Growl Me To Sleep, Daddy

Music is not a universal language.

But we continue to hold onto this widely-accepted myth.

Music is indeed a language. It communicates, stirs emotions and elicits a response. And music is a universal phenomenon.  But language communicates consistently, and what music communicates is in no way universal. It is very much culturally defined, just as in spoken language, the meaning of an arrangement of sounds (words) is not innate, but arbitrary, differing language by language.

Yesterday I was checking out the cover of Andrew Zuckerman’s beautiful photo book Music. 50 iconic musicians are featured, each talking about their art. Part of the proceeds will go to charity. I was pleased to see this kind of generosity displayed.

But on the back cover, a quote by the prolific and successful composer John Williams caught my eye. John should know better, really, but he repeats a version of the common misconception of music being a universal language. He is quoted as saying,

“We can’t always understand each other because of language. But everyone, in every culture, understands a battle drumbeat or a mother’s lullaby.”

That’s a nice sentiment, but it is simply not true.

A Siberian lullaby is sung with “throat singing” in a growling, low-pitched register which to babies (and mommies) in our culture would sound like the Crash Test Dummies’ Brad Roberts if he were to try to outdo his signature mode by singing extra low while gargling. An American baby used to a sweet lilting melody in a female voice would no more relax to such a lullaby than to the sound of a jackhammer. And (surprisingly to us) a Siberian infant would actually be greatly disturbed by “Good Night” sung in Ringo Starr’s gentle tenor. Music communicates, but the same message is not heard cross-culturally.

We have so many inaccurate assumptions. Too often we impute our own emotional response to others. Are songs in minor keys always sad? No. Certainly not to the ethnic groups who dance to them at wedding celebrations.

A friend of mine translated a song of joy into a tribal language in Panama. Its soaring melodic climax was sure to complement the message of the words. Or so he thought. His neighbors told him that the words “didn’t match” the music. The lyrics were joyful but the tune sounded like a funeral. How so? The widely varied high and low points of the melody sounded to them like a bereaved widow’s wails at her husband’s burial service. They wrote a new, suitably upbeat tune which made the song sound happy to them. My friend sang it for me and, you guessed it, it would made a great funeral dirge in American culture.

John Williams need only reflect on the differences in response to music in the subcultures and generations of America. The early Beatles’ songs made young girls swoon with romantic passion while their parents plugged their ears and ran for cover. And this is not a new phenomenon. Long before rock music, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet scores caused riots among those who did not “speak the language” of his innovative music.

So no, music is not a universal language. But we all love music in the “language” we speak, and some of us speak more than one language, which makes life that much richer, just as linguistic multilingualism enhances our experience.

thanks to Matthew Schnaars in his comment for catching my error (now corrected). It was Ringo who sang “Goodnight.” Paul’s lullaby was “Golden Slumbers” from Abbey Road.


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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7 Responses to Growl Me To Sleep, Daddy

  1. Fascinating. Your post highlights why churches cannot get stuck or divide over music.

  2. D.A. says:

    I can’t agree that Williams is prolific, but I can agree with his statement as an untruth. This was a lovely post to read!

    • Bill Davis says:

      Thanks for posting… I wonder how you can say he isn’t prolific, though. Whether or not you like his work, his list of songs and film scores is pages long and spans a 7-decade career. But the point here is, he should know better!

  3. matt s says:

    I completely agree. Music is surely not a universal language, but it is a universal phenomenon.

    …and on a side note, in all politeness, “Good Night” was sung by Ringo, not Paul…

    • Bill Davis says:

      Thanks for the comment, Matt… and for catching my error! I was mixing that up with Paul’s Golden Slumbers (the other Beatles lullaby) I’ll correct the post with credit to you!

  4. Hubert Lamontagne says:

    Yeah, this is probably mostly true… but then it’s used by some as an excuse by some people to make some pretty unlistenable music (example: )… stuff that are hardly distinguishable from random notes (and sometimes even IS random).

    The parallel I’d make is that words in any given language are more or less arbitrary (except a couple classics like “mama”), but all languages have vowels, consonants, verbs, nouns, etc…

    • Bill Davis says:

      For sure some of it is “unlistenable”! The question is, “to whom?” Cultures and sub-cultures define that quite differently, and then there is individual taste within a culture. Even randomness could be a taste, but I think a musicologist could show that no music is purely random. In fact, the Boulez piece is far from random, although it doesn’t follow the rules most listeners are accustomed to. There are some rather predictable contours throughout. I can actually say that I enjoy it (but I’ve studied piano and composition), and I could certainly enjoy it more than most rap that simply drives me nuts. But then again, Boulez is not what I’ll play over a romantic dinner or while I use the treadmill!

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