In “Sir Duke,” a horn-driven, keyboard-accentuated tribute to Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder sings, “Music is a world within itself/ With a language we all understand/ With an equal opportunity/ For all to sing, dance and clap their hands.” So, was Wonder right? Is music considered a universal language?
Music is a specialized field for the talented musicians who create it, but it bursts beyond exclusivity as soon as it’s heard by listeners. It becomes a shared piece of expression. People from all over can sing, dance and clap their hands to a stirring song, and even those who don’t speak the language of the lyrics still manage to learn the words.
This universal appeal of song is what makes it perhaps the most powerful of the art forms and a popular field of study for musicologists, linguistics and others. These experts explore the language of music to see if it indeed can be considered a language itself. The consensus is that, while there are similarities between language and music, music is not a universal language. But as Wonder sang, there’s no denying it is a world within itself.
Canvassing the World’s Music
A comprehensive Harvard University study in 2019 looked at the cultural currency of music. The researchers wanted to know if music is culturally universal, and, if so, which of its qualities can be found in different societies.
The researchers created the Natural History of Sound, a database containing nearly 5,000 musical performances and descriptions of songs from 60 societies. The 500,000 words of ethnographic text — which includes translations of more than 2,000 song lyrics — allows researchers to study the underlying structure of music and see how it is similar and different across cultures. For instance, it is widely accepted that religious music sometimes cross-pollinates across societies, which leads the researchers to think other “core domains” of songs might also overlap cultures.
Beats and Brains Come Together
Still, there is the deeper question of whether music can truly be a language. An affirmative answer might go a long way in explaining why it’s a universal culture. Psychologist David Ludden took a stab at the question in a Psychology Today article, first breaking down how music resembles language.
“Like language, music has syntax—rules for ordering elements—such as notes, chords and intervals—into complex structures,” Ludden wrote. “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.”
Ludden also notes how, since music and language share common features, it’s not surprising that many parts of the brain that process language also process music.
Psychologist Aniruddh Patel aimed to prove this with an experiment that first presented people with a grammatical trick: a seemingly obvious flow of words interrupted by an unexpected pause. Participants heard music during this exercise, with some listening to smoothing notes throughout and others hearing a discordant note at the revelation of the trick word. As The Economist explains, both groups slowed their comprehension at the trick word, but those who heard the jarring chord did so even more, prompting Patel to theorize that this was because sentence structure and the structure of the harmony draw on shared, limited resources in the brain.
The Language of Music
Again, back to the larger question: Is music considered a universal language? Ludden offers an unequivocal “no.” He wrote in Psychology Today, “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.”
And, as The Economist notes, if music were a language or even similar to a language, more people would be better musicians. “Nearly all children produce complex sentences by the age of three and become fluent speakers just a few years after that. As adults, they create striking and novel utterances every day. Conversely, only a minority of adults are talented musicians; even fewer are skilled composers of new, hitherto unheard works.”
Even though music doesn’t pass scientific muster as a universal language, it is still special — stirring the same emotions in Canada, Brazil or Russia. A study published in Current Biology in 2018 highlighted music’s special power. Hundreds of English speakers around the world listened to lullabies, dance songs, love songs and healing songs from all over non-Western cultures. Although they had difficulty identifying love songs, many could distinguish a healing song. What amazed the researchers most was the high confidence with which people identified lullabies and dance songs.
What music still provides is a universal opportunity for all who listen to sing, dance and clap their hands.
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