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 https://asifoscope.org/2013/01/11/kalimba-buzz/). 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.