Could music be the solution to all our language worries?

In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Music is the universal language of mankind”.

In my opinion, there are very few statements that music cannot express. In fact, if I were to list the most significant moments of my life, I would also be able to identify the music that accompanied them. Equally, I am confident in saying that during the most emotional moments of my life, be it moments of elation, sadness or anger, nothing can translate most effectively what it is that I am feeling better than music can. Being a language student, with the obstacles of language barriers always in the forefront of my mind when chatting to international students here in Durham, or native speakers when I myself am abroad, Longfellow’s words have, throughout the last few years, become more and more relevant.

During my time in France, I joined an orchestra in order to fulfil my inevitable musical needs, as well as to meet as many French native speakers as I could. Equally, in Costa Rica I spent my days by the beach writing songs with Rastafarian musicians or jamming with them in the local bar. I can safely say that not once did I feel as great a connection with people whom I had never met before, who did not speak my language, than I did during and after those sessions. The language barrier was broken, and the initial ‘what shall I say’ moment of panic was filled with another form of communication that was instantly comprehensible to all involved.

Particularly with regards to Erasmus study placements, I think that music really can be the key to breaking into a circle of native speakers and successfully maintaining real relationships with people who may not be familiar with your culture or language. Durham in particular is a perfect example of this, with such a vast array of musical ensembles and productions to be involved in. Lena Missel, German Erasmus student, gives her insight:

‘It is always a great challenge to settle down in a foreign country. For me, as a German exchange student, the ‘universal language’ of music was crucial in making Durham my new home for a year. By taking part in different musical projects here, I have met so many wonderful musicians. I gained the impression that meeting musicians; people with the same passion as me, is always a unique, enriching experience. I would have had difficulties in getting to know such great people in Durham if I didn’t play an instrument, which provides me with the opportunity to really experience English life.’

Like me, and like many musicians all over the world who have had the opportunity to share their passion with others outside of their country, Lena has been able to form new friendships thanks to music, which overpowered the language barrier that may have initially prevented her from connecting with others.

I do not, however, want to jump to the assumption that only musicians can benefit from the universal language of music. Take, for example, a concert hall full of people, all enjoying the calm and serene melodies of Brahms. People from all over the world could be sat in that same room, yet each and every person is able to receive the message that Brahms chose to convey with his composition. This ‘language’ has no boundaries; the vocabulary, the grammar and the accent are universal to anyone who allows him or herself to be spoken to.

I am not saying of course, that music is the only form of language that we need. We occasionally need to be slightly more specific in what we want to convey. And as many critics have pointed out, certain musical genres will have different meanings or evoke different emotions amongst varying cultures. For example, Indonesian tribal members would most probably interpret and react very differently to European concert-goers, after having listened to Mozart’s clarinet concerto, just as gamelan would have a different meaning and convey different emotions for Europeans than it would for its indigenous tribes. In other words, every input into our senses is a stimulus, available to be individually interpreted as a piece of information. It could be said that a given individual’s experience of music is so subjective, that that individual can never be certain that they share the same perception of it as somebody else. In fact, many fundamental messages of any given musical excerpt could be heavily lost in translation, simply due to the creative, artistic, and overly subjective nature of the discipline.

However, I do not think that anyone can deny that music unites people in some way or another, even through sharing a common passion, or through the emotion that the music itself evokes, which certainly provides a starting point from which mutual understanding can be evoked and from which relationships can be built. It therefore seems that in light of my many musical experiences abroad, as well as with foreign speakers in Durham, behind the poetic overtones of Longfellow’s intelligent words, there lies more meaning that I had ever really imagined.

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