m a bit hesitant to add my two-penny’s worth on this topic – it’s not a subject I know too much about. I do, however, pride myself on having an ear for music. I cut my teeth on jazz at a local (RSA) joint and that was the launchpad for listening to a more diverse range of music. A radio presenter by the name of Nikki Bloemenfeldt introduced World Music on her show. We had Salf Keita coming to our shores. I would’ve loved to download the Haruna Ishola album, except the internet connection where I am is so slow at times it will probably take two weeks. I unfortunately lost my music collection – would’ve to fill up again with Salif Keita, Phillip Thabane, Ale Farke Toure, Marsallis, Fela and Femi Kuti – and now I wonder why aren’t there any female composers? Not that I know of. They sing, yes, but an all female Afro/jazz, jazz, classical composition? I wonder why not? I think rock music is directly derived from African music.

  3. PS: I do agree that one has to learn a new musical language. I grew up on Abba, so it has been a wonderful journey to now be able to concentrate on a 20-minute composition by Fela Kuti. The energy in African music can be very intense. If someone now plays ordinary pop music I leave the room, or I switch off the radio.

    • This particular Haruna Ishola album should be still available as a CD. It is interesting music (once you get used to it).
      If you are looking for female composers, try Oumu Sangare from Mali, or Rokia Traore, also from Mali. I find Oumu Sangare’s music especially beautiful. There are also some female composers in Cameroon and the Congo area.
      I don’t like the term “World Music” so much (and I will give it an article in my “Strange Concepts” series. Salif Keita himself once remarked on a TV show that I watched that if his music is World Music, then where does the European music come from? I agree with him, I think that is a eurocentric concept, where very fine distinctions are made between (actually closely related) European and American stiles of music and then “all the rest” (many unrelated or only distantly related music traditions) are lumped into a rest group. I think it is “Highlife”, “Soukous” and so on, not “World Music”.
      Ali Farka Toure especially has shown how Blues is historically related to the griot music of Mali and Guinea. Blues developed into Rhythm an Blues and from there to Rock and Roll from which Rock music developed, so there is indeed a close connection, although it gathered a lot of European influence on the way.
      In Fela Kutis music I think there is a strong influence in the other direction (America to Africa), especially from Soul, like George Brown for example. I think there are other musicians who I find more interesting than Fela Kuti in terms of the music, but his texts are great. The Nigerian pidgin he was using is quite close to the Cameroonian pidgin I am used to (it is the same language, with some regional vocabulary variations). Many of his texts are political satires and very funny. He called himself “basket mouth” because if you put water into a basket, it is going to leak.

  4. Beautiful post Nannus! And it comes to support one my recent collaboration with a composer and musician who loves to plays Japanese instruments… I think music, as visuals, can tell the inner universe of people. And their states of consciousness…

  5. There is some great Japanese music. Listen to this one (the Koto is played by the composer himself in this recording).:

    I love this particular recording. It has some “roughness” that is missing in some modern interpretations and that adds to the beauty.

      • This one is a classic. This style has some European influence (it is no coincidence that there is some resemblance to impressionistic music). I don’t know the music of earlier periods of Japanese history, it is hard to find, but I have read about it. There was some change in the music in the 19th century and some European influence. Miyagi is one of the masters of what emerged out of this development. Another interesting topic…

  6. By the way, if you’re interested, here’s a nice live performance of “Gates Of Delirium” from a fantastic concert in amsterdam.

    The entire concert is posted as well. I downloaded it and it’s really excellent.

  7. I’ve always thought that people who can write and perform music are particularly intelligent. It takes an understanding of, like you say, a language, that not everyone can grasp. I’ve never thought of it in terms of different languages though but now I see your point. A lot of people would listen to Hindi music and not take a liking to it when to me it’s beautiful.

    • I am looking forward to a discussion about Indian music with you. However, I understand that you have more pressing problems at the moment. Hope things will develop into a positive direction soon.

  8. Pingback: On Beauty | The Asifoscope

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