Jul 24, 2018

The Universal Language?

Marissa Fessenden penned an article for Smithsonian.com in February 2018 entitled Why Music Is Not A Universal Language in which she cites a video made by Ethen of the Sideways YouTube Channel – a video that is sadly no longer available – hence, I’ve posted no link. I did watch this video and found it quite interesting. The essence of Ethen’s argument is this: All human beings respond to music due to the laws of physics, but what exactly constitutes music is largely determined by cultural as opposed to absolute or universal factors.

I have spoken about this in my music listening courses. As profoundly moving as a Mozart string quartet might be for me, and others culturally like me, its extraordinary musical qualities might be missed entirely by a member of an indigenous tribe in the interior of Brazil, were I to play a recording or stage a live performance.

This absence of an emotional response would not be for anything lacking in listening ability, but rather the result of having grown up in an entirely different musical environment. And likewise, a favorite musical number from this culture might be fascinating to me on some level, but I would likely remain oblivious to its own rich musical idiom and content. The goose bumps reaction is bounded by cultural limitations – our musical surroundings since birth.

So the only universal – ‘world-wide’ might be a better word – aspect of music, as Marissa Fessenden so aptly ends her article, is this: “That human beings enjoy it, however their culture has learned to make it.”

How does this impact the work of The Discovery Orchestra? We obviously can neither physically nor digitally reach every person on the planet. And even if we could, individual cultural differences might render our message mute. The more pertinent question is: Can we help the people living here in the United States, who have grown up in our European-based musical culture, to become more perceptive listeners and able to notice subtle details in music?

There was a time when one might have been able to assume that most US citizens were completely at home in the same musical vocabulary available to Mozart. This was the result of an acculturation process that included behaviors such as religious institution attendance that included hymn singing, taking piano lessons in childhood, and group singing in school – all the way through college.

However, that ‘train has left the station’ and is likely to never return to the point of origin. At least most popular music ‘consumed’ – though not all – is still grounded in the basic harmonic vocabulary of what we call Western Music.

We cannot, nor should not assume that everyone living in the United States has a musical reference point ready to receive The Discovery Orchestra’s message. However, it remains a worthy goal to disseminate by the most effective means possible our primary call to become aware of the difference between hearing and listening, and to notice more detail. We’re working on it.