The music of the universe? Of humanity? Or just of the West?

This is a slightly edited version of a thing wot I wrote for Books of the Year 2013. You should read the rest of the reviews there. They’re great.

“The first three notes just happen to be: do-re-mi…”

What do you think of when you think of ‘music’? Bob Dylan? Bach? A piano? A guitar? If you were in the orchestra at school, maybe a stave? Sharps and flats? Minims and crotchets?

I bet you think of one thing pretty quick: the familiar structure of familiar note intervals, what music experts call the diatonic scale – do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti.

But if you’d grown up in Fiji, Japan, Ghana or Guinea, would you still think of these? Or of something else?

We think of ‘music’ as one of the great social, cultural and artistic forces of humanity. But is there really a ‘human’ music? Or is what we think of as human music really just Western music? Is there anything ‘correct,’ or universal, about middle C, the seven-note scale, major and minor chords? Or are these just one way of doing things? Between, say, C and C-sharp there are a million other possible gradations of pitch – why do we use the intervals we do?

Anyone with a subscription to Songlines magazine probably already knows the answers to these questions. But I didn’t, so, in need of some reading for the Christmas period, I resolved to find out. Conveniently, I’d recently borrowed a book – How Musical is Man? (1973) by John Blacking – which looked like it could help me.


Based on a series of lectures given by Blacking, an ethnomusicologist, How Musical Is Man turns out to be widely considered a seminal work on the non-universality of many Western musical norms. Drawing on his years spent analyzing the music of the Venda people of South Africa, Blacking’s principal target is the divide in Western culture between a ‘musical’ minority, identified in youth and encouraged to become performers and composers; and an ‘unmusical’ majority, deemed qualified only for passive listening.  

In the details of his argument, though, Blacking provides plenty of evidence for the non-universality – and non-primacy – of the structure of Western music itself. That seven-note scale, for example? Not much use to you in China, which primarily employs a pentatonic (five-note) scale. The Venda use a mixture of pentatonic scales, five-note selections drawn from a heptatonic (seven-note scale), and even six-note scales at times.

Of course, Western chauvinists might claim that just because a ‘primitive’ culture doesn’t use our musical norms doesn’t mean our norms aren’t ‘correct’. The Chinese don’t have democracy, either, after all, and that doesn’t mean it’s not the best form of government.

But Blacking demonstrates that any idea of cultures ‘progressing from’ simpler scales ‘to’ the seven-note scale is spurious. Both the Chinese and Venda moved from a heptatonic to a pentatonic scale: “According to evolutionary theories of music history, the Venda should be going backward,” Blacking scoffs. He goes on to show that the whole idea of ‘notes’ as the focus of music is somewhat alien to the Venda: changing ‘speech tones’ tied to different words lead the most skilled Venda singers to sing notes that bear limited resemblance to the ‘melody’.

Blacking’s work does reveal some similarities between the Vendan and Western traditions: the instruments employed by the Venda are broadly recognizable as flutes and drums, for example. But Blacking concludes that the truly ‘universal’ aspects of music may be limited to simple things like theme, variation and repetition, call-and-response, and the physical skills involved in ‘playing with feeling’.

At times, Blacking’s ideas are a little too ‘of their time’, descending into the kind of slightly over-the-top cultural relativism common in the 1970s. “It is neither easier nor more difficult to be a Bushman than an American,” he declares in the last chapter. Child mortality statistics might suggest otherwise.

Nevertheless, like the host of other cultural analysts who spent the mid-Century period demolishing totem after totem of Western universalism, Blacking has a point; he left me fairly convinced that the music I know and love, far from being some sort of purer expression of ‘true’ music, is merely one of a host of possible, culturally-determined ‘musics’.

Now, if you’re the kind of person who values diversity over certainty and for whom the word ‘progress’ immediately conjures up images of totalitarianism and eugenics, then this might be cheering news. But I don’t mind admitting that it left me fairly depressed. To cheer myself up – it was Christmas, after all! – I turned to a recent book by one of my favourite musicians, David Byrne of Talking Heads, titled, promisingly, How Music Works (2012).


How Music Works is a freewheeling book, part music history, part musician’s autobiography, and part treatise on the modern music industry. Of course, a blow-by-blow account of the recording and performing process of Talking Heads is a thing well worth having, and the book is well worth a read just to learn the thinking behind the giant suit, the lyrics to ‘Once in a Lifetime’, or the one-instrument-at-a-time staging of the concert filmed for Stop Making Sense. There’s also, later on in the book, a detailed analysis of the economics of the modern, post-iTunes music industry, and Byrne goes into admirably frank detail about the commercial performance of his recent records.

Amidst all this, though, Byrne does have a thesis: that the nature of music is highly dependent on the physical space in which it’s meant to be heard. If you’ve seen his barnstorming TED Talk from a few years back, you’ve got the gist. Choral music, with its slowly progressing, highly harmonic chords, works in an echoey cathedral where one note starts before the previous one has finished; progressively smaller rooms allowed progressively more complex compositions, from Bach through Beethoven to Mozart. (After that, the rooms starting getting bigger again.) When audiences stopped talking and hollering through performances and started sitting in silence – a relatively recent phenomenon – it allowed Mahler and Debussy to make greater use of dynamic range. The lack of reverberation in the cramped environs of CBGBs, Byrne argues, encouraged him to write songs of relative complexity with Talking Heads (as opposed to, say, the simple singalongs beloved of stadium rockers).

