When he gave this keynote address in 1996, Richard Letts was Chair of the Music Council of Australia, and a member of the Executive Committee of the International Music Council. After completing a PhD in Music Education at the University of California at Berkeley in 1971, he was Director of East Bay Center for the Performing Arts near San Francisco, and the MacPhail Center for the Arts, University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. He returned to Australia in 1982 as Director of the Music Board of the Australia Council, and then was the Director of the national organisation for support of Australian composition, the Australian Music Centre. His recent books in 1996 (commissioned by the Australia Council) were Your Career as a Composer, and The Art of Self-Promotion for Musicians (Allen and Unwin) and The Arts on the Edge of Chaos, conjectures about the influences on the arts over the next 15 years.

I have been asked to speak on the topic Music: Universal Language between All Nations.

The management of ISME 96 has given me total freedom in how I deal with this topic, although it would be quietly pleased if I were a bit provocative. In truth, I’ve had some trouble with its terms and consequently, by the end of the next half-hour I may have succeeded in provoking almost everyone in this room.

For instance: can music be regarded as a universal language?

I think it is easy for us to agree that music is a universal phenomenon, as is spoken language. Both are found in all cultures. The proposition that music is a universal language is another matter. It implies, for example, that if I have a good understanding of Western classical music, I can quickly understand the music of Australian Aborigines. In fact, I find Aboriginal music deeply perplexing. It is not self-evident that music is a universal language.

Secondly, setting aside that difficulty, can we observe evidence in the world around us that music is in fact serving as a universal language between all nations? I don’t think so. The phrase Music: Universal Language between All Nations, is not a description of how things are.

Perhaps, then, it is an invocation as to how things might be in a more perfect world. For instance: music is a universal language. Therefore, let us, as music educators, take advantage of this unique and wonderful attribute of music and use it to build understanding and acceptance between nations.

Thirdly: we have heard already an eloquent argument that music is a universal language between all cultures. Why then, I asked myself, have another address on music as a universal language between all nations? What’s the difference?

For argument’s sake, let us accept that music can be a bridge between cultures simply because of its own intrinsic powers of communication. But when we bring nations into the equation, we introduce a political dimension. Whether or not music is used as a language between all nations may depend not only on its communicative powers, but whether governments decide to forbid it, or on the other hand, to encourage it.

Such political decisions do not come only from governments. You or I as individuals might decide, as a matter of political idealism, that we will have our students listen to music from as many other countries as possible. Equally, we might decide for idealistic reasons that we will not introduce our students to music from other nations. Or our educational bureaucracy might decide for us. Businesses, in another way, can also make decisions which present us with other musics, or deny them to us. The intention is not political, but the effect may be.

That, then, is my understanding of my assigned topic. In my opinion, Music, Universal Language between All Nations cannot be taken as a factual description of present circumstances. I will show that as an apparently idealistic invocation, it is in some ways quite contentious politically. But firstly, I would like to examine the proposition on which all else depends, namely, that music is a universal language.

Many in the audience will remember the line from Shakespeare:

If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it.

Here is the proposition: Love is nourished by music and, like a living creature, love, being nourished, grows larger. Listen, you musicians: keep playing! The more you play, the more love there will be, and the more love there is in my life, the more I’ll like it.

If you have reasonable skills in the English language, you will be able to extract some such meaning from that sentence. If you have a knowledge of English culture, the meaning for you may be much greater. You may recognise this as a quotation from Shakespeare. You may even know that these words open the play Twelfth Night, know who speaks them and their significance for the entire play. Indeed, these words may open for you great halls of resonance, your memories of the enormous richness of language and imagination of the entirety of Shakespeare’s works, even of all of English literature and the cultures in which it resides across the world.

These same words led my countryman Flacco to another thought.1

If music be the food of love, then what’s eating Leonard Cohen?

That’s a relief – at least a few of you laughed. However, I do notice a lot of people with regrettably straight faces.

There are two possibilities here. One is that you got the joke, and you thought it was really lame. I win a few, I lose a few. The others who didn’t get it, there’s still some hope. I know you would really like me to explain why this joke is so funny! To some of us.

