Is Music REALLY a Universal Language?

The Background

I have spent my entire career exploring a wide variety of music. I have sung Bach cantatas in church cathedrals and rock songs in Greenwich Village, New York City coffee houses. I have composed in many musical genres including classical choir anthems and folk songs. I have invited Bachers and rockers into a shared communion via my column, “The Bach to Rock Connection,” in the NATS Journal of Singing (1985-2002) and the column’s subsequent iteration, “Popular Song and Music Theater,” (2002-present). I have, along with my long-time collaborative pianist, Joseph Krupa, brought diverse musical worlds together in a concert program titled “POP Goes the Classical,” in which Joe plays a classical piano piece and I sing its transformation into a pop song. I have sung, acted, taught, lectured, and lead master classes around the world.

The Invite

My most recent venture into musical diversity was sparked by an invitation from Professors Jon and Glenda Secrest to come in early March 2020 to Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas to lead a master class with their music theater students and do a presentation appropriate for the entire campus. 

The Prep

After a lot of thought, I decided to explore the topic “Is Music REALLY a Universal Language?” and set about the task of seeking expert opinions. It turns out that there is no universal agreement on the subject. For example, the reason why music might be so universally beloved around the world may be because it might have been our earliest form of communication. This idea was first offered by Charles Darwin of evolution fame. Called the proto-music theory, it posits that music is older and more instinctual to us as a species than human speech. 

Numerous scholars such as neuroscientists Oliver Sachs and Steven Brown believe music played a vitally important evolutionary role in bonding together social groups for a common purpose. In his book, Musicophilia, Dr. Sachs says music may have played “a crucial cultural and economic function in human evolution, bringing people together, producing a sense of collectivity and community.”

However, not everyone agrees with Dr. Sachs. Noted evolutionary biologist Steven Pinker argues that just because music is instinctive, it doesn’t mean it takes evolutionary precedent. Dr. Pinker, in his 1997 book How the Mind Works wrote,“As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless. Compared with language…music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” Pinker says music simply makes use of existing neurological pathways that evolved to process speech which he believes has a clearer evolutionary purpose. He calls music “auditory cheesecake.”

With all this interesting but highly academic information, my challenge was to make it work in a lecture/recital for a very diverse audience, some of whom – the music majors and music appreciation students – were required to attend my presentation. How would I capture the hearts and minds of a captive audience?

The Program

I chose to test my program’s title by doing two separate beginnings to the presentation.   I entered the stage clad in a sports jacket with my “borrowed” and fine pianist from the OBU faculty, Susan Monroe. We bowed formally and launched into the famous Franz Schubert art song “An die musik” which I sang in German with my well-trained classical baritone voice. The first verse translates, “O gracious art, in how many grey hours when life’s fierce orbit encompassed me, hast thou kindled my heart to warm love, hast charmed me into a better world.” I anticipated a mixed reaction from the audience so, instead of singing the second verse, I sang the following lyric: “Now I know what some of you are presently thinking. You’re thinking; ‘Why did I come here tonight? I don’t like the classical music that this dude is singing. He’s singing classical music in a foreign language, a foreign language I don’t understand!’”

Susan and I bowed and exited the stage. I quickly removed my sports coat, put on a leather vest, and grabbed my guitar. She and I returned to the stage as if nothing had previously happened, bowed casually, and this time, launched into the classic Lynyrd Skynyrd rock song, “Free Bird” sung with my well-trained rasp-tinged rock voice. The first verse says, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? For I must be trav’ling on now, ‘cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see. But if I stayed here with you, girl, things just couldn’t be the same. ‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change, and this bird you cannot change, and this bird you cannot change. Lord knows I can’t change.” 

As Susan and I continued to play, these next words became the song’s second verse: “Now I know what some of you are thinking, ‘That’s more like it, glad I’m here. I like songs by Lynyrd Skynyrd; classic rock songs work for me.’ But now some others might be thinking, ‘What just happened, what’s going on? I like German lieder, not this crappy rock and roll, not this crappy rock and roll, not this crappy rock and roll. Lord knows why he changed. Lord help me, why’d he change?’”

Then, muddying the waters even more, I sang the first verse of “Free Bird” using my classical voice followed by the first verse of “An die musik” using my rock voice. Fortunately, the audience got it and we received a nice round of applause as well as a lot of smiles and laughter. I had their attention and began my lecture: “Back in the 15th century, a monk and poet named John Lydgate said, ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’”

I then shared the conflicting opinions on our topic by the aforementioned Drs. Sachs and Pinker. I also chimed in on the subject with a quote from “1500 Genres…and Counting!”, an article I wrote for my Journal of Singing column: “Music is often called a universal language. However, after many decades of trying to make Bach to rock connections for colleagues, students, and audiences, I tend to think of music as a lot of languages with a lot of dialects, most of which are unintelligible to someone. For example, we know those in the Bach community often have a hard time liking or understanding the music of those in the rock community, and vice versa.” My OBU audience now knew that my opening recital section was all about that issue and might even agree that it was sometimes a challenge in the musical “Tower of Babel” to understand other genres. 

Next, I shared with them my expansive musical upbringing in New York City as the only child of two professional musicians. My mother often told the story of being at a party in the 1940s along with the noted conductor, Irving Landau. Maestro Landau began quizzing my mother on what music she liked. After replying “Yes!” to all of the various genres he mentioned, Landau declared her to be “a musical barbarian.” Mom took it as a compliment.

My lecturing recital (or my recitaling lecture) continued with stories and songs from my almost 60 years-long career, including snippets from my years “integrating” churches with my guitar during the turbulent 1960s social, political, and religious reformation. I also sang a selection from my “POP Goes the Classical” concert program, played pop star Jose Feliciano’s 1968 liberation of the “Star-Spangled Banner“ from exclusively classical singers, and led them in a singalong of Woody Guthrie’s more user-friendly, “This Land Is Your Land.”

It was now well into my hour program and time for my audience to explore their own likes and dislikes to find out just how universal their musical tastes really were. I played excerpts from a variety of recorded genres – everything from classical opera to heavy metal rock – and asked them to raise their hands when they heard something they liked. Since I was at a Baptist university, I reminded them that Jesus said, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” and that there should be no musical bullying in the auditorium this night. Not surprisingly, I never once saw all hands go up for any selection I played. They had answered the question, “Is Music REALLY a Universal Language?” with a resounding yes AND no!

I summed up my program requoting the 15th century monk and poet, John Lydgate. Then I added, “So, let’s love our own special music and perhaps even share it with others. Meanwhile, if those ‘others’ have special music that may be quite different from ours, let’s give it a listen with an open ear and an open mind. That just might help us to understand those ‘other’ people a little bit better and might make the world a little kinder and gentler place to live.”

The End

I chose to end the program with a song my mother taught me when I was a child. Published in 1929, “Without a Song” was written by William Rose, Edward Eliscu, and Vincent Youmans. It closes with these words: “I’ll never know what makes the rain to fall; I’ll never know what makes the grass so tall; I only know there ain’t no love at all without a song.” It remains my favorite song to sing. 

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