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What’s universal about music?

By Emily Carlson, PhD, co-founder of the Music Therapy Friendship Initiative

For most of my high school career, I attended a boarding high school for the arts in the depths of Northern Michigan. On the back wall of one of the main auditoriums, the words “Dedicated to the promotion of world friendship through the universal langauge of the arts.” The statement echoes that of lyric poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) who wrote that “music is the universal language of mankind.” The idea that music can be understood by anyone from anywhere is beautiful and romantic and hopeful, but does it stand up scientifically?

Balkwil and Thompson published an article in 1999 in which they asked Western participants to listen to Hindustani ragas, which use a different tonal system from Western music, and found that listeners could correctly identify joyful and sad music. Balkwil and Thompson suggested that listeners could do based on what they called psychophysical properties of music, which can be perceived without any prior cultural knowledge such as tempo, timbre and complexity. An example of a non-psychopysical property would be a harmonic cadence, such as the common V-I cadenec in Western music. Researchers have also shown that listeners from other cultures can recognize emotions in Western music . As for all scientific studies, these results should not be taken as uncomplicated proof that musically expressed emotions are universal; listeners always tend to be better at identifying emotion in music from their own culture, for example.

Another thing that might be universal about music is what it does. In his essay “An ethnomusicologist contemplates universals in musical sound and musical culture” (found in the book The Orgins of Music), legendary ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl suggests just two universal uses of music; across known human cultures, music plays a role in religious, spiritual or other activities related to transcendent experiences, and it is universally associated with movement and dance. In a more recent exploration of world music, Samuel Mehr and colleagues identified four types of songs that seem to appear universally: love songs, lullabies, songs for healing, and songs for dancing: love songs, lullabies, songs for healing, and songs for dancing.

There is no denying, however, that music varies greatly by culture and that culture influenes how we perceive music from our earliest days of life. In 2010, Soley and Hannon studied infants from the United States and the Balkans and showed that infants prefered music and rhythmic structures that were familiar in their own cultures. We also know that newborns’ cries sound different depending on their mother tongue; it seems we truly can’t help being affected by the language and music we hear as infants.

Overall, the research provides a more complex picture than suggested by Longfellow or my old high school. Some things about music seem to be universal, but the way we perceive and understand music is still profoundly shaped by our own cultures. What does this mean for music therapy? Certainly, music therapists are aware how important it is to be aware of cultural differences, and researchers have explored the complex experiences of music therapists working cross-cultural settings.

Personally, I find that we often make the mistake mistake of assuming that the most powerfully therapeutic aspects of music are the universal ones. The V-I cadence Bilkwel and Thompson use as an example of something learned through culture, for example, may not be easily understandable as signalling the end of a phrase or whole song to a person from a non-Western culture, but when working with even young children who have grown up hearing V-I cadences, it’s a highly effective way to help children practice start-and-stop behaviors and anticipatory motor programs. Children who grow up in Western cultures know without anyone explaining music theory to them that a big, extended V chord means the “home base” I chord is on its way, and it’s time to get ready for the song to stop. Cultural aspects of music can be just as powerful as universal ones, and both are as inherent to music therapy as they are to music.

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