Is music a universal language?

Music strongly depends on society and culture. Different people in different countries produce different music. For example, African music, Western classical music, Japanese and Gamelan music all sounds very different. Obviously, geography is not the only responsible for this phenomenon. Even in the same place, we have radically different types of music depending on the period. For example, 18th century classical European music is remarkably different from 20th century European serial music.


Nonetheless, it is possible to identify a bunch of core constructs that are shared by all types of music. Those common traits are called musical universals. Of course, it is almost impossible to demonstrate the universality of a musical trait. Rather, one can look for the same common trait within different cultures and postulate its universality based on statistical inference. Furthermore, some common traits are less “universal” than others, since they don’t appear in all of the musical styles, but only in most of them. We call those constructs quasi musical universals.

Musical universals help us understand how human mind works. They are related to basic cognitive phenomena shared by all humans. Specifically, musical universals shed a light on how human mind perceives, organizes, stores and elaborates musical information. This knowledge can be then generalized in order to transcend the musical domain, and become a starting point to understand how human mind behaves.

Here I provide a couple of non-inclusive lists of musical universals based on the pioneering work of Kathleen Marie Higgins. The first list is about processing universals of music perception:

  1. We distinguish signals from noise.
  2. We perceive musical information in chunks.
  3. We perceive a tone an octave away form a given tone as effectively the same tone.
  4. We organize musical signals in terms of melodic contour.
  5. We more easily remember intervals and sequences of tones with frequencies in small-integer ratios with one another (consonances).
  6. We utilize frameworks of discrete scale pitches, typically with uneven step-size.
  7. Scales tend to be restricted to five to seven tones.
  8. Pitches are organized hierarchically within the scale.

The following list is about universals in structuring musical pieces:

  1. Music is made in “pieces” or “utterances”.
  2. Melodies tend to be constructed on the basis of fairly small successive intervals.
  3. Almost all musical cultures employ a centering tone or other sort of goal-defining device.
  4. Musical utterances tend to descend in pitch at the end.
  5. Internal repetition is typical within musical utterances.
  6. Music is organized in hierarchical structures.
  7. Nearly universal tendency to construct rhythms on the basis of patterns of twos and threes.

Musical universals are direct manifestation of the human biological/psychological inner constructs. Although music is highly influenced by society and culture, however, thanks to musical universals, it is possible to claim that music can be regarded as a universal language shared by all humans.