The Music Between Us: Is Music a Universal Language?

August 23, 2012

Pity the poor musicologist, until relatively recently able to preside with impunity over fiefdoms of specialist know-ledge but now required to know the distinguishing nuances of sludge, black or doom metal, footwork and dubstep, Lachenmann and micro-improv, J-pop and K-pop. Into this fraught arena steps Kathleen Marie Higgins, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, whose mission is to interrogate the truism of music's universality. Does the existence of breakdancers in Laos or Lang Lang at Buckingham Palace mean that we are all, as the saying goes, singing from the same hymn sheet?

Why do we listen to music anyway? Is music, as the psychologist Steven Pinker has suggested, a form of auditory cheesecake, seductive enough but in evolutionary terms an irrelevance? Or is it superfood for the senses, essential to communality and emotional well-being, the source of belief in the continuity of time that projects us confidently into an otherwise uncertain future?

Higgins acts as a generous, perspicacious guide through this complex interdisciplinary field of theories both illuminating and reactionary. She considers the question of whether non-human animals are musical, giving a tentatively positive answer by arguing for an expanded definition of music and opening up the global field of listening beyond common humanity to all sentient beings. As for humans, the possibility of real cross-cultural understanding is particularly apposite to our increasingly globalised world. Again, she finds hopeful signs of mutual intelligibility tempered by cautionary notes - in this case, a realisation that her enjoyment of Indonesian singer Rhoma Irama's song Sahabat (Friends) was probably unwelcome, since the lyric promotes the exclusionary idea that true friendship can be enjoyed only with one's co-religionists.

Then there is language, a particularly tricky negotiation for an academic study that invests all its credibility in the word. Is music a deficient language or does it transcend language? Through the course of this argument, we encounter interesting phenomena including "transposable aboutness", which offers a clearer understanding of how music communicates multiple layers of meaning without the need for consensual reference. "Music does not lack meaning by comparison with language," she concludes. "Its meaning is less restricted."

The author's scholarly diligence and judicial sense of fair play given to all this highly condensed evidence can make passages of the book a screamingly tedious read, leading by increments to the belief that music is all about safety and belonging. Music offers ontological security, she argues. Assisted by music's conservatism - its built-in redundancy, for example - it allows us to feel a rapport with others, to feel we are not alone. "Music can shake people up and encourage change," she writes, "but this only works effectively ... when music supports the belief that one is ultimately safe."

This is a dispiritingly conservative, cosy and easily refuted message, particularly when supported, as it is, by a maudlin quote from Eric Clapton's 1998 official tour programme. Although music's divisive powers are acknowledged, there is more to be examined, particularly in the case of musical forms that, like gangs, allow some degree of comfort for aficionados yet are not in themselves inherently secure.

Despite a seemingly catholic range of musical reference, the problem may be Higgins' lack of anomalous or problematic case studies. When she uses the word "contemporary", she applies it to Jefferson Airplane's Wooden Ships, remembered by those of us eligible for a Freedom Pass, perhaps, but not exactly a litmus test for the present. Her efforts to open up a discourse to other voices through ethnomusicology are welcome, yet they do little to disturb a musical landscape that is open-minded yet unaware of its own partiality. Excellent this may be as an overview of the scholarship, but its final message is an anticlimax.

The Music Between Us: Is Music a Universal Language?

By Kathleen Marie Higgins University of Chicago Press. 296pp, £26.00. ISBN 9780226333281 and 334 (e-book). Published 14 May 2012

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