The Universal Language - Part 1


There you are, sitting in the Hub on a typical Friday afternoon.  You scramble through the crowds of students to find an empty seat just to sit for the hour between now and your next class.  To no avail, you circle the hub three times and finally a seat opens up. You pull out a reading for your class, finger through the pages but can't seem to catch a break from the girl sitting next to you chatting obnoxiously on her cellphone. And the Starbucks line stretches out so far you're practically among the dozens of people waiting for their pumpkin spice lattes. Now you decide to whip out your earphones and switch on a playlist. Finally, some peace and quiet. You find serenity among the absolute chaos surrounding you. You smile to yourself as your favorite melody pours into your ears.

The above situation seems all too familiar to each of us. It's a simple equation. When we're feeling overwhelmed, stressed, upset, happy, or sad (whatever emotion happens to be with us that day) we choose music as our drug of choice. It acts as a pain reliever or gives us a euphoric high. Why is music truly the universal language? Why do we genuinely enjoy music? Why are we willing to pay hundreds of dollars for fancy headphones, concert tickets, or mp3s? I hope to answer these questions and support the importance of music in my following blog posts.

To start simply, according to Webster's dictionary music is "the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity." The textbook definition sounds rather wordy, so it is much simpler to break music down to a colorful science of art. One question that has been pondered throughout the ages is if music truly is the universal language? Well, according to a study published on March 19th, 2009 in Current Biology newsmagazine yes, yes it is. The revolutionary study conducted by Thomas Fritz and Stefan Koelsch of the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences along with their colleagues, set their objective on the effects of Western music. They wanted to explore the many ways Western music can be understood and possibly appreciated by people who had absolutely no previous experience. The researchers contrasted the expression of emotion in typical Western music to the culturally vibrant, ritualistic music found in other musical traditions. Although previous studies had been conducted in attempt to make similar finds, none truly required participants "who are completely naive to Western music."

music keyboard countries.jpg

To find participants for this study, Fritz and his team of colleagues traveled to the central African country Cameroon where he recruited the Mafa community, one of the many ethnic tribes located in the region. The researchers traveled to the group's home located in the desolate Mandara mountain ranges. There, Fritz brought a backpack with his laptop computer and solar electricity source to power the laptop.  The studies concluded that Mafa listeners who had never heard Western music could register musical expressions of emotions, "more often than would be expected by chance." Twenty-one Mafa group members participated, and due to the incredibly unique experience of listening to Western music the research concluded two of the participants were more than likely performing at chance level. The study later included a number of Westerners who had never been exposed to Western music. In all, the listeners used human instinct to decode messages such as changes in tempo, volume and pitch. Interestingly, the study also concluded that these first time listeners found the original version of music   more appealing than the remixed or technologically altered versions.

The ultimate conclusion of this study was that both new listeners, Mafa and Westerners, possessed the capability to "recognize three basic emotional expressions" undergone in this study. All participants were able to gauge at or above the chance level which is indicative of the fact that these Western pieces can indeed be universally recognized. Fritz compared these results of universal music to that of recognizing human facial expressions and speech intonation.  This study, specific and unique from others done before helps us see that despite chance and third variables, this control group was able to truly verify that music is a universal language.

In my opinion, I find the study quite interesting and well thought out. Although it was hard for me to distinguish particular details from the article I read, I do feel the study was a success. It found problems from earlier trials and applied that knowledge to the new experiment. Because the nature of the objective was rather obvious and general, I feel that third variables and chance do not really take part in the study. If the subject has never heard Western music or anything like it, they simply must rely on their own instincts to guide them. According to Fritz and his team of experts, they did just that. They differentiated between the feelings emoted through song. Personally, I would have been interested to see the song list they chose to play for the participants. What would you have done differently if conducting the study?


I love that people from Cameroon can appreciate Western music. When you speak of music as a universal language, this video comes to mind ( It is a truly amazing demonstration by Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival where he demonstrates that the pentatonic scale is actually second nature to most people. It's only three minutes. You should definitely check it out. Anyway, next time I slip away to my favorite song, I'll definitely appreciate it even more. This was a great blog post.

Thanks Greg, for your commment! I watched the video and you were exactly right. It's an incredible study. I never really thought to add drunkenness to the mix. It's rather funny that even when drunk our body still has these tell-tale behaviors. This article on CNN entitled "This is your brain on music" is a solid article. It has a lot of information from Daniel Levitin from McGill University. Let me know if you decide to give it a read!It gives a thorough examination of the chemical processes that take place when listening to music.

I forgot to add the link:

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