Music a Universal Language?

Music a Universal Language?

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’.


All The Way From Finland

All The Way From Finland

It looks like the beautiful offspring of a baby grand piano and an acoustic guitar, with some subtle electric guitar sound-bending levers, is played like a harp on its side, or like a guitar on its back, but not really exactly like either of those. The sound is beautiful, can be picked, strummed or pressed. What is it? (more…)

Oldies but Goodies

Oldies but Goodies

There’s nothing more glorious than re-discovering an old album that you’d forgotten about, and reliving all the memories and
emotions from listening to it for the first time.

A thing I like to ask when first meeting new singing students, is what their taste in music is like, and to give some examples of artists/genres they listen to the most. Recently I’ve had many people bring up the same few artists, Alanis Morissette, Natalie Imbruglia and Sheryl Crow; three artists I totally adore!

Having talked about Alanis Morissette’s album (and arguably her most successful) Jagged Little Pill, I decided to give the whole album another listen. It was a hugely humbling experience to remember all the feelings I felt when first listening to those songs and her incredible tone; a unique vocal quality full of anger, resentment and wit.

Natalie Imbruglia was another artist I hadn’t listened to for a long while, and re discovering that I knew all the words to her songs ‘That Day’, ‘Shiver’, ‘Wrong Impression’ and her most famous song ‘Torn’ was an awesome way to re-connect to those brilliant melodies.

Sheryl Crow has always been an artist I have gone back to time and time again; I would be so bold as to say she is the Queen of Country music. If you haven’t given her best hits a listen then you need to get them on your playlist immediately, particular favourites are ‘If it makes you happy’, ‘Strong Enough’ and her classic hit ‘The first cut is the deepest’.

My point? In a world where mainstream pop is full of riffs that get stuck in your head whether you like it or not, with albums revolving around the artists and not the actual songs, it is important to re-discover those old artists that you grew up listening to. Songs that evoke a memory or an emotion in you. Songs you can truly relate to. Songs that mean something to you personally. The kind of music that can really make your day.

So, if there’s one thing you listen to today, make sure it’s an oldie but a goodie.

written by Emma

singing teacher bristol

Singing Lessons with Punch Vocals



Love it or hate it, it brings warmth to your voice!

Have you ever heard opera singers give vibrato some welly, or sat in front of someone in a carol service with a wobbly vibrato? Why does it sometimes make a voice warm and delicious, and sometimes make you want to put your fingers in your ears? 

Vibrato is when the frequency of a note fluctuates in pitch and amplitude. The frequency can vary up to a quarter of a semitone either side of the note. It is actually not physically possible to sing with no vibrato at all, as the human voice will always have tiny changes in sound – this is what gives it warmth. You can hear on tracks that have been pitch altered, creating a more produced and synthetic sound. Here, the fluctuations are removed, erasing the natural sounds that our voices make.

It is therefore harder to match pitch to straight sounds and this is why, when teaching, I ask students to pitch-match to my voice before using the piano. Teaching the technique of vibrato in singing is not quite as simple as it might seem. The difference in timbre can make a phrase more interesting – but if vibrato is too slow it sounds ‘wobbly’, and if it is too fast it can sound like a ‘bleat’. In order to effectively and beautifully use vibrato we need to understand and use it to varying amounts. This is done by training the muscles in the larynx to work together correctly.

When using vibrato the muscles are essentially tensing and relaxing; this added element of tiny relaxations allows the singer to sustain their efforts for longer and is most notably used in opera singing/performances.

Listening With Your Body

Listening With Your Body

People usually assume that listening is done through the ear, but really there is so much more to listening.

Let me introduce you to the great Evelyn Glennie, a talented musician, speaker and educator. She is the first person to have a full-time career as a solo percussionist and recently received honorary membership from the Royal Philharmonic Society, and the Polar Music Prize (a big deal – the musical equivalent of a Nobel Prize).
Evelyn lost her hearing by age 12 and learnt to recognize the difference between sounds through the vibration in her hands and throughout her body. She started her percussion lessons by training herself to recognize tiny differences in the vibrations of sound.
As I carry out speech and language intervention at a school for deaf children this is so important to understand! During this TED talk, Evelyn asks the viewer to allow their body to be a ‘resonating chamber’ for the music they experience, to experience the journey of the sounds, not just the initial contact of the stick on the drum, or the bow on the string. To pay attention to the tiny changes in how the sounds are affecting our bodies.
During the talk she explores notions beyond instructions from sheet music, interpreting the music with feeling, and in the final stage to listen to ourselves, both musician and audience alike.
Let’s think differently about music. And start learning how to listen.

And click here to watch the talk!

Image by: King JG, Hillyer JF, on Wikipedia here

A Night at the Theatre

A Night at the Theatre

About a month ago I had the privilege of watching one of my students perform in a production of Les Miserables at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School.* For those who have not experienced this epic musical, it is set in the middle of the French Revolution and tends more towards the reality of war than towards happy endings. Amy played Fantine, a girl who seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who has responsibility for a young daughter and some tricky songs. Whilst I had heard the song during lessons, I was not prepared for watching her sing ‘I dreamed a dream,’ and how she put what we’d worked on into practice even through scenes of tears and despair – no mean feat – try singing beautifully the next time you shed a few! Not only that, but Amy had her hair cut off live, on stage, to raise money for the Little Princess Trust. What impressed me overall was that, in a play that consisted entirely of singing (bar, possibly, two spoken lines), one school could find, nuture and present enough talented singers to pull it off. The cast consisted of over 40 students, and there was a choir of 45, semi-concealed behind a screen, that sung the French revolution into Bristol. The whole performance was of a high standard, the costumes were vibrant, the acting was brilliant and the stage set was cleverly constructed.** To mention a few favourite moments: the ‘master o’ the ‘ouse’ was so creepy that I deeply regretted making fleeting eye-contact with the seditious and over-eyebrowed character, Jean Valjean’s falsetto gave me goosebumps and, finally, Fantine’s (*spolier alert*) deathbed scene was so sad and so poignantly played I think it could be said that: of dry eyes in that place, there were none. Well done to everyone involved – truly a night to remember!  

* Interesting info: this musical play was created by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, written in the 1860s.

** Credit where credit is due – Stephanie Rees

Photograph used by permission.