Time and time again we have heard that music is a universal language. But what exactly does that mean?
This means that music has the unique power to unite people across all boards globally. Regardless of race, class, gender identity and/or expression, religion, age, you name it, music can bring us together. If we take a minute to think that two human beings will communicate mostly via one of countless languages and dialects and that when two people don’t speak the same language communication becomes near impossible for some individuals, the power of music becomes even more astonishing. Melodies take the place of words.
While it is true that oftentimes, the most popular music in each country is that in its own language, there have been many artists who have broken the barriers of language with their music. Nowadays, this debate has become increasingly relevant as we begin to see non-English songs dominate the international charts, notably Latin music and K-Pop.
A song can serve the purpose of replacing a whole conversation, through which two or more people can tune into, entering the same wavelength by the end of it and having reached a mutual understanding of one another. Who knows, maybe the world would be a better place if language disappeared and we had to communicate via music.
In this sense, musicians kind of serve as unofficial ambassadors of intercultural communication. Cross-culture shamans.
But why is this important? Why does it matter if music can transcend language or not?
Well, it matters because if used correctly music can be one of the most transformative tools at hand that we have. It can affect social change, and prod society to evolve, helping us walk hand in hand towards a better tomorrow.
Music has been breaking language barriers for quite some time now
An early historical example of music breaking the boundaries of music would be opera. Opera famously began in Italy in the 1500s, and it eventually spread out all across the globe. An art based on storytelling, that somehow managed to wonderfully depict the most epic of tales in a foreign language. And let us tell ya, there weren’t any subtitles back then.
Now of course as opera evolved in each nation, many national composers began writing operas in their own language, but still, the favoured language was often Italian or Latin. With German and French following suit. In fact, opera is possibly one of the only music genres that haven’t been so thoroughly invaded by the English language.
While we might dismiss opera as not being all that impactful for music today, we need to remember that before opera, in Europe, grandiose music was mostly listened to in churches, cathedrals, or places of the sort. As such, music during the renaissance was sternly tied to religion and religious stories. With opera, music began its journey towards secularism once again.
French music saved lives during WW2, literally.
Possibly one of the greatest examples of music breaking down language barriers, and being subsequently used for the greater good is the case of French iconic singer, Edith Piaf, during World War 2. The singer was invited to sing in Germany, and much to the dismay of her nation she accepted. Under two conditions: Firstly she stated that if she was to sing, she would do so for everyone, meaning both German troops and French prisoner Jews. Secondly, she wanted to take photos with everyone after each performance.
Her music was so revered, that the Germans accepted. Following her concerts, Edith Piaf would pass the photos on to her influential friends who would then create false documents for the Jews in the photos. Finally, the French singer would return to Germany for another tour and once again after the concerts during the signings and photos, she would secretly slip the documents to the prisoners, helping free thousands of Jews during the war.
Now, of course, Edith Piaf was an exceptional case. But lives were literally saved because her music was so powerful, that even the Germans wanted to bask in the sheer marvellousness of her voice. Regardless of whether she was singing in French. And these are the Nazis we’re talking about, who, you know, kind of was a “their-language-above-all-else-kinda-people”.
Still, while incredibly heroic and impactful examples exist of the boundary-breaking, positive impact of music, it’s not all a bed of roses.
But music isn’t always enough, and it doesn’t always work
Truth is, although of course music can transcend language, and be an incredible tool for social and political change, it doesn’t always work.
Bob Marley transcended language, time, and cultures. But he couldn’t do it all.
Sometimes music simply isn’t enough, even when speaking the same language. Bob Marley is an incredibly iconic cultural figure, there is no denying that. He lives on in the collective memory and will most probably continue to do so for centuries. Most people know his face, his voice, his music. His impact has been such that essentially all reggae music is associated with him. Chances are you’ll see the colours red, yellow, and green, and one of Bob Marley’s songs will subconsciously begin playing in your mind. Generation after generation, Bob Marley’s songs are incorporated into contemporary culture as hymns and odes to togetherness, to unity, to universal love and solidarity.
Bob Marley’s music has undoubtedly transcended the barriers not only of language but of time too. But there was one thing he couldn’t do, help his country when it was most in need.
It was 1978, and Jamaica was on the verge of civil war between both major political parties, the Peoples National Party (PNP), and the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP). Both parties hired, essentially, gangsters for protection. Yet the tension was such, that even the local gang members thought the violence had to come to an end. And so they (the actual gang members) came up with the idea of having a concert for peace. In fact, it was one of the gang members, Claudius “Claudie” Massop who travelled to London to convince a then exiled Bob Marley to participate.
During his performance at the concert, Marley famously brought up the two opposing political leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga took their hands and held them up together. That moment will forever be revered in history, and for a bit there, one could even believe that the violence was over. Unfortunately, two years after the concert the event organizers were killed, and the next election year saw double the reported murders.
Music breaking language barriers today
One can’t dispute the fact that over the past few decades. English music has dominated the international charts, with the occasional foreign-language song miraculously “making it through”. It’s quite a common thing for a country to listen to their own national artist, and then the typical English speaking ones. The whole world knows Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, The Beatles, Kanye West, Michael Jackson or Eminem.
This is due in part, to the global hegemony held by the US during the last fifty years or more. But guess what? Now the US seems to be losing its position culturally, politically, economically, and socially as the world leader, and other cultures are breaking through and seeping into the global consciousness.
Today, international charts are seeing a huge shift in the languages present in the most listened to lists. One look at Youtube’s most listened to songs of 2021 will confirm this. Why Youtube you ask? Well, its streaming services reach is about 1.9 billion people per month, surpassing by far any other service. Spanish and Indian language songs are in fact the most listened to, followed closely by Korean and English.
K-Pop completely obliterates language barriers in music
It’s true that Indian songs are possibly listened to mostly by the Eastern side of the globe, but there is no doubt that Latin music and K-pop has completely obliterated the English music hegemony. These two styles have taken over the globe, and are the pure example of music transcending language barriers.
The K-Pop idols are known for being a source of inspiration and empowerment to the youth. Their distinct aesthetics and vibrant music have truly had an impact when it comes to youth culture and expressing one’s individuality.
Latin music belongs everywhere, and so do Latin people
Similarly, the rise in Latin music has highlighted the cultural relevance and importance of Latin populations in several countries. Latino communities around the globe have seen their culture appreciated, respected, and for the first time regarded as being on the same level as any other English-speaking artist. This development has marked a historical moment where Latin music isn’t just for Latin people, it’s for everyone. In the same way that Latin people don’t just belong in Latin countries, they belong everywhere.
This issue is particularly eye-opening in countries such as the US, where the Latin community has been discriminated against and oppressed for decades, and continues to live and fight systemic racism.
Thanks to music, things that before were previously frowned upon when you had foreign heritage, such as speaking a different language, are now praised and appreciated. Diversity is increasingly being celebrated and treated as something that enriches society rather than threatens it. And it is partly due to the contributions of music. Let’s not forget it, and let’s continue to push forward together.
Trust us when we say, the soundtrack of your life will be so much better if you listen beyond the words.