Music, the Universal Language?

Toccata & Fugue in F      D. Buxtehude (1637-1707)

“Spirit of the Living God”

Praeludium & Fuga in Dm from “Ariadne Musica” J.C.F. Fischer (1656-1746)

In the story of Pentecost, isn’t it interesting that instead of the Holy Spirit making it possible for everyone in the crowd to understand the One Language in which the Gospel was being preached, S/He* instead ensured that everyone heard the Gospel in their own language?

Music is frequently called the ‘universal language’, but I don’t think it is universal at all. To be sure there is a foundation of physics and shared physiology amongst the human family that results in our music having common elements. We all hear in approximately the same frequency range of sounds. (Some species of hummingbirds, on the other hand, sing their songs in an ultrasonic range too high for humans to hear.) And there are certain musical pitch combinations that are universally used: the ‘octave’ (from DO to [re, mi, fa, so, la, ti] DO – a physics frequency ratio of 1 to 2) and the ‘fifth’ (from DO to [re, mi, fa] SO – a physics frequency ratio of 2 to 3). We are also very attuned to regular periods of time (due to pendulums of all sorts, and walking, and heartbeats, and breathing), which is the basis of rhythm – another characteristic of music everywhere. Funny how the average human walking pace is also the average musical tempo.

But much beyond that and the ‘universality’ starts breaking down. All sorts of folks find classical music incomprehensible. Others find country-western, or rap, or jazz incomprehensible. To be sure learning about other styles can bridge the gap, but there you are – responding isn’t ‘universal’, it’s learned. And that’s within the large tent of the music of Western Civilization – music from many parts of the world (like Indonesian gamelan) is absolutely opaque to me – I can make no sense of it at all. But then, I can’t make any sense of Malay either (the main language of the Indonesian region).

I note that Jesus tells the same story in many different garbs: the woman seeking the lost coin until she finds it, the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, the father waiting for his prodigal son. Maybe if He tells the Story enough different ways, I’ll finally get it!

* I note that the Hebrew word for Spirit (RUACH) is feminine. Meanwhile, the Greek word for Spirit (PNEUMA) is neuter. Sigh, yet another one for the gi-normous pile of Life Mysteries.