Music is a universal language. Or so musicians like to claim. “With music,” they’ll say, “you can communicate across cultural and linguistic boundaries in ways that you can’t with ordinary languages like English or French.”
On one level, this statement is obviously true. You don’t have to speak French to enjoy a composition by Debussy. But is music really a universal language? That depends on what you mean by “universal” and what you mean by “language.”
Every human culture has music, just as each has language. So it’s true that music is a universal feature of the human experience. At the same time, both music and linguistic systems vary widely from culture to culture. In fact, unfamiliar musical systems may not even sound like music. I’ve overheard Western-trained music scholars dismiss Javanese gamelan as “clanging pots” and traditional Chinese opera as “cackling hens.”
Nevertheless, studies show that people are pretty good at detecting the emotions conveyed in unfamiliar music idioms—that is, at least the two basic emotions of happiness and sadness. Specific features of melody contribute to the expression of emotion in music. Higher pitch, more fluctuations in pitch and rhythm, and faster tempo convey happiness, while the opposite conveys sadness.
Perhaps then we have an innate musical sense. But language also has melody—which linguists call prosody. Exactly these same features—pitch, rhythm, and tempo—are used to convey emotion in speech, in a way that appears to be universal across languages.
Listen in on a conversation in French or Japanese or some other language you don’t speak. You won’t understand the content, but you will understand the shifting emotional states of the speakers. She’s upset, and he’s getting defensive. Now she’s really angry, and he’s backing off. He pleads with her, but she doesn’t buy it. He starts sweet-talking her, and she resists at first but slowly gives in. Now they’re apologizing and making up….
We understand this exchange in a foreign language because we know what it sounds like in our own language. Likewise, when we listen to a piece of music, either from our culture or from another, we infer emotion on the basis of melodic cues that mimic universal prosodic cues. In this sense, music truly is a universal system for communicating emotion.
But is music a kind of language? Again, we have to define our terms. In everyday life, we often use “language” to mean “communication system.” Biologists talk about the “language of bees,” which is a way to tell hive mates about the location of a new source of nectar.
Florists talk about the “language of flowers,” through which their customers can express their relationship intentions. “Red roses mean…. Pink carnations mean… Yellow daffodils mean…” (I’m not a florist, so I don’t speak flower.)
And then there’s “body language.” By this we mean the postures, gestures, movements and facial expressions we use to convey emotions, social status, and so on. Although we often use body language when we speak, linguists don’t consider it a true form of language. Instead, it’s a communication system, just as are the so-called languages of bees and flowers.
By definition, language is a communication system consisting of (1) a set of meaningful symbols (words) and (2) a set of rules for combining those symbols (syntax) into larger meaningful units (sentences). While many species have communication systems, none of these count as language because they lack one or the other component.
The alarm and food calls of many species consist of a set of meaningful symbols, but they lack rules for combining those symbols. Likewise, bird song and whale song have rules for combining elements, but these elements aren’t meaningful symbols. Only the song as a whole has meaning—“Hey ladies, I’m hot,” and “Hey other guys, stay away!”
Like language, music has syntax—rules for ordering elements—such as notes, chords, and intervals—into complex structures. Yet none of these elements has meaning on its own. Rather, it’s the larger structure—the melody—that conveys emotional meaning. And it does that by mimicking the prosody of speech.
Since music and language share features in common, it’s not surprising that many of the brain areas that process language also process music. But this doesn’t mean that music is language. Part of the misunderstanding comes from the way we tend to think about specific areas of the brain as having specific functions. Any complex behavior, whether language or music or driving a car, will recruit contributions from many different brain areas.
Music certainly isn’t a universal language in the sense that you could use it to express any thought to any person on the planet. But music does have the power to evoke deep primal feelings at the core of the shared human experience. It not only crosses cultures, it also reaches deep into our evolutionary past. And it that sense, music truly is a universal language.
Patel, A. D. (2008). Music, language, and the brain. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Slevc, L. R., Okada, B. M. (2015). Processing structure in language and music: a case for shared reliance on cognitive control. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22, 637-652.
Tan, S.-L., Pfordresher, P., & Harré, R. (2010). Psychology of music: from sound to significance. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).
Music is Universal
Music is incredible in its ability to be able to have so many sounds, emotions, instruments, beats, genres, and people who listen to the millions of different types every day. Music is global for a reason. It reaches every part of us, because music is a form of expression. Music is one of the many things that makes us human. It's true that you cannot have a conversation using music, music is not technically not an actual language, but you connect with people on such a high level that sometimes words cannot even take you to that place of connection.
Music heals consciousness and consciousness IS universal, indeed.
