The Universal Non-Universal Language

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A basic premise of ethnomusicological investigation is that music, as a worldwide phenomenon, cannot be subjected to an overarching set of values, standards or expectations. No single conception of what constitutes music is applicable cross-culturally; a definition that satisfies Western principles fails when applied to a non–Western society. Thus, it is argued, each cultural and subcultural manifestation of music should be studied individually and on its own terms. To paraphrase George Herzog, music is a non-universal language that exists in many dialects.

As obvious as this may seem, there was a time, not too long ago, when scholars presumed that music in its varied forms communicated basic emotional information that could be discerned by insiders and outsiders in essentially the same way. But the more they examined the diverse offerings of local music-cultures, the more they came to appreciate the multifariousness of musical expression and the role of social conditioning in shaping musical perception. Like spoken languages, musical languages require a level of fluency to be understood.

Still, a version of the old assumption of universality can be upheld. Our reactions to music may not be uniform, but the types of reactions that music stirs are consistent throughout our species. In other words, while it is unlikely that a song indigenous to one group will evoke the same feelings when played for another, outsiders can at least appreciate the kinds of responses it produces in its native setting. The emotions of a sad or happy song may not resonate beyond a fluency group, but every group has its sad and happy songs.

In this sense, we are all empathetic when it comes to music (except, perhaps, for the roughly four percent who have some form of amusia, which hinders or prevents musical processing). We know emotionally what another experiences in music; we can place ourselves in their musical shoes. Of course, the degree to which music moves us varies from person to person, and shades of response tend to be more sophisticated among musicians. But regardless of how prone we are to emotional outpourings or how developed our musical skills, neurologically intact individuals are born musically sensitive and are predisposed to feeling music as emotion.

We can, then, empathize with another’s musical experience irrespective if we feel the music in the same way or with the same level of interest or intensity. Mark Twain, in his characteristically perceptive autobiography, explained why this is so: “The last quarter century of my life has been pretty constantly and faithfully devoted to the study of the human race—that is to say, the study of myself, for in my individual person I am the entire human race compacted together. I have found that there is no ingredient of the race which I do not possess in either a small way or a large way. When it is small, as compared with the same ingredient in somebody else, there is still enough of it for all the purposes of examination. In my contacts with the species I find no one who possesses a quality which I do not myself possess.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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