Friday, March 23, 2012

Making Beautiful Music

Univesal Language

If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.
Gustav Mahler
There have been many noble attempts throughout human history to construct a universal language, Esperanto being the latest effort with limited success. The idea behind such an effort of universality is the same as that behind the League of Nations and the United Nations—to promote world peace and harmony through a neutral constructed language. Such good intentions have had limited results despite, or because of, their lofty ideals. Such shows that ideals are never enough, just a necessary starting point.

For many reasons I doubt that the human effort to construct a universal language will ever succeed, the least of which is historical national pride and the human need to separate into nations, tribes and tongues. But if you think about it, we already have a non-verbal universal language with its own script, rhythm and cadence—it's music.

When a nation wants to appeal to its citizens, it more often than not uses music to bring persons together. Think of your nation's anthem, good or bad, but you know it, even though you might not sing it aloud in public. Or of your nation's historical and folk songs. It's true that dictators and authoritarians also use music, in a very narrow sense, to reduce persons' humanity for nationalistic aims and use.

Even so, music has the power to unify in a positive way, where songs can and have transcended national, political and ethnic boundaries. There is a beautiful relationship between language and music. Music in many ways exceeds the ability of language to speak to both the mind and heart of individuals. I like what George Steiner writes in Errata: An examined life (1997):
The two forces, that of music and that of language, quintessentially conflictual, meet in the human voice when it sings. Language can only yield abstractions or images when it attempts to define the cardinal wonder of a singing mouth (that mouth whose unquenchable song outlives Orpheus' death and decapitation). Song is simultaneously the most carnal and spiritural of realities. It enlists diaphragm and soul. It can, with its very first notes, reduce the listener to desolation or transport him to ecstasy. (67)
Such is one of the chief reasons that I enjoy putting music on this site, for everyone around the world to enjoy.  And people do. Certain classical compositions, for example, appeal to a wide variety of persons from a multitude of nations. I am sure science has a wonderful explanation for why this is so, having to do with the mathematics of harmony and sound and its effects on the ear and the brain. But there are times when science has no need to explain, in tune with Mahler's thoughts on the limitations of language. Beautiful, harmonic music has no boundaries; it brings people together to enjoy something indescribable.


  1. We can talk about harmonic sequences, rhythmic patterns, etc. What we can't do is explain what makes music beautiful. Sometimes great music is linked to complexity or emotion, but some of the greatest music of all--by Mozart, Rossini, Offenbach, and many other composers--is neither complex nor emotional. We can enjoy music and explain its structure, but we can't understand its greatness.

  2. You wrote "I doubt that the human effort to construct a universal language will ever succeed." You’ll forgive me, I hope, for saying that you are far too pessimistic here. Esperanto, which is 125 yerars old this year, has caught on - although I acknoiwledge that it has some way to go. Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

    You're right about music as a non-verbal universal language - I'm a long-standing member of a Welsh male voice choir. However,you can't use music to ask the way to the train station or discuss religious views.

  3. Bill,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It seems that your knowledge of Esperanto has opened the doors of communication, which is always a good and wonderful thing. Both music and language have its place, though music might speak more to the heart.


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