A Thought for Thursday: Is Music the Universal Language?


Many grownups (particularly music educators) like to
say that music is the universal language. I’m not so sure.

Just about everyone enjoys some kind of music, true.
But do we all get the same meaning from a piece of
music? Do we all understand and appreciate it the
same way? Not so much.

This is something I see all the time as an early childhood
music educator. I like to use multicultural music, to 
promote understanding of different cultures, to let
children see that their home culture is a part of their
school experience, and just to broaden their minds
and expose them to new ideas. And all these things
do happen. Young children are so open to new things,
and free of much of the cultural expectations that adults

But. I often get very different reactions to pieces of music.
When I bring in a piece of classical music, one which I
think is very beautiful, it’s often too intense for young
children. They’ll say it’s “scary.” Sometimes I’ll bring in
a piece of music from an unfamiliar culture, and some
children will start to dance, get right into it, while others
stand around with a blank expression – they don’t 
understand how to move to it, they don’t “get” the beat
or the rhythm of it. 

This week I brought in a traditional Russian folk tune,
“Kalinka,” and let the children dance to it with scarves.
It was fun, and they all enjoyed it and laughed at the
“faster and faster” parts. But when I asked them to
describe  the music, some said it was pretty, some
said it was “spooky” – one girl even said, “It sounds
like a danger song!”

Some these differences in perception can be ascribed 
to the culture they grow up in, but often a group of
children from the same culture will have very different

Smiling may be a universal language – but I don’t think
music is.



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