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Meaning in music—that must sound very strange for most people. Particularly in the West.  It’s here in Russia that the question is usually posed: What was the composer trying to say, after all, with this musical work? What was he trying to make clear? The questions are naïve, of course, but despite their naïveté and crudity, they definitely merit being asked.  And I would add to them, for instance: Can music attack evil? Can it make a man stop and think? Can it cry out and thereby draw man’s attention to various vile acts to which he has grown accustomed? to the things he passes without any interest?

--Shostakovich, Testimony, p. 234

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The Universal Language of Mankind


     We're all probably familiar with the sentimental quotation from the poet Longfellow in which he gives voice to the conviction that "Music is the universal language of mankind." It is still popular in some quarters, as it was in the 19th century, to speak of music as a universal language. But what does that mean?

It doesn't have to mean anything, really. In fact, it's a lot easier for something to be universal if it doesn't really mean anything. That way, everybody can inject their own, equally valid, meaning, and nobody gets hurt. That isn't exactly what Longfellow had in mind, I imagine. But that's one of the problems with the statement.  Among several others.

My take on the issue? Well, I see it this way: Music is every bit as universal as kick-boxing.

I mean, think about it.

Anybody who wants to can learn something about kick-boxing. If you look hard enough, you can probably find an instructor and begin lessons. You don't have to directly participate, though, to enjoy the sport. There is always the good old tradition of sitting on the couch and watching it on television. Now, there kick-boxing has a bit of a problem, because it is one of the few sports that don't seem to generally be on television these days. Maybe if it were repackaged as "Xtreme" kick-boxing it would have a leg up.

While some of you are running off to email your neighborhood network executive about righting this ancient wrong, the rest of you can complain about the taste of an American public that doesn't appreciate the finer things in life. Or, you can try a more grass-roots approach to stirring up appreciation in your own hometown.

Now, it doesn't matter if you are black or white, rich or poor, large or small, young or old, athletically-challenged or athletically scintillating. You can still connect with the sport. You can learn its rules, its rich history, its customs, maybe even ways to innovate it at the cost of infuriating purists.  You can get into arguments in bars about the best kick-boxer of all time, look forward to the next tournament, even place bets on your favorites.

Maybe that's classical music's problem. Maybe it needs an over-under.

Anyhow, it doesn't matter what language you speak (it does for purposes of reading this essay) or what country you're from.  Provided the people who run the sport don't bar you from their company.  Notwithstanding the very human presence of discrimination you basically have the opportunity to make the sport your own, internalize its edicts, glory in the aesthetic beauty of the movements, sharpen your intellectual teeth on the strategy involved, and relive the greatest moments in matches from the past.

Somehow, I don't think Longfellow had that in mind, either, when our opening citation gushed from his pen.

The problem, I think, is that the word "universal" is butted right up against the word "language".  Now, a language is something that must be learned.  I didn't just happen to be able to understand English my first day on the planet. All of those miserable rules about i before e had to be learned. Syntax, grammar, the fact that even with 650,000 odd words you still can't just randomly create your own by throwing together any motley assortment of letters you want and expecting anyone else in the known world to be able to figure it out. That, in fact, is the catch. If you are creating your own private language you can get the constituent parts to mean anything you want, by fiat. If you are sharing it with anybody, there will have to be some underlying logic, even if, as with English, it seems severely compromised in places. This, of course, is where custom comes in. The part where anyone who is part of the English speaking club has to know that by common convention certain compilations of words added together mean, in their totality, certain things. These are figures of speech, or expressions.

Start with a bit of logic, no doubt inherited in part from the ancestors of your language, throw in the miracles that happen under common usage and general agreement to fill in the cracks that no logical system could account for by itself, and you have a language, ever evolving as necessary to incorporate the thoughts, emotions, unique styles, sentiments, convictions, daily necessities, and urgent text messages of the people using it. People can pretty much take what they want from communications in that language; no two understandings have to be identical, but as long as most people come to a vaguely similar interpretation, we can credit that effect as a natural consequence of the way the medium is used. 

There is no particular reason that a language like Spanish couldn't become a universal language; provided everyone in the universe began speaking it.

But what Longfellow hopes to describe, by calling music a "universal" language, is a situation where that language is understood automatically--no effort required. Any language could be universal if everyone used it in approximately the same way.  But if you are a gooey-hearted Romantic you want to believe that there is an intimate connection between all people everywhere and that it can somehow be expressed in a way that all people everywhere can acknowledge by instant enthusiastic response.  Instant world peace: Just add music.

Music does seem to have an advantage over other languages in that respect.  Certain properties of music are responded to in similar manners by people apparently around the world. One of the things Longfellow (and he has had plenty of company) probably liked about music was that it seemed to obviate pesky grammar. A single tone, unlike a single letter of the alphabet, can inspire a feeling in a person: of awe, gentleness, or anxiety, before it is joined to anything else that might give it a context. You don't have to study music in a conservatory in order to appreciate that. While Longfellow was writing, his fellow Europeans were writing music that had a rather complex grammar and syntax. Ironically, it may be one of the obstacles to appreciating music on this level that a musical sound itself gives such a reward that it doesn't seem necessary to investigate further.  Then there is the thinking that harmony itself is a fundamental reflection of scientifically supported processes; the overtone series has been used to justify what seems pleasant to ears long pacified by custom and tradition. This can lead to theories that certain musical processes are intrinsically right; harmonic progressions or whole formal designs can be justified that way. This sometimes leads to a great deal of quasi-scientific "proof" in the form of elaborate and sometimes convoluted analysis. The obvious exceptions have to be explained away, of course.

