Just how 'universal' is music? That seems to be a very broad question, but here's some background to clarify: In the past, there have been many different ways of creating music. The only real standard of pitch is the octave, which is two notes exactly one half or twice the others' frequency. Between that, there have been tons of different ways of dividing the octave (12-tone, just intonation, 19 tone, 31 tone, pitch bending etc.) which obviously resulted in some very different types of music. When I listen to Armenian duduk music, for example, it all sounds very similar to me, a combination of familiar western music scales and modes with slightly bent pitches. I presume that they have many different types of music within their own culture, as we do in the west, and as every culture probably does. So, would our music sound similar to someone unfamiliar with it, as a person from a small Asian or African village that had its own, old and untainted musical tradition. Would they be able to distinguish between a jazzy piece and a baroque dance played on the same instrument? I realize that this sounds ridiculous (of COURSE they would sound different, right?) but I have to remind myself that I have an absolutely limited and biased perspective, as I have grown up completely within the envelope of European tradition music. I don't look for an answer necessarily from someone who grew up somewhere different, but from someone who can speculate about the degree to which perspective changes perception.

Thanks for your question. I can think of a couple ways ofanswering your question, we'll see if you think any of them areworthwhile.

It is often said in evolutionary accounts of human beings thatmusic is a universal feature, because it served or still serves somesurvival function. If one could indeed map the 'need' for musicagainst an evolved feature of the human brain, then that would provemusic is not merely cultural (and thus whether there is music in aparticular culture would be contingent). However, to evaluate thisevolutionary account empirically, presumably one would have torigorously define music, and distinguish it from language, poetry,noises, imitation, etc. And arriving at such a definition doesn'tseem easy for precisely the reasons you raise.

Similarly, it is often pointed out thatcultures in cold climates have many words for snow, while culturesfrom tropical climes have few or none. Many words are needed in theformer case to indicate differences that culture finds significantamong types of snow (dry, wet, hard, thin, whatever). A visitor fromthe tropics not only wouldn't know the names but very likely wouldn'tbe consciously aware of these subtle distinctions. Presumably, it'sthe same with musical styles. Music from a different culture tends tosound similar because you haven't been 'trained' or 'educated' tosense and perhaps also name the differences.

However, could one – given competenthearing, a competent trainer and enough time – learn to 'hear'music from any culture (anywhere in the world, that is, and from anyhistorical period)? What would this mean? Would it mean just to senseand name differences, or would it mean to understand the musiclike a native. You would still be a cultural outsider, of course,albeit a knowledgeable one. There's a lovely short story by Borgescalled 'Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote'. It is about a man whorecomposes (not copies, and not rewrites) the novel Don Quixoteseveral centuries after the original. Borges has great fundescribing how the two books are exactly the 'same' and yet meansomething entirely different; how the later one is, at severalpoints, much better because a phrase that was run-of-the-mill forCervantes was strikingly original in Menard's day.

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