Is music really a universal language?

Is music really a universal language?


norman lebrecht

January 01, 2020

My impressions of distinctive regional variations in Beethoven appreciation appear to be endorsed by a new study from Harvard:

...The latest study, conducted by an international team led by data scientist Samuel Mehr of Harvard University, is notable for both the breadth of its cultural coverage and the depth of the analysis that looked for shared properties. Using two databases—audio recordings of songs from 315 societies, and ethnographic texts from 60 that document the uses of songs in that culture—the researchers were able to mine rich cross-cultural resources to compare both the musical characteristics and the social contexts and functions of music. They found that the variations are greater within than between societies—for example, hip hop might be more different from western sacred music than the latter is from Tibetan sacred music. The study found that most music has a “tonal centre”—in western terms, a key, or a sense of a “home note” that the melody will return to—on which naïve listeners can generally agree. And the acoustic features of music—the pitches and tempos, say—are rather systematically linked to the emotional goals and responses of the performers and audiences across cultures: “sad” music, say, tends always to be softer and slower.

Read on here.

My conclusion on Beethoven reception:

In a straw poll I conducted among 20 musicians whose taste I trust, I found variations of choice that were dictated by generation and geography. Americans swear by George Szell in the symphonies, releases that are practically unknown in Europe. Germans vaunt Kempff, Kulenkampff and Schneiderhan in the chamber music. The French revere Cortot and Thibaud. Italians argue over Muti and Chailly as they might over Inter and AC Milan. Very few artists achieve universal approval in Beethoven.

Read on here.



  • Eric says:

    „They found that the variations are greater within than between societies—for example, hip hop might be more different from western sacred music than the latter is from Tibetan sacred music.“

    Amazing logic. Hip hop = western music, hahaha. And even if the study would have chosen the Vienniese Waltz instead of Hip hop the conclusion would remain astonishingly stupid. So this is Harvard of 2019.

    • Eric says:

      P.S. It‘s like saying the variations in individual penis length inside a culture has shown to be bigger than the differences of average penis size between cultures.

      Seriously, who‘d be surprised by that?

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Actually, lots of people would be surprised by that. And in any case, having someone provide some evidence to confirm your supposition is surely something worth doing.

  • Henry XI says:

    “Is music a universal language?”


    That like asking:
    “Is language a universal language?”
    “Please Nigerian man, show me your feelings but this time package them in European religious plainchant style.”

    Which shows how incredibly stupid-simple the original question actually is.

    But from where does the question come from?
    From people proclaiming: “Music is a universal language”

    And which people proclaim that?

    Three types:
    1) normal people who have not heard foreign music sufficiently, and simply enjoy the bombardment with mainstream (“mainstream radio: 80s, 90s, rock, pop”)

    And then modernists (see 2 and 3):

    2) Those to whom sheetmusic and the metronome is the supreme arbiter of what the music is to sound like.
    (“Yes my Tibetan student… just place your fingers as indicated on this sheetmusic. And practice with the metrnome”)

    3) Those for whom modernist new music does actually fullfill the promise of a universal language.
    (In a way they are right. Because to normal listeners, modernist music does succeed in universally communicating ugly crappiness, guised in pretentious wishful delusional charlatanical make-believe)

    • Jeff says:

      Nicely written!

      It’s quite simple: cultural identity!

      But a modernist or whatever, who wants to see cultural identity removed (or reshaped into a melting pot: a dark ugly mass)… is of course going to trumpet out the fallacy: “music is a universal language”.

      • Paul Brownsey says:

        I know that cultures vary and that people brought up in one culture may find that stuff from another culture doesn’t quite, you know, gel for them, but need we dress this homely truth up in pretentious and inflated talk of ‘identity’?

      • BananaBoy says:

        I love the image: “Bedroom Bliss With Beethoven”
        Just does not work!

