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Why Music Is a Universal Language

When teaching about other cultures—especially in foreign language classes—music is often a key part of the curriculum. Jennifer Patterson, Founder and President of California Music Studios shares the reason why music is a critical component of understanding other people. 

Connect with Jennifer and other educators on Twitter during #GlobalEdChat this Thursday, January 14 at 8pmET/5pmPT. We will be discussing how music can add a global dimension to classrooms.

By guest blogger Jennifer Paterson

Did you know there are approximately 7,000 spoken languages in the world today? Although only 10 percent of those are spoken by more than 100,000 people, there's clearly a communication gap between cultures throughout the world.

But there's one language that everybody understands no matter what tongue they speak: music. While we may not understand the lyrics of foreign songs, we all share the same emotions when we hear similar chords and melodies. Continue reading to learn more about the universal language of music.

Facial Expressions Are Universal
Before we can understand music as a language, we must understand emotion. Numerous studies have shown that there are six emotions everyone can identify by facial expression no matter what culture they come from—even if they've had little contact with the rest of the world. This suggests that these emotions are rooted in evolutionary aspects of the human body. These six emotions include: happiness, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and surprise.

This is evidenced in a study by Paul Ekman as reported by Psychology Today. In his study, Ekman showed photographs to individuals from 20 western cultures and 11 isolated groups in Africa. The study showed that 92 percent of African respondents and 96 percent of western culture respondents could identify happy faces.

Ekman's research goes on to support that these six emotions are universal. Ekman also looked at how blind children react to certain situations compared to sighted children. What he found was that even though the blind children had not observed other facial expressions, they still showed the same expressions to the same emotions as sighted children did.

Certain Sounds Are Also Consistent Across Cultures
So we know that basic emotions are consistent across the world. But the cross-cultural similarities don't end there. Other studies show that sounds like crying and laughter are also consistent between cultures, even those that live in remote settlements with little interaction with the outside world.

Dr. Disa Sauter studied over 20,000 individuals living on opposite ends of the world—Britain and Himba (northern Namibia)—and found that not only are facial expressions of these six basic emotions recognizable, but the vocalizations associated with them are as well.

Given that certain emotions and sounds are universal, wouldn't it make sense that music could be a universal language as well?

Music as a Universal Language
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, "Music is the universal language of all mankind." Turns out he may have been on to something.

Pitch, Rhythm, and Tempo Are a Part of Language
David Ludden, Ph. D., points out in Psychology Today that one reason music may be a universal language is that the same components that make up music—pitch, rhythm, and tempo—are also present in everyday speech no matter what language you're speaking.

For example, you can watch a foreign movie or witness an exchange in a foreign country, and although you may not understand exactly what the situation is about, you can typically tell how the people are feeling. At the very least, you can understand whether the situation is a happy or sad one.

Ludden suggests that this is because we understand the pitch, rhythm, and tempo of speech because the same patterns are present in our own language and across all spoken languages. With these patterns present in spoken language, we can interpret emotions from music using the same cues.

Musical Emotion Is Rooted in Chords
piano keys.jpegThink about it. When you hear a major chord, you interpret the music as positive whereas if you hear a minor chord, the music feels negative. Tempo also impacts how you feel. A slow song in a minor key, for instance, makes you feel sad. A faster song in a minor key may make you feel scared or angry. When played in a major chord with higher pitches, more fluctuations in rhythm, and a faster tempo, listeners typically interpret the music as happy.

This concept is supported by a 2015 study that showed that musical chords are the smallest building blocks of music that elicit emotion. According to researchers, "The early stages of processing that are involved suggest that major and minor chords have deeply connected emotional meanings, rather than superficially attributed ones, indicating that minor triads possess negative emotional connotations and major triads possess positive emotional connotations."

Music Elicits the Same Physiological Response Across Cultures
A recent study from McGill University further illustrates this concept. Researchers gathered 40 Pygmy and 40 Canadian participants to listen to 19 short musical extracts—11 of which were Western and 8 were Pygmy. Each piece was between 30 and 90 seconds long. The Canadian participants were all amateur or professional musicians while the Pygmies were all familiar with music because they sing regularly. After hearing the music, the researchers measured heart rate, respiration, and other physiological factors. What the researchers found was that the psychological responses from each group appeared the same, such as whether the music calmed or excited them.

While we may not be able to understand exactly what people are saying across different languages, humans have evolved to share and express the same basic emotions in similar ways. This allows us to understand each other's facial expressions even if we don't share the same spoken language. When speech is incorporated into the situation, we can still interpret emotions based on pitch, rhythm, and tempo. Because of these shared attributes across all cultures, music is one thing we can all agree upon and understand, making it the universal language of mankind. Try this out in your classroom by playing songs in other languages and prompt your students to tell you what emotion they feel when hearing those tunes. Do they agree music is a universal language?

Follow California Music StudiosHeather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo credits: StockSnap.io

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