Is Music Really A Universal Language?

Is Music Really A Universal Language?

Articles, Blog , , , , , 100 Comments

this video is sponsored by Skillshare. hey, welcome to 12tone! in 1826, a periodical
called The Ladies’ Monthly Museum published an article about the composer Carl Maria Von
Weber where they described music as “the universal language of nature”. a decade later, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
wrote that “music is the universal language of mankind.” this sentiment has been repeated many times
in the centuries that followed, and it’s not hard to see why: the idea that the art of
music somehow transcends cultural boundaries, allowing communication and understanding between
people all over the world, is certainly a romantic one, but is it true? well, the question of whether or not music
is actually even a language to begin with is probably better left up to the linguists,
so I’ll skip it and just dive right into the real heart of the quote: is music universal?
and the answer, sadly, is no. sorry. but how can that be? I mean, I’m sure we’ve all heard that music
is, at its heart, basically just math, and math doesn’t care where you grew up. the same numbers are prime whether you’re
in New York or Shanghai, so how can music not be universal if it’s built on something
as objective as math? well, I’ll let you in on a secret: the math
that music is built on doesn’t actually work. that pains me to say ’cause music math is
like my favorite thing, but if I’m being completely honest, it’s hard to deny that it’s all a
bit of a mess. like, take intervals. at a mathematical level, an interval is really
just a frequency ratio: if one sound wave is hitting your ear twice as fast as another,
you’ve got a 1:2 ratio, which is what we call an octave. another common ratio is 2:3, which we’re told
is a perfect 5th, but here’s the thing: if you go play a perfect 5th on a piano, you
won’t actually hear a 2:3 ratio. or, at least, you probably won’t, because
modern tuning doesn’t have any. and this isn’t just ’cause we’re too lazy
to tune it correctly: this is about a fundamental conflict between math and art. it’s fairly easy to prove that a system can’t
simultaneously have both perfect octaves and perfect 5ths, or perfect perfect 5ths anyway. music names are weird. point is, the entire history of Western tuning
is basically just a series of attempts to work around this gaping hole in the numbers. early systems often involved just distorting
one of the 5ths and then hiding it between rarely-used notes so no one would notice,
but that creates problems with some of the other intervals, and these days what we do
is just pretend the 2:3 ratio is slightly smaller than it actually is so that the whole
thing fits together neatly. but which solution we’re using doesn’t really
matter: the point is that we have to make decisions. we know it’s impossible to get everything
we want, so we’re forced to make sacrifices, and which aspects we’re willing to let go
of says a lot about what sorts of music we want to make. for example, one reason modern
tuning tweaks all its 5ths a little bit instead of just completely ruining one of them is
that we’ve decided it’s important to be able to easily change keys, so we need to be able
to use all the notes equally. that’s not a mathematical decision, though:
it’s an artistic one, and it’s one that different cultures at different points in history have
made, well, differently. but music is more than just math: it’s a means
of expressing emotion, and since people tend to experience roughly the same set of emotions,
maybe music can help us communicate our feelings when we don’t have the words to describe them
directly. I mean, we’ve all heard that major scales
are happy and minor scales are sad, right? And that goes back to the math thing: major
intervals tend to be much simpler ratios than minor ones, so they sound more consonant and
thus happy. sure, we saw the math didn’t quite work out,
but our ears are pretty good at adjusting for slight variations, so as long as we’re
in the ballpark, shouldn’t that sense of consonance translate across cultures? well, first of all, the idea that major is
happy and minor is sad is… not wrong, exactly, but definitely an oversimplification. like, here’s a short little melody I wrote. listen to it and try to identify the implied
emotion. (bang) I mean, it’s definitely minor: it’s
basically just a walk down the D minor scale. but is it sad? that’s not the word I’d use. it feels adventurous, maybe even triumphant,
and if you’re not getting those same emotions, well… that kinda proves my point too, doesn’t
it? but more importantly, the very idea of consonance
isn’t necessarily universal. most of the big musical cultures in the world
have some concept that certain combinations of notes sound more pleasant than others,
but what exactly that looks like varies a lot. at the extreme end, studies with isolated
Amazonian tribes have shown that at least some of them exhibit literally no preference
between traditionally consonant and traditionally dissonant sounds, so this and this were both
rated as equally pleasant. this implies that even our most fundamental
reactions to music are at some level learned through exposure, and they don’t come already
programmed into the human brain. but for me, the biggest argument against the
universal language theory lies not in the Amazon, but somewhere a little less… physical. that’s right, we’re going on a field trip
the world of experimental music. I just did a whole video on it, so we’re not
gonna dive too deep here, but that’s fine ’cause I only need one example: Pendulum Music
by Steve Reich. in it, speakers are placed face up on the
floor and microphones swing freely across them, creating feedback when they get close. as the name implies, Reich believes this is
music, and I would agree with him, but a lot of people don’t. whether experimental pieces like Pendulum
Music actually count as music is still pretty hotly debated to this day. but here’s the thing: if music was a universal
language, don’t you think we could at least agree whether or not someone was speaking
it? and this goes the other way too, which brings
me to the Adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer. you’ve probably heard it before, and if you’re
not Muslim, there’s a good chance you thought it was sung, but it’s usually not even considered
music. and that matters, because music is traditionally
forbidden in mosques. but it’s not just not music because they say
so: the Adhan is delivered with a specific style of recitation that is structurally very
different from the Arabic concept of singing. This is, of course, a complex issue and as
a non-Muslim I’m probably not the best person to get into the details, but my point is that
we have this thing that Westerners might hear as music but to the people making it not only
is it often not considered music but it’s culturally important that it’s not, and imposing
musicality on the Adhan from the outside just because we can’t tell the difference is inaccurate,
insensitive, and potentially offensive. but again, if music is a universal language,
that really shouldn’t be possible. before we wrap up, it’s worth noting that
I’m far from the first person to contemplate this question: in fact, this entire video
was inspired by a post by Dr. Linda Shaver-Gleason over on her blog, Not Another Music History
Cliché. it’s a great blog, and if you’re at all interested in music history or musicology
I’d definitely recommend checking it out: there’s a link in the description. Dr. Shaver-Gleason was even kind enough to
review this script for me, so huge thanks to her for that. but back to the question, this is all dancing
around an uncomfortable truth: while music may not be a universal language right now,
it’s kinda becoming one. for various historical reasons, the Western musical tradition has
spread its tendrils across pretty much the entire planet. again, researchers had to turn to isolated
Amazonian tribes to find people who hadn’t already been exposed to Western musical ideas. more and more cultures are incorporating Western
concepts, especially in their popular music, and if that trend continues maybe one day
we’ll reach a point where music truly is a universal language, spoken the same by all
humanity. but if that day ever comes, it will be nothing
to celebrate. it’ll mean the death of musical traditions
that have survived for thousands of years, and the culture of the world will be poorer
for their loss. so no, music is not a universal language,
and I really hope it stays that way. if you want to learn more about the myriad
ways humans have found to make music, I’d recommend this video’s sponsor, Skillshare! Skillshare is an online learning platform
with over 20,000 lessons in just about everything. one I’d recommend is a course on Tuvan throat
singing called Find Your Voice Of Nature: I’ve mentioned it before, but it seemed relevant
here, and it’s a really interesting look into a very different musical culture. Skillshare is offering two free months of
premium membership to the first 500 12tone viewers to click the link in the description,
and while you’re there, why not check out the rest of their massive collection of educational
resources? they’ve got lots of great stuff about all sorts of topics, so no matter what
you want to learn, Skillshare’s probably got a course on it. plus it’s affordable: premium membership starts
at less than 9 bucks a month, and that’s after the two month free trial which, again, link
in the description. and hey, thanks for watching, and thanks to
our Patreon patrons for supporting us and making these videos possible. if you want to help out, and get some sweet
perks like sneak peeks of upcoming episodes, there’s a link to our Patreon on screen now. you can also join our mailing list to find
out about new episodes, like, share, comment, subscribe, and above all, keep on rockin’.