        Somehow it reminds me of how Germany in the 70’s tried pushing Stockhausen on everybody, e.g. with a LP album titled
        “Karlheinz Stockhausen ‎– Greatest Hits”

        Also: Just does not work!

        The producers probably meant it to be placed right next to ” The Beatles ‎– Greatest Hits”

        Post WWII Germany: pulling all registers to feed the people a suitable staple diet. hahaha.

        • John Borstlap says:

          After reading this post, two of my staff members tried-out some Beethoven recordings during an intimate experimental session and had to seek medical help afterwards (symphony VII finale, scherzo of the 9th). There should be warnings on Beethoven CD’s: ‘Don’t do this at home’.

    • Leopold says:

      ‘That like asking: “Is language a universal language?”’

      I think it is more like asking “is there a universal grammar to all languages?” And the answers to that question are very well known.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Er? Actually the answer to “is there a universal grammar” turns out to be quite difficult to answer. At least beyond superficial statements like “languages have a grammar which includes verbs and nouns etc.”.

        For music, it seems that nearly all music has some kind of tonal centre, and that this seems to be important for nearly all listeners. And most listeners can also hear emotional content in the way the music is played.

        Both statements are a problem for modernism, since modernism denies either is true (and this may explain why modernism has failed to win much of an audience in the modern concert hall).

        • John Borstlap says:

          That last paragraph is very true.

          There exists something like the ‘holistic nature of human perception’ which goes beyond the surface of appearance and means.

          The human mind works in a certain way that relates the workings of the different arts to a biologically-ingrained perceptive system. This has been indicated by recent neurological research of the functioning of the brain. But these relationships function on a deeper level than the organised surface, and the mistake of so many modernist composers was to take organisation too materially as a surface matter, which is taking ordering too literally, too intellectually, not aware of the ordering faculties of the subconscious. It is the difference between Debussy and (the later) Schoenberg.

          In this admirable article, this underlying perceptive framework is described in the relation between music and architecture:

  • Jean says:

    At least traditional Chinese opera is too abstract for my Western ears…

    • Ninedragonspot says:

      It’s not particularly difficult to learn the musical rudiments of the dozens of different styles of Chinese opera. The language barrier (and the unfamiliarity of the stories) remain the greatest barrier to appreciation.

      • John Borstlap says:

        After one gets used to the raw sounds of Chinese opera, and one reads the plots first, one begins to feel the expressive intensities under the stylized surface. In fact, it is comparable with Western opera, but with very different means. It is nonsense to claim that cultural barriers cannot be transcended.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Music is most certainly NOT a universal language.
    It’s not even a shared language among Westerners.
    When I worked at Tower Records, I had a customer – a very friendly fellow – who loved Bach but hated Beethoven. He said Beethoven’s music was “too brutal” for him.
    Not to mention those many people who like (Western) classical music but hate opera.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The appreciation of art music is dependent upon development, not upon a shared culture. The human perception framework is the same everywhere, but its development is different, also everywhere.

      • Henry XI says:

        Listen to yourself. (Is that modernist conditioning that makes you state such stuff?)

        The very thing you call “development” above, is in actual fact transmitting culture, and thus the assimilation of culture.

        Your statement, that the “human perception framework” is the same everywhere is correct, if you mean hearing; but what you want it to mean is incorrectly inferred. It means that we can hear and distinguish pitches. (All ready for sonic art.)

        But no matter how finely tuned your hearing is, you will not be able to interpret pieces of a different culture “correctly” (meaning with equal conviction, effectiveness and affect, that natives of that culture are able to achieve), if all you have is sheetmusic (and you have never had the opportunity of having been transmitted that other culture, by actually hearing the works interpreted by people who have grown up it that other culture).

