I've been living in my college town again for a year and a half, and through musical happenings in the area I am gradually encountering many of my old classmates and professors.
Recently I reconnected with my Concordia College World Musics professor, Daniel Breedon, at a holiday gig we both played. One of my strongest memories from that class is Breedon's view that music is not a universal language, contrary to what many people believe.
Last week, I visited my former professor's office for a chat about this topic. Ten years ago I had had private composition lessons there, and things looked much the same, though his harpsichord, sadly, had been temporarily moved to the recital hall. Arriving for our meeting before Breedon did, I also had the opportunity to study the clever messages and artwork people have left on his door. A clearly affectionate reference to the villains of Harry Potter made me laugh out loud, twice.
Breedon began by explaining his purpose this way: "In the World Musics class, I'm trying to destroy the plot of elementary school teachers to convince children there are other children just like them around the world, so let's make a bulletin board and learn songs from other countries.
"I don't usually put it that way, as if kindergarten teachers are a haven of evil intentions, but I see students nod in my class. 'Oh yeah, I remember that bulletin board.' So I've already at that point gotten them to see that music has always been a universal human activity.
"All humans are musical. But to call music a language has a lot of problems, aside from the assumption that if we listen to music from another country, we will automatically respond to it the way [listeners there] respond to it.
"This is the crux of the matter," he continued. "When one says that music is a universal language, often that's [followed] with 'Music expresses the emotions more effectively than any art.' We all feel that at some basic level, and that's where the confusion comes from. But the expressions we hear in our own music are very culturally determined.
"Even by the Renaissance, it was understood that certain musical patterns mean things. Minor will be more appropriate for expressing sorrow, and major for expressing joy.
"Eventually this became called the doctrine of affections, which is very much present in film music: there are stock kinds of music associated with certain kinds of emotions. Music can even tell you when something is not as it seems to be, like menacing music in the background of an otherwise happy scene.
"And then there's the problem of calling music a language. There is nothing in music that is like a word which signifies something else. Of course there's programmatic music, with something that represents the rustling of leaves, for example. But there is no grammar to music. Notes don't have to come in a certain order to make sense, unlike language.
"Though in some sense," Breedon acknowledged, "tonal music is full of syntax — dominants, tonics, pre-dominants — and nobody could compose if they didn't understand this."
At one point in our conversation, I asked Breedon why he thinks so many people are inclined to see music as a universal language. His take: "It is because they understand music above all to be a language expressing emotions. And we know that if we are like other human beings around the world, we express emotions pretty much the same way. Laughter, gestures, raising an eyebrow.
"So if we all express emotion similarly, and we all make music, isn't that music expressing the same emotions? We think that because music doesn't have words, it bypasses the problem of our other languages — that you can't understand. But [people who think this way] for the most part haven't heard other music from around the world, or they've heard sanitized or familiarly harmonized versions.
"Or worst of all, they think they understand other music. They want to feel good about being open to other cultures. Westerners will feel pangs of conscience if they detect they're resisting something or passing judgment on something as not being as good as what they know."
I suggested it's a lot of work to do it properly — to understand another culture's music — and Breedon agreed. "It seems to be human nature to pretend we understand other people better than we actually do. It takes so much work — first to admit you probably don't understand, and then to put yourself where they are.
"Not walking in their shoes, necessarily, but imagining yourself living [there], imagining yourself as a member of that culture. That's very hard for anybody to do, especially to leave behind all of the assumptions you have made about what is meaningful, what is rational, what is spiritual."
I asked what the range of student responses has been, over the years, to these concepts. Breedon said he hasn't had many students who stick to the argument that music is a universal language, and he's had some who resist the music of other cultures. Some have even confessed to a worry that growing to love other music will diminish their love for the music they have grown up with.
"But most seem to think, 'I should be open-minded, I shouldn't be prejudiced.' Yet I encourage them to examine why they react how they truly react to the music of other cultures."
As I think back on our meeting, I realize that my exposure to other cultures' music has been fairly limited since the World Musics class. I have mostly played Western classical music and mostly listened to American pop music. I rarely wonder whether an audience understands what I am trying to convey in a performance.
This weekend I will play Strauss's Don Juan with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra. The online Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Don Juan says that the piece is at turns forceful, energetic, bold, romantic, tranquil, tender, confident, heroic, and mournful. That's a lot of emotional expression. As I play, it will be interesting to contemplate how the music might be conveying these emotions and moods, how audience reactions might be culturally determined, and how non-Westerners might react to this music.
In Dr. Breedon's class, I learned how to think critically about music in this way. I won't be doing it every time I practice and perform from this point on, and that's okay, but it makes sense to try it when I'm fresh from our thought-provoking conversation.
Gwendolyn Hoberg is a classical musician and the owner of the editing and writing business Content & Contour. A Moorhead resident, Gwen is on the faculty of the NDSU Challey School of Music and plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.
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