100 thoughts on “Is Music Really A Universal Language?

  • ΛΪνΐηβάΙνιή321 Post author


  • David Post author

    Western music took over the world because western countries took over the economy through imperialism.

  • MisterManDuck Post author

    So, yeah, hey, Muslim musician here. Mind if I weigh in? Cool.

    I have to disagree a tick with you, though not to your overall point.

    Here's the thing about Athan or the call to prayer, even if it is not strictly considered music in the same way secular music is, it still kind of operates in the same sphere, it's just a little muddied. A very very very rough analogy: You know how liturgical music in the West can use the 'Church Modes' (yes I just glossed over far too much history, sorry)?

    Same deal with Athan (in practical terms, anyways). The call to prayer, whether people are aware or not, are always recited along the modal structures of the Maqamat (Mostly Monophonic Middle-Eastern Modal Music). Same goes for the recitation of the Qur'an. People will recite the verses in a very melodic fashion out loud, to the point where it blurs the line between liturgy and singing.

    Going by the fact that I've made it a point to listen out for what Maqamat I can hear in Athan I can safely say that in my experience the most commonly used Maqamat are Rast, Hijaz, and maaybe Bayati (Bayati is a Mode of Rast so sometimes tricky to suss)? The musicality you hear is not imposed, it's sometimes explicitly invoked (going from what I've seen in discussions on the local telly and youtube vids actually citing Maqamat for recitation) if it's not just learned through rote memorization.

    The reason Athan isn't considered the same as music is socio-religio-cultural. It's kind of a no-no to equate music to worship because there's still a huge amount of Muslims globally that aren't 100% sold on whether or not music is forbidden, and some people I've talked to equate it to an intoxicant on the level of alcohol.

    I can be as insensitive to my own culture in whatever manner I please: That's nonsense (not that I'm advocating boomboxes in Mosques. But that would be a sick album name).

    TL;DR: Athan and Qur'anic recitation are inherently musical in structure, being as it's based around the local musical theory traditions with a very long history (whether by rote or by intent), it's just that it's intended purpose isn't the same, as the religious folks consider the social function of music to be explicitly and solely not very Godly regardless of the underlying structure between both.

    Now, about structure, I have a question to ask you: Who was the source who claimed Athan's recitation wasn't structured musically? I'm not pointing fingers, I'm curious. Because if their point had less to do with actual note choice and more to do with very particular forms of melodic syntax, then I have the biggest bone to pick with them.