In the nineteenth century, a lot of people spent a lot of time trying to convince everyone that what they valued should be universally acknowledged, and that meaning meant the same thing to everybody.

Some ethnomusicologists take great pride in debunking the thoughts of dead white European males that their music must appeal to everybody. When I was studying for my doctorate, I read an essay which included an anecdote about a tribe of African bushmen for whose benefit, no doubt, a piano was hauled in at great expense so that some Bach could be played on it. The Europeans expected the Africans to feel edified. It apparently came as an enormous surprise when the tribesmen, whose own music is not polyphonic--that is, there are not several melodies running simultaneously--found the music to be a bunch of noise.

I won't go all the way with some of our academics who think that, based on such a story, it is the height of indecency to believe that Bach was a great artist whose music ought to be appreciated even by people outside Bach's own culture. Just because some bushmen didn't happen to like Bach immediately does not invalidate his music. A lot of Europeans don't take to it right away either. If at all. I also think that, if the bushmen were exposed to the music more than once, taught something about it, encouraged to listen to it with eager ears, that they would be more than capable of coming to terms with it on some level, if not downright enjoying it. Of course, if I were among the bushmen, I would want to know something about their music, too. It is arrogant to assume that Bach should always get the last word.

This implies having to learn, which is ultimately what makes any music comprehensible. If it is something you grew up with, the learning was done by osmosis, or was replaced by familiarity. If not, you will have to make a conscious decision to try to come to terms with the music in some way by patient study. This is not, apparently, one of mankind's strongest drives.

Which is why the idea of instantaneous universal appeal is so attractive. The idea of all of us, even all of nature, being charmed by the same tune. "Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast", right?

Well, not really. The original reads "charms to soothe the savage breast"--in other words, humans, not animals. I don't know where the quote got misquoted but it wouldn't surprise me if it was during the 19th century. On the other hand, before we accuse William Congreeve, the quote's author, of too much 18th century rationalism, let's peruse the rest of the sentence:

"'Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."

OK, maybe we are being a bit figurative here. A friend of mine, incidentally, had an experience in Italy where he played his pipe for some sheep and they came from some distance to listen. When he switched from a pastoral melody to some Bach, the sheep left in a hurry. I guess their musical taste needs some refinement.

In any case, if we take the approach that universality must precede any attempts to understand, we get a nice warm feeling of being on the same page with everybody. But the minute somebody doesn't get something, we have to give up on our pleasant dream. Who are we to impose anything on anybody else?


The other side of the coin is learning to decode the languages of others. Some of those others, particularly in the animal kingdom, will just assume you know what they are talking about--almost as though they thought they were speaking a universal language. I don't know about you, but If I'm stuck in the desert, and I hear a rattlesnake rattle its tail, I'm getting out of there. If some rogue rattlesnake decides to blink three times instead, I could miss the chance to save my skin. Somewhere along the route, this snake must have learned that the rattle signifies ready-to-strike capability, not "mom, I want a drink of water." If I'm into survival, so did I. The snake might fare better if it changed up its signals. They might even let it play for the Mets. But it opted for uniformity instead, either through laziness, or because it just seemed right somehow. I'm no naturalist, so I could be wrong about this. But why let facts get in the way of a good theory?

In other words, languages have to be founded on some kind of common bonds in which things mean roughly the same thing no matter who is doing the talking. There are millions of these little languages out there, spoken and unspoken, some spoken by a few and some by many. And the episode with the snake suggests that they don't have to be learned at the university level. My cat has a language of tail twitching and eye-closing. Most of it's pretty obvious, though I have yet to decode everything. That doesn't mean the certain movements don't consistently signify certain things to my cat--in other words, there is a language being used. It also doesn't mean I will immediately understand everything it is trying to communicate without the patience to learn it.

During the nineteenth century, a German musicologist named Eduard Hanslick decided that music didn't--in fact, couldn't--mean anything at all. His reason? Not everybody could agree on what it expressed, and therefore, without universal agreement, there could be no meaning.

I'd like to see Eduard get along in a Democracy.

What Hanslick's determination leaves out, of course, is the chance that many people will roughly agree on how a piece of music makes them feel without being able to settle on the same specific adjectives, or the same intellectual constructions. His analysis leaves aside the possibility that there can be a series of meanings, or one that can't be pinned down like a butterfly on cardboard, every last quark of meaning mined to exhaustion. Music has no chance to be a symbolic language under his scheme. But then, how far do we want to go in this direction? If it is all symbols, all mystery, aren't we back to everybody deciding for himself what a piece of music is hiding in its tones?

This kind of thing didn't really bother our nineteenth century brethren. It is the heritage of the 20th and 21st centuries to worry about diversity and plurality to an unprecedented extent, and to wonder if indeed, "things [will] fly apart, the center cannot hold."

Longfellow did not even begin to be bothered by this. In fact, if we look at the rest of the sentence, still woefully ripped from its context, we see poetry accorded a ubiquitous status as well:

"Music is the universal language of mankind -- poetry their universal pastime and delight."

In other words, everybody's doin' it. And since Longfellow was a poet, after all, I'm sure it did his ego good to think that what he valued could be, even would be, appreciated by everybody.  It sure is nice, sometimes, to feel that the entire universe has slipped into the same key, a nice, cozy G major with no dissonance and no criticisms.

And if you want to feel that way for about five minutes, I'll look the other way and whistle Brahms or something.