Is Music Truly The Universal Language?

Marcos Varela

How audiences around the world appreciate music differently

By Jon Liebman
Week of March 11, 2019

This week, we published a compelling interview with Marcos Varela, an incredible bassist with a fascinating career that’s taken him all over the world. In the last couple years alone, Marcos has performed everywhere from Spain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands, to Ireland, Austria, Turkey, and Zimbabwe, not to mention a few shows closer to home, including Seattle and San Francisco.

The conversation quickly turned to a discussion about how many different types of music and cultures exist in the world, and in what ways Marcos’ experiences are similar, or dissimilar, as he is constantly confronted with such a wide diversity of audiences. Music is often referred to as “the universal language,” but is that statement really true?

I had a professor in college who was quite adamant about teaching us that music should not being considered a universal language, but rather a beacon of one’s national pride and heritage. He cited some of history’s most celebrated composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Wagner, whose music, he said, exemplified deep pride for their respective homelands.

Over the years, I’ve raised the subject in conversations with other bass players, particularly in comparing audiences in Europe and Japan with those in the U.S. During my first interview with John Patitucci, John commented on how he’d definitely noticed varying levels of passion and knowledge with audiences in France and Italy, compared to those in Germany, Norway, and South America. Kyle Eastwood weighed in on the topic too, recognizing a discernible difference in the ways audiences from disparate cultures appreciate music as an art form and in what ways their reactions were portrayed. I once watched a Beatles documentary where Paul McCartney recounted a short run the band had done in Paris early in their career. He seemed surprised at how it actually took a few days for the band to garner the high level of excitement they were expecting, noting that they were used to more immediate success. Yet another example is Paul Simon’s classic Graceland album, recorded in South Africa, where Paul discovered a whole new world of music and some truly incredible musicians he never knew existed, including the incomparable Bakithi Kumalo.

So, is music the universal language, as we’ve been told so many times, or is it a collection of varying styles and techniques, each inherent to a distinct fiefdom somewhere the world? Either way, the sharing of ideas and inspiration is what’s important. It doesn’t matter to me who gets the credit.

How about you? Do you have a thought on the subject? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

In the meantime, check out my interview with Marcos here.

Comments on Is Music Truly The Universal Language?

  1. Marsonus says:

    To me, music is human, it’s nature, it’s love! It‘s in harmony with our own rhythm of body and of life. It’s respect and restraint and order and anarchy, all at once. It connects, creates, constructs. It connects people, creates harmony, constructs joy. The common feature of humanity is to make sound that resonates with one another. That’s pretty universal!

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