  • Alex Knauth Post author

    (1:27) I feel like for the perfect-5th thing you're too hung up on the Piano. My main instruments are the Viola, Violin, and Guitar, as well as singing. While there are "correct" tunings for those that match what a piano would have, I don't always follow them perfectly. Sometimes if a piece is in a particular key I'll adjust one of the strings slightly so that some of the chords sound better, and of course on a Violin or Viola you can place your finger's wherever you want, not just on the 12TET notes. That's why it makes sense for a director to sound-check certain chords before a concert and tell certain people to adjust slightly. One particular director I've had very often told us how to go that slight distance away from 12TET toward something closer to a Just Interval system, and especially for an orchestra or a choir that makes a lot of sense.

  • Alan Tennant Post author

    Can you cover some of the more interesting and elegant music cultures of the world? Showing common chord sounds and progressions etc…

  • Knuckles Skinner Post author

    It would be better we all spoke the same musical language. As we have learn to create better music you must look at others. If no mixing of cultures is wanted then what a sad world we are in. Everything will always be the same then. Don’t fret change huh?

  • Fernando Mecca Post author

    Do you eat gummy bears like every week or do you recycle them after throwing in the video?

  • 0.999_equals1 Post author

    “Music is a universal language” is one of those claims vague enough that you really need to decide what it means before you go about determining how true it is- and also accept that someone deciding it means something else that is more or less true than what you came up with can be perfectly valid in their interpretation.

  • Acer Pseudoplantatus Post author

    Music is definitely not a language, though. Languages are sets of symbols and syntax used to communicate information. And while there are symbolic "figures" or motifs uses as symbols in music, music itself is not inherently symbolic.
    Also, the "major = happy, minor=sad" is a rather recent idea. In the renaissance major was seen as harsh, rather and minor as soft and beautiful.

  • Murrlin27 Post author


  • Ale Lloveras Post author

    Good point. I think what's universal is the use (the need) of language, but every culture speaks it's own language, right? Of course speaking is "universal" but no one can chat without sharing some culture.

  • undertaker66687 Post author

    Music is universal it's just not a language! In my view music is pure narrative and humans infuse the language when they ear it in order to give it meaning.

  • Thomas Evans Post author

    “The math that music is built on <pause> doesn’t really work” makes me sad. But there’s truth in that sad statement.

    An example: Start on A; go up a fourth; go up another fourth. Now you’re on G, right? So 4 + 4 = 7? Aieee!

  • WhyCan'tIRemainAnonymous?! Post author

    On major and minor, there's definitely some cultural variation there as well. A recent example I came across, which I find intriguing, is that the Arabic version of "The Wheels on the Bus" is in minor (you can find it on Youtube pretty easily). I don't think Arabic-speaking toddlers perceive the song as sad.
    Also, well within the Western tradition itself, Shostakovitch had a habit of intentionally reversing the interpretation (if not quite the feel) of major and minor in many works (so, for instance, the "invasion theme" in his 7th symphony, which represents the advancing Nazi army and culminates in the audible sound of sirens, is a jolly major-key ditty).
    Finally, there are many harmonic contexts in which major chords sound melancholy and minor ones sound upbeat (take the F minor in Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke", which Adam Neely once analyzed, for example).

  • Ace Lightning Post author

    I certainly would disapprove of music becoming totally homogenized and "Westernized", but I don't think that will happen – there are always surprises, like the sudden interest in K-pop, with its unmistakeably Korean slant on the cliches of pop music. I feel that its's important for people to expose themselves (and each other) to as much diversity in music as possible – Beethoven, Willie Nelson, be-bop, African drumming, and Broadway all have different things to say, and different ways to express them, and that's fun!

  • mark heyne Post author

    First of all, yes, music can be considered a 'language; because it has a 'grammar' : in its scales, keys and ''functional harmony', and there is a fair amount of agreement on the rules of that grammar. Whether it has a semiology is another matter, as the emotions communicated or inspired by a piece of music depend so much on what you bring to the music. At that point all talk about meaning is really 'reader response' and debatable.

  • Rapea Sammakko Post author

    Was there one click more than usual in the intro?

  • Janie Wilcox Post author

    Music may not be a universal language, but it sure is a universal phenomenon 🙂

  • Hudson Hovil Post author

    One of your best videos

  • Brian • Post author

    I just watched a cinefix video that said good Shakespeare can be understood by everyone, even non-English speakers. The emotions portrayed by the actors can be understood across cultures, so in a way Shakespeare can be called universal here on Earth. I’d call storytelling universal and you don’t need words to tell a story. Music is an abstract form of storytelling and some music can be understood across cultures, just like well-acted Shakespeare. Just some thoughts

  • Järvi Post author

    Music is not a language in any definition of the word, so no.

  • steven hamlin Post author

    To your point "if music was a universal language, shouldn't we agree when someone is speaking it?" I'm pretty sure someone can string together an English sentence with so many big or obscure words, you wouldn't know if they're even speaking English.