Music is not just a language, it heals the Atma, our soul essence. After reincarnations, the body can be too different compared to other lives. Music changes your soul form and balances your consciousness.
I'm waiting for the day that science will explain all the mysteries and the human nation will become intergalactic and heal people instantly.
Then we will see our true nature.
Music is the Universal Language
You can't travel around the world and be able to communicate with everyone through your native language. Sometimes even gestures can't get the point across, but in means of communication, what does EVERY culture have in common? Music! It is the one thing that isn't solely reliant upon a thesis, but emotion and how we were born to think. Ever heard a song in a different language? Gangham Style? Time to Say Goodbye? Did you honestly have no idea what the theme was? Of course not! Music can move a person to laugh, to cry, to get up and dance. This is why music IS the universal language.
Singing Before Counting
If we think about music as Charles Ives, then anyone has the capacity to create music. Before we learn to count, we can sing a melody as child. Music comes more naturally to people than counting. Although it's often argued that math is a the true universal language, I don't think this is the case. Before we could count, humans were signing, dancing or doing something musical to honor the gods.
Brain, heart, soul
Music touches all the places that were named above simultaneously. And I along with many others believe that at the end of the day we are all very much similar when it comes to the human heart, mind, body and soul. You can go to another country, not understand a word of their language, but let the music from that county start to ring out, and instantaneously your mind picks up the beat, you feel it inside of you, and before you know it your swaying tapping your feet or something.
Music is my life
If I play the guitar, I feel good. It helps me in all of life. And I'm grateful that I can play music. I feel lonely because I get angry with someone and I don't know what shall I do, the only thing I can do is play a guitar.
music is a universal language
It is a universal language because it inspires common human feelings and bridges gaps between cultures that spoken languages cannot. It brings together and creates universal community. Its a universal language that transcends boundaries and bond people even thousands of miles apart together. Music is a universal language because there are certain types of music that speak to certain people.
Yes, music is a universal language.
While music may not technically be "a language," it is universal. It can express and communicate emotions (as shown in scientific studies) across many different cultures. The crucial aim of a language is to communicate, but I don't believe the point of this debate is about the semantics. It is said that music predates humans, and that animals use music as a form of communication too--whales for instance. There is something universal about music; I think we just don't fully understand it yet.
Yes, it could be considered a universal "language" as a means of expression, but not in the same way as a spoken language.
Music is universal because it can be understood and interpreted by individuals. Although music cannot always be evaluated through a specific framework or set of objective criteria, such as Western music theory conventions, people across many different cultures can identify and react to similar patterns and expressions in music.
Like agriculture, music and other fine arts developed in multiple locations throughout the world as a result of independent invention. Although we may not use the technically correct words to describe music in the eyes of academia, most humans can understand the concepts of pitch, timbre, tone, beat, tempo, rhythm, style, and other common elements to music. Music can be considered a universal language simply because we feel the urge to bob our heads, head bang, dance, or move to the beat of the music. We can identify a specific instrument or timbre, repeat back melodies to each other (although possibly out of tune), or even identify melodies and/or harmonies that "sound good together". This is because, believe it or not, we all develop these skills over the courses of our lives whether we intend to or not simply through listening and imitation. Those of us who are "musicians" only intend to develop these types of skills better than other people through more intense study and practice.
Some parts of music are so universal that they developed in different parts of the world independent of each other. A prime example of this is the pentatonic scale. Consisting of five notes rather than the seven note patterns of the diatonic scales (major, minor, etc.), these scales have reciprocated in music throughout history. We know them mostly from popular music because the melodies derived from them tend to be catch and fit many harmonies quite well. They are so common in popular music that we already know what they are; we just can't exactly define them. I have personally heard them in African tribal music, Native American tribal music, popular music (duh), Blues, Jazz, older Chinese music, and in countless other settings. The fact that these scales could become used so much in many places suggests that there is continuity between the devices used to express music.
Part of this can be explained by the overtone series. Sound waves are regular and repeated, but they do not only produce one specific frequency. Instead, they exhibit a certain "fundamental" frequency (the lowest, strongest one) and a series of "partials" or "overtones". In a brief explanation, when someone plays two notes together, they sound more consonant, or pleasing, when they correspond to some of the lower parts of the overtone series. This is not a rule for specific types of music, but more of a concept modeled and quantified by science that may be applied to many styles of music.
This is only a sample of the many arguments one could make suggesting that music acts similar to a universal language. Unfortunately, I ran out of space to tell the rest of the story.
Music IS a universal language.
Music just brings everyone together, no matter what race, culture, religion etc. There are no barriers because the music does the talking for us. Its something that everyone can relate to-in regards to the different genres of music. Music can bring about peace, create friendships and do wonderful things for people. Therefore music is a universal language.