Not So Universal

If you spend much time listening to people talk about music, sooner or later you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear someone tout music (especially western concert music from, say, 1600 to 1945ish) as a “universal language” that can transcend temporal and cultural boundaries and speak to people with very different personal backgrounds. Now, to some degree this is obviously true. People who are not 17th-century Italian aristocrats can enjoy Monteverdi; Beethoven’s ninth symphony did not die with the last audience member at its premiere. 

But take a listen to something like Vincent Persichetti’s Parable IX for concert band. It’s an acerbic, uncompromising work full of jagged motifs and harsh edges. If music is a language, most people would say this is sheer gibberish.

And yet we’ve only gone a very small way outside of the concert music canon. Persichetti was trained thoroughly in classical composition, and Parable IX dates from 1972, within thirty years of such popular pieces as Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943) and Copland’s third symphony (1946). If our goal is to plumb the depths of musical diversity, we’ve barely dipped our toes in, and we’re already running into incomprehensibility.

Seems like a pretty dismal prospect for universality, no?

At this point, some of you may be thinking to yourselves “well, of course not all music has universal appeal, only some of it does!”.

I think we need to go further. None of it does.

No one is born with an appreciation for Beethoven. No one comes out of the womb tapping their foot to Sondheim or Porter. These tastes have to be acquired.

If Beethoven’s fifth symphony seems to resonate with “everyone” today, it is only because we have never stopped teaching people to understand Beethoven. Even ignoring the (considerable) play time for his actual works, the underpinnings of his language are everywhere, from muzak to movie scores. Music works by setting up patterns that listeners recognize and then either fulfilling them or tweaking them in surprising ways. If you don’t have an intuitive understanding of the patterns, you won’t be able to make head or tail of the music that uses them. This is why the Persichetti from earlier is so nonsensical to so many people — He’s using patterns that are far enough outside the average listener’s experience that said average listener can’t tell when they’re being fulfilled and when they’re being violated — they can’t feel the forces of expectation and surprise that make music tick. Beethoven is universal only insofar as the patterns he uses in his music are.

(Lest anyone argue that prevalence of western musical patterns is due to some inherent superiority on the patterns’ behalf: These patterns were in vogue among the European elite at a time when they were colonizing as many other parts of the world as it could and systematically destabilizing and attempting to eradicate indigenous cultural traditions. This is … not a coincidence.)

That you have to know the patterns to understand the music, however, offers some hope. Recognizing these kinds of patterns is a matter of familiarity. You don’t have to know what a Perfect Authentic Cadence is to get the emotional impact of one; you don’t have to study theory and scores, you just have to listen. If you want to “get into” a new style of music, from modernist works for wind band to traditional Indian ragas and beyond, all you have to do is listen. Studying the theory may help if you have the background to make sense of it, but listening is the key. At first, things will sound like an undifferentiated wash (and possibly a pretty unpleasant one at that), but in time, with enough exposure, your brain will start to make sense of what’s coming at it — you’ll start to pick out islands of difference in the sea of sameness. You’ll start to understand what you’re hearing. It will start to mean things to you. (Whether this payoff is worth the amount of time you’ll have to spend with confused ears is something only you can answer.)

No style of music is universal, but the tools to understand it are available to all who can hear.