Music a Universal Language?

by | Jul 5,16 | Music, Music and the Brain, Singing Lessons

When we talk to each other, a huge amount of the meaning in those noises is learnt.

Language is picked up from an early age through listening to our parents,

then schooling – where one has access to it – teaches us more: vocab tests, spelling tests, grammar tests.

We learn the connotations and different usage of words through conversation and reading.

And all other spoken languages are incomprehensible to us.

But there are signs and symbols that carry meaning no matter what your language.

Facial expressions, for example, have been shown by the work of Paul Ekman to be the same in people who were raised in isolated parts of New Guinea without contact with other cultures.

When New Guineans were happy they smiled, when sad they frowned, and when angry they furrowed their brows, and they recognised the facial expressions made by people from other cultures. It seems that no matter what language you speak, you can convey an emotion to any other human being through your expression. Smiling is a language we all understand.

But what about music? Music is similar to facial expressions in that it produces an emotional response but contains no other inherent meaning. And while you have to take music lessons to learn to read sheet music, you do not need to be taught to understand the emotional content of your record collection.

In the Western tradition, minor keys are associated with sadness or fear. Major keys tend to be positive, associated with excitement or happiness. A fact used by the composers of film scores to amplify the emotions of the drama as you watch it.

But is this emotional language of music universal? Is the major key as international as a smile?

It would seem so. For example, in the case of one study: Canadians and Pygmies were played the same music – some from the Western canon and some from the Pygmy’s – and the researchers compared the emotional responses of each person to each track. The responses for both the Canadians and the Pygmies were the same.

Similarly a study comparing different languages’s preferences for seeing certain rhythms (ref) found that although the Italian participants differed from the Turkish and Persian participants in how they sorted linguistic noises, all three groups treated he musical rhythms the same way.

The signs point towards there being something in all of us that responds to music in much the same way (ref). Of course this is a general point and there are exceptions, something like Steve Reich’s ‘Pendulum Music’ will probably get very different responses from different people, but most likely everyone everywhere will tear up at the first few chords of ‘Hallelujah’.