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Universality of Music


By Beste Tatlican

December 2023


Take a break. (No, not the song from the hit Broadway musical, Hamilton, but look at you already knowing part of my music taste after reading my column all this time!) 

No, but seriously, put your stress aside. Have one moment of stillness in your day. I am proud of you for pursuing this education. Chasing your dreams. I am proud of you for reading the newspaper in your free time. With that said, right now, randomly choose a song in your favorite playlist. Listen to it. And take a few minutes out of your day to meditate using this strategy. Give yourself the gift of music.

Here’s the thing. We don’t tend to conceptualize just how much we humans depend on music to lift our mood, make memories, focus…the list goes on. In actuality, most of us just spontaneously press that “play” button instinctively as a habit on any given day. While pondering for a second, when one doesn’t have to focus on a serious task at hand and they are going on autopilot, like while driving or in the shower, it’s possible to think deeper. The way people speak is music. The rhythm of the vocal cords moving. The different shapes our lips make to convey sound. All of it is music. The tap of our feet when we are nervous or energetic and excited. Its music. I am going on and on about this mainly because an image keeps popping up in my mind of my piano teacher’s old car (as she describes the car, herself) with an old worn out sticker on it saying “When words fail, music speaks.” This is such a common phrase that any art enthusiast has likely uttered around you at some point. If you are a music enthusiast and think about any classic rock composer at this moment, you’ll see that the part of the song that you likely remember the most and sing along passionately is that “sick” guitar solo, for example. No words, just music. 

When words fail to convey that feeling, those emotions, those thoughts, at that speed and intensity, musical notes take over. 

Some people call this frisson, others call it goosebumps, but there are many derivatives.

Another factor to consider about the universality of music, keeping the different definitions music can have for different people, we know that humans are mobile creatures. When you go to a foreign country and don’t know the language, you can often do the bare minimum: nod or point to places with your eyes, or try to emphasize and enunciate what something sounds like in your language and the person directly in front of you can develop an idea as to what it is you are looking for or trying to communicate. 

In previous times, human beings just wanted to be understood. Wanted to feel validated. Wanted to share a part of themselves to make them and their people immortal. To make their culture live forever. They expressed sorrow in their music, their faith, their love for their family, desires, the list goes on. Ask any historian and it is almost guaranteed that for whatever era you are trying to gain insight about, there was a specific type of song or instrument or characteristic of music they used. Music is THE universal language. It’s hard to find any other entity quite as influential as music in any given culture in this world. Whether it be learning the order of the alphabet, the numbers, or putting the little ones to sleep, most people get introduced to music very early on— as babies and then continue to develop their sense of self, their interests, and maybe even pick up an instrument at some point in their lives. Even if they don’t, just by being humans, speaking, walking, dancing, using their body language, synthesizing a rhythm, they will continue to make music and immortalize the language. 

Now, reflect. Do you see music differently? Do you get the sudden urge to research about it? Or do you want to get to work and put in your earbuds to focus?

No matter what you answered, I can bet that music got you thinking. It forces your brain to work in a constructive, healthy way despite the stress of everyday life. 

When words fail, music speaks.

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