Music is NOT a universal language. I repeat, contrary to what is often said, music is NOT a universal language. If that were the case, every person could understand every piece of music from every culture without much effort. This is simply not the case. Much of the music around the world is organized and passed on in ways much different than music in my culture. There are places around the world that divide the octave into many more parts that the 12 notes per octave on our piano keyboard. It would take a great deal of study, effort and familiarity for me to begin to make sense of it. The understanding is not universal.
A funny story from the 1971 benefit Concert for Bangladesh illustrates my point. George Harrison and the great Sitar master Ravi Shankar organized the benefit performance. (Actually there were two concerts, a 2:30 pm show and an 8:00pm show.) When Ravi Shankar’s group came out on the stage, they began noodling about on their instruments. Soon a generous round of applause erupted in the audience. Shankar, the great musician from India, shuffled up the the microphone and spoke to the crowd. “Thank you, if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”
What is universal to every human culture is the impulse to CREATE music. Every culture has its own musical heritage. I’m confident that when the cave dude (or dudette) was painting hunting scenes on the walls of his cave, there was another cave dude musician pounding two rocks together making some kind of music. The Voyager space probes launched in 1977 both carried records made of gold with samples of music from the cultures of Earth as well as greeting in various human languages. The list of music included contains some things very familiar to me and some completely foreign. I’m from Earth and I don’t get all of it, I don’t know what E.T. is going to think of this stuff when he puts it on his Martian Victrola.
The whole audio of the recording can be found here.
A list of the music included can be found here.
A few of my favorites included on the Voyager Golden Record are (click on each link to listen):
Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1. Glenn Gould, Piano
Beethoven, String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina, performed by Budapest String Quartet.
“Johnny B. Goode,” written and performed by Chuck Berry.
“Melancholy Blues,” performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven.
Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, First Movement, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, conductor.
In 1978 Steve Martin reported the first response from outer space:
I don’t know if NASA is currently taking requests.
Maybe you can’t understand it WITHOUT MUCH EFFORT. But I think you can understand it, if you take the effort. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.
Note: I don’t mean understand in an intellectual way, but in an intuitive one. I should probably better say: feel.