Ned McGowan


“Music is the universal language of mankind.” 
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

An oft-heard statement is that music is the one true universal language. While this may be a nice phrase to promote harmony between cultures, the question arises: is it actually true? Can the same piece of music communicate the same thing to people from different cultures?

The answer, in my opinion, is a clear no. To give a small example, I’ve taken friends from India to classical concerts in Europe and watched them fall asleep while the european audience was elated. Vice versa, I’ve watched Europeans fall asleep during Indian classical concerts while the Indian audience remained in rapt attention.

Further, music isn’t universal even to all the people from the same culture. Not everyone in India understands or appreciates Indian classical music and the same is true for Europeans of European classical music. Think about the common observation that the youth don’t attend many classical concerts, if at all. So if music cannot communicate the same to people within the same culture, how can it communicate equally across the globe?

Of course, these examples are not based on scientific research but merely observations. There has been in depth research, though, done on the ability of music to communicate across cultures. In a study carried about in Montreal, groups of Canadians and Congolese Pygmies were played music from each other’s cultures.1 The results indicated that while there were similarities in how the two groups responded emotionally to the basic musical elements of tempo, pitch and timbre, there were also broad differences in the preference of music, the judgement of quality (good or bad) and extra-musical associations. This goes to show that perhaps the question of universality does not receive a simple a yes or no answer, that the truth lies somewhere in between the two.

There seem to be some qualities of music which are universal and some which are not. In order to come to a better understanding of this I believe it can be useful to break music down into three components, each of which are present in all music: the universal, the cultural and the personal.

The universal elements of music are indeed the ones mentioned in the above study: tempo, pitch and timbre, and they each relate to physiological processes. For example, music in a faster tempo will inspire more movement in the listener than a slower tempo, just as reflected in dance music around the world. Further, human ears are calibrated for the range of the human voice and thus music in that octave will speak more clearly to any human, such as how one can understand the excited quality of a singer even while not understanding the lyrics. Similarly with timbre, a shrieking sound will be dramatic to anyone.

Relating to tempo, the use of rhythm in different cultures provides an interesting analogy to this question of universality, I believe. Think of the common square rhythms in 4 of European classical, jazz and pop compared to the Indian classical rhythms making regular use of lengths of 3, 5 and 7. Or of rhythms in 12 of Africa to the gestural rhythms used in Japanese traditional music. They are all very different in character yet make similar use of sparse or dense rhythms, slow or fast tempos to create lower or higher energy levels in the music. There are indeed universal truths to rhythm, I believe, which are explored differently by each culture.

The 2nd component inherent to all music is cultural context, and it is precisely that context which defines its contained influence. For example in India there are some ragas which are only played at certain times of the day. If one grows up listening to these ragas at their designated times, the association becomes strong. Hearing a morning raga, even in the evening, will still evoke images of sunrise and birds chirping. One who did not grow up or learn these associations will likely not have those same images. Likewise organ music often has religious associations in Europe because organs mostly exist in churches. But for someone from one of the many countries where there are few churches, the sound of the organ would not necessarily bring the worship of god to mind. Lastly, another clear example of the musical barriers between cultures is the lyrics of vocal music. In this respect music clearly mimics the regional quality of spoken language. If only Google translator could also translate musical meaning!

An intensification of the cultural context is found in the musical element of ornamentation, due to its geographical and historic specificity. The way jazz in the United States is ornamented today is different than 80 years ago and also different between the east coast and the west coast. Likewise, Carnatic gamakas have also evolved over the last eighty years and there are certainly differences in their execution throughout local traditions in southern India. Perhaps the differences in ornamentation occur similarly to differences in accent of spoken languages, which vary locally and over time.

The third component of music exists on the personal level. Every individual musician has grown up with a set of experiences which are his or her own. Even two musicians of the same age within the same culture will still have their own unique perspectives, feelings and thoughts. Their identity is exclusive and this is the reason why new voices in music always sound fresh, even within standard repertoire. Just as no two humans are alike, so is every musician unique and that comes out in their music, whether as performers or composers.

This component also refers to listeners, whose perspectives are also coloured by their individuality. To experience this fact, just ask your neighbour at any concert what they thought and understood from the music. While there may be some common opinions, there are always also some differences in perspective. So when we multiply the individual expressions of the musician with the individual experiences of the listener, it is no wonder that music is often considered to be subjective in nature.

“If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality.”
- Igor Stravinsky

In conclusion, while there are some aspects in music based on physiological responses which do speak to all humans, there is much more to music that does not, namely the cultural and personal components. Indeed the lines between universal and local are not always 100% clear and it remains a fascinating study to explore them. One thing is certain however, the more one learns about the music of a different culture the more one can understand and appreciate it. This, I feel is the real merit of music on the global stage: not its ability to speak the same to everyone, but its ability to teach the listener about the qualities of the maker.


1 Egermann, Fernando, Chuen and McAdams (2015). Music induces universal emotion-related psychophysiological responses: comparing Canadian listeners to Congolese Pygmies, Front. Psychol., 07 January 2015