  • Ty Katsarelis Post author

    Solid impromptu Fibonacci spiral

  • butthemeatwasbad Post author

    Once you take an aesthetics class, there's no way to think of music as universal. Not to oversimplify anything, but since each person receives music based on their own previous experiences and meaning/opinions/taste is not universal, there's just no way to call it universal unless your musical exposure is severely limited.

  • Snorri Bjarnason Post author

    What you're saying is that musical traditions, predominantly the western one aren't a universal language, but are they part of one?

  • Boaty McBoatface Post author

    You ever rock out to a foreign song? Me too. It's universal.

  • Anirudh Silai Post author

    Different people have different tastes. Perhaps music isn't a universal language, but that doesn't mean we can't translate it; Different cultures can always borrow from each other and create something new

  • Sporkaganza Post author

    I love the anti-clickbait thumbnail trend that Adam Neely started.

  • Justin Gilbert Post author

    Do you save the the pages you draw for these videos? Idk if it's a Patreon reward or something, but it would be cool to have one of these pages (I'm weird, sorry lol).

    Edit: I looked and it's not. And interesting idea but I get that you wouldn't want to just give that stuff away. Just a thought.

  • Anonymous Freak Post author

    Question asked in title, answered in thumbnail. Nice! No need to watch! (But did anyway.)

  • INADRM Post author

    Great explanation!

  • Manny Cowdrey-Cuberos Post author

    The harmonic series/the ratios derived from it is a substantive universal from which many distinct but still cognate musical systems can and always will be derived through subjective interpretation. All music is partly rooted in it, but almost none adheres to it exactly. That's certainly a manner of universality if you ask me.

    (This comment brought to you by the Unanswered Question gang)

  • Tobias Nett Post author

    In the end music is not about which numbers are prime but about which prime numbers are the favourites of the group

  • Saif ul malook Post author

    Another Muslim musician here. Our lore suggests that a freed-slave by the name of Bilal had a beautiful singing voice and was chosen to deliver the Adaan during the prophet's time. If a singer is a desirable vessel to deliver the adaan by, I say it's fair to call it music by nature, you can still try and create the maqamat distinction but that is just to be sensitive to Muslim faith I guess.

  • OmbraDiFenicia Post author

    So I just got accepted into Yale today and I had this huge essay about my work in music allowing me to tap into the universal language that is music and you just came along and unintentionally tore my essay apart, so thanks for that. Still a great video as always, love your channel!

  • Carlos Medina Post author

    I agree with everything you said, love the video, but still music is the closest thing to a universal language that exists.

    Even after everything you said, most of your arguments apply to most languages, and not just between languages, but in the same language with different accents or nuances, music could still be a "universal language" if we consider that most of the flaws you pointed out come from the imperfection of what a "language" is, not really from its "universality" or lack thereof.

    Also the flaws in what "art" is, for example, true universality would mean that I'm able to compose a song about leaving home and moving to anither country, and anyone would still get that same idea, but it would habing different people feel different emotions based on that idea does not contradict its univestality, some people might find it sad bevause they are leaving home and other peopke might find it exciting because of the 'travel and discover' part, and they woukd disagree on wether it's a happy or sad song, but it would still be universal if they agree that the song is about leaving home.

  • sacundim Post author

    I don't think people who think music is a universal language have heard a lot of, say, Mbalax or Wassoulou music. First time I heard the latter I thought to myself "gee, I guess if Martians existed this is what their music would sound like." An exercise: which of these two songs is the sad one?

    And some Senegalese songs have a rhythm that just didn't sound rhythmic to me at all the first time. Got used to it in a few weeks.

    I'd add at the end of your video that it's not just Western music that's reached a big chunk of the world these days, but also lots of elements of African music as well. (I mean, come on, you did a video on clave…)

  • Wes Hampson Post author

    As far as music being a language goes — that is allowing for humans across the world to communicate universally — I'd say that's likely false. However, I do feel that humans across the world do have an innate understanding of what music is and may be able to interact at a more primal, less artistic, level using music.

  • Spanish Moustache Post author

    I said "It feels adventurous" at the same time you did!

    I feel special.

  • Wadwizard ZOL Post author

    I dont know if i entirely mind the idea of music becoming universal, but i dont see it in the sense of western music seeping into everyone elses music, instead what i hope is that we can play all the things.
    I think the dissapointing thing with styles of music and art and generally 'progress' in certain fields is that the new things replace the old things… but the new things arent necessarily better or superior or any real improvement, they are just different and yet one model or style will replace the old styles for the most part despite the fact that really they all give different effects.
    Why cant we just add to the pile of things we make instead of movements or genres sorta dying out, why do cultures have to be burried, cant we just share them? Keep all of them, but also have the freedom to do anything you want, explore all the possibilities the medium has to offer.

    What i hope is that one day we can perhaps use the full range of pitch, pick what intervals fit the music, create scales from the full spectrum instead of one particular tuning system. Gonna have to sneak it in tho, none of that crazy atonal dissonant rough stuff, thats great and all but if thats all you do its never gonna catch on, gotta show its usefull and can sound pleasant. Why does gamelan and maqam and indian music sound relatively pleasant despite not being from my own culture, i think part of the thing is it can be much easier to accept in a more melodic form and also with the voice we kindof are used to a little more "imperfection" in the pitch than with something like a piano.

