Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language?

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language?

Article excerpt

The Music Between Us: Is Music a Universal Language? By Kathleen Marie Higgins University of Chicago Press. 296pp, Pounds 26.00. ISBN 9780226333281 and 33274 (e-book). Published 14 May 2012

Pity the poor musicologist, until relatively recently able to preside with impunity over fiefdoms of specialist know-ledge but now required to know the distinguishing nuances of sludge, black or doom metal, footwork and dubstep, Lachenmann and micro-improv, J-pop and K-pop. Into this fraught arena steps Kathleen Marie Higgins, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, whose mission is to interrogate the truism of music's universality. Does the existence of breakdancers in Laos or Lang Lang at Buckingham Palace mean that we are all, as the saying goes, singing from the same hymn sheet?

Why do we listen to music anyway? Is music, as the psychologist Steven Pinker has suggested, a form of auditory cheesecake, seductive enough but in evolutionary terms an irrelevance? Or is it superfood for the senses, essential to communality and emotional well-being, the source of belief in the continuity of time that projects us confidently into an otherwise uncertain future?

Higgins acts as a generous, perspicacious guide through this complex interdisciplinary field of theories both illuminating and reactionary. She considers the question of whether non-human animals are musical, giving a tentatively positive answer by arguing for an expanded definition of music and opening up the global field of listening beyond common humanity to all sentient beings. As for humans, the possibility of real cross-cultural understanding is particularly apposite to our increasingly globalised world. Again, she finds hopeful signs of mutual intelligibility tempered by cautionary notes - in this case, a realisation that her enjoyment of Indonesian singer Rhoma Irama's song Sahabat (Friends) was probably unwelcome, since the lyric promotes the exclusionary idea that true friendship can be enjoyed only with one's co-religionists.

Then there is language, a particularly tricky negotiation for an academic study that invests all its credibility in the word. Is music a deficient language or does it transcend language? Through the course of this argument, we encounter interesting phenomena including "transposable aboutness", which offers a clearer understanding of how music communicates multiple layers of meaning without the need for consensual reference. …

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