The Music Between Us: Is Music a Universal Language?
by Kathleen Marie Higgins

Reviewed by David VanderHamm


Published by University of Chicago Press, 2012   |   277 pages

“Once upon a time, music was said to be a universal language.” This fairytale setting was 19th century Europe, where the romantic focus on music’s ineffability was somewhat oddly paired with the conviction that it was also universally intelligible. This, the age of George Boole and Gottlob Frege, was, after all, a golden age of logic and Newtonian triumphalism. It was not that music was believed to be everywhere the same—this was also the age of nationalism—but that underlying these national or ethnic accents was a singe, universal logic of music.

Despite this universalist sentiment, the majority of Europeans at this time did not believe that all the world’s musics partook equally in this musical essence. According to the sociologist Immanuel Walerstein, the concept of the universal was historically dependent on unequal power relations; universality was “offered to the world as a gift of the powerful to the weak.” Within music, this meant that universalist discourse almost inevitably introduced a hierarchy that posited the tonal system of Western music as the ultimate goal, or at least implicit standard. While this idea of hierarchies of quality across national musics has fallen out of fashion within serious discourse, responses to the question of music’s possible universality remain split. Musicians, for example, often respond with a resounding “yes.” Music is universal, at least as universal as the drive for rising sales and the need for new markets. The scholarly response is usually directly opposed, if just as certain: music is too varied, too contextual—if you think music is a universal language, then you haven’t listened to enough music.

Though it takes the question of musical universality as its subtitle, The Music between Us does not really set out to answer it, at least not in the conventional sense. As Kathleen Marie Higgins’s brief summaries of prior discussions of music’s universality make clear, people have been so busy answering the question that they failed to really ask it; as a philosopher, Higgins sets out to do precisely that. She interrogates the terms of the question and turns it on its head in order to get at her primary goal, to argue that music can be a means to recognize and experience common humanity, even across divides. For Higgins, universality is more about the potential for relating than an inherent or irreducible Form at the core of the music itself.

Though it is not necessarily clear at the outset, it is important to understand the variety of ways in which Higgins qualifies and uses the term universality. In one sense, it refers to music’s simple ubiquity as a human practice. In another it refers to what might be thought of as deep structural qualities of musical experience, whether these are “processing universals” of human perception, similarities within musical organization itself, or commonalities in evaluative ideals. In almost all cases, Higgins uses a “weak” standard of universality that from a philosophical standpoint would be considered “near-universals.” Again, she is not concerned with a fixed musical ontology but with how music makes possible diversities of expression and empathy. She is not seeking to reduce all music to a homogenous “system,” but to find potential common ground between very different experiences that may allow for an ethical encounter. She makes only the barest categorical assertions about what music is or does; instead she explores what could be called music’s ethical affordances, those actions and relations that music might allow and provide for within the sphere of human activity.

In pursuing this project, Higgins draws widely from ethnomusicology, music perception, psychology, and other disciplines in addition to her own field of philosophy. This multidisciplinary approach is refreshing and challenging, and Higgins executes it with skill. While philosophers within the continental tradition are often characterized as prizing the profundity of thought at the expense of its complete opacity, Higgins shows herself capable of achieving clarity of prose without sacrificing the subtlety or depth of her thought.

In Chapter 1, “Other People’s Music,” Higgins sets out her goal of exploring the ways that music can bring people from very different backgrounds together. By continually reframing her exploration, she makes clear that a facile appeal to universality is not an option. Higgins points out that philosophers of music have traditionally failed to venture outside of the Western musical canon, whether classical or popular. The problem with this approach, in addition to producing a sort of ad hoc ethnocentrism, is that it takes the expert listener who encounters familiar and well-loved music to be paradigmatic. This ignores the experience of listeners who encounter unfamiliar music that is not easily processed through the conceptual schema they have acquired, an experience that Higgins argues is entirely commonplace. Especially in the 21st century, many of us are no more than a click away from music that is quite foreign, or even “unmusical” to our ears.

“Musical Animals,” the second chapter, begins by considering the possibility of animal musicality, arguing that many of our “uniquely musical” traits are shared in some way by members of the animal kingdom. This might seem like an odd starting point, but the outcome of this discussion is a thorough demonstration of music’s function as source of “species pride” for humans. Whether or not we recognize the potential for animal music-making, Higgins shows that one reason why so many of us believe music to be exclusively human is because we value it as an exclusively human activity. Though other animals might make use of organized sound in mating rituals and communicative acts, none seem to take such pride in their manipulation of sound. Amending Aristotle’s famous dictum, Higgins shows that we are (and conceive of ourselves as) musical animals.

In Chapter 4, “Cross-Cultural Understanding,” Higgins begins by addressing structural universals in music from very different cultures, including the prevalence of 5 and 7 notes scales and the common use of (limited) repetition. These are the weakest “universals” yet, as they exclude some musical traditions, including Javanese and Balinese Gamelan, much of the 20th century Western avant-garde, and various forms of trance music in many cultures, to name only a few. But they are patterns that most human beings would have encountered, and that is what matters for Higgins. Her discussion of universals of evaluation is even trickier, as she introduces Wilfried van Damme’s concept of pancultural universals—principles of evaluation that are quite similar cross-culturally but are actualized in very different ways. These are particularly loose, then, because while an abstract value might be agreed upon in language—slippages of translation notwithstanding—the practice of determining what counts as satisfying that value is often not.

