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Harmonious Minds: The Hunt for Universal Music

It’s been always believed that music is universal. It’s just not music theorists who believe this. We all agree intuitively that music has a set of principles that are transcendent. If notes are arranged in a certain sequence we perceive them as either harmonious or dissonant. Most of music theory is based on this. But scientists and psychologist are finding that this is not so “black and white”.

When Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar and his ensemble played at Madison Square Garden, New York, in 1971, the audience broke into rapturous applause at the first short pause. “Thank you,” said Shankar. “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”

When we listen to music from another culture, it’s easy to get it badly wrong. Even if our misunderstanding isn’t quite as embarrassing as the Shankar faux pas, we are likely to miss most of the nuances and allusions, think it all sounds the same or even dismiss it as a racket. Most 20th-century ethnomusicologists who compared the music of different cultures argued that this was because the way we make music and respond to it is learned, and therefore culture-specific.