Music is sometimes described as a universal language—but is that really true? And what would it mean if music wasn't universal?

There's a lot we can learn about the universality of music by comparing how different cultures create music!

What counts as "music"?

Defining music is more difficult than it might seem because our definitions of music are influenced by our own experience and our culture's ideas about music. What one group thinks of as music will not always directly translate to another culture!

If you come from a culture that uses flutes and plays musical scales, you might be excited to find remnants of 40,000-year-old flutes. That seems like good evidence of music being really old! The problem is that not all societies use flutes and melodies as the building blocks of their music. How can we decide what counts as "music" when it might not look (or sound!) anything like our own music, thousands of years later and maybe in a different part of the world?

Another challenge is figuring out if the culture itself treats (or treated) a particular practice as "music." For example, the chanting of religious texts in Islam or Judaism might be deemed as musical by those unfamiliar with the culture, but are considered recitations—not music—by the practitioners themselves.

Even the idea of music being a specific, separate thing we do, play, love, or listen to depends on our culture. Separating these sounds from all other forms of activity going on (like dancing, celebrating, or chanting) is a particularly Western way of thinking about music. Across the world, some cultures (and their languages!) don't have specific words for what outsiders might consider to be similar musical practices.

How to identify music in different cultures

Instead, music researchers focus on features of the music, rather than deciding what is or is not music. For example, many cultures have music that is grouped into subdivisions of two or three beats and use musical scales that are not symmetrical—and each of those can count as an individual feature used by a community. 

If we come from a melody-building, flute-playing culture, it's a pretty tall order to look for that particular feature in every single community on earth, at all points in time! For music to really be universal, every group and culture would have to agree that what they are all doing is nearly the same. When you consider all the different cultures and communities, you can see how this  becomes a pretty complicated question! What researchers instead focus on is finding musical features that occur in most places, most of the time.

So, is music universal?

People all share the same biology, so it makes sense that we have the capacity to learn skills like singing and moving in time to a beat—the building blocks for many musical systems. And just like with language, the music of other cultures can be dramatically different compared to what we grew up with!