Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Is Music a Universal Language?

This reminds me of the old joke about the cor anglais or "English horn" that, as so many have pointed out, is neither English nor a horn (it is a kind of tenor oboe). Or perhaps the other old joke about the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire! What am I talking about? The Smithsonian has an article about the idea that music is a universal language that takes a properly critical approach:
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 channel, however, makes compelling case for why the answer is a strong “No.” Or, at least, a thoughtful “This is a badly worded question.”
You are perfectly welcome to watch the clip, by the way, though I warn you it is one of those fast-talking, very annoying clips that seem all too numerous on YouTube:

Let me save you a bit of wear and tear by pointing out that, in order for music to be a universal language, it would first of all have to be a language. While it does have some language-like properties, it really isn't a language. For one thing, instrumental music does not have distinct semantic units like words, nor is there a dictionary in which you can look them up. Within specific traditions certain motifs might come to have a particular expressive import, like the minor sixth interval in early opera, but even those have quite a different impact depending on how they are used.

Music is also not universal, by the way. All those instances people like to cite of how music universally tugs at our heartstrings are within particular musical traditions. In other words, musical expressive gestures are learned, not naturalistic. Though, to be sure, music often contains elements, as the clip mentions, that can have similar responses in all cultures. He mentions the connection between rhythm and movement or dance. As well, insofar as loud bass notes can have a threatening aspect and fast rhythms a physically stimulating aspect, these aspects of music are cross-cultural. But this is a low-resolution truth. In other words, it is a truth that doesn't capture much. If I make a wildly threatening gesture at you, that is likely to make you duck no matter what culture we are. But that does not in any way mean that we share anything significant culturally. Similarly, a loud thump on a bass drum might make you jump whether it is in a performance of the Rite of Spring or one by a master-drummer from Ghana. The musical context is so utterly different that it is hard to see that aesthetically the two gestures have anything in common.

I guess the underlying principle here is that if you want to say anything productive about particular pieces of music, the very first thing to do is to stop trying to throw one big blanket over everything. Bottom up, not top down. If you are looking for a grand generalization, then start with the details. Then, at the end of that process you might discover an interesting general truth. Or not. But at least there will be some basis for it.

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