Firstly, there is the shock value. Here we begin with the quotation from Shakespeare, the one in which he gives to music its ultimate nobility as the food of our most profound emotion, love, and then unexpectedly switches to a comment about Leonard Cohen. That in itself is worth a pucker of a smile – unless of course, you know nothing of Leonard Cohen. Some of you may be so lucky. I’m sorry. Your luck just ran out. I will play you a little of Leonard Cohen. | Leonard Cohen. Bird on the Wire, The Best of Leonard Cohen: Track 4.

That was from a disc titled The Best of Leonard Cohen.

So as you can hear, the names Shakespeare and Leonard Cohen probably have not previously been associated. Further, the words “music” and “Leonard Cohen” have only a distant and rather strained relationship. Put them together and you are asking for an argument.

Then there are other meanings. Music is the food of love. So love is eating music. In that case, says Flacco, what could possibly be eating Leonard Cohen? It can’t be love, because musically speaking, Leonard is a starvation diet.

But this is also a sort of pun, because the word “eating” doesn’t really mean “eating”. It means troubling. It’s vernacular for what’s troubling Leonard Cohen, what’s worrying him? Well, we can only guess. If music is the food of love, Leonard could be very worried that to the lady of his dreams, he is not much more than brussel sprouts hold the white sauce.

There is yet another meaning — a sort of meta-comment on a culture that could descend from Shakespeare to Leonard Cohen in so short a period as four centuries. Finally, there is a sort of aesthetic dimension as the reader floats uncertainly among all these alternative meanings.

Let’s imagine that you have a good knowledge of the English language but no knowledge of the English or American culture. In the Leonard Cohen sentence, you have understood each of the words individually. You can see that they fit together according to the rules of grammar. But you absolutely cannot get the meaning of the sentence. Why? Well, you would have to recognise the Shakespeare quotation and all its resonances, you have to know of Leonard Cohen, you have to know that “what’s eating Leonard?” is vernacular for “what’s troubling him?”, you have to get the pun, sense the meta-comment. If you do not have this cultural knowledge, you will have hardly a clue as to the meaning of what you have just heard.

In this verbal presentation, I have given a verbal example of something we know to be true also about music. In listening to music from another culture, we can hear sounds that we recognise as musical, but understand almost nothing about their musical intention. And why should we expect to? We have all spent years, decades, learning about the music of our own cultures. Why would we assume that we should have an immediate understanding of foreign musics? Can it make any sense to propose that music is a universal language?

Let me put another perspective on this issue.

One Sunday afternoon in about 1969 I was wandering in the grounds of Mills College, near San Francisco. In the distance I began to hear the sounds of a strange and fascinating music. I was drawn towards it. Finally I rounded the corner of a building and found myself in a wide sunlit plaza where, spread out along a platform were instruments which I had never before seen: the instruments of a great Javanese court gamelan orchestra. I remember especially the big gongs and their sound — so lush and deep and encompassing: it was a little like death by velvet.

The gamelan was presented by the Center for World Music, which had set itself up in Berkeley that summer to offer instruction in some of the world’s great musical traditions. I signed up to play with a Balinese gamelan and began a long involvement with world music. At that time I also saw performances of music from other cultures. Although I knew little of their traditions, I was excited and moved by performances of Indian sitar and Ghanaian drumming.

At that time I was preparing my doctoral dissertation, a very idealistic 1960’s effort involving the theories of Abraham Maslow and the music education of the whole person.2 It occurred to me that if I’m dealing with the whole person, why not, dammit, the whole world. Let’s think big. So as one element of the dissertation I wrote a taxonomy of musical terms on the analogy of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive and affective educational concepts. The idea was to find a set of universal concepts, capable of describing music in every and any musical style. Once someone knew these concepts through applying them in the study of one style of music, the knowledge could be transferred with ease to any other style. A universal language of music education.

The actual concepts had to do with things like the factors that cause us to perceive musical pattern. As a very simple example, sounds might be heard as cohering in a pattern due to their proximity in time. Dudududah…..Dudududah. Two sets of rapid sounds, parted by silence and joined by similarity. There was a treatment of the subjective experience of time and duration, of timbre and the sound envelope, of the effect on perception of previous stylistic assumptions, the emotional aspects of music and much much more, for many, many pages.

One big problem with this taxonomy was that it made such arid reading that after a few pages, you were desperately in need of fluids, and after a few more, only Scotch would do.

