Music as Universal Language

By David Eaton

Is music a “universal language” as Longfellow suggested? Or is this merely a platitude, easily debunked as a truism rather than an immutable “truth?”

Most of us would agree with Heinrich Heine, the noted German poet whose poems were set to music by Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn, who averred, “Where words leave off, music begins.”

Regardless of our cultural upbringing, we intuit that music possesses the unique ability to reach places in our soul and psyche in ways that words simply cannot.

Our Founder once said music is analogous to the spiritual realm in that it is invisible, vibratory and touches the heart. We all sense that music “speaks” to us and possesses the ability to convey and express emotions in powerful ways.

Though we may consider music to be a language, the way it speaks to us remains inscrutable and enigmatic. Mendelssohn, a composer whose music exhibits great lyricism and warmth, suggested music is more specific in what it expresses than words written about it could ever be.

That may be true. However, the same piece of music will often “say” different things to different people. Why this happens remains a mystery, but Albert Einstein (who played the violin and loved the music of Mozart) believed there was beauty in the mysterious, and perhaps that’s why we find the transcendent aspects of music to be so enchanting and enticing.

Music’s connection to spirituality and religious ritual can be traced to the earliest civilizations precisely due to its transcendent characteristics. The Sumerians, Chinese and Greeks held to the idea that communication with their gods and ancestors could be more easily facilitated when music worked its conscious-changing magic.

Taking their cue from the Greeks, early Christian philosophers — most notably Boetheus, Augustine and Aquinas — considered music to be a potent moral and ethical force that could either benefit or harm an individual or society due to effects on consciousness — individually and collectively. What music “said” and how it could potentially benefit society became important considerations.

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