Is music is a universal language? With music you can communicate across cultural and linguistic boundaries in ways that you can’t with ordinary languages like English or French. Every human culture has music, just as each has language. So it’s true that music is a universal feature of the human experience. At the same time, both music and linguistic systems vary widely from culture to culture.
Studies show that people are pretty good at detecting the emotions conveyed in music even if not familiar to them and even without the aid of lyrics. Specific features of melody contribute to the expression of emotion in music. For example: Higher pitch or more fluctuations in pitch and rhythm, and faster tempo can convey happiness or excitement, while the opposite can convey sadness. Perhaps we humans have an innate musical sense. Language also has melody. Exactly these same features—pitch, rhythm, and tempo—are used to convey emotion in speech, in a way that appears to be universal across languages.
Listen in on a conversation in Russian, German, French or some other language you don’t speak. You won’t understand the content, but you will understand the shifting emotional states of the speakers. We understand this exchange in a foreign language because we know what it sounds like in our own language. Likewise, when we listen to a piece of music, either from our own culture or from another, we infer emotion on the basis of melodic cues. In this sense, music truly is a universal system for communicating emotion.
But is music a language? Kind of, but not in and of itself. In everyday life, we often use “language” to mean “communication system.” By definition, language is a communication system consisting of (1) a set of meaningful symbols (words) and (2) a set of rules for combining those symbols (syntax) into larger meaningful units (sentences).
Then there’s “body language”, the postures, gestures, movements and facial expressions we use to convey emotions, social status, and so on. Although we often use body language when we speak, linguists don’t consider it a true form of language. Instead, it’s more a communication system.
While many species have communication systems, none of these count as language because they lack one or the other component.
However, like language, music has syntax—rules for ordering elements—such as notes, chords, and intervals—into complex structures. Yet none of these elements has meaning on its own. Rather, it’s the larger structure that conveys emotional meaning. And it does that by mimicking speech.
Since music and language share features in common, it’s not surprising that many of the brain areas that process language also process music. But this doesn’t mean that music is a language. 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.
Part of what made me think about all that is that I have been watching musical talent contests from around the globe lately as well as trying to learn another language and have been thinking about this subject for a while. (Continue on page 2)