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  • Is music a universal language?

    We think of music as "universal" because a) it isolates the linguistic aspects of rhythm, pitch, timbre, and dynamics, b) it is separate from everyday language and used primarily for ceremonies and entertainment, and c) when cultures apply these two strategies, the results are a lot more similar than the commonalities of their daily-life languages.

    I think the best way to appreciate the nature of music is to consider forms of music that walk the line between music and everyday language. Rap music is a good example. Rap has been accused by many of being non-musical. This stems from its deemphasis of pitch/melody in the vocal delivery. But rap's emphasis on rhythmic patterns distinguishes it from everyday language.

    Music isn't a language unto itself, but rather a way to distinguish everyday language from ceremonial language. All cultures have discovered that language can be deconstructed (rhythm, pitch, timbre, and dynamics) and then used as a separate language for special ceremonies (or just having fun). This is the heart of music's universality: the emotions and associations we have with these activities (victory, passion, romance, relaxation, adventure, curiosity) are, if not universal, extremely common amongst human cultures.

    In most cultures, music is created by breaking communication down to more modularized and limited forms. Rhythm, pitch, timbre, and dynamics become more distinct from each other. In everyday language, it is often hard to distinguish these aspects from each other. They blur together in a unified flow. But in music, it is usually possible to pick out specific notes, the rhythm is generally consistent, and timbre is controlled through the use of specialized instruments. It all boils down to limitations. Music is the natural product of communicating complex ideas with very limited tools.

    Music can appear "universal" because the strategies employed by different cultures to work within the limitations tend to have a lot in common with each other. A good example are scales. Even though different cultures have different scales... most cultures use scales! Even though most cultures have different drums... most cultures use drums! And when you use a drum to communicate, no matter what culture you come from... the approach is going to be a lot more similar than spoken communication of more culturally nuanced information.

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