A friend of mine pinpointed another difficulty. After I had described to him my magnificent achievement in finding this way to describe all musics with the same language, he said: “But isn’t it the differences that most interest us?”

Let me demonstrate his point for him. To account for the musical instruments, I simply used the language adopted by ethnomusicology – chordophones, membranophones etc. Now if I say the word “membranophone” to you, you know that it means the class of instruments in which a membrane is stretched, perhaps over a resonating box, and is hit with a stick or the hand. But if I say to you the word “tabla”, it is much more evocative. An image of a specific instrument, an Indian drum, springs to mind, and with it the sounds of the extraordinary Indian musical traditions and their musical meanings and cultural associations.

My taxonomy had achieved a universality. But since there is no universal language of music, to be really informative about any of the actual, particular musics that we love, you have to move to the non-universal, particular words and concepts associated with them, such as “tabla”, or “key of A major”. In fitting all musical cultures, the taxonomy in a sense fitted none.

Let me summarise my arguments concerning music as a universal language. The Leonard Cohen exhibit showed that there could be a verbal statement in which all the elements of vocabulary and syntax are familiar but which has almost no meaning to a listener who lacks a knowledge of the cultural references. It is easy to demonstrate parallels in music. If Westerners listen to an Australian Aboriginal song, we might consider that we have heard a simple melody of haphazard pitch and rhythm and little apparent significance. The trained Aboriginal listener, on the other hand, hears music of great precision in which no sound is without extended cultural meaning and significance. But this same Aboriginal listener might make nothing of the Liebestod.

The taxonomy shows a possibility for music education as a universal language, but because music itself is not a universal language, the taxonomy is not an economical means of describing actual music. Actual music comes in a plethora of particular styles, each of which is described the most evocatively through its own particular terminology.

Against this view that music is not a universal language is the evidence of the pleasure I, and many others, gained from hearing the gamelan music of which we knew nothing. Even without specific knowledge, we can enjoy music from some other cultures. There are some aspects of music that perhaps are conditioned more by our common physiology than our distinct cultures. We may all sense in a similar way music’s relationship to the pace of our walking or breathing or heartbeat, or the sense of departure from a normal bodily pace and the tension that such effort brings to the music. We can even simply misapply our understanding of our own music to the music of other cultures, and gain some innocent enjoyment.


Next, I would like to move on to propose to you some observations about our world and our situation in it. Firstly, I would like to make a proposition that the state of the world leads us into greater superficiality, and that music’s most special role is to counterbalance this with an experience of depth.

People living in premodern times rarely knew much of customs and beliefs beyond those of their own village. Knowledge was local. Bach had to take six weeks off to walk to hear the music of Buxtehude. Now, in everyday life, we involuntarily experience a great many cultures and subcultures different from our own – simply, for instance, by turning the dial of a TV set. It is one of the most commonplace of observations that we are inundated with information.

In music we already have access to the music of all times and places. We are told it will soon be available instantaneously, all the time, on-line, in our living rooms. In the schools, subjects jostle for the limited available time and more and more has to be crammed into the curriculum. While our world may also pressure us to become extremely knowledgable about some very narrow discipline, surely the general force of this inundation of information is towards a superficial acquaintance with a large number of experiences.

The philosophy of our time, postmodernism, takes this account of our situation one step further. There still seems to be a lot of disputation and confusion about the true meaning of the term “postmodernism”. However, I recently found an amusing statement from Umberto Eco which can help us out.

Says Eco: “I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”.”3

So there is a postmodernist irony, and a loss of innocence. Says postmodernism, surrounded by conflicting realities and belief systems, we no longer believe there is an objective reality, and we have lost our belief in belief. We have become self-conscious, conscious always of the relativism of our own cultural context, and ironically detached from our own direct experience of, for instance, love.

Many of us must feel some of this relativism and alienation. But love is love, I say. Its form and expression may be culturally shaped, but it is too profound, too valuable, too fundamental to be subverted by the current fashion in philosophy or cynicism. Love is love, and music is music.

In the early 1980’s, I was Director of the MacPhail Center for the Arts in Minneapolis, a large extension school of the University of Minnesota. MacPhail was the logical place to give a music education to the most talented pretertiary music students, but in some ways we weren’t doing it very well. I thought we should start a special, enriched program. I hoped that we might do better than the traditional course in musical alienation, like Harmony 1a,1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 2c etc and so on. But what could it be?