        • John Borstlap says:

          This is confusing a couple of things. With ‘development’ is meant: the level of development of a perceptive framework, how much it can stomach. And this has nothing to do with culture, within any culture there are hughe differences between people in the individual development of ANY perceptive framework. Of course any cultural tradition is greatly helped by locality, and with music: with a living performance tradition. But these are circumstancial factors, helping the development of the perceptive framework. It is a fact that people from a different culture can fully absorb Western classical music, and where they fail to grasp the inner meaning of the works, that is comparable with westerners stumbling into the same problem – with enough talent and imagination, cultural boundaries can be transcended. It is not necessary to mention all the non-Western classical performers who do an excellent job, or musicians born in the West from non-Western parents who show no difference with the locals in mastering the classical tradition.

          Well-known is the mythological story of the refined and famous Arab musician who, in the early 20th century, went to Europe and heard for the first time a Beethoven symphony live in the concert hall. Asked after his impressions, he said the music was extremely dull to him, with a very underdeveloped rhythm, and that the only bit that really interested him was the very first short ‘piece’ – he meant the tuning session. He obviously bumped into a barrier, listening to the wrong things, but that does not mean he could never learn to understand where to listen for. When Westerners hear the Arab maqam for the first time, they have to focus not on tonal complexity and narrative rhetoric, but for expressive minute tonal decorations and the subtle rendering of the voice, and the dreamy atmosphere of the whole. After a while it is possible for Westerners with enough musical sensitivity, to begin to hear differences in performance quality of non-Western music.

  • Leopold says:

    I doubt that any serious study would put the question so simple. Music is of course no universal language because it isn’t a language in the first place.

    The result of the study could rather be that there are universal elements in music and that would not be very surprising.

    • Ol Joe says:

      “universal elements in music.”
      If you see it as a brick-building system, which is a very modernist notion, then maby.

      I reject that view, because of course every music has sound, but that placing any kind of universality on such a commonality, is missing the very essence of true music, namely expression; and the expressive devices and what they man, are not universal, but go back centuries, and come from culture, speech, character of nations.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Since culture, any culture, is man-made and rests on the fundament of universal biological and psychological properties, it can be understood and learned by anybody who has the talents for it. Music bypasses some cultural barriers because it is non-conceptual and appeals directly to the human aural experience. There is something like the ‘holistic nature of human perception’, which is the bridge of understanding any human expression.

        • Henry XI says:

          Again… similar to what I replied to you above…

          No matter how finely tuned your hearing is, you will not be able to interpret pieces of a different culture “correctly” (meaning with equal conviction, effectiveness and affect, that natives of that culture are able to achieve), if all you have is sheetmusic (and you have never had the opportunity of having been transmitted that other culture, by actually hearing the works interpreted by people who have grown up it that other culture).

          You state “Music bypasses some cultural barriers”.
          Only if it is music you are already familiar with (having heard it performed by natives).

          Otherwise the different culture needs to be transmitted to you, by hearing it.
          This can be a simple as listening to good recordings of “foreign” works, but dependent on how foreign we are talking about, it might help to actually witness the “ritual” around the music, e.g. (religious or other) ceremonies or etc. (seeing the performers, the clothing, the dance etc.!)

      • Leopold says:

        I can’t see how we are disagreeing.

        If we are talking about meaning we have to define it first. The meaning of a musical expression is definitely not the same as the meaning of a linguistic expression if we even should call it a meaning.

        On the other hand certain expressive devices, as you call them, could definitely be universal because they might be hard wired into our biology through evolution. And that could be empirically tested through a study like the one above. I guess feelings like heroism, sadness or joy would be good candidates for testing.

        • Henry XI says:

          A better test is to be given sheetmusic of a completely foreign culture, of which you have never heard the music, and the be asked to interpret it as best you can.

          You’ll be surprised to find, that no matter how finely tuned your hearing is, you will not be able to interpret pieces of the different culture “correctly” (meaning with equal conviction, effectiveness and affect, that natives of that culture are able to achieve).

          What you need to be able to interpret it better, is, that you actually require that that musical culture be transmitted to you, by hearing the works performed by natives of that culture; so that you can assimilate that culture.

