Blurty for ater the gold rush.
|Saturday, October 16th, 2004|
Draft numero uno, completed in one eratic afternoon with a blaring heater and little reworking.
'Music as a universal language' - debate this statement
The question of Music as a universal language has been contemplated for many years. Many ethnomusicologists believe that music, though conveying emotion, lacks a definitive syntax and is therefore not a universal language. This idea will be explored throughout this essay. However, I believe the true question here is not of whether music is a grammatical or translatable language, but of whether music transcends the possibilities of a conventional language.
To answer the question of whether music is a true universal language, we must first consider the meaning of the term ‘Language’.
“A Language is a system of communication which consists of a set of sounds or written symbols which are used by the people of a particular country or region for talking or writing.”
Considering this definition, it is clear that music is a language. Music utilises sounds and in some cultures the use of written symbols to communicate many things. Music as a cross-cultural process is evident, all cultures of the world appear to have some kind of musical history, and there is no doubt that within each of these cultures music does act as a language and way of communicating to each other various things. Some pieces of music can be so engrained in a culture’s history and customs, that the singing or playing of this music can act as a mode of discourse between people. However, a tourist, when hearing this same piece may derive an entirely different meaning. As a result, the nuances of meaning derived from each cultural specific musical language do not generally transcend any cultural boundary. This question of a possible universal meaning or understanding in all music’s is the most important when considering music as a possible universal language.
There is a very simple argument that since music cannot be translated, it is there for not a language. For example, nobody can definitively translate the meaning of a piece of music the way that Spanish can be translated into German or English. However, there are many similarities that are found in almost all music’s of the world. These similarities, known as ‘universals’, became very interesting to ethnomusicologists around the 1970s as some aimed to find connections between cultures, rather than to look for the differences. Examples of these universals are:
- Tetra tonic and pentatonic scales (found in the music of China, Tibet, Mongolia, Oceania, India, Russia, Africa, American Indians, European folk songs, hymns of the United States).
- Singing in octaves
- Stanza structures (including the use of repetition).
- The use of idiophones and sound tools or instruments.
In 1968, linguist Noam Chomsky also connected these universals to the underlying structure of a language, claiming that all humans shared these intellectual structures, somewhat subconsciously. Considering these similar qualities found in a lot of the world’s music, it could mean that these cross-cultural qualities could be recognized by most people of the world, making music a possible language between these people.
The musical universals are characteristics that can be found in lot of the music of the world, so one could argue that since almost all cultures utilise these ideas, they could be understood cross culturally. However, considering the universals of music this way leads to many problems. There are many other aspects, musical or otherwise, to consider. Aspects such as timbre, instrumentation, performance style, setting, and most importantly the cultural history upon which a music is based. What makes the study of World Music such an interesting process is finding the distinctions between cultures, the small and yet important shades of each culture’s musical expression. To step back to the argument that since music cannot be translated it cannot be a language, we can now see that in some ways music can be translated. Any Western-educated musicians can take a recording of an East African man playing the plucked mbira instrument and transcribe it onto a staff, making it then “translatable” to any person able to read music. However, this “notes on the page” version of the ceremonial music of the Shona people will not tell you the purpose of this music, that the mbira instrument is used as a mystical bridge between humans and the world of spirits . Any meaning to be derived from this music must come from deep knowledge of the culture surrounding the music, not just an analysis of what the music has in common with that of our own cultures. The fact that most music’s share many qualities is undeniable, but the true question here is whether these shared characteristics manifest into a shared meaning between the music’s of different cultures.
Many would argue that to properly understand another cultures music, you must be educated in all aspects of that cultures history and customs, and even then, as an outsider you would not entirely understand a piece of music the same way that a native would. Even us as Australians do not understand the music of our own native aborigine people, why should we assume to have an immediate understanding of foreign music’s? Even though we may be able to discern most structural characteristics, the shape of the melody, textures and patterns, we do not know the music in terms of its contextual features. Our personal and cultural experiences lead to different interpretations. As this essay has argued, a simple analysis of a music’s commonalities will not necessarily lead you to the intended meaning. Furthermore, if this is the case, then music cannot be a universal language, as it does not convey meaning or understanding universally. On the other hand, is any language this simple?
