Have your heard of instrumental hits such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Strauss’ The Blue Danube, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5? Did you experience a certain feeling after listening to these hits? It’s fascinating how these instrumental pieces that do not contain any words have the capacity to evoke certain feelings within us. What causes one to experience those feelings? Music practitioners explain this phenomenon by regarding music to be a universal language - one that conveys primal feelings shared at the core of the human experience.
Whilst music cannot singularly express every person’s thoughts, it does have the power to evoke deep primal feelings shared by all humans across different cultures. For example, fluctuations in melody such as higher or lower pitches, and faster or slower tempos tend to evoke emotions from humans, either positive or negative. Whilst each person may experience different emotions listening to the same song, it would be rare to find someone who is completely unaffected by the music that they listen to. For example, try and recall the first time you heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Did it make you feel empowered? Or did it make you feel restless and urgent? Either way, an emotional connection with the music was established.
Listening to music is often compared to interpreting body language. Just like how we interpret non-verbal cues such as posture, gestures and movements, we can also interpret sounds in a similar manner. In body language, culture and aesthetics play a big role in our interpretation of various gestures. Similarly, in music, our understanding of music plays an important role in interpreting the music that we listen to. It isn’t a coincidence that our favourite songs are usually songs that we share a connection with, contextually and emotionally. When listening to instrumental music, listeners will form their own syntax to the music they listen to. Usually, these will revolve around emotions and feelings, engaging the listener, forming a connection between them and the music.
‘Gangnam Style", ‘Despacito” are examples of hits that have topped music charts worldwide, even in regions that do not converse in their language. These hits prove to us that lyrics contribute to only a limited part of the whole listening experience. Apart from lyrics, we also process the whole musical idea in terms of pitch, rhythm, timbre and tempo. This is the reason why we are able to hum songs accurately even if we do not know the words to the song. In improvised music settings, the idea of music as a language deepens further. Music improvisers are always trying to increase their music “vocabulary”, licks, phrases or ideas that they can call upon during an improvisation. In this setting, improvisers express themselves through music through musical statements and development.
Check out the video below by Victor Wooten comparing music to our spoken language.
In the meantime, Play on and Tinkle Away!