I went and spoke with fourteen of the succession of visiting conductors and soloists for the Minnesota Orchestra. “What”, I asked, “were the most valuable experiences in your music education that brought you to your present position?”

I was hoping they would give me an insight into their involvement in some magical course structure in some other institution like, who knows, Juilliard. What I heard instead, from every one of them, was a story about one, or two, or perhaps three individual private teachers. A few may have mentioned a school like Juilliard, but only in passing.

How can we explain this, given our enormous investment and belief in educational institutions? I can only speculate.

Probably in part it was because of the special chemistry between two talented individuals, teacher and student, in which the student was made to feel very special.

This explanation is powerful but not very satisfactory to those of us who have to teach students en masse. But perhaps there is another, more important explanation: that this situation brought to the student a deep and passionate experience of the music itself, through music making. The student received a direct transmission of the musical culture, from the inside, as it were. The student could understand, by observing the teacher, the musician’s way of living totally, emotionally and intellectually, within the music.

A lot of our classroom teaching is designed to impart knowledge about music. It’s a view of music from the outside. But the Minneapolis story might suggest that what counts even more is what might be described as an experience of the music from the inside.

The world inundates us with information. We can experience it only superficially, and this superficiality can be exacerbated by our postmodern defence: to become detached and ironic. In such a world, music can take on a special and rare value as a doorway to a deeper, more complex, dare I say spiritual experience.

We know, through our own training, that such a deep understanding of the wonders of the music of our own culture does not come lightly. It takes a lot of time and application. Since music, except at a relatively superficial level, is not a universal language, we must know that such a depth of experience of the music of other cultures will be possible only through a similar, and separate investment.

So: concerning the invocation to music educators that music should be used as a universal language to bridge the gap between nations: yes, of course, it is a noble and desirable aim. Our students, after all, live in an extraordinary and multicultural world, and we have a responsibility to help them to make sense of it, in its breadth. But I would argue that, like those Minnesota Orchestra performers, even in a life full of fun and variety, what we all remember and value the most are our most profound experiences. The music education that should have priority is the music education that induces those experiences of depth. It should not be sacrificed too much to competing demands for breadth that leave students with only superficial experiences.

To address the political dimension of our subject, I would like to take a look at the situation in our contemporary world from another viewpoint.

There is a new mode of science, the science of complex adaptive systems, that could be very important to us in the 21C because it deals with how systems such as cultures work.4 This science thinks of a culture as a type of ecological system, like the ecological system of a forest. Cultures, like forests, are subject to evolutionary change — not through biological adaptation, but by adaptation through learning, a much more rapid process.

It is interesting to think about the evolution of our musical ecosystems. In earlier times, a musical ecosystem might be contained completely within a single isolated village or town. Through such isolation, thousands of musical systems — or styles — could evolve independently. But as transport and communications have broken down such isolation, these independently evolving musics have been drawn slowly into a widening and more complex musical ecosystem, which by now includes much of the world’s music. At the same time, the connections between them have become more rapid. Bach walked. Phillip Glass can dial it up. We are now approaching a situation in which there could be a world-wide musical ecosystem in which any of the elements can instantaneously impact upon any of the others, even though they are thousands of kilometres away.

The concept of co-evolution is very evocative. This world-wide music eco-system consists of many different forces that continually adapt to each other — and so co-evolve. These forces include the various music styles and the stake-holders in them: the composers, the musicians, the audiences, the managements, the educators, governments, bureaucracies, all functioning together and in the wider social and economic environment.

A simple way of picturing this is that in a co-evolving, world-wide musical ecosystem, musical styles will rub up against each other directly, contending for the support of musicians and audiences at home and in geographically distant places. Some musical styles may prevail much in their present form, some will adapt successfully to new requirements of the stake-holders, others will become extinct.

We see an increasingly rapid flood of small changes in our musical world. According to theories of evolution, in such circumstances an instability builds up. This instability is resolved by a major and sometimes in-principle unpredictable evolutionary change. Perhaps we might now expect even greater major changes in our musical world. Entirely new musical species may appear, whose nature we cannot predict.