    Well that was a tangent, woo

  • Pierre Lewin Post author

    Music is not a universal language. Agree.
    However, lots of musics of the world use comun "words", like intervals (with some tuning variations), polyrythms and timbres. But the fact that the sound "aaa" is used by all the spoken langages on the planet doen't mean that languages are universal.
    Musics having many similarities is not surprising…

  • Narpas Sword Post author

    Didn't Sideways mention this exact thing in a video of theirs?

  • TS Post author

    Offensiveness isn't a reason why adhan isn't music. To me it's just ideological delusion to consider adhan not as music. Maybe not a certain kind of music but it has every important criteria of music except of "we say so it's not music".

  • Morzathoth Post author

    You know, I really think the fact that you always sacrifice something while making new tuning systems is actually one of the cooler things about moving out of 12edo. There is no perfect scale. 12 lacks a lot of in my opinion very cool intervals, the harmonic 7th, the 11th, the 13th, so that's a sacrifice. Just Intonation is uneven and there's an infinity of intervals out there that might be intimidating. 31 has an even lower fifth, more in tune major thirds and is a lot more notes.

    There is no perfect scale, you could use 94 to get a ton of intervals almost justly tuned and get the evenness of an equal division of the octave, but you also have 94 notes to keep track of.

    But I do think it's sad that we only have one tuning system in the west when there's a theoretically infinite amount of cool intervals out there.

    Yeah, that was the point of that rant. Make more music in 22edo. Have a good day.

  • Facundo Orlando Post author

    Talking about language, without the video explanation, that draws are like hieroglyphics.

  • Music Pills Post author

    Fortunately It isn't! Because there would not be creation without differences. We western people are arrogant in thinking that only western music theory is correct, we define It correct just cause of choices made through history

  • Hecatonicosachoron Post author

    The mathematics of music is universal and the physics of sound is essentially universal – the anatomy and function of the ear and the auditory system is sufficiently similar that it can be taken to be universal. But everything else isn't.
    I don't think that there are many cultures that do not use unison, octaves and probably even fifths and/or fourths.
    But melody is only one aspect of music. Timbre, harmonicity, tempo and cultural context are very important.
    E.g. during the renaissance and early baroque there there several light-hearted songs and folk tunes that were adapted for a religious setting; even though the melodies are the same the effect is completely different.

  • Atom-T Post author

    I think there’s a duality to your conversation here. Music like all art forms is subjective and that’s proven, which somewhat goes along side of how we interpret the music everyone hears. From an emotional or empathetic standpoint music or certain songs with whatever chords or arrangements “can” empathize with the person no matter what part of the world you are located in. Now
    Is it universal which is the point of your video and 100% no, depending on the song of course I think too to a degree, but it’s in the high percentile no doubt that people at least depending on the song agree how it makes them feel when listening to it. I believe it gets more abstract then the scope of your video can show and debating it in general much like a psychiatrist tries to peel back the layers of one’s mind. You as a theorist trying to arrange and make sense of peeling back the layers of music and what it can do. So I can understand and agree with how you show it from your point of view but I don’t agree with it necessarily and it stems much deeper then this conversation. Cheers!

  • Brigand231 Post author

    Nice, loved the Magic School Bus nod!

  • Joseph O'Neil Post author

    Do the rain song

  • Jeremy Keaton Post author

    I think your analyses is interesting, but I noticed that other than the brief section on experimental music, you focus almost entirely on pitch. You talk about different tuning systems among different cultures at different times, our different associations with those pitches, and disagreements in how pitched something must be to be music (the section on Muslim recitation). But you leave out the other kind of math in music, the one that doesn't have the complete problem of not adding up: rhythm. I don't really have the scientific knowledge to back this up, but I feel like if you brought a percussionist together from Africa, Asia, and someone from the West, they could still have musical communication through rhythm, even if they don't speak the same language. That kind of "math" is much easier to hear and always works. It would be interesting to see studies on this kind of idea. Anyway, I don't think your analysis is wrong and that rhythm alone can make music universal, but I do think that it is a more universal aspect then the ones you talk about, and leaving it out is leaving one of the fundamental elements of music out of your analysis!

  • Rene Wright Post author

    Thanks brother. Fantastic show

  • Nicolas Senziani Post author

    You should analyze dance of eternity

  • Amanda Kay Post author

    I felt the emotion of curiosity or inquisitive so adventure fits for me in the non-sad minor progression. I hear non-sad minors in Mexican, Cuban and South American music all the time. Does it depend on the type of minor? In Latin music styles is the Locrian (half diminished or minor 7 flat 5) often looked at as home key, restful yet not sad? Thanks for the fibonacci spirals and your terrific presentation of some of the mathematical complexities of 12TET. Your clip is certainly an easier and more understandable way than any of the ways I have tried to explain this complex historical topic.

  • aditya singh verma Post author


  • iLikeTheUDK Post author

    I fear the day music around the world will finally become completely westernised. Officially colonialism is gone now, at least for the most part, but for its outcomes we've only seen the beginning. In a sense colonialism is still very much a thing, and the deal with music is just one example of this.

  • Caz Gerald Post author

    Universal? How can we possibly know how others in the universe will perceive music, if at all?