With the advent of recording, technology began to matter more than performance venue. Did you know that on early vinyl records, low sounds require a physically wider groove than higher sounds? (So you can literally have ‘fat’, if not ‘phat’, bass.) With early, fast-spinning records like 78s, groove space was scarce, and tubas were substituted for double basses to provide the same undertow with a narrower groove. Recording technology, as well as artistic intent, decided which instruments were played.

In a sense, Byrne finds the same evidence of cultural specificity in Western music across time that Blacking finds in contemporary music across cultures. So much for the idea that the major scale, the guitar, or the piano might constitute any kind of ‘ideal’ or universal music.

But then a funny thing happens. In the closing chapters of his book, Byrne reveals himself to be a bit of a universalist after all. While the details of musical form – choice of instrument, the structure of pieces – might be determined by a broad range of cultural factors, the basic building blocks may just be universal after all – not just at a human scale, but perhaps even a cosmic one.

Though the seven-note ‘diatonic’ scale that forms the basis of Western music is not used everywhere in the world, neither is it an invention of Western civilisation. Rudimentary flutes made from bone, dating from Neanderthal times and found in what is now Slovenia, appear to have produced tones very close to the modern diatonic intervals. “There is strong evidence that the Sumerians (c. 3100–2000 BCE) and the Babylonians (c. 2000–1600 BCE) used this same scale,” notes Byrne. Instruments from Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations also seem to use familiar note intervals: fourths, fifths and sixths in particular. These are intervals generally considered ‘consonant’ – which ‘sound good’ together.

So let’s suppose, just for a second, that these intervals – which form the melodic basis of rock, classical, and most other music you’re probably familiar with – do have some sort of common human appeal. Why might this be? The answer, it seems, is simple maths.

If you’ve studied music theory, I guess you’ll know this story, but it was news to me: Pythagoras, familiar to millions as the man who forced us all to learn trigonometry at school, wasn’t just interested in the mathematical relationships of shapes, but of sounds, too. Wondering why certain sounds ‘sounded good’ to his ears, he passed a blacksmith’s shop and noticed the clangs of different hammers sounded familiar, consonant chords. Enquiring, he found that the familiar intervals of notes corresponded to the ratios of the weights of the hammers: a hammer half the weight of another will sound an octave higher; a hammer ¾ the weight will sound a fourth higher; 2/3, a fifth higher; and so on. Similarly, a guitar string stopped at half its length will sound an octave up, stopped at ¾, a fourth up, etc.

The notes that sound ‘good together’ to human ears are those made from the simplest mathematical ratios.

And these ‘golden ratios’ might exist beyond just our little planet. Kepler, Copernicus and others all believed the ratios of the distances at which the different planets of our solar system orbit the sun corresponded to the ratios underpinning the diatonic scale – giving us what Kepler called the ‘Harmonia Mundi,’ and others have called the ‘Music of the Spheres’.

These claims have been subject to a lot of back-and-forth, and are out of fashion now. But the movie and sound editor Walter Murch, Byrne reports, believes that they were on to something. Adapting a 1760s theory known as Bode’s Law, Murch claims to have demonstrated that the orbits of not just the planets around the sun, but the orbits of moons around Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, correspond to familiar notes. In fact, they resemble variations on the seventh chord: C, E, G, B-flat.

“You might say that the universe plays the blues,” smiles Byrne.

At this point, despite feelings of bloated post-Christmas comedown, I was elated. The structures of the music I know and love aren’t just grounded in nature, they’re grounded in the fundamental shape of the universe itself! Take that, cultural relativists!

Of course, this was too good to be true. Not wanting to judge matters of science on the words of a film editor reported by a rock singer, I turned to an actual scientist – who promptly told me that all this talk of universal music was, plainly, bollocks.


Though he emphasizes that he played a lot of music at university (hmm), Philip Ball is a science writer, and his book, The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It (2011), purports to demonstrate the natural driving forces behind our favourite pastime.

Great! I thought. Surely the guy who wrote Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts (‘Flow’, ‘Shapes’ and ‘Branches’, since you ask) would provide hard scientific evidence that do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti is the actual sound of the universe?

Yeah, not so much. You ever hear a bonkers-but-brilliant scientific theory and ask a scientist friend about it, only for them to tell you all the sensible reasons it’s probably not true? Well, that’s what happened here.

The idea of music being derived from the principles of mathematics, Ball argues, is ‘glib’ and ‘spurious’. For one thing, Pythagoras’ simple mathematical ratios only gave us the intervals for a few of the notes of the core scale – the fourth, the fifth and the octave, in particular, C, F, G and back to C. The rest require slightly more complex maths – the ratio underpinning B, for example, is an inelegant 243/128.