Perhaps, for instance, our world-wide musical ecosystem will provide the underlying conditions for the evolution of a genuinely world-wide universal musical language. Some of us might welcome that, as one basis of bonding together all the members of the human family. Unfortunately, it may be inherent in such a proposition that this music is that which best lends itself to commercial promotion. I say no more.

In a world-wide musical ecosystem, it has to be admitted that evolution will roll on in ways powerful and complex, and apparently beyond our control. But this evolution is after all the sum effect of many tiny, separate co-evolutionary decisions made only by humans. Our own decisions can certainly be among them and will influence the course of musical co-evolution to a greater or lesser extent.

Some of those decisions will be political. For instance, there are those of us who already are very unhappy with the prospect of the extinction of indigenous musics, as indigenous cultures themselves adapt to the evolutionary developments of industry and communications. If the normal forces of demand cannot assure the survival of these musics, we would like to see political interventions that do so.

In the Western world, it is paradoxical that as national borders weaken through political alliances, trade agreements, or the spread of cable and satellite communications, people and nations are stirred to a new fervour in defending their cultural identities and musical traditions. Take for example new French regulations demanding radio broadcast of French popular music.

Many Western countries have taken a political decision favouring multiculturalism, and thus the maintenance of the musics of their ethnic minorities. If one consequence of the adoption of the invocation, Music, Universal Language between All Nations, is a multicultural music curriculum in schools, then these Western countries would have no trouble in adopting it. If such an invocation meant that schools in other countries should open up their curricula to multiculturalism, Western countries should again favour it since from their economically and culturally powerful position they have little to lose and much to gain.

But consider another position. A couple of years ago, some musicians from Malaysia spoke to a conference in Australia. Their aspiration in Malaysia, they told us, was to rebuild interest and skills in their own country’s musical traditions. As a result of its colonial period, Malaysians themselves had come to believe that the music of their colonisers embodied all musical virtues, and they disparaged their own traditions. It was important now to throw off these feelings of inferiority and to re-assert the value of their own culture. It’s a feeling held also in many other countries. Paradoxically, in the musical life of these countries, to be a progressive can mean to be a traditionalist.

Against evolutionary forces that might care nothing about the possible extinction of their musical traditions, those Malaysians had taken a political decision to intervene to secure their music’s survival. They might well see our multicultural invocation as simply reintroducing the threat of extinction, for instance by requiring them actually to sponsor the music of their former colonial masters. What’s more, they might well ask themselves whether a Malaysian opening to music of other nations would be equally reciprocated, or whether the movement would be mostly one way — inwards into Malaysia.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is an official Malaysian position, or the position of any particular group of countries, Western or non-Western. However, the very diversity of a world that would give rise to our invocation Music: Universal Language between All Nations, also guarantees that the invocation will be accepted by some countries as benevolent and generous in its intention, and by others as possibly destructive of their own priorities. In a constructively post-modern spirit, we should accept these differences. We should have a sympathetic understanding that a culture or a nation may need to feel secure in its own cultural position before it is able to take a friendly interest in the cultures of their neighbours.

And we should not forget that while we cannot expect any particular existing music to serve as a universal language, music universally has the capacity to serve as a doorway to the spirit — if only we teach it intensively enough and we teach it from its insides.


Richard Letts. Keynote address to the conference of the International Society for Music Education, Amsterdam, 1996. Added to Knowledge Base 20 August 2015.


  1. “Flacco”: radio broadcast, Christmas Day 1995, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. See also 1↩︎
  2. Letts, Richard: Creative Musicianship and Psychological Growth: Bases in Some Theories of Personality, Creativity, Instruction, Aesthetics and Music, for a Music Curriculum for the Late Twentieth Century. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 1971.↩︎
  3. Eco, Umberto: ““I Love You Madly”, He Said Self-Consciously”, in Anderson, Walter Truett (ed): The Truth about the Truth: De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern World. Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1995.↩︎
  4. Gell-Mann, Murray: The Quark and the Jaguar. Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. New York: W.H.Freeman, 1994. Wardrop, M Mitchell: Complexity. The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Touchstone, New York, 1992. Letts, Richard: The Arts on the Edge of Chaos. Especially Chapters 1-3. Unpublished M/S, Australia Council, Sydney, 1995.↩︎

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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