  • QuarterTuned Post author

    It's definitely not a universal language, but it's definitely a universal phenomenon.

  • David Gustavsson Post author

    A series of guest videos with music theorists from different cultures explaining the core concepts of their music.

  • Pietjanhenk Post author

    I don't fully agree with you on your point that the math doesn't work out perfectly. Just because the interval isn't as simple as 2:3 doesn't mean the math doesn't work out. It's an exponential function, so you end up with really obscure frequencies. The note A4 is defined as 440Hz, every other single note is retracable from there. The next A is double that frequency, the previous A is half that frequency. Everything in between grows exponentially, you can really just smoothen out the curve from a collection of A's on a plot. Perfect (perfect) fifths and perfect octaves definitely do exist in the same system, they just don't have nice small fractions.

  • Jimmy Waltz Post author

    Really interesting video! I think a lot of people say “music is the universal language” just because it sounds nice and positive. Not that you were saying otherwise, but it’s absolutely true that music allows people to share complex emotions that they otherwise couldn’t communicate. Jamming, composing, and performing with other musicians can undoubtedly make people happier and more mature for way too many reasons to name. But I agree that “universal” isn’t the right word for it. Music brings people together, but there isn’t one musical language that can, or should be spoken all over the world. Connections through music either come from common knowledge between people from the same musical tradition, or from a genuine and respectful curiosity between people from different musical traditions.

  • genius11433 Post author

    That little melody at 3:27 sounded like something you'd compose for a video game: the background music for a palace, or perhaps a leitmotif for a member of the nobility.

  • Chief Autopilot Post author

    Well, sheet music is still universal for the most part, and the natural harmonic series is true around the world. It's just that there are different musical cultures, which shouldn't be any surprise. I would be very surprised if the world became homogeneous with music because that would probably mean that it would become homogenous with culture and that does not need to happen.

  • Jesse Sisolack Post author

    Well I have heard music from other cultures that do not follow the "rules" so I know music is not fully universal. Making music in some form is though. Music, and dancing for that matter, seems to be with all humans in all cultures in all places, though the music and dancing may be very different between cultures.

  • Crispen Smith Post author

    I've been thoroughly enjoying your videos for a while but this is easily my favorite so far. Brava.

  • Okyanus Kar Şen Post author

    The bit about islam, well, is not entirely true. There are too many religious currents to generalise it. Your point is valid though.

  • Mauro Windholz Post author

    Music may not be a universal language, in that not everybody understands the same meaning in musical sound, but music itself is universal, right? Doesn't every known culture has some type of manifestation that can be identified as music? Don't they all (or at least the vast majority) employ steady frequencies (pitches/notes) in singing or playing? Don't they all employ some sort of steady pulse or rhythms? These are not rhetoric by the way. Would love to know your thoughts on this.

  • _ Holo_The_Wise_Wolf _ Post author

    Dude you should analyse killer queen by queen also thanks for all the help in music theory without you I would probably of gotten a D in theory

  • Tsavorite Prince Post author

    Do a video on Bohlen-Pierce scale.

  • Tsavorite Prince Post author

    I think language and art are different. While language can describe abstract concepts and feelings, it’s really hard to do so, while art can describe concrete concepts, it’s hard (especially for music.)

  • P Post author

    Could you do a video about California Dreaming by the Mamas & the Papas?

  • Karl the Pagan Post author

    Request "all i want for christmas"

    Timely! Maybe too late in the season for this request. Have a happy holiday season.

  • Timothy Schulz Post author

    Music isn't maths. You can use maths to analyze or measure musical principals. That's theory. In all theory math is a usefull tool. Music is not theory. Music is music. Maths is maths.

  • Umaru Chan Post author

    Im trying to do self taught but I'm so lazy and unhappy ill probably never progress

  • CrimsonHarmony Post author

    Hey 12tone! I hope this comment gets noticed. I want to know, if a melody ends with a mediant, it sounds like it's been left hanging even though it's technically classified as a tonic chord. What are your opinions?

  • Doc Nova Post author

    Hey you should do a break down video of Jim Croces "Time in a Bottle". I think you would enjoy that one.

  • Aleks Jabłoński Post author

    Can I make a request for an analysis of Cher’s hit ‘Dark Lady’?

  • Tomáš Mika Post author

    Is there a culture that deems the interval of an octave dissonant or unpleasant? Also, to summarize the expansion of Western culture with a gun seems somewhat unfair…

  • SquwooshK Post author

    Could you analyse a ween song please?

  • Losing My Way Post author

    I've been thinking about this exact concept for a while now. I come from a tuning background so I've always known the math was very shaky at best. Add to that Adam Neely's video on the "Cult of the Written Score" and how we often adjust our music to the limited format in order to have it more widely accessible and playable by others and your conclusion adds up perfectly.

  • Aster / Musician Post author

    Hey 12tone, I just discovered your channel and I really wanted to thank you for what you're doing! Your videos are really informative and thought-provoking, and the format is so great too! (Gotta love those cute elephants) Your voice is really soothing and adorable too, so it's always a pleasure to watch them!

    Thanks a lot!!