Within our own language, English, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding. For example, reading a passage from a Shakespearean play, any person will be able to extract a vague meaning. Knowledge of English Literature and the meaning will be much greater. The functions of sarcasm, irony, a pun, hyperbole and many other language twisting applications make the English language one that is sometimes difficult to understand, not only to foreigners, but also to the people of an English speaking society. Consider the following passage:
“In the chest of a dealer hammers and smelts a foul charge,
as he smoothes sour cream from his moll’s pony and metes her an unholy barrage”
As English speaking people, we can understand each of these words individually, and can see that they fit together to form a grammatically correct sentence, and yet there is no intelligible meaning that we can derive from these lyrics. This example shows that though there can be a verbal or written statement where all the syntactical elements are familiar, because the listener or reader lacks the knowledge of the writer, the words have almost no meaning . However, when I listen to this song, by one of my favourite bands, the real meaning of these lyrics is the last thing on my mind. The same happens when listening to other cultures music, even though I may not understand what the musician is historically or culturally saying, I may not understand the how and why of a music, but this does not hamper the emotional message it sends to each listener. Even if we are not trained or brought up in a particular musical tradition, a performance can appeal to, or “speak” to any open minded person. It is a romantic notion, but one that I believe is very important. The idea that the emotive power of music could transcend cultural boundaries, making music a language that communicates to a person in a higher (possibly unexplainable) way that would translate to people of all cultures – regardless of age, gender, class or ethnicity.
Many cultures, like that of the Shona tribe of East Africa, consider music to be a form of communication with the supernatural. Religious music is another example of this, with the idea of, “to sing is to prey twice”. However, this is not necessarily the kind of “higher” understanding that I am speaking of. Robert G. Ingersoll expresses the point clearly with his statement:
“Music expresses feeling and thoughts, without language. It was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words”.
Even though music is not a Universal language in the way that people of the entire world can communicate through music, it does in its very nature get a response from anybody listening to it. This line of argument, though probably irrelevant to a lot of people, and much neglected in a lot of the reading I have done, is quite important to truly understand the nature of understanding music.
Most of the debates on this common question of ‘Music as a Universal Language’ consider two points. Firstly, the specific relationship and a comparison between words and music, which generally leads to the answer, “no, music cannot be a universal language”. Secondly, a philosophical argument about the symbolic significance of music. Personally, I believe that both of these points need to be considered to find the true answer. However, this idea of music being for emotive purposes is one that is mostly Western. Many cultures do not produce music as a way of expressing ones point of view or of creating music as a beautiful art form to be interpreted and felt, but for other specific purposes. Whether those purposes are to speak to the gods or the supernatural, to bring about environmental changes (such as the rain songs of the Australian aborigine people), to create harmony and spiritual balance (like the concepts of the Chinese T’ang music in which the two sets of scales represent the male and the female) , or that of a Western composer who composes music for it to be enjoyed and listened to by paying audiences. The truth is that most non-western music is not created to be enjoyed. It is for this reason that though I would like to see the romantic notion that all music can be understood in an emotional and non-analytical way, that is only my ‘westernised’ and somewhat sentimental self talking. In reality, I believe the majority of conclusions made by ethnomusicologists are correct, that Music is not a Universal Language.
The function of music is our society is one that leads people like myself to be in a position to contemplate and research the universal properties of Music. However, to assume this kind of reasoning onto other cultures would be naïve. Music is a very cultural-specific phenomenon, and I would no sooner assume the meaning of another cultures music than I would a foreign language. Any understanding I may gain from listening to any World Music, would just be a reflection of my own personal background. It is for this reason that I believe Music is not a Universal Language.
Blurty for ater the gold rush.