Moreover, the Pythagorean intervals aren’t, it turns out, exactly those underpinning the modern musical scale at all – they were gradually adapted, throughout the renaissance period, to allow for organ players to change keys without retuning. “There is no correct way to tune a piano using the Pythagorean tuning,” points out Ball.

(I’ll be honest: I didn’t really understand this. It all has something to do with something called the Circle of Fifths, which sounds terrifically exciting. There are diagrams.)

Musicians ended up landing on something called ‘equal-tempered’ scales, where each semi-tone is the twelfth root of 2 – an ‘irrational’ number, one you can’t even express in digits. “Where now, then, are the harmonious mathematics of the Pythagorean concept of music?” Ball crows.

But though Ball dismisses the idea that the Western scale has a basis in physics, he does at least entertain the idea that it might have some basis in human biology.

The one note interval which seems to play a clear role in every musical culture – the octave – has a clear evolutionary root, Blacking observes. Most sounds don’t resonate at a single frequency at all, but at a range, and the octave above is typically the loudest ‘overtone’ after the main tone. Our brains have learned that two sounds at the same time, an octave apart, are probably coming from the same source – and so have learned to hear, say, Middle C and the C above as in some respects the same note.

What about the rest of the diatonic scale? There is a biological basis, Ball concedes, to the idea that certain tones ‘sound good together’. When certain frequencies are sounded together, they interfere in the brain, producing a beating effect or a simple ‘roughness’, which we call ‘dissonance’. The frequencies which produce least dissonance together are – surprise! – the familiar diatonic intervals, the fourth, the fifth, and so on. Many composers, including Leonard Bernstein, have believed that the whole interval pattern of Western music can be derived from this ‘harmonic series’ – making the case that the diatonic scale represents in some way ‘human’, not just ‘Western’, music.

Of course, being a professional sceptic, Ball can’t help but try to undermine this idea too.

The harmonic series and the diatonic scale don’t, in fact, line up completely – the minor third, which isn’t considered a highly harmonious interval in Western music, looks good in the harmonic series, and the major third and fourth, which are, don’t.

Moreover, Ball argues, the whole idea of looking for evidence for the Western scale in biology gets the cart before the horse. “If we are biologically predisposed to favour intervals whose frequency ratios closely approximate simple fractions, we’d expect to find those intervals  recurring in most, if not all, musical traditions… we don’t find this at all.” Only the octave seems truly ‘universal’.

By this point, I was growing impatient with Ball’s technique, which tends to be to declare a theory unsound (geddit?) because of a wide range of relatively minor-sounding niggles, rather than fundamental flaws. Say the only biologically- or cosmically-predetermined intervals are the fourth, the fifth and the octave. Does it matter if science can’t explain the rest of the scale, or the cosmological ratios need tweaking to enable the circle of fifths to complete? Does that really prove there’s nothing more here than cultural coincidence? Doesn’t a basis in biology or physics count for something, even if it doesn’t get us all the way?

And how universal is ‘universal’ anyway? The diatonic scale doesn’t appear in every musical tradition, but it does appear outside the West, and it seems to have been in use for tens of millennia… doesn’t that count for something?

I began to suspect that Ball, in the service of scientific skepticism, was making the same mistake that Ball may have made in the service of combating Western chauvinism – to assume that a few exceptions to a ‘universal’ trend mean it’s no trend at all.

My brain was hurting. I put down the book and had a think.


So what have I learned at the end of my week-long, three-book musical odyssey?

Here’s what we know for sure. The instruments on which music is played, though they differ in shape and size and tones around the world, all work in similar ways – strings are plucked or holes stopped and air blown, or whatever. The basic structure of musical pieces, too, is similar worldwide – every culture uses repetition, introduces themes and then variations on them, and so on.

Of course, the details of music – who plays it, when, where, and how different instruments and sounds are used together – vary enormously. And important work has been done to demonstrate how the way in which music is consumed in the West is different to how music is consumed elsewhere, and maybe not as enriching – although ordinary Western people, who play in pub bands and dance around their living rooms, have a lot more in common with the Venda than the classical-concert-going elites these books tend to target.

But what about the fundamentals – what about those pesky notes? Is the diatonic scale grounded in the very fabric of space-time, or just one of an infinite number of possible schemes that evolved in the West for complex cultural reasons? I don’t know. I don’t think we know, yet. Probably the whole diatonic scale can’t be shown to have derived from the fundamental laws of the universe, or our biology; but its basis seems to, even with tweaks and gaps filled in.

How you feel about this probably acts as a Rorschach test for your views on cultural diversity and universality in general – Franz Fanon-reading SOAS students one side, TED-watching progress-believers on the other.

For my part, I’m still not ready to rule out the idea that perhaps the Western musical tradition, though not necessarily ‘better’ than any other, is at least closer to some fundamental realities. I like to think that, somewhere on an alien planet in some far-away civilisation, there’s a bar band rehearsing; and the guitarist is saying to the singer, ‘it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth…’


Author: Rav

City boy coping with liberal guilt and culture shock in Tanzania. Writes about development, politics, culture and technology.

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