The famous fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen once wrote, “Where words fail, music speaks.” I think that phrase perfectly sums up why music is a universal language. Music goes beyond words and acts as a bridge between people from different cultures.
Interestingly, not only humans use music to communicate, but also marine animals and many mammals use frequency to warn other members of their species of danger.
There are incredible whale song recordings that have been sampled and used as ambient music beds by artists such as Nicole Rampersaud and other neo-classical composers.
You can actually hear pitches and rhythms in whale songs. That’s amazing, right?
There are so many examples out there that show just how powerful music can be in conveying information.
But don’t just take my word for it, here is my proof that music is a language everyone can understand:
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Music as Ritual
So, when I first landed in LA, I had the chance to jam with an amazing percussion band filled with people from all over the world. And get this, almost no one spoke English!
It was a challenge just to get everyone in the same room to record. But once we did, and someone started playing a beat, everyone else just jumped in and played along like magic.
I was blown away! How did they all know when to switch sections or what tempo to play at? It was all just instinct, man.
Later on, I got to talking with one of the African percussionists who actually spoke English. I asked him how they all knew where to play without being able to read sheet music. And he told me something wild.
You see, a lot of these percussionists come from tribes where they don’t read music. So they learn all their beats through examples and word of mouth from elders in their tribe who have passed down traditions for thousands of years.
The interesting thing is that although these rhythms go back thousands of years and are from different corners of the world, they have similarities.
This is particularly true in tribal regions of Africa, India, and South America. In many of these countries these rhythms were part of spiritual rituals.
It is remarkable to observe how music can unite people, even when they do not share a common spoken language.
Phrasing (Musical Conversation)
I recently watched a master class by the legendary composer Hans Zimmer, where he explained how he creates memorable melodies. He and many classical composers structure their melodies like a conversation with a question and answer.
Zimmer demonstrated this by playing the first part ascending and the answer descending on the piano.
This concept stuck with me, and a few weeks later during a jazz session, I found myself unconsciously using it. During a breakdown section, the sax player played some sweet bebop lines, and I answered with descending phrasing on the piano.
When we listened to the recording in the control room, everyone loved it. The sax player even commented that it sounded like we were having a conversation.
Film Music: The Language of Feelings
Okay, I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that I’ve shed a tear or two during some movies. I mean, I’m a guy and all, but when Leonardo DiCaprio freezes to death on the Titanic and Celine Dion’s famous pop song comes on, I’m a total mess.
But then I started studying film scoring at Berklee College of Music, and we eventually got to James Horner’s beautiful score for Titanic. I realized that even though I thought my reaction was all because of Celine’s song, I had actually heard that theme throughout the movie, played subtly by the orchestra.
So by the time there’s a tragic or sad ending in the movie, we’re already primed to react instinctively to the music. That melody was the bond between the characters.
And you know what? There’s only one explanation for why songs and especially orchestral scores tied to films create such a powerful reaction in us. It’s because the music expresses what isn’t being said on screen.
I mean, it doesn’t even have to be a love song. All it takes is the motif of Jaws by John Williams to make you want to get the heck out of the water.
That’s real power right there!
The Mozart Effect
I bet some of you parents have heard of the Mozart effect. You know, all those books, CDs, apps, and other stuff that claim that if you play Mozart to your unborn baby, they’ll come out with super memory, math, and reading skills?
Who knows if it’s just hype to sell stuff or if it actually works, but the fact that so many people bought into it makes you think that music might be a way to communicate with your unborn baby and improve their chances in life.
After all, the mother’s heartbeat is the first rhythm they hear.
And there are loads of examples of the Mozart effect in action.
I have a personal Mozart effect story about my now ten-year-old daughter. When my wife was pregnant, I had a small setup next to my piano to compose music. I used to play a specific song while my wife lay pregnant, on the couch, in agony.
Fast forward to when my daughter was just three weeks old and she was crying every night from ear infections, pain, and general discomfort.
One night, she was crying so hard that I started playing the piano – the same song I had composed and constantly played during my wife’s last trimester. She instantly quieted down, looked at me, and smiled.
In so many ways, my piano melody comforted her, reminding her that she was safe, just like she was in the womb. If that’s not music acting as a language, I don’t know what is.
Music Therapy and Binaural Beats
One of my first jobs, when I moved to LA, was helping a music therapist create guided meditations. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew how to create background music, and I needed the money, so why not, right?
But it turned out to be pretty interesting. She showed me how different tunings and frequencies can access different parts of your brain and memories.
At first, I thought it was just some hippie-dippy LA thing, but then we started recording and experimenting with pure sine waves at frequencies like 432 instead of the usual 440, and different metallic sounds from Tibetan singing bowls and other instruments.
She even showed me videos of her patients reacting strongly to past traumas, and then calming down with what she called binaural beats.
Basically, when you hear different tones in each ear, your brain interprets a third tone that is the difference between the two. That’s a binaural sound.
It’s pretty trippy, but I know people with major anxiety who have been completely cured by this music therapy.
It’s amazing how our brains can be changed by something as simple as music, right? This goes to show how, on some evolutionary level, we are wired to feel and understand music – all of us!
I could ramble on for days about why music is a language that speaks to everyone, but let me just say that the proof is in the pudding: the phenomenon of world-famous singers.
I’ve listened to songs in languages I don’t even understand and still had a powerful reaction. I’ve been to concerts where people fainted from being so overwhelmed by the emotions brought out by the music on stage.
I’ve been in recording sessions where, beyond getting goosebumps, I’ve felt like I’m on a different plane of existence after hearing an amazing performance. Words and language can never elicit such passionate reactions.
Music is something that goes deeper; it transcends age, race, wealth, social status, and even our state of mind.
It’s like a force of nature, because in a world where people are divided over shallow and political beliefs, we can all agree that music has no boundaries.
Even NASA has picked up music from other galaxies. If you’re interested in learning more about the Hubble telescope project, check out From Space to Sound.
So, yeah, I think it’s safe to say that music might be THE Universal language.