  • kassemir Post author

    I feel like most people don't think about maths, when it comes to this question.
    Music is universal, in the broadest meaning of the word, "universal". Like, I can listen to traditional Indian, or Japanese music. And, I can enjoy it on some level.
    However, it won't be the same sort of enjoyment as some one growing up with that music will have. Like, something that might sound foreign to me, might sound natural to that culture, and, of course lyrics, if there's singing to the music.
    Or, at least that's more how I look at this question personally.

  • Wynona Fudd Post author

    Great explanation! I like your point of view.

    We string players tune our instruments to Perfect Fifths, and we get along fine with instruments that don’t because we have the ability to play any pitch in our range. However, if I tune my guitar using its natural harmonics, the end result is not ideal because the frets are arranged using equal temperament.

  • Lawrence Siden Post author

    I'll believe that music is a universal language when I can order carry-out by playing my guitar over the phone.

  • Play Geetar Post author

    its not a universal language, its a language from the universe 😀

  • Valentin NAPOLI Post author

    I love your video, but I think one crucial point is missing. It's the fact that the same interval can be perceived:
    – differently given the context (the first melodic interval of Beethoven 5th Symphony is a major third, but we understand it as something deep and serious because we know the rest of the piece. But try to play the same interval, the exact same way, after having played some harmony in the context of Eb major. The same melodic piece that was before profound will sound joyful and light hearted.)
    – major or minor given your musical culture and education. This is the most important point. Indeed, let's consider a major chord. It's major because its third is major. But we never question the way we analyse intervals. Let's imagine a culture whose music is based on a system in which intervals are analysed from the higher pitch to the lower pitch. The same chord will be considered minor, because its third will be "upside down". Here is an example with C major. It's major because we understand it from bottom to top, with a C-E major third, and then a E-G minor third giving the C-G perfect fifth. But if we read it bottom to top, it will be based on a G-E minor third (I know it's hard to not consider it as a major sixth, but try to forget about your musical conventions, try to actually read it from top to bottom, in a "mirrored" way).

    This idea comes from a French musicology book named "La Musique Antique Grecque" (Ancient Greek Music). I don't know if this is famous or not, if you've ever heard about it, or if the conclusions of this book from 1961 are now well known but it was a real shock to me when I first read it. It's based on a mathematical concept name "psycharythms" that explain that intervals all have a different quality in addition the the frequency ratio, and this inherent quality remains in the way our brain understand it as music.

    The initial problem the author tried to solves is this one: when we hear the music of ancient greeks, it makes little sense. It seems poorly written. It doesn't start or end on the tonic, the most frequent note is the sub-dominant instead of the dominant, there is no cadence, the semitone attraction is never respected, etc. The question is: how is this possible? Ancient greeks were driven by reaching perfection in every field, living ahead of their time. How can their music knowledge be so weak? Then the author notices two things:

    1. ancient greeks enunciate scales from the highest pitch to the lowest. They even consider moving to a higher pitched note as descending instead of ascending.

    2. they mostly use the phyrigian mode but consider their music joyful and bright (even though this sound like a minor mode to our ears)

    I'm not sure the concept of negative harmony even existed at this moment, but if not, the author just created it at this very moment. He put himself into the mind of an ancient greek person using only these information. With this point of view, we would have to mirror everything and read intervals from the higher note, to the lower one. So :

    – major chords should be considered minor chords

    – the phyrigian scale would actually be the major scale!

    – the semitone attraction becomes visible

    – cadences appear (with the same tonal functions!!!)

    – etc. etc.

    Basically, ancient greeks were using everything we know in functional harmony, but all of this was hidden because of their (or our) mirrored way of conceptualizing (AND HEARING!!!!!!!!!) music. In other words, not only ancient greeks were using harmony as their default system but they were hearing music differently, because their ear were trained to understand intervals from (our) top to (our) bottom so minor scales were light and happy, and major scales were deep and sad. Unfortunately, there is no way we can hear music the way they heared it, but I still find fascinating that their musical world were the complete opposite of ours. There is no continuity between ancient greek music and medieval music. There's been a total breakdown, a paradigm shift so colossal we can't even understand ancient greek music when we hear it.

    When I read this book, it felt like the whole universe was different. I have the feeling most people ignore this, even though this could have the impact of Einstein's theory of general relativity but for music.

    PS: I'm french and sorry if I offended your eyes with any clumsy grammatical mistake.

    PS n°2: if you're comfortable with reading in french –>


  • Spencer Barney Post author

    What do you do with your manuscript paper after you record a video?

  • chris howell Post author

    I think it would be more accurate to say that 12 tone western harmony is not universal. It's a bit misleading to use Music as a stand in for something more specific. It is objective though in the sense that we can represent its tuning system. Some people can't tell if one pitch is higher or lower than another but it there's still a truth of the matter regardless. It's almost like arguing that a culture using a different base number system proves that math is not universally true.

