We’ve all heard, for a very long time, that music is a “universal language.” This is supposed to mean that, despite worldwide differences in culture, geography, and history, the sounds of venerable classics like Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5,” James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful,” or Sisqo’s “Thong Song” unite us all in a common humanity.
It’s a nice idea and at least partially true in the sense that, yeah, music transcends language because you don’t have to understand words or social context to enjoy it on a basic level, but, once you look a bit deeper, it starts to fall apart.
Music-focused YouTube channel Sideways has dug into this concept with a video that asks and answers the title question, “Is Music a Universal Language?” His conclusion, unfortunately, is that no, it isn’t really.
While acknowledging that all humans biologically respond to fundamental aspects of music, like pitch and rhythm, in the same way because we have the same brains and live on the same planet, the video complicates all the rest of this by examining how music theory developed in different cultures.
He looks at how, for one example, European and Asian cultures took different paths toward arriving at tenets of theory used in the writing of all the songs that follow. “You literally could not play music from some cultures if you sat down at the piano because they have different tuning systems,” he says at one point, illustrating that adapting the core of one culture’s musical tradition to another’s is more complicated than it might seem. This is further complicated by the way similar processes work for rhythm.
Basically, the video says, music is as diverse as the cultural, scientific, and social traditions of an entire planet, even if there are some incredibly simple elements we all share. The whole video is worth watching, not just because it’s a fascinating look at the complexity of how music has developed throughout global history, but also because it will let you keep a real nuclear-level “well, actually . . .” in your back pocket that others will most definitely appreciate hearing about at great length.