          (This is something that needs time.)

          • John Borstlap says:

            Non-Western musical traditions are not notated, they are transferred by example doing it. So the only way to truly learn a non-Western musical tradition is going to the place and see and hear how the locals do it. Notations are Western transcriptions but they mostly cannot captivate the essence of the music.

            But the same goes for Western art music. In spite of having developed the most differentiated notation system in existence, there are things which simply cannot be notated and which need to be learned through example in performance. That is why a performance tradition is so important, in spite of its often unreliable nature.

  • Nigel says:

    Music is most definitely NOT a universal language.

    The multitude of distorted modernist misinterpretations of historic repertoire alone, is more than enough proof:
    We witness people who have no idea (absolutely no idea) of certain repertoire, but are “bold” enough to go and still foolishly “perform” it.

    And what they play has absolutely no link, to the charm, the wit, the splendour, the humour, etc. It’s all completely missing in a sterilized, dumbed-down interpretation. Yeah! Cheers to “music as a universal language” (more like universal misinterpretation backed up by: hey freedom, everything goes, man!)

    • John Borstlap says:

      Performers who have specialized in modernist music – i.e. Klangkunst – often have no idea what tonal classical music is: they play the notes, as instructions to sound, and stop there. Most of the ‘composers’ of sound art, it seems to me, also have no idea about what tonal classical music is, they hear it as mere sound. They are simply unmusical, if musicality means the understanding of the inner workings of music.

      But sound artists (i.e. modernists) occupy a territory very different from music, so the subject of differences between musical cultures is something else.

      • Schilling says:

        Not only “performers who have specialized in modernist music”, mess up traditional compositions.

        All those very dedicated students practicing hundreds of hours: technical finger-exercises, rhythmic accuracy by playing with the metronome, … they all misinterpret traditional compositions.

        Do they know it?
        -> No.
        And that’s the point! They don’t even know it.

        Which proofs yet again: music is not a universal language.

        Been to any music school or competitions ?

        – French baroque (Couperin…) turned into modern aggressive stunning virtuoso showpiece.

        – German baroque (Bach…) turned into modern aggressive stunning virtuoso showpiece.

        – Beethoven … turned into modern aggressive stunning virtuoso showpiece.

        Ask yourself: Why do all these music students play “modern aggressive stunning virtuoso showpiece” – style?

        Because they have no idea. They are all clones.
        (If people believe that this is what classical music is all about, then: “great, it’s a universal language.”)

        You know, John, I appreciate your positivism, but I wonder if you really know how bleak the situation actually is?
        (Those few really great performances are rare, believe me.
        We need to be far more critical. Help the students by criticizing them and the metronomic performances of their performer-idols. We need far more criticism… And most importantly: We need to start criticizing ourselves. Are we following outside expectation, be it metronome, score, recording, …?
        Yes of course we are. The truth is: we are the problem.
        Only if we manage to change our own performances first, can we really help others.)

  • Ludwig's Van says:

    Food & water are universal, because when your desperately hungry or bone-dry thirsty, you’ll take anything, regardless of your taste preferences. Not so with music, however…

  • Mira Withers says:

    The argument about greater variation within than between cultures has been made in other fields and it has just been ‘applied’ to music. For example, language: “The more a language has or acquires the characteristics of a major language, the more it is affected by continuous variation that transpose it into a ‘minor’ language… For if a language such as British English or American English is major on a world scale, it is necessarily worked upon by all the minorities of the world, using very diverse procedures of variation. Take the way Gaelic and Irish English use English in variation. Or the way Black English and any number of “ghetto languages” set American English in variation, to the point that New York is virtually a city without a language” – Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaux, 1980.

    • John Borstlap says:


      Also you have Indian English (Indglish and Hinglish) where a spelling has been accepted closer to local customs, like ‘washeen masheen’.