  • Steve Göbel Post author

    who else stopped at 4:40 to listen to Steve Reich pendulum music? XD

  • Orka DRLJAČA Post author

    huh, well queue mister Tolkien's "music of Einur"

  • kitticatmandu Post author

    What of animals being drawn to music?
    Just b/c we don't all like/dislike a certain genre or song,, doesn't mean music is not a universal language. We are still all drawn to music, and it speaks to us..
    That doesn't mean we all hear the same not at all!
    Just like talk language or written language.
    It can be translated so that we may understand the words, but that doesn't mean we will all agree/disagree, whatever, after we hear it. But written or oral, language still crosses cultural, dialectical, time, place, and other barriers, so that the speaker may reach as many people as possible.
    I call the attempt – universal!
    Universally attempting to reach, speak, sing, etc. to as many people as they can.
    I was brought up in a very musical family and I took music appreciation, humanities, and other such classes.
    For me, music is Essential….like Food!
    Without which you would die!
    I have come to understand that some people (who must be dead), do not like music and never listen…at first I thought this was a strange joke…but learned it was true. I could not believe it!
    Sad life…I would choose blindness over deafness if that aweful question ever came into being..
    I Love Music…Peace, Love, and Positive Chi all coming your way🎵🎶🎼💖🕉☯️☮🔆💋

  • Cluster Crash Post author

    To me that cliche, means more than math.. Birds do sing. If I give another cliche upon this other cliche I gotta say: energy don't lie
    And there we could ALSO talk maths but hey..
    Navrasas in Indian art make sense in this matters
    So that point of pendulum music clicks right in to me

  • ex_culture Post author

    The concept and 'Western music' is a slowly dissipating category, at least within the field of 'contemporary art music' or 'new music'. The advent and incorporation of aleatory, non-linear structures, improvisation, microtonality, polyrhythms, non-Western musical instruments into orchestral and chamber music has slowly eroded the orientation of orchestral and chamber music as a Western art form. It's only within the field of film scoring that orchestral music continues recycle elemental practices from the Western canon.

  • MMM Post author

    I feel kinda bad for using the quote "music is the universal language" in my drawing now lol… Well the drawing is already done so that's too bad

  • Saurav S Post author

    Good video,but I have some arguments against your points

    Before I start,I would like to point out that music being universal does NOT mean the death of many cultural styles.Different cultural styles are just different ways of presenting music,but the music itself transcends culture.Even if music is universal,the cultural styles would still persist.

    That being said,let me get into the meat of the argument

    Your first argument:You can never play an exact octave or fifth

    Answer: That's true,but our minds(brains) are able to approximate to a certain extent; the note closest to the sound being played
    Else,how could we perceive music in the first place?

    Second argument:Different cultures prefer different

    First of all,the chord progression you played and what you said about it just further proved music is universal.

    You can't name a tune as just happy or sad.

    Music can be used to express a variety of emotions you cant express with words.This just further proves music is universal

    You said music expresses emotions.Thats what makes music a language.

    Anything that expresses is language.

    You also said that different cultures feel differently about different tunes.Some view happy tunes as superior to sad tunes

    Well doesn't the fact that they view some tunes as sad and some as happy go on to prove that music is a language?
    Maybe they like happy tunes more because their culture gives heavy focus on ideas regarding happiness than those regarding sadness.

    Whether they like it or not is a different thing,but the fact they do feel that different tunes give different emotions prove music is a universal language

    Also,most people who don't seriously listen to music(which comprises the general population),maybe used to some chord progressions more than others.Because of this their brains can process those tunes better.Which may lead them to believe certain tunes are superior,whereas in reality if they were exposed to other tunes more frequently,they may even feel those tunes are superior and the ones that they feel are superior now would be inferior.

    Which leads me to say,all musical themes are equal,it's just some people are exposed to some more than others.

    You third argument: Experimental music…

    You said that music should express some emotion.Does the tune(not lyrics instruments or vocals) of pendulum music suggest some emotion like your tune that you played in this video did?
    If so then it's music.

    Many people including me would make the argument that music resembles poetry in many ways.In terms of repeating patterns,hanging phrases(questions),phrases that complete,phrases which emphasize on a certain idea,and an overarching theme.
    This suggests that music is a language.

    In my opinion,music is a universal language because it expresses emotions.Anything that expresses is language.Emotions are a universal thing to humans.Thus music is a universal language.

  • Smashhell Post author

    I think music is universal, the problems is that we are not even infants in regards of understanding the universal music (up to quantum level).

  • MrRoboto66 Post author

    I feel like you need to watch Leonard Bernstein's Unanswered Question where he explores the idea of a musical monogenesis.

  • Voyage Media Group Post author

    I disagree – Music is a universal language with many dialects, but it is not a language that expresses words like words do. It expresses other things that cannot be said with words. Music can shift your mood from sad to happy to excited… or set an atmosphere etc… this is a powerful language that can affect emotions, change cultures, etc… but definitely a language – if you understand how to use it, but it is not taught as a language, but a skill. Every language has various skill levels- as to communicate effectively, it takes skill. Try watching any movie without music, you will instantly lose the meaning behind the message, because it is often in the music – the suspense, the action, the sadness… this is language.

  • Joshua Jackson Post author

    Music isn’t really maths, maths is used to describe music.

  • Aiden Neally Post author

    This is late but I kind of disagree partially with you here… Though I am not techincal in anything the way is use the saying that music is a universal language to me at least means that music lets us communicate our thoughts and feelings across cultural boundries. For example I don't speak a lick of japanese but when I listen to say Go! by Flow I still understand the messages of freedom, working hard and achiving your dreams even without understanding the lyrics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *