The universal language

Topics Music | Universal Music | Music fans

Recent research has validated the old saying, articulated, among others, by H.W. Longfellow, that music is a universal language that knows no barriers of, well, language, ethnicity, creed, colour or faith. The research project was conducted by a number of US universities, including Harvard University and Pennsylvania State University. The findings were published in the US academic journal Science.

The research findings are significant because musicologists and scholars in related disciplines have questioned Longfellow’s view, expressed 184 years ago, that “music is the universal language of mankind”.

The research team studied 118 songs from 86 cultures, which were classified into four groups: Dance songs, healing songs, love songs and lullabies. The team consisted of Manvir Singh, a researcher in evolutionary biology at Harvard, Luke Glowacki, a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University and Samuel Mehr, also of Harvard. They created a database and loaded ethnographic and music-related information into it from 315 societies across 60 cultures and 30 geographical regions, but compared 118 songs, as mentioned.

The researchers found significant intra-category similarities. A Marathi lullaby was found to have structural similarities with lullabies sung by people in the Scottish Highlands and the Nahua indigenous people of Central America. A Garo dance song was similar to a Yaqui dance song from northern Mexico and a Tlingit dance song from the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States. The database of 118 songs had lullabies from India, Central Africa, Northern Australia, North America and other places. Healing songs came from Uttar Pradesh, Central America, Africa and North America. And dance songs and love songs came from similarly diverse cultures and regions.

Overall, lullabies were slow and soothing, their sounds were gentle and fluid; dance songs were universally fast, lively and rhythmic; love songs tended to build and release tension with a broader range of pitches than lullabies; and healing songs had shorter notes than love songs and varied more in rhythm than dance songs. “What our study shows is that when we as humans of a particular culture make music, while the sounds may sound unique, they actually reflect deep features of human psychology coupled with social processes,” Glowacki said to The Telegraph

The export of Anglo-American culture has meant that certain forms of music have become global from the second half of the past century. Rock’n’roll music and other forms of popular Anglo-American music — like disco, hip-hop, rhythm and blues and rap — are lionised throughout the world. The youth, especially in non-English-speaking Europe, including the continent, as it were; Africa; Asia; and south and central America are all hooked to genres of music originating in the United States and Britain. Even an older set of people, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s listen avidly to early rock’n’roll, blues, jazz, folk rock and country music.

But that’s not all. These genres have profoundly influenced popular music across the world, including India. Rap has been adapted across India. And popular music, whether used in films or not, have borrowed rhythms, structures and instruments from popular Western music.

Closest home for this writer, ever since Kabir Suman, as he is known now, launched what later came to be known as “jibanmukhi gaan” (life-focused music), Bengali popular music has not only started sounding much more like “Western” music, it also uses lyrics that echo concerns that share more ground with popular music in the West as compared to earlier popular Bengali songs. “Bangla bands” have proliferated. A significant proportion of members of these bands are young people who have grown up on rock and other forms of Western music — Beatles onwards.

The research we have referred to uncovers musical similarities across cultures that are deep-seated and have existed for a long time. But the export of Anglo-American culture, in music and other cultural fields, and its global proliferation, before the age of globalisation and, especially, in that age, raise interesting questions, some not easy to answer. Why has there been a tendency towards a flattening of cultures? And does this kind of growing uniformity betoken large-scale changes in sensibility.

Some technological developments have no doubt made cultural “miscegenation” easier. The ubiquity of the Internet on computers and mobile phones has made cross-cultural consumption substantially easy. Similarly, the spread of satellite television, say, in urban India, has had a similar effect. Exposure through these technologies and devices has perhaps made people more receptive to other cultures.

But does that mean sensibilities are changing? The research alluded to clearly hypothesises that the similarities in types of music stem from deep-seated and shared psychological traits coupled with social or societal traits. And these similarities have been around for a long time. But it is doubtful whether the cultural flattening typical of the post-World War II period and more especially the era of globalisation has created a similar change in sensibilities.
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