“The Music of Language,” Chapter 5, questions the tendency to consider music in linguistic terms and instead considers language in terms of music. Music, Higgins suggests, is more akin to a particular sort of speech—prepositions—than an actual system of language. Thus music establishes relations between terms that are necessarily and—according to Higgins—beneficially vague. Borrowing from Ian Cross, she discusses music’s “transposable aboutness” and the ways that music’s lack of denotation increases its ability to be “replete with meaning.”

Higgins uses this excess of meaning to argue that music “galvanizes the entire sensorium,” leading to a discussion of synesthesia in Chapter 6, “Musical Synesthesia.” Though we are accustomed to thinking of music as a sonic phenomenon, Higgins points out that it is quite naturally cross-modal, involving the visual, aural, and tactile at the very least (certainly we are all familiar with our bodily, and unconscious, tendency to nod or move to a beat). This synesthetic quality of music emphasizes our embodied, emplaced being in the world, and calls us to recognize the other beings that we encounter there. It “serves to connect us with the external world and motivates us to forge associations along multiple sensory lines.

Chapter 8, “Comfort and Joy,” builds on the recurring themes of our presence in and stance toward a living, social world in order to discuss music and comfort. Positing her strongest form of universality yet, Higgins argues that music provides proof through affective experience that we are not alone in the world, which accordingly produces a sense of comfort and security. Higgins convincingly argues that much of our affective response to music is not of the typical emotional order, like anger or sadness. Instead, she claims that much of our experience could be characterized in terms of vitality affects, which are “dynamic, kinetic qualities of feeling” that are the result of our sense of encountering living, moving presence in the world. The vitality affects, combined with music’s ability to structure our experience of time in powerfully coherent ways, produce a sense of safety and groundedness within the world that Higgins ultimately sees as one of its primary and most universal functions.

Higgins concludes in chapter 9, “Beyond Ethnocentrism,” by admitting that the universals of musical experience that she has outlined are often put towards highly sectarian ends. In some ways, this is not a bad thing; all people seem to have a need to belong to a group that is closer and more immediate than the whole of humanity or earthly life. But the need to relate to and approach Others on their own terms is also real, and music can potentially conspire with other chauvinist factors to hinder the sense of commonality needed to do so. Ultimately, however, and despite the fact that most of the examples of musical encounters throughout the book are of the in-person, participatory sort, Higgins closes by arguing that recording and distribution technology can “foster a sense of human kinship.” We are left without answers as to how to go about facilitating true encounters with the Other in non-trivial ways, especially when the lack of face-to-face interaction threatens to makes lazy stereotypes and rampant exoticism the norm.

As with any good work of philosophy, loose ends remain. There are some conflicts between concepts that remain to be worked out, partially a result of the interdisciplinary nature of the project. Higgins discusses research that suggests we fit stimuli to our perceptual schema—those familiar with the Western pitch system hear pitches “close enough” to A as A, and virtually everyone hears durations “close enough” to equal as equal. This finding seems sensible enough, but it complicates her use of Charles Keil’s “participatory discrepancies” concept to describe the ways that miniscule deviations in pitch and timing lend a great deal of music its expressive power. How do we even perceive these discrepancies if our perceptual schema are built up to gloss them over? The question is one of many that comes up in the course of reading; each should stimulate further work. In her willingness to synthesize diverse disciplines and present the occasional un-provable hypothesis even alongside the more empirical research that she cites, Higgins performs the admirable service of being just speculative enough to push readers forward, goading them towards new horizons.

Another welcome result of the quality of the work are the numerous smaller but important twists and turns of concept and insight that are sprinkled throughout the over-arching argument of the book. Her distillation of the persistent problem of normative ideas intermixing with supposedly descriptive accounts of music is worth the price alone, though it takes up barely more than a page. While a familiarity with any of the fields utilized in the book would certainly be beneficial, it can be approached without laborious back-study or a philosophical reference work in hand. At the same time, its depth will not fail to challenge the specialist.

The Music between Us offers an optimistic but never naïve account of music’s social and ethical potential. Because of this optimistic tone, however, Higgins spends too little time discussing the dangers of appropriation, exoticism, and cultural imperialism that accompany the cross-cultural encounters she imagines. Thankfully, these are issues that have been taken up elsewhere in the literature, and The Music between Us is perhaps best read against (and alongside) more critical works like Tim Taylor’s Beyond Exoticism and the recent collection of essays edited by Bob White in Music and Globalization. Higgins offers a view towards a more musically informed ethical future, while these other voices engage with the fact that we have not yet arrived there.

David VanderHamm is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His dissertation focuses on the social construction of virtuosity through discourses and displays of skill and musical labor in the 20th century. David is also active as